Mayowa Obasaju, Anitra Stewart, Courtney Jackson, Lisette Timberlake


Psychologists, educators, researchers, and politicians have long been debating over the issue of Ebonics in the school systems and how it effects performance of African American youths on standardized tests. Over the years there has been a large gap on test scores between African American and Caucasian students. This has lead to a disproportionate amount of African American children who speak Ebonics being put in special education classes. This problem has aroused controversy regarding whether or not Ebonics is actually a language or a dialect of English and how its status effects African-American youths. This paper proposes that Ebonics is a distinct language and it has a significant effect on results of standardized educational and psychological tests taken by African Americans.

Rules and Misconceptions of Ebonics

Different dialects of many languages are spoken around the world, depending upon various cultures and cities within regions. South Carolinians speak differently than New Yorkers; similarly black South Carolinians would speak differently than black New Yorkers. Yet, before 1997, language was thought mostly to derive from one's genetic make-up and background. In 1997, the Oakland Unified School District in California revised a law to state that language is learned or culturally based, especially with African American students within an urban setting. Ebonics is spoken in a variety of dialects throughout North America, and possibly the world. Just as all languages have their own set of rules and regulations, Ebonics is no different (Harper et al. 1998).

The main difference in Ebonics involves phonology, which is the pronunciation of words. Instead of saying "ask", Ebonics speaking cultures may pronounce it "as" or "ax". These two words, when spoken to someone of an English speaking background, would more than likely not understand what they were trying to pronounce, because of the phonetics of the word "ask". Both ways Ebonics speakers might pronounce this word, have two entirely different meanings and neither one of them are defined in the dictionary to mean, "ask".

Secondly, many possessive endings are left off within the rules of Ebonics. Instead of saying, "I have five cents" they may drop the "s" and say "I have five cent" (Harper, et. al, 1998). This does not change our understanding of the meaning, merely in the phonetics of their language. Another rule, using double negatives, is entirely accepted in Ebonics. One might say "He don get none", meaning simply "He does not get any". Almost like a slang type of language, in many ways they shorten words or simply replace them with new meanings. "Bad" means good, and "hood" can simply mean their neighborhood. To any non-Ebonics speaking person, one might get confused when trying to carry on a normal conversation (Harper et. al, 1998). Yet many misconceptions lead non-Ebonics speaking people to misunderstand what they are trying to say; merely taking the time to learn more about the rules may allow others to "come together" within the languages.

Several misconceptions about the nature and language of Ebonics have evolved throughout the years. Coming out of West Africa, from the English speaking European, and Native American Indian cultures, Ebonics is mainly used by urban African American youth within a school system, who live in areas which are basically isolated from the Standard American-English speaking communities. Although Standard English is the common and accepted form of written and spoken dialect in America, Ebonics is not to be looked upon as a lower form of communication. As referred to earlier, Ebonics has its own shared rules and regulations, just as any other language, and is to be looked upon as any other language (Harper et al. 1998). For many African Americans whose ancestors were brought to America through racial oppression, to be sold into slavery, Standard English serves as a reminder of these painful memories. Ebonics is their own language, and can be thought of as a "new beginning" here in America, instead of a constant reminder of the pain and torture suffered by their ancestors. Many things, not necessarily language, serves as a reminder that African Americans were brought here for slavery and not for freedom; therefore, to call Ebonics their own language belies a little bit of freedom to them, which they dually deserve (Harper et al. 1998). Yet in as much as the black communities want to turn Ebonics into a written, and spoken, language, many schools are still against this. Mainly white middle and upper class Americans, who believe that Standard English is the only form of communication, are hindering the blacks from uniting amongst themselves, and creating Ebonics as a language, which in and of itself, is.

Ebonics: A Language or a Dialect?

The issue of Ebonics has been in the center of controversy in recent years. Many linguists and scholars have debated over whether or not Ebonics is a dialect of English, or a language in itself. To address this issue one must actually look at how language is defined. Language consists of the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community.

Those who argue Ebonics is merely a dialect of English tend to look at its vocabulary. They say because it shares similar vocabulary with Standard American English, that it must be a dialect of English. One who speaks he Ebonics may say " That teacher be trippin", now in Standard American English although itís grammatically incorrect you could derive a meaning. Those who donít speak Ebonics or who arenít familiar with it would take this to literally mean that the teacher fell. However, in Ebonics it has a totally different meaning, referring to the how the teacher acts (i.e. assigning excessive homework, or grading hard). Although the sentence contains words from Standard American English, it has a totally different meaning and grammatical structure. According to linguistics, a language is determined by its grammatical structure not similar vocabularies (Smitherman 1997). Many languages like Spanish and Portuguese share words that have similar meanings, yet they are still two separate languages.

Some scholars propose that there is continuity in the grammar of blacks and whites. However, there has been empirical evidence that suggests the grammar of blacks and whites are not the same. Ebonics may borrow or adopt words from Standard American English, but there are grammatical differences. In fact, there is evidence suggesting that African American speech has roots similar to that of Niger-Congo Africans (Smith 1998). Ebonics shares African morphology and lacks certain phonemes. These phonemes play an important role in the syntax and understanding of Standard American English. However since Ebonics lack them, it affects the meaning and grammatical structure of Ebonics. Although many will continue to question the essence of Ebonics, there is ample evidence supporting the notion that it is indeed a separate language.

Ebonics and Academic Performance

Traditional testing of cognitive ability, written and oral language, and reading skills (Weschler Intelligence Scale for children-III, The Weschler Intelligence and Achievement Test, and the Wide Range Achievement Test) have been reported as not giving accurate results for African American youths who speak Ebonics. These differences have been thought to be due to language and cultural differences, specifically the view that The African derived language of Ebonics is inferior to English. In addition, many educators and psychologists are not fully aware of what Ebonics actually is and what it means to African American youths in terms of communication, comprehension, and intelligence of life in general and in the educational system (McNicol, 1998).

There are several grammatical differences between Ebonics and standardized English. This is a major problem since the standardized tests have proficiency in English grammar as a basic criterion. One example of the differences in grammar are the misunderstandings of certain words because of differences in pronunciation. Due to phenological differences (phoneme "th" is replaced with "f" in Ebonics) differences in death and deaf, the words could be easily confused. Also because of pronunciation words like mile and mild could be confused (McNicol, 1998).

When Ebonics speaking students hear or see the above words as part of a standardized test they can easily confuse the Ebonics word with the English word and vice versa. So, comprehension is not the issue, the problem is vocabulary because of differences in language. Assessment tests, like the Weschler scale, test language beyond their literal meanings. They also test studentís abilities to draw inferences, which in turn are based on their background knowledge. Their background knowledge is based on their "cultural frames of reference (McNicol, 1998)." Ebonics speakers have very different frames of reference that they bring into the test than the average test taker. Not only will Ebonics speakers answer differently based upon their frames of reference, scores do not take this into account, mainly because scorers do not know that this issue exists. It would help if on test involving verbal proficiency, Ebonics speakers would be told to give answers with added sentences or phrases so a scorer would know if they are using the English or Ebonics interpretation. The population that is represented in most standardized assessment tests does not include the growing number of those who speak Ebonics. This helps to explain why so many students that do speak Ebonics do so poorly on these tests. Ebonics differs so widely from Standard English that it seems almost unfair to compare the two groups. The answers to standardized English tests that deviate from the accepted answer are marked wrong, even if they match with another language (McNicol, 1998).

These tests unfairly link comprehension, understanding and overall intelligence to proficiency in English. This paper is not stating that it is alright for children not to learn Standard English, but it is necessary to make sure that tests are correctly measuring what they say they are measuring. This does not seem to be the case in regards to Ebonics speakers and the general tests that measure their intelligence. These factors influence which kids are put in "special" or remedial classes. The problem does not seem to be their level of intelligence, but their understanding of language. Wolfram (1990) found the same thing to be true. He reported that as the distance between the everyday language of students and the language used on standardized test increases, there is a proportional likelihood that the language difference will negatively affect the studentís test performance.

Academic Improvement for Ebonic Speakers

Improving the academic performance of Ebonics speaking children reveals no easily visible answers. Yet, many suggestions are given that may improve the situation, and reduce linguistic and cultural biases on standardized assessments. Perhaps, Ebonics "translators" could be made available during testing. This would allow for all questions and answers between student and teacher, to be conveyed clearly. If funding is not available for special translators, then teachers and other faculty should learn enough Ebonics to communicate with students. Becoming more conscious of and sensitive to the cultural experiences of this nonstandard language, may also, be an intricate part of breaking down linguistic barriers. Even using current standardized test, responses made by students can be reasonably identifiable, and not simply regarded as " incorrect" answers. Possible lessons during classroom time that teach English and some Ebonics (for interpretive purposes) would be beneficial so language differences could be broken down. With this approach, students are able to learn and comprehend both, English and Ebonics simultaneously.

The time has come for unorthodox teaching. Ebonics was not an educational issue 30 years ago, but it is today. Without concrete solutions for African American youth, they could, very well, be lost. Our educational system needs to step up to the challenge of creating a bright tomorrow for youth. Special preparatory measures are taken to ensure Hispanic and Asian children overcome these "linguistic walls." Why should the same measures not be taken with Ebonics speakers? Mastering the English language is incredibly important for American students. Yet, the educational systems in this country must realize that without understanding, learning can not occur; especially for African Americans.


The Ebonics debate will continue to gain attention and raise controversy in the years to come. Given the huge gap in academic performance between black and white students, there is no way to avoid the issue. Regardless of whether or not Ebonics is considered a separate language (as our paper concluded) or an English dialect, it must be acknowledged as affecting the academic performance of African- American youths. Although there is no simple solution to this problem, the educational system must make an attempt to make learning conditions and standardized tests equal for all students, not just mainstream middle and upper class students. Ebonics is a cultural tradition, and African-Americans should be given the same respect for their heritage as other minority groups have been given.

Works Cited

Harper, (1999). Ebonics and Academic Achievement: The Role of the Counselor. The Journal of Negro Education, 67 (1), 16-24.

McNicol, S. The Psychoeducational Assessment of Ebonics Speakers: Issues and Challenges. The Journal of Negro Education 67, (1), 25-34.

Smitherman, Geneva (1997). Moving Beyond Resistance: Ebonics and African American Youth. Journal of Black Psychology, 23 (3), 227-231.

Smith, Ernie (1998). Ebonics is not Black English. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 22 (2), 109-115.