Labov on African-American English Vernacular

William Labov is a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania who has spent many years studying dialects. One such dialect is African-American English vernacular. Here, he discusses the difficulties students of a ‘non-standard’ dialect such as this encounter when they go to school, explaining how dialect differences affect African American students.

When the teacher attempts to [teach ‘standard English’ to the African American learner] by precept and example in the classroom, she discovers that the student shows a strong and inexplicable resistance to learning the few simple rules that he needs to know. He is told over and over again, from the early grades to the fifth, that ‘–ed’ is required for the past participle ending, but he continues to write:

‘I have live here twelve years.’

and he continues to mix up past and present tense forms in his reading. In our series of interviews with Harlem youngsters from 10 to 16 years old, we asked them to correct to classroom English such sentences as the following:

‘He pick me.’

‘He don’t know nobody.’

‘He never play no more, man.’

‘The man from U.N.C.L.E. hate the guys from Thrush.’

Words such as ‘man’ and ‘guys’ are frequently corrected, and ‘ain’t’ receives a certain amount of attention. But the double negative is seldom noticed, and the absence of the grammatical signals ‘¬-s’ and ‘-ed’ is rarely detected by children in the fifth, sixth, or seventh grades. It seems reasonable to ask what connection there is between this lack of attention to English inflections and the fact that most of them have difficulties reading sentences at the second grade level.

… [T]he fact is that the child’s teacher has no systematic knowledge of the non-forms which oppose and contradict standard English. Some teachers are reluctant to believe that there are systematic principles in non-standard English which differ from those of standard English. They look upon every deviation from schoolroom English as inherently evil, and they attribute these mistakes to laziness, sloppiness or the child’s natural disposition to be wrong … From this point of view, teaching English is a question of imposing rules upon chaotic and shapeless speech, filling a vacuum by supplying rules where no rules existed before …

If we do not accept the fact that [African-American English] has distinct rules of its own, we find that the speech of black children is a mass of errors and this has indeed been the tradition of early education research in this area.

… [A] great deal of … research has been devoted to the educational problems of children in ghetto schools … In order to account for the poor performance of children in these schools, educational psychologists have attempted to discover what kind of disadvantage or defect they are suffering from. The viewpoint that has been widely accepted and used as the basis for large-scale intervention programs is that the children show a cultural deficit as a result of an impoverished environment in their early years. Considerable attention has been given to language. In this area the deficit theory appears as the concept of verbal deprivation. Black children from the ghetto area are said to receive little verbal stimulation, to hear very little well-formed language, and as a result are impoverished in their means of verbal expression. They cannot speak complete sentences, do not know the names of common objects, cannot form concepts or convey logical thoughts.

Unfortunately, these notions are based upon the work of educational psychologists who know very little about language and even less about black children. The concept of verbal deprivation has no basis in social reality. In fact, black children in the urban ghettos receive a great deal of verbal stimulation, hear more well-formed sentences than middle-class children, and participate fully in a highly verbal culture. They have the same basic vocabulary, possess the same capacity for conceptual learning, and use the same logic as anyone else who learns to speak and understand English.

The notion of verbal deprivation is part of the modern mythology of educational psychology, typical of the unfounded notions which tend to expand rapidly in our educational system … [T]he myth of verbal deprivation is particularly dangerous because it diverts attention from real defects of our educational system to imaginary defects of the child … [It] leads its sponsors inevitably to hypothesis of the genetic inferiority of black children that it was originally designed to avoid.

Labov, William. 1972. Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 4–5, 36, 201–202. || Amazon || WorldCat