Academic, Language, Race

Geoffrey Pullum’s scathing letter to William Raspberry about Ebonics reminds me of how hard it was for me to teach about Ebonics to undergraduates. The problem was that no student would ever volunteer to read aloud the sample of AAVE from the assigned text. I understood their reluctance, so I would have to read it myself. I should have recorded a tape of an AAVE speaker reading the passage, but I didn’t think of that at the time. The problem was that in addition to my faulty pronunciation and cadence, I would also invariably make grammatical mistakes. That is, I would impose Standard English grammar upon the transcribed AAVE text. I would do this no matter how hard I tried to read it faithfully. Of course, I would then use my own inability to read the text properly to make a very similar point to the one Geoffrey Pullum makes in his letter — that AAVE has its own rules that are difficult for a non-native speaker to learn — but it was always rather embarrassing. The up side was that, after I had made such a mess of things, I could occasionally get some students to speak up!