Linguist Nourou M. Yakoubou believes the debate about Ebonics has been shaped more by attitudes about race and class than by issues of language. "The attitude toward black English vernacular is not the attitude toward the dialect itself," he says. "There is no bad or good dialect from a linguistics point of view. That attitude refers to the people speaking the dialect."
The nationwide controversy erupted last December after the school board in Oakland, California, declared that many of its black students speak a distinct language with roots in Africa, called Ebonics--a combination of "ebony" and "phonics." The board then acknowledged that the financially beleaguered district might apply for federal funding that's available for bilingual programs.
Yakoubou, a professor of linguistics and English at Chicago State University, calls Ebonics a dialect because all English speakers can recognize the words used in Ebonics. But regardless of whether people consider it a dialect or a language, Yakoubou says, Ebonics may have an important place in the classroom. "The board was totally misunderstood," he says. "They did not say they would teach black English. They said the teachers should be familiar with the concepts of black English."
A teacher with knowledge of the vernacular, he points out, may better help students learn standard English. For example, a French-speaking student may confuse librairie, the French word for bookstore, with the English word "library." "The teacher may know the source of the confusion and help the student," Yakoubou says. He adds that teachers familiar with black English may be able to help students add to the language skills they already possess, a concept used in bilingual education.
Yakoubou, who's originally from the west African country Togo, speaks English, French, German, and five African languages. He's working on his first book, a look at political linguistics in indigenous African languages. Next Thursday, April 3, he will participate in a panel discussion about Ebonics during a free one-day symposium, "Black English Vernacular: The Ebonics Debate," in room 102 of the Business and Health Sciences Building at Chicago State University, 9501 S. King Drive. Several other guest speakers--including journalist Vernon Jarrett, poet and Chicago State English professor Haki Madhubuti, and University of Chicago linguistics department chairman Salikoko Mufwene--will also participate. For more information call 773-995-2189.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nourou Yakoubou photo by Nathan Mandell.