“A rapper is about being completely true to yourself. Being an actor is about changing who you are.” — Will Smith
My favourite TV show is “Fresh Prince of Bel Air”. It is one of the only shows that makes my stomach cramp from laughing so hard. It is clever, it is hilarious, and it is so easy to love each character. In the show, Will (played by Will Smith ❤), is a witty and sassy boy from Philly who moves-in with his wealthy family, the Banks family. Like any good comedy, the humor in this show has many layers to it, it combines real content with hilarity. The show mainly jokes about how Will’s upbringing doesn’t match the lifestyle of the Banks family. I was craving an episode of Fresh Prince, so I logged onto my Netflix account and selected a random episode — Season 1, Episode 23: “72 Hours”. In this episode, Will dares his nerdy cousin, Carlton to spend a weekend in Compton a “tough part of town”. Will laughs and tells Carlton that he won’t even last a day in Compton, silently (but constantly repeated in the show) commenting on Carlton’s “diluted stereotypical blackness”. Carlton responds by saying “just because I grew up in the best neighborhood and pronounce my -ing’s at the end of words, doesn’t make me any less black than you”. Carlton arrives in Compton and makes cue-cards for “hip hop words” such as chill, word, and leaving me hanging.
African American Vernacular English (AAVE, Black English, Ebonics) is a dialect of English, spoken in predominantly Black communities. Some characteristics of AAVE speech versus Standard American English (SAE) is: difference in plurality (I have three friend), use of “a” vs. “an” (Mike Fisher is an hockey player), use of “was” vs. “were” (They was sad), multiple negation (I can’t do nothin’ about it), use of “is” vs. “are” (astronauts is neat).
Certain verb patterns differ (It start to snow) and differentiation in subject-verb agreement (my friend like this restaurant). What is the point of having a standard dialect and is there a downside of speaking a minority dialect?
In the classroom (especially a large classroom), teachers struggle with trying to accommodate each student. Moreover, many teachers and individuals who aren’t familiar with AAVE speech do not understand these linguistic patterns. For a student who was raised speaking AAVE (or another minority language dialect) struggles in a classroom expecting work produced in SAE, as standardized tests are written in Standard American English. Through my personal experience within the classroom, it is clear that many teachers struggle at seeing concepts beyond grammatical errors. This blindness unfortunately leads to ignoring a student’s creative thought process. The idea of being stuck on grammar also relates to dyslexia, where teachers who focus on correcting spelling and grammar miss the big-picture (that’s why I think spell-check, Dragon, and other technology is a blessing for students with learning exceptionalities). Furthermore, constant corrections in red-pen doesn’t encourage students to work on fixing their mistakes, it discourages them and turns them off from writing and schoolwork. Teachers should recognize that the work isn’t wrong, it is simply different. AAVE has also been referred to “Informal English”, is this a fair label? The first thing that comes to my mind is a shift in power dynamic, where Standard American English is the dominant language. Though, one can argue that there are many minority dialects and having a standard dialect is a political decision striving to create a “mainstream” dialect. In terms of educating the educator, I believe that teachers instructing a predominantly minority (oxymoron?) speaking community must familiarize themselves with the linguistic framework of the dialect. Potentially giving their students the option to submit work in either dialect, to present work in different mediums, and to also familiarize the students with the linguistic framework of SAE.
Carlton, who is a speaker of Standard American English, ends up going to Compton and totally changing his look and his speech patterns to blend into his new surrounding. What I like about this episode is that this episode displays the opposite of the norm of SAE English discussed within the classroom. Instead of a speaker of AAVE having to code-switch and learn SAE, Carlton (a speaker of Standard American English) was training himself to speak African American Vernacular English. In a comedic way, this episode demonstrates how language (and the associated dialect) can influence people’s perspective on an individual’s intelligence, social class, and popularity (do they follow the norm or are they an outlier?). Carlton ends up loving Compton, teaching the crew about taxes and helping them with their business models. He ends up winning the dare and makes Will confess his love towards his dear SAE-speaking cousin. Language and power definitely go hand-in-hand. Word.
Medina, Benny. “72 Hours.” Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Dir. Rae Kraus. 11 Mar. 1991. Television.
Wheeler, R. & Swords, R. (2010). Code-Switching Lessons: Grammar Strategies for Linguistically Diverse Writers. A First-Hand Curriculum. Portsmouth, NH: Heinmann.
Wheeler, R. & Swords, R. (2006). Code-Switching: Teaching Standard English in Urban Classrooms. A book in the TRIP series (Theory and Research into Practice), National Council of Teachers of English. Urbana: IL.