Talk This Way: unpacking the slang stigma

Tomorrow I will be beginning my “Grammar and Politics of the English Language ” class which will be:

An examination of the structures and forms which currently govern standard usage of the English language. Encompasses a broad view of grammar as a subject by a wide-ranging investigation of the history and development of the language. Examines the social and political implications of the development of English as a global language.

Surely ebonics/slang will come up in this class, so before I begin taking this course’s info and (re)forming my opinions I thought I’d make this blog post as a sort of “preflection”.

Defining Ebonics/Slang

WEB-SlangFlashcards2My understanding is: ebonics is a form of slang. Slang being “a type of language that consists of words and phrases that are regarded as very informal, are more common in speech than writing, and are typically restricted to a particular context or group of people.” I use ebonics and slang interchangeably but people tend to say Ebonics is, more specifically, African American Vernacular. I don’t know about the history of Ebonics enough to comment and, growing up, Ebonics was very much a part of the latin community so I hesitate to say Ebonics is black slang.

One thing the general definitions of Ebonics and slang do have in common is that both are “regarded as a language in their own right, not just a dialect”. The vocabulary of Ebonics/slang is always changing for instance, some of the words used in this Big L’s “Ebonics” song (in which he defines dozens of slang terms) are out of date but others are still used.

Cringe, confusion, or camaraderie: my experiences using Ebonics

I’m a lover of language and I love using slang; it’s what I grew up with. Slang was in my neighborhood, in my grade school cafeteria, in my home, and in my headphones. It’s something I hold dear. I still use it today, in casual conversation and even during class discussion (albeit sparingly). My use of Ebonics/slang isn’t as predominant as others: I rarely speak with double negatives or any of those grammatical hallmarks of “Ebonics”. But I use a lot of “slang” terms ex. janky, can I live?, real talk, so I know its real, I feel you, hella, hater, go in, come up, werk, salty, fuckery, grind, etc.

When I’m talking to someone who also uses Ebonics I tend to use more Ebonics than usual, I feed off their linguistics. There’s a comfort in that cultural connectedness. And I’m eager to learn the slang of other people/regions, for instance one of my good friends uses: “I support” as an interchangeable phrase for “I feel you”.

But more often than not, my use of Ebonics/slang is met with cringes or confusion. I use slang and then have to translate it for my peers. I’ve talked to non-Ebonic speakers about this: when I use slang they are unfamiliar with they either use context clues to figure out what I’m saying or they just don’t understand it. Occasionally someone will ask me what I mean when I say “____” but more often than not they don’t ask at all. I only find out they’re confused when I check in: “wait, do you know what ____ means”? followed by a “no”.

I’m always trying to build my vocabulary, so when one of my peers uses a word I don’t understand (slang or not) I will ask them what it means. I feel like people aren’t as willing to ask or research an ebonics phrase or slang term because that language is not seen as valuable. It’s deemed “improper English”. And while it’s true that “standard English” is the language of power, one that’s necessary to master, it’s also true that Ebonics/slang has a lot of cultural value and is not as “other” as society portrays it.

At worst, I’ve had people deny my slang, telling me “that’s not what ___ word means” thus my slang “does not make any sense”. To everyone who has ever made these statements, or something similar, do no deny what you do not understand. Don’t belittle part of my culture just because it’s not part of the accepted mainstream.

Speech Shaming 

Slam poet George Watsky said it best: “If you suppose your speech is normal it’s cause your impediment is listening”. No one constantly uses standard English in their day to day speech, only more socially acceptable slang (ex. gonna, crash, crush, drop by, take a hike, cool it, touch base, take a raincheck, I’m down, I’m game, selfie, etc).

To quote my brother on this subject: “Ebonics is an emic term. Emic being an anthropological term used to describe knowledge you can only obtain by being in a certain place or community”. So before you *speech shame people who use ebonics, think about what you’re really shaming. Is it really a matter of “proper grammar” or are there other social constructs involved that make us–as a society–see Ebonics as the language of the uneducated. I, for one, believe it’s the latter.

(*Note: I’m not saying that slang should be accepted in academia. Just that Ebonics should not be banned or looked down on any more than words like “gonna” are. And when it comes to the classroom I believe Ebonics should be affirmed, not stigmatized, and used to help children acquire fluency in Standard English. But that is a discussion for another blog post).

The gatekeeper

Despite being a secondary ed major, I find myself constantly working in the realm of elementary ed. When I volunteer with Open Books, the writing field trips are usually made up of students grades K-8. When I volunteer with my LLC (WORD), we are helping young children hone their reading skills. Both of these experiences have been fulfilling ones and it’s been an honor to see students produce amazing work and become excited about literature. I am thrilled about being a reading tutor for the first time ever and working with my LLC to provide scaffolding for these young learners. The joy I get from working with students is unparalleled and a constant reminder of my love for education. I find myself becoming more and more curious about reading strategies/approaches that will help the students I work with succeed. In times like these, I can hear elementary ed calling my name.

But last week, I heard secondary ed screaming my name. And for the first time in a while, I was positive this was my proper education niche. It was the documentary The graduates/Los Graduados that spurred this reminder. The graduates (part 1) follows six Latina students in their quest towards a highschool diploma and onward (part 2 follows six Latino students). In many ways, these students’ obstacles outweighed their opportunities. Here were some of their challenges: being a mother at a young age, going to schools lacking in resources, living in a gang/drug infested neighborhood, and/or having parents who didn’t understand the specifics when it came to higher education.

After the film, we reflected privately on paper and were invited to write words/phrases on the board that we associated with the documentary. We were then asked to discuss, at our tables, how our lives are different from what we just saw. I sat silently. Feeling that, while I haven’t dealt with all of these issues, these stories were mine. But not just mine: they were my family’s stories, my friends’ stories, and (eventually) they will be my students’ stories.

Earlier that week, I told a classmate that most of us have that one thing that drove us to education. For me, it was my AP Lang teacher who made me understand the power of writing and the art behind an essay. But since then, the driving forces behind my desire to teach have become much more expansive/complex. It’s social inequality, it’s the far too common deficit perspectives, it’s the teacher who has become bitter, it’s the student who isn’t applying to college, it is all these things and more.

I look at documentaries like The graduates and am moved as I–a Latin CPS graduate from the southside of Chicago–equate this to my “normal”. As a prospective educator, I want to change that.I don’t think a class of 30 students reading shakespeare will shift the societal power structure, but I do think the implicit curriculum can help those students’ develop self efficacy and build transferrable skills.

the-starfish-story1the-catcher-in-the-ryeWhile I still struggle with my own deficit perspective, I try not to see “at risk” students as kids that need saving. I am not the catcher in the rye. I am not the boy on the beach of starfish.

Rather–all teachers, my professor says, are gatekeepers. We have the power to unlock the gate for our students, to allow them to reach their full potentials. The more I reflect on my own experiences, the more I understand this metaphor for education. My high school’s educational philosophy, at its core, is about unlocking gates. Over and over again we were told how smart we were but also, how we needed more than just good grades and test scores to be successful. We were given study abroad opportunities, connections to internships, enrichment programs, and everyone was expected to go to college. I constantly wonder how different my life would’ve been if no one opened the gate for me. And as I contemplate the gravity of my career path, I open my textbook. I take field notes. I watch documentaries. I talk to educators and classmates. I do everything I can in the hopes that I will become the gatekeeper my students deserve–the one they may have never had.