Sadly, getting people to understand that there are different ways to speak the same language and that no one way is better than another, is very VERY difficult.
When it comes to African American English (AAE), understanding the beauty and legitimacy of this dialect becomes especially hard if you are talking to: a person who speaks MAE, an educator, a “grammar elitist,” a Black baby boomer, a Black middle-class person, or a Black person who speaks AAE themselves. The conversation I recently had with my dad (an AAE/MAE-speaking-university educated-Black-middle-class-baby-boomer) made me want to pull my hair out. Clearly, he has missed the entire point of my research. Love you Dad.
But honestly, I get why people, especially Black people, think that MAE is the “proper” way to speak and that AAE is “improper,” “ghetto,” “unintelligent,” etc. It’s what we’ve been taught.
I used to think this way as well. I was ignorant. But then I started to educate myself, because really, can an entire culture of people be wrong? Once I associated the premise with communication, that’s when I was able to wrap my head around the concept.
If you are communicating effectively within your own community, then guess what? You are speaking correctly, no matter what that sounds like. As I have said in the past, if you are not communicating effectively within your own community, then perhaps that’s where my communication specialist skills need to come in.
So, good news folks. I think I found one way to get African American nay-sayers (my dad included) a bit closer to understanding what linguists have been trying to tell us for years. I mean decades, people!
I met an African American chef/entrepreneur who, although born and raised in the South (read as knowledge and use of AAE) has a few higher ed degrees and runs quite a few businesses (read as highly involved in mainstream society), so you know he gave me the side-eye quite a few times as I tried to explain AAE.
In the middle of me trying to explain this difficult-to-grasp aspect of language, he interrupted me to tell a story about his culinary training with a French chef. I’m assuming he interrupted me because he was starting to see a connection and needed desperately to share. So, for simplicity of telling this story without pronoun confusion, let’s call this African American chef ‘Morris.’
Morris told me that when the class was learning how to cook French cuisine, the instructor made sure that they all knew the correct cooking techniques used in French cuisine, from Julienning the carrots to creating the perfect au jus.
Then Morris starts to tell me about the section of his training that included Southern cuisine. He learned how to cook from his southern grandma, so of course, in his mind he had this part of his culinary training down pat. But, to his dismay, the French instructor corrected Morris on his techniques, from telling him to take the lid off the green beans so that they stay firmer to telling him how to marinate his meat for cooking BBQ. I can only imagine what was said when Morris suggested adding some ham hocks to those string beans.
How dare this French instructor “correct” his style of cooking? A style of cooking that he learned from his grandma. A style of cooking that had been passed on to him from generation to generation. A style of cooking that paid homage to his identity as an African American raised in the South.
But then, this person, who is not from his culture, decides that his Frenchness knows the correct way to cook southern African American food and felt the need to fix Morrris’ techniques so that he could learn to cook Southern cuisine the right way.
So, I hope at this point, the metaphor of this story has become obvious. Simply replace the word ‘cooking’ with ‘language’ or ‘dialect’ and you should see some similarities.
For chef Morris, I was able to get him to *begin to see what I (and so many linguists) have been trying to get Black people and educators to understand and more importantly to FEEL. There is not one right way to cook green beans just as there is not one right way to speak. And respect my style of cooking because it is an important part of my cultural identity, just as the way I speak is an important part of my cultural identity.
If this metaphor did not work for you, or my dad, have no fear;) I will continue to find ways to show why it’s so important to acknowledge and respect our cultural identity, even when it comes to the way we talk.
It’s not that AAE-speaking children should not be given to opportunity to learn MAE as a tool for potential success in mainstream society, but they should not be told that taking the lid off the pot is the right way to cook green beans.