Saturday, August 8, 2015

A linguist in Wonderland...

So a couple days ago I had a brief chat with a reporter from the Jacksonville Time-Onion ("it stinks!"). It was about a thing going on here, wherein the parents of a young child are suing the school board because they don't want to provide speech therapy for their child. They think that because their child doesn't pronounce certain consonants at the ends of words, they need speech therapy. Someone at the school board has suggested that it might just be a dialectal thing; this angered the parents, who are African American. 
Plot twists to the story: The child is only about 3 years old; and the parents insist they don't talk like that.
I tried to provide a little perspective by pointing out:
  • It could be dialectal, since AAE often patterns to minimize word-final consonants, and also that it would be worthwhile to hear if the child pronounces the alleged missing consonants in other positions in words.
  • The pathologization of African American speech (and other) behaviors has a long, sorry, and racist history. 
  • Contrary to our folk model, peers and those a little older are more important to children's language development than are parents.
  • At only 3 years old, the child has barely had time to complete the process of language acquisition; chill out.
Here's what made it into the article:
However, Robert Kephart, a linguistic expert at University of North Florida, said the case raises a decades-old debate about dialect versus defect within the black community.
“There is a tendency that we have with labeling some of the things that African-American children deal with as pathology,” he said, pointing to the 1950s and 1960s when it was common practice for psychologists to label African-Americans as “cognitively deficient” for such things as speech.
Oh, and one more thing:  I don't know them, but I'm betting dollars to donuts these parents are over-achievers who are panic-stricken at the idea that their child just might grow up knowing some Ebonics.  We'll see how it plays out; I'll keep you posted.
Link to the Times-Union story here.

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