Op-Ed: DEA Call For Ebonics Experts Smart Move

The Drug Enforcement Administration is seeking Ebonics translators to interpret wire-tapped conversations. Critics fear the move by a federal agency could set a precedent. But linguist John McWhorter argues that, while any conversation about Ebonics is charged, the DEA is on the right track.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

Now, the Opinion Page.

It seemed routine enough. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, recently sent out a call, soliciting translators in more than 100 languages and dialects. Those translators are needed to help interpret wiretapped conversations for investigations. But one of the languages in the posting took many by surprise. The DEA wants nine Ebonics translators. They would help with investigations across the Southeast.

Fourteen years ago, the school board in Oakland, California, sparked a national debate when it recognized Ebonics as a language. Faced with a backlash, the school board backed down. But the new buzz about the DEA posting is a reminder that the debate isn't over about whether Ebonics is a language, a dialect or simply, as some contend, poorly spoken English. John McWhorter is a linguist and a contributor to The Root and The New Republic. He's also a lecturer at Columbia University. And he says, whatever you call it, black English is complex and indistinct, and the DEA is on the right track.

We've posted a link to his op-ed at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And we'd like to hear from law enforcement officers in our audience. Does hiring Ebonics translators sound like a good idea for investigations? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Or you can reach out by email: talk@npr.org.

John McWhorter turns us today from our New York bureau. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Dr. JOHN McWHORTER (Linguist; Contributor, The Root and The New Republic): Thank you very much. Good to be here.

LUDDEN: Now remind us - we want to go back to this early debate, but maybe we should start - since you are a linguist, tell us again: What is Ebonics?

Dr. McWHORTER: Well, Ebonics - or black English, as I prefer to call it - is one of a great many dialects of English. And so English comes in a great many varieties, and black English is one of them.

There's a question that's often asked: Is Ebonics a language? And that's really the wrong way to put it. But if there's an answer to that question, then it is: Yes, Ebonics is a language. It's English. Where we tend to stumble is that we tend to assume that it's bad English or broken English, when really, it's just different English - which, if a Martian came down and had to learn it instead of standard English, would find just as challenging and difficult to master the nuances of as standard English. And I don't just mean the slang. I mean the basic structure of it.

LUDDEN: Which, you say, it comes partly from West Africa, right?

Dr. McWHORTER: No. Actually, that's something that's often said...

LUDDEN: Okay.

Dr. McWHORTER: ...but the contribution is...

LUDDEN: So set us straight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. McWHORTER: The contribution of West African languages to Ebonics is absolutely infinitesimal. What it actually is is a very interesting hybrid of regional dialects of Great Britain that slaves in America were exposed to because they often worked alongside the indentured servants who spoke those dialects that we often learn about in school.

And then there's the fact that it was a dialect created by adults rather than children, and so there are certain streamlinings that are associated with it, such as, for example, that you don't always have to use the verb to be. Nevertheless, it is very much a coherent, consistent and complex kind of English, just like all kinds of English are.

LUDDEN: Can you give us any example?

Dr. McWHORTER: Well, for example, when you hear somebody say something like: She be walking. Nobody would say that looking at somebody ambling by. That means that somebody walks on a habitual basis. So you would talk about somebody be walking everyday at 7 o'clock.

Now, people don't have any conscious sense of this anymore than you and I know exactly why we use A sometimes and the at other times. But it's a systematic way of indicating what a linguist would call the habitual, which many languages around the world have, and which is much more ambiguous in standard English.

Or another example that doesn't get around as much: You'll hear somebody speaking black English say, I was up at my friend's. And then you'll find out that their friend actually lives down a hill or they live, you know, one floor abode. There's nothing vertical or up about where they live. The up has a very particular meaning. It conveys a kind of intimacy.

Again, nobody thinks about it, because it's a kind of marker that you find in a great many languages, which is quite subtle, quite complex. You could articles, academic articles about that usage of up, which isn't in standard English. One could go on. Black English is full of things like that.

LUDDEN: Now, this story that - of the DEA seeking black English translators, or Ebonics translators, has been all over the Web, the blogosphere. You know, some observers, including columnist Clarence Page, says he - he initially thought it was a joke. I mean, it's just -people have trouble taking it seriously. Why do you think that is?

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, it sounds absolutely ridiculous, because most of us tend to think that Ebonics is just slang. So the idea that you would need a translator for it, the way you would for a Bengali, naturally, at first, sounds ridiculous. But the fact of the matter is that even though Ebonics is English - I just said Ebonics, because even I've gotten into the habit, after 14 years. I should say black English, because Ebonics sounds like a disease. But black English is something which - it's a natural system in itself. And even though it is a dialect of English, it can be very difficult for people who don't speak it, or who haven't been raise in it, to understand when it's running by quickly, spoken in particular by young men colloquially to each other. So that really is an issue.

For example, at lot of us are fans of "The Wire." And I would guess that a great many people - and I would have to admit that black, though I am, I'm one of them - sometimes missed some of the dialogue on "The Wire" and have to rewind to get what they're saying because this is not the dialect that's spoken by most speakers of English. And so, if you have these recordings of people speaking unmonitored, spontaneous black English, often overlapping, then it could be useful for somebody who was raised in the dialect to listen to these and to be able to get every word which, say 55-year-old white woman from Boise, Idaho, probably would not be able to.

LUDDEN: So - but someone could be maybe understand every word, but miss the meaning.

Mr. McWHORTER: Certainly that, as well. So there are all sorts of meanings and implications that might be more obvious to a native speaker than to someone who not only does not speak the dialect, but isn't part of the culture.

LUDDEN: All right. But let's take a few calls, here. We have Josh on from Montevideo, is that right, in Minnesota?

JOSH (Caller): Yes, that's correct.

LUDDEN: It doesn't sound like you're actually in Minnesota. But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: ...it sounds a little more exotic. How are you?

JOSH: Good. How are you doing?

LUDDEN: Good.

JOSH: Thanks for taking my call. Just a quick comment, basically, just to reiterate what you were just talking about. I don't see a problem with using interpreters just - in order to complete investigations and make sure you are getting, you know, the full account of what the person is saying. Because someone who might not fully understand the language, you know, may miss some pertinent information.

LUDDEN: And you work in law enforcement, Josh?

JOSH: Correct. I'm fairly new, but, yes, I'm working in law enforcement.

LUDDEN: Okay. So you see nothing wrong. You think this could be a good thing.

JOSH: Mm-hmm. Correct.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, thank you for your call. Let's hear now from David, who's in Savannah, Georgia. Hi, there.

DAVID (Caller): Hey, how are you?

LUDDEN: Good.

DAVID: Yeah. I live in Savannah, Georgia. And, you know, being a black male, I'm - and also a military brat, I often, you know, move around from places to place, and I, you know, I hear other languages. And, you know, here I think - especially being in southern Georgia - there is a different type of language here, especially spoken among, you know, black males such as myself. And I think, you know, there has to be someone or something that, you know, that can translate or - because, I mean, being maybe from another race or even from another region, you may not completely understand what a person is saying. So I do think that there's something that needs to be there for - you know, just for understanding.

I mean, I work in a - partly in the education, you know, system. And there are some teachers who don't understand their students, and there are some students who don't understand their teachers simply by the way that they talk. And it's not that the students are dumb or stupid or anything. It's just that because of the different language and the way that they talk, they just can't understand them. So I do think there needs to be something there that can translate, or maybe just cultural understanding or something like that.

LUDDEN: And you'd like to see it in the school system?

DAVID: Yes. I've been in the school system and I - I mean, Savannah is really weird because, you know, that we do have, you know, kind of upper class, and then we kind of do have, like, a lot of the lower class. And a lot of the lower class does speak Ebonics or does speak slang, or however you want to call it.

And I think the students here, when they see a teacher primarily who may be white, or even - not even white, but even black - like for example, for myself, since I can kind of cold switch from Ebonics and to maybe, I guess people say job-interview voice or whatnot. And because of that, I may be looked at as upper class is because they perceive as upper class, I am like completely ousted, maybe, because in the black community because of the way I talk and not necessarily because of who I am. So that's why I think there's need to be some sort of cultural understanding or something like that.

LUDDEN: All right. Well, David, thank you for you call. Let's bring - I think we have a critic on the line, though, because this is a controversial idea. Gabriel in Jackson, Michigan, how are you?

GABRIEL (Caller): I'm doing fine, ma'am. Thank you for taking my call.

LUDDEN: So tell us your idea here.

GABRIEL: Well, first, I'd like to just respectfully disagree with the last caller. I think that it would be a terrible idea to put anything in the school system such as that, just because I feel that it would more encourage the further use of Ebonics and things of that nature. You know, I think there's such a thing as proper English, and I think that that's what should be spoken. And I don't think that it should be encouraged to speak it otherwise. And I'm a United States Marine. I spent four years in the infantry, and I've been around a lot of different cultures and a lot of different Arabic-speaking cultures where dialect is everything.

But it's a little bit different when you're dealing with something like an actual spoken language, such as Arabic, versus, you know, the primary language here, which is English. And there's a couple of different variants of English, but Ebonics, in my opinion, is not one.

LUDDEN: Hmm.

GABRIEL: I just think that it kind of shows ignorance in the language, and I think that it would be wrong to encourage that.

LUDDEN: John McWhorter?

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, yeah. I want to say that, actually, with all due respect to that caller, black English to English is precisely, as for example, Moroccan Arabic is to standard Arabic - very similar relationship, very similar comparison. It seems not intuitive to we Americans, because we associate Ebonics with slang, with lower-class people, and we're taught that it's grammatically erroneous, et cetera. But actually, it is very much a dialect of English just like Moroccan as a dialect of Arabic, just like Sicilian is a dialect of Italian. There is scientifically no difference.

But the fact of the matter is that there is a difference between needing translators for listening to casual running speech and needing any kind translation of that kind and teaching children to read. And that's what the Ebonics debate was about 14 years ago. And actually, I was on this show for the first time 14 years ago, where I was arguing that the difference between ain't and isn't is not what's throwing black children in school. I think that the factors are cultural, the factors have to do with the qualities of the schools in general, and I've made many arguments to that tune since.

However, it would be good if teachers could genuinely understand that black English is not mistakes, it's just different English, and that what you want to do is add an additional dialect to black students' repertoire rather than teaching them out of what's thought of as a bad habit, like sloppy posture or chewing with your mouth open.

LUDDEN: Let me just add - hang on, just one...

GABRIEL: I disagree, sir. I - just I think that it's - you know, something that shouldn't be in the school systems. And, you know, when you're speaking - it's only properly(ph) - the rules of English, you know, I don't think that it's considered a dialect to speak Ebonics or something like that, because you can speak proper English. Like I said, I've been around African-American Marines who, you know, they speak that way before they come in the Marine Corps. And then, whilst, you know, whilst they're in the Marine Corps and things like that, where it's kind of not tolerated, you know, it kind of, you know, comes across as disrespectful when you speak to somebody that way - or at least, you know, in that general culture. You know, it's almost like a switch. You can switch it right over to, oh, no, I'm sorry, and they speak proper English.

So I agree with the idea of having an interpreter, on one hand, but on the other hand I don't. And I think that it would be just as simple to say speak proper English.

LUDDEN: Gabriel, thank you.

GABRIEL: I'll take the rest of it off-air.

LUDDEN: Thank you so much for your call. And let me just say, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

John McWhorter, Gabriel didn't want to encourage black English because he thinks that would just increase it. You say, you need - we need to add another, you know, form of English. But if you bring it into the schools, would you not, in essence, encourage it and maybe delay learning of, you know, a different language, different English?

Dr. McWHORTER: Well, what Gabriel is not understanding - which is quite natural - is that he's having a hard time getting out of the basic notion of Ebonics as mistakes. And so he knows that Moroccan Arabic is something of its own and legitimate, but just not used in certain domains. But his idea is that Ebonics is something that inherently needs to be transformed - whereas, really, it's the exact same thing. It can be a home language. And, of course, what's important is bringing students into the ability to learn standard English, as well. That means that they have two things, just like the Moroccan or the Sicilian does. They're the exact, same situations.

And there is no evidence that bringing black English into a curriculum retards black students' performance, but there's also no evidence that America needs to base any kind of policy on that acknowledging black English is what helps particularly disadvantaged students to read. We know what teaches students to read. There are various educational reading programs that have been shown to work. We know how a good school works - or at least we're beginning to know. And dealing with that dialect just isn't important enough for us to focus on. But when it comes to the DEA and this particular context of needing to interpret running recordings, then I would definitely say that it makes perfect sense to have somebody doing that who has experience with the dialect.

LUDDEN: All right. We'll have an email from someone who had the same misperception I did. Jessica writes: I minored in English linguistics 10 years ago, and we learned that there is a link to West African languages, like the habitual be, for example. Has there been a change in the scholarship, she asks, or is it just your opinion that there's no link?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. McWHORTER: Well, you know, there have been people who have argued that there is an African connection. People who happen to have been trained in linguistics, as opposed to other fields, would not agree with that. I think that many linguists would say that there is a West African connection. But truth to tell, there aren't many people who have happened to have reason to examine that closely. And for the few linguists who happened to have really taken a look at that issue, I think that all of us agree that the West African connection is quite minor and very hard to exactly put your finger on.

So, for example, the habitual be is something that you can hear Irish-English speakers doing all the time. There are all sorts of things that we think of as very west Baltimore, which you can hear people with a very different accents doing across the ocean. It can be quite counterintuitive, but those are the principal sources of the language of black people in the United States.

LUDDEN: What about this? We got an email from Mark, who finds - he says he has an analogous situation. He says, I speak Spanish well, but it's Mexican Spanish. I once taught a class with one Mexican student and four students from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. And though I could speak to the latter four students and make myself understood, the Mexican student had to translate for me when they spoke to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. McWHORTER: Yeah. Dialects differ to various degrees. And so there's Brooklyn English. There's black English. If you listen to Jamaican Patois, then most folks have a hard time getting any of it, except for isolated words, then you've got Dutch. So that's the way human speech varieties work, and it can be a challenge to bridge the gaps.

LUDDEN: All right. John McWhorter is a lecturer at Columbia University, a contributor to The Root and contributing editor for The New Republic. And he joins us from time to time on TALK OF THE NATION, as he did today from our New York bureau. We posted a link to his op-ed at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. John McWhorter, thank you so much.

Dr. McWHORTER: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: And I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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