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Breaking the Language Barrier


Monday, June 18, 2007.



By Ambra Nykol



I have a problem with the notion that it is oppressive for children to be taught proper English. As though enforcing standards on our youth is somehow going to make them grow up repressed and bitter about being able to form sentences and conjugate verbs.


They would have us all believe these children will end up as adults resting on a couch somewhere talking to a shrink about the horror of not being allowed to freely "express themselves" in the classroom.


In our society, personal expression is overrated and unregulated. It conjures up something vaguely reminiscent of those hellion children on the show "Supernanny" who are permitted to yell obscenities at their parents all in the name of "freedom".


When it comes to freedom of expression, educator Garrard McClendon is breaking the language barrier. He's written a book, "Ax or Ask: The African American Guide to Better English" where he tackles many of the falsehoods about language that have been perpetuated in media, education, and the sub-culture. Not only that, he's done what most of us have failed to do: invade the public school system.


McClendon has formulated a curriculum that teaches students how to speak proper English by focusing on correcting commonly mispronounced words and bad grammar. As can be expected, he's come under a bit of fire for specifically targeting black students. Although it is becoming quite clear that such a curriculum is needed in many other circles, his goal was to target the group of people being most affected by improper speech.


For high schoolers in particular it could mean missing out on college scholarships, future jobs, and more importantly, the opportunity to say something meaningful to the world.


My dear Seattle has been in the news quite a bit as of late thanks to American Idol. Earlier this year, Seattle made headlines when Seattle Public Schools was in search of a new superintendent. Trouble came a brewin' when it was suggested that potential candidates have "a clear understanding of institutionalized oppression."


At first glance, I don't see too much wrong with that statement. A little more digging and it was revealed that the implications of such a statement were convoluted to say the least.


Last year, in a statement released by the school system's "Office of Equity and Race Relations", racism was defined as such (emphasis added):

"Those aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and Whiteness, and devalue, stereotype, and label people of color as "other", different, less than, or render them invisible. Examples of these norms include defining white skin tones as nude or flesh colored, having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, defining one form of English as standard, and identifying only Whites as great writers or composers."


So it's racist to set an atmosphere where students are expected to speak proper English? I guess the proof is in the pudding. Seattle Public Schools rank among some of the worst. Even Bill Gates stopped giving to Seattle Public Schools.


I've written quite a bit here about my sincere appreciation for the English language. Upon mastering it, I believe language, no matter where its national origin, is a very powerful knife. Language can cut very deeply. It can scar, wound and unnecessarily mark those who speak, hear or read it. When used as a butcher knife it can be fairly destructive. Contrarily, when wielded by the right person, language can be used as a scalpel to carefully dissect thoughts, expose hearts, and bring understanding and revelation to a culture desperately in need of a clear voice on just about everything.


Don't get me wrong. I am no language purist. I appreciate the newness of speech and the wacky words and expressions added to my vocabulary on a daily basis. I think the Urban Dictionary is a treasure trove of hipster nerdom. The beauty in being able to speak proper English is the license you receive to speak it improperly.


In fact, some of the greatest writers in history consistently violated Strunk & White's rules of proper grammar, but did so with such intelligence and eloquence the average person could see the mark of master wordsmithing.


Every day, multiple times a day and depending on how I feel I might slip into my lax speech and be speakin' bad grammar usin' words like ain't and edumacation and dropping the terminal consonant off the verbs. The fact that I can analyze my own slang makes me a nerd. It also makes me a master of my words. I thank my private school education and my parents for that.


When I slip into slang it's usually due to cultural idioms or because I'm chatting with my husband or friend and doing it for emphasis. I think of it as a dialect--my urban Seattleite version of patois.


The caveat to my intermittent and intentional misuse of the English language is that I would never under any circumstances do so in the presence of those who didn't know I knew otherwise. Half the language battle is knowing where and when to speak appropriately. The other half is knowing how to speak appropriately. Therein lies the rub.



Ambra Nykol is a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Soundpolitics.com, Seaspot magazine and Modestly Yours. She blogs at nykola.com


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