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This is ASHA Voices. I’m J.D. Gray.
Today on the podcast, we’re joined by a panel of experts to discuss the language variation known as African American English, or A-A-E.
Our guests share the often-dangerous effects of misdiagnosing AAE as a language disorder. The outcome can be life changing.
And, find out why our guests say the language variance may be considered taboo.
Plus, we explore the link between identity and language.
I think we have a great understanding of identity when it comes to clothes we wear… hairstyle… hair texture… region of the country we live in. We understand these identity things, but when it comes to language, we have this very flippant way of being like, no, no, no. Just change the way you speak.
In our second of two episodes in honor of Black History Month, today we’re addressing African American English.
I’m J.D. Gray, and this is ASHA Voices.
(Music – ES_Typewriter Song)
Support for ASHA Voices comes from ASHA’s online conference Maximizing Functional Outcomes for Individuals With Traumatic Brain Injuries. This Continuing Education opportunity begins March 18. Learn more at on-dot-asha-dot-org-slash-TBI that’s capital-T capital-B capital-I.
Support for ASHA Voices comes from the ASHA Workload Calculator. Learn more by going to asha-dot-org and searching “ASHA Workload Calculator.”
(Music: ES_Forest Pond With Stars – Polar Nights 44100 1)
Gray: African American English, or AAE, is a language variation. Maybe you’ve heard it called a dialect. It sounds different than from Mainstream American English… has its own rules… has its own grammar, and it comes from a long language tradition. But when AAE is not recognized, it can be misdiagnosed as a language disorder. And that comes with troubling results. The difficulties surrounding misunderstandings can complicate lives.
Joining me now to discuss A-A-E, its history, how it’s viewed and its identification, are three experts. Joining us from Alabama is Megan-Brette Hamilton. Hamilton is an SLP and a faculty member at Auburn University, where she investigates the experiences of AAE speakers in the classroom. Megan-Brette, welcome.
Hamilton: Thank you for having me.
Gray: And you can read an article on AAE by Hamilton in the January-February issue of the Leader Magazine, and on our website. In the same issue, you can also read an article by our next guest.
Dionna Latimer-Hearn is a school based SLP and a consultant who works on issues surrounding language differences in schools. Dionna, welcome.
Latimer-Hearn: Thank you for having me.
Gray: And finally, Yolanda Feimster Holt is with us from North Carolina. Yolanda is an SLP as well, and she’s a speech scientist at East Carolina University where she researches the phonology of AAE and language variations. Yolanda , welcome.
Feimster Holt: Thank you for having me.
Gray: Latimer-Hearn can you help us, set about a context, when we talk about African American English, what is it that we’re talking about? I mean, what are some of the traits that we might see?
Latimer-Hearn: Well, we’re looking at African American English, we’re looking at all of the domains of language, of course. So you have to look at pragmatics, semantics, syntax, morphology, and phonology. There are distinct rule-based things that are taking place within the dialect that distinguish it from mainstream. So frequently, people identify the syntactic differences. So differences in word order in the way that we would say things are usually perceived as grammar. And that’s different in AAE when you compare it to mainstream. And so it really is a complex system that I think doesn’t get the respect that it needs.
And so most often those are the features that people kind of harp on, or speak about when they’re discussing AAE, whether or not they recognize it as a legitimate dialect. So things such as multiple negation or a negative concord, where all of the words that can reflect negation in a sentence are used as the negative form. So you can say, “I don’t have no” rather than “I don’t have any.” There are a lot of different features that make it distinct.
Gray: Latimer-Hearn, I heard you say that sometimes this language variation doesn’t get the respect that you feel it deserves. Is that correct?
Gray: Hamilton, is that something that you would agree with or not?
Hamilton: Yes, I agree with that statement. I think that there are a lot of different ways to speak English. We know this, there are many different ways to speak English, and only some of those different ways that people speak English are looked at as stigmatized or are looked at as not legitimate, improper, wrong grammar, improper grammar, broken English, many different negative terminologies that we use. But if you think, if you look closely at it, oftentimes the dialects that are spoken by a certain group of people are the ones that are stigmatized, right?
So African American English is stigmatized oftentimes because of the people who speak African American English, right? There are different dialectal variations within English. There’s British English, there’s Australian English, there’s lots of different kinds. But those aren’t necessarily stigmatized. If you look at the actual people who speak, then you think, “Oh okay, that’s wonderful.” They speak this dialect and that’s wonderful.
If someone says schedule versus schedule (with accent), that is a different dialect variation of the word schedule from Mainstream American English, and schedule is not frowned upon. But we say this versus dis then that word dis seems to be frowned upon because of the person who is actually speaking that word. So yes, I completely agree that there are certain dialects that are stigmatized against versus others.
Gray: Hamilton, we’re talking about language, but we’re also talking about language that can lead to misdiagnoses in the speech room with an SLP. Can you talk to this?
Hamilton: Yes. So, what happens is it starts pretty early on, actually. I think what’s going on is: One, in our pre-service education, we are supposed to be implementing culturally responsive curriculum, right? So we’re supposed to be teaching our speech language pathologists who are predominantly White females about culture linguistic differences that they’re going to encounter in the school systems, and in other venues as well. But we’ll talk about schools for the purposes of this podcast.
So then what happens is you have speech language pathologists who graduate from school and they go to the school systems and either they have had some experiences with working with African American English speaking children perhaps in their internships or if they haven’t, perhaps they’ve had a little bit of knowledge in the textbooks, but more than likely even if they haven’t had that, they have tests that they use, and the majority of these tests do not consider African American English variation within the scope of their scoring.
The difficulty with all of that is if you have the knowledge of AAE and you give these tests, then you’re able to use your own background knowledge and say, okay, I understand that this child was using AAE. I’m going to make sure I mark that down in the report writing saying, although this child scored this way, it is known that he’s an African American English speaker, and so forth. But if you do not have that knowledge, if you do not have that background understanding, then you are going to miss assess this child, therefore misdiagnosis child and therefore, inherit IEPs that have goals listed for AAE correction.
Gray: And so let’s talk about that, what are the ways that someone might be able to detect a child is an African American English speaker?
Hamilton: There are several ways. Well, one way, so let’s take, if you’re just going to be very formal about it, a test called the Diagnostic Evaluation for Language Variation, the DELV, is a test out there that has a screening portion as well as a formalized full evaluation where you can give the test to a child to determine whether A, they are a speaker of non-mainstream American English, and as far as what kind of intensity, I guess or the density of the dialect that they use, and also if they are at risk for a language disorder.
But there’s other ways you can do it too. You can pay attention. You can listen to the child, you can gather language sample of the child, you can listen to the patterns that they use. Are these patterns consistent? Has this child used the possessive? There’s a way we can mark possessive in African American English by owner plus thing owned. I got that from Wheeler and Swords, and I love that definition of it. Is this child consistently using my mom car? My teacher hat? Listen to the familiar communication partners of this child. Does this child sound like their familiar communication partners? Right?
Oftentimes, we’ll think about the mom and say, oh well, she does speak like her mom, so okay, and the mom sounds like they speak African American English, so okay, there we go. But it’s not always the mom who’s the most familiar communication partner. It could be grandma, it could be a cousin. You could do a dynamic assessment, right? You can determine whether this child has the ability to pick up on mainstream American English rules if you actually expose them to these rules.
So this child hasn’t been using the subject verb agreement, the S with possessives, the S with regular plurals. This child, I haven’t seen them demonstrate that, but if I ask them specifically and directly to add an S to the end of two cats, can they do it? They can do it. Great. Got it. They have the ability to learn language.
If we’re going to speak, if we’re going to say that the way this child is speaking is incorrect, we’re going to say that the way that their grandmother speaks is incorrect. The way that their pastor speaks is incorrect, the way that their cousin speaks is incorrect. We’re going to say a whole community of people are speaking incorrectly. And that’s just not true. And so I think what’s important for us to understand is, wow, I hear the way they’re speaking, that means their language, their capacity to learn language is typical. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
Latimer-Hearn: And can I add to that? I think that we fail to recognize the other side of the equation, it’s advantageous in some communities for me to speak in mainstream, but it’s the same amount of advantage for me to do the opposite when I enter another community. So it doesn’t, I’m not suggesting that a person has to be able to code switch, but we can’t look at the value of doing so from AAE to MAE, and not also acknowledge the value of going from MAE back to AAE.
Feimster Holt: Before we on to the next thing, there’s a second part that’s related specifically to the fact that a person can speak African-American English, and have a speech disorder or a language disorder. So when we’re talking about the identification of whether or not a person does or does not speak African American English, we want to be clear to the listening audience that there are levels as Hamilton said of dialect density. No African-American speaker uses everything on the list all the time.
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We’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we’ll talk about the link between language and identity.
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Support for ASHA Voices comes from ASHA’s online conference Maximizing Functional Outcomes for Individuals With Traumatic Brain Injuries. From March 18 to March 30, this Continuing Education opportunity will share practical strategies for improving functional outcomes and quality of life. You can earn up to two-point-six ASHA C-E-Us for participating. Learn more at on-dot-asha-dot-org-slash- T-B-I that’s capital-T capital-B capital-I.
Support for ASHA Voices comes from the ASHA Workload Calculator. It’s designed to help SLPs in schools track their direct and indirect service times and advocate for a better workload. Learn more by going to asha-dot-org and searching “ASHA Workload Calculator.”
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Gray: When we talk about this misdiagnosis, over-diagnosis, underdiagnosis, what’s at stake?
Hamilton: A lot of what’s at stake. Educational trajectory, right? Educational outcomes. Career. Oftentimes, a lot of Black parents try really hard not to have their child get a label.
Feimster Holt: Exactly.
Hamilton: And I say a label meaning special education or speech and language impaired or name a label, because of the educational trajectory of not only a Black child in the American educational system, but then a Black child with a label in an educational American system. There are poor outcomes. It leads to negative teacher perceptions. Right? And not all teachers. I’m not saying this about all teachers, but oftentimes, you come into the classroom with the label already and teachers think one way about the academic performance perhaps that you’re going to display or the behavioral performance that you’ll display. And African American children in general already come with a preconceived label. All right. So I think it’s not a loaded question, but there’s so much to it. There is so much, so many layers to it.
Feimster Holt: But there’s also the idea of underdiagnosis, not just the over-diagnosis where children actually need the services, but the SLP who is less well educated would say that this child is using African American English and not go any further, because they’re less familiar with the dialect.
Hamilton: I think also, I think one of the issues, and I’ve heard this from a lot of my students, is not only do we need to think about this linguistically, like we’ve been talking about, but there’s this cultural piece, right? That there’s a huge cultural piece to what we’re talking about. And oftentimes when I speak to speech language pathologists, one of the concerns they have is, well, I don’t know how to speak to these Black families, right? Like I don’t know how to comfortably speak. Well, do I call them Black, or do I call them African-American, right?
I think there’s all these different layers that are going to occur, not just about the language, but about the cultural, the racial, the ethnic piece behind it and about communication interactions between speech language pathologist and the families that they’re working with. Right? I don’t think it’s necessarily just understanding the language, I think we always also have to understand how to work with each other and how to give each other the respect when we have conversations about it, and I know it’s hard. It’s very difficult. If you speak a certain way, you go into a certain community, you’re going to be like an outsider, even though you are Black. And that’s what happened to me too. Right? I show up, and they hear me speak a certain way, they’re like, “Oh, okay, got it.”
So switch it up, make sure you’re comfortable. But I can only imagine how that must feel for some speech language pathologists who say, well, I’m not sure. I don’t know what to say. I don’t know the correct terminology now. I don’t know how to bring up, talking about African American English when I’m a White SLP.
Feimster Holt: So it’s part of that though, is part of that discussion, the idea that AAE itself is taboo, because if AAE were not taboo, it would not be taboo to talk about the way you understand it, what you know about it, you would have a conversation about AAE the same way you would have a conversation about any language form that you’re unfamiliar with. Help me to understand this because I want to work with you.
Gray: Tell me what you mean by taboo.
Feimster Holt: Well, if you’re going into the classroom and the classroom teacher is educating us because of the educational system that they’ve been informed in, that there is a way to speak English, and that way is Mainstream American English. And if you don’t use Mainstream American English as we have been discussing, that there’s, the other one is wrong, and it’s true for Southern American English, Appalachian American English, Chicano English. It’s true for all other Englishes, that we can’t talk about it because it’s not supposed to be here. That’s what I mean by taboo. Literally, it’s taboo as in it’s not supposed to be here, so we can’t discuss it.
Hamilton: My research when I worked on my dissertation, I did focus group interviews with teachers, and the majority of the teachers were White, White females. It was very difficult for me to get them to talk about African American English. One, the terminology, they never really heard of it. But two, it was very difficult for them to talk about educating Black children. Right? It was a lot easier for them to talk about English language learners. English language learners seem to be a topic that they were comfortable with, and I think it has something to do with this dialect versus language piece, right?
And I keep trying to get us to understand that because I don’t know what it is about America. Here in America, I think it’s because of our history, and just kind of how Jim Crow laws and civil rights have happened in our country. I think it makes it a taboo discussion.
Latimer-Hearn: I think it’s also very charged, so anytime you mention it to someone, you don’t know exactly what direction that conversation might go if they’re not educated about dialect. And how can they be educated about dialect if we’re not able to discuss it in a classroom setting or an educational setting. Okay. So I think we’re kind of reproducing the same problem if we don’t introduce that in the classroom because the students aren’t going to be understanding or tolerant of variation if it’s constantly placed outside of that setting.
Feimster Holt: One of the ways that you can sometimes help to bridge that gap for people who may be interested in doing that, is to talk about whatever the regional dialect is, wherever you are. We all have regional dialect variation. Every group of us does. And so when you’re talking about African American English with a group, you can sometimes bring people and we’re typically talking about White females for the most part into the conversation by having them think back to their grandparents, because we’re talking about language changes over time. So the way the grandparents spoke was different than the way that their parents spoke. And then the way that the students in the classroom speak.
And if we can get them to think about language variation and change in that way, then we can talk or introduce the idea of African American English as just another system and get that conversation started. It’s not the end of it, but it’s at least an entree into the idea of dialect variation and a language change and system variation. And the fact that you can communicate with people who use a different form or style than you do. And that it’s not invalid because you don’t use it.
I want to go back to something that Hamilton discussed with respect to the different ways of speaking is the idea that your language is who you are. When you bring the language that the people know and can connect with to that space, you feel at home. And I do not talk to my family and friends the way that I am talking to you on this podcast right now. This is a way for me to communicate specific ideas to a larger audience. But what makes me feel at home is the way that I could talk to those people. And it’s very Southern, and it’s not something that most of us would understand if you’re not part of that community.
And I think we owe that to these children, to give them that space to be who they are so that they can learn and acquire the education that they’re entering into the school to receive.
Hamilton: I would love it if we got to the point where little children, the same way we have children who are entering the school systems in kindergarten and maybe five years old, and they’ll say, oh, this is so interesting. I’m learning how to speak English in the classroom. But guess what? I speak Spanish at home. Guess what? I speak Korean at home. I would love it if we could get to the point where we have little African American children say I speak African American English at home. I think we have a great understanding of identity when it comes to clothes we wear. Hairstyle, hair texture, region of the country we live in, right? We understand these identity things, but when it comes to language, we have this very flippant way of being like, no, no, no. Just change the way you speak. No big deal, no big deal.
But I think we need to bring that importance to language, not just to being speech language pathologist, but also just to the community as a whole. Like the way you speak is a huge part of your identity.
Gray: Can we talk about codeswitching?
Feimster Holt: Well, code switching is a superpower, I’ll say that. And I had a conversation with the linguist that I think that African American people who code switch should be given credit for knowing a foreign language. Because code switching above all else has a pragmatic value, even above the idea of being able to manipulate the language, because it allows you to seamlessly, as Latimer-Hearn said, move in between societies and be as Joe Biden said to president Obama, he is so well spoken. At the same time, it can be a detriment to people who just want to be who they are. You putting a heavy load on a 12 year old when you’re requiring them to demonstrate their competence by code switching in order to be accepted into the mainstream society when their peer, who as you just discussed, who’s not exposed to mainstream American English regularly, is not able to code switch.
You’ve created this dichotomy that we talked about, this taboo that we talked about, in the classroom and fully perpetuated it. Now the listener may say, well, you guys are code switching. Well, maybe this is the way that we grew up speaking. Do you ever think about that? Maybe we learned African American English later in life. Maybe that’s our code switch. That’s you, Hamilton.
Hamilton: That’s me. That’s me. I grew up speaking mainstream American English
I ended up going to an HBCU, Historically Black College University, and learned African American English. And now that’s how I code switch. So I am one of those MAE/AAE code switcher versus AAE/MAE code switchers.
But I completely agree with you. I think the difficulty with this code switching conversation that we have is, I think it’s different when the codes that you can switch into, if they’re natural to you, if they feel right to you, if they don’t feel like you’re not being who you are, that’s great. I don’t feel like I’m being someone else when I speak this way. I don’t feel like I’m being someone else when I speak African American English, because they both feel comfortable and familiar to me, because I learned how to speak them the way you learn to speak any language in a natural setting.
But I do think the way that we look at it in the schools now, it’s forced, right? It’s a forced place. So you come and speak an African American English, I want to teach you how to code switch young child so you have access to these opportunities and you can be successful in this academic setting. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily being looked at as a language kind of code switching. It’s more like a language substitution.
Latimer-Hearn: I think it’s also difficult to teach another person to code switch because that’s placing value on where they can and cannot use parts of their identity. The way that the three of us code switch probably differs. The locations and the settings in which we code switch is probably different. So who’s doing it correctly? I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong way. It’s your personal decision. So I don’t know how a person outside of you can decide for you where you should and should not use your language.
Hamilton: I agree. I think sometimes we have this interesting thing where it’s like, well, we’re going to teach you two different ways to speak. Isn’t that awesome? We’re going to teach you two different ways to speak. Now we do that with foreign languages, right? But somehow it’s looked at a little bit differently. But my concern with that too is in the classroom, the optics of that. So now the optics look like these Black and Brown children on this side of the classroom who also happened to be in the lowest reading group. But these other children over here, and I’m not saying they’re all White because I was part of those other children speaking Mainstream American English, you don’t have to code switch. Don’t worry. You’re fine the way you are. You’re fine. Don’t worry about that.
Hamilton: So on one hand, we’re trying to act like it’s a positive thing. We’re giving you two different ways of speaking, yet we know it’s not positive because what we’re actually saying is, please don’t speak the way that you feel most comfortable in this classroom.
Latimer-Hearn: I don’t think we should not teach African American English speaking children to speak Mainstream American English. I agree that we should teach them that, give them this resource, give them this tool so that they have the option to go through certain doors if they wish to. I do still agree with that even though I don’t like the delivery of it, I still agree with it.
Feimster Holt: Yes, I agree with you. And when we’re thinking about children learning, I had a conversation with a friend yesterday. The biggest earning comics are African American English speakers. Think of Kevin Hart. Okay? And it’s really interesting how it’s inappropriate to use African American English unless it can be commodified.
And I think that’s a big component to it. And when we think about the oral nature, the oral history that’s passed down, that’s required. But the ability to move between those two forms adds value, and I think maybe that would be the approach that I would suggest for all of us to think about, as a value add, not a minus.
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A thank yout my guests from Auburn University. Hamilton Hamilton. From East Carolina University, Feimster Holt Feimster Holt. And school-based SLP and consultant Latimer-Hearn Latimer-Hearn. Hearn is an A-E-R-A Minority Dissertation Fellowship Grant Recipient Remember, you can read articles by Megan-Brett Hamilton and Latimer-Hearn Latimer-Hearn in the ASHA Leader.
Find it online at leader-dot-pubs-dot-asha-dot-org.
In this episode, we talked about the importance of cultural competence among speech-language hearing professionals. If you want to read more about the many ways ASHA’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, O-M-A, helps members address culture and language, and diversity among professionals and those with communication disorders or differences, visit asha dot org and search for multicultural.
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ASHA Voices is produced by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and comes from the team behind the ASHA Leader magazine.
Support for ASHA Voices comes from ASHA’s online conference on T-B-I. It’s called Maximizing Functional Outcomes for Individuals With Traumatic Brain Injuries, and it begins March 18. Learn more at on-dot-asha-dot-org-slash- capital-T capital-B capital-I.
Support for ASHA Voices comes from the ASHA Workload Calculator. Learn more by going to asha-dot-org and searching “ASHA Workload Calculator.”
Production assistance comes from Pamela Lorence. I’m J.D. Gray, and this is ASHA Voices.
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Next time on ASHA Voices …
What happens when the stress of work becomes too much?
We’re joined by the hosts of SLP Happy Hour to talk work stress strategies and what they’ve learned hosting a podcast about the work-lives of speech-language professionals.
That’s next time on ASHA Voices.