Language News: “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence” Labov’s 1972 Atlantic Article

At one point, grammar was the center of education (think of the term “grammar school”), but we seem to have fallen from grace.  Today, linguist are more than a little horrified by what passes for grammar education in this country:  syntactic concepts defined only by semantic principles, intuition based guidance based a misguided idea that there is one proper, standard English that can be broken if you don’t follow the prescriptive rules, and the misidentification of basic structural elements.  Sometimes these show up in popular prescriptive grammar books.  Sometimes they are found in even more troubling places, like the governing agencies that oversee national education.

Since the 1960s, American sociolinguists have tried to convince educators that, even if they don’t feel the need to have their students identify the subjunctive, knowing more about the descriptive rules of grammar would better help them to identify the difference between a student who is having cognitive difficulties and a student who is simply struggling to master the language patterns expected by most schools.  This is a critical difference, but even today, verbal IQ scores are still often administered by people with mainstream expectations and very little training in the patterns of Non-Standard English varieties.

Linguists are sometimes accused, among other things, of being snarly and defensive about their work.  If we are, it’s because we understand what happens when mythologies about how a language should work are allowed to dominate the field of education while descriptive facts are considered too dull, too complicated, or too liberal to teach.  When facts are eschewed, mythologies are allowed to take root and pass for “real” (institutionalized) knowledge.

Take for example, this article by Dr. William Labov (University of Pennsylvania) that appeared in a 1972 issue of The Atlantic.  Without a basic understanding of the descriptive rules of language, an untrained educational evaluator is likely to conclude that a child is suffering from an intellectual disorder.  However, as Labov shows in the examples presented in this argument, the child has quite a few verbal skills.  Instead, the problem is that the administrator is not well equipped to recognize them.  There are two reasons for this: (1) the administrator’s mythologies about the correctness of Standard English cause him to classify any patterns that don’t match the descriptive rules of Standard English as a deficit, rather than a different pattern, and (2) the child has learned pragmatic rules of cross-racial interactions that make him reluctant to talk to the administrator.  This situation is highly problematic, but it is not cause for identifying a cognitive disorder.


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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One Response to Language News: “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence” Labov’s 1972 Atlantic Article

  1. Pingback: Language, expectations, and the realm of possibility « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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