No Longer the Silent Subgroup

Ayanna Cooper, Kisha C. Bryan, and Babatunji Ifarinu explain how our teaching and attitudes need to adapt to the needs of Black English learners

With recent attention being given to English learners (ELs) who are identified as Black and/or African American it’s important to continue engaging in conversations around this particular subgroup of students. The unique history, needs, identification, and experiences of Black ELs is an important part of supporting them socially, emotionally, and academically. Ibrahim’s ethnography “Becoming Black: Rap and Hip-Hop, Race, Gender, Identity, and the Politics of ESL Learning” showed that ESL is neither neutral nor without its politics and pedagogy of desire and investment (Ibrahim, 1999). The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans (WHIEEAA) and the U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) recently partnered to find ways to best support Black ELs. Since October 2015, they have released resources as part of a tool kit geared toward helping educators of ELs, including Black ELs, and their families. The data collected and presented leave a number of thought-provoking questions and aid in further investigation from a nationwide, regional, and schoolhouse perspective.

The statistics shown are a necessary part of identifying and providing “voice” to students who are at a higher risk of falling through the demographic cracks—not intentionally, but because the picture of an English learner that most often appears in one’s mind is not a child of African decent. In teacher education, in-service teacher professional development, professional learning communities, and other venues for learning about ELs, very rarely are examples of ELs shown where the students are neither Latino nor Asian. How might we continue to learn about and support a subgroup of ELs when many people don’t know this population exists? Let’s review the statistics that help to frame the U.S. population of Black ELs.

• The data collected from the American Community Survey defines individuals who are Black as those whose racial self-identification included “Black, African American, negro, or mulatto, regardless of what additional race(s) the person reported, if any.” These individuals can be “Black alone or in combination” with other races, regardless of Hispanic origin.

• 11–20% of the EL student population in New York and Florida is Black. Washington D.C., Maryland, and Texas report 6-20% of their EL populations as Black.

• 40% of EL students who are Black speak Spanish and approximately 18% of EL students who are Black speak French Creole at home.

• In the U.S., Maine has the highest concentration of Black ELs, 48.6%.

• Black African immigrants represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. immigrant population, increasing by about 200% during the 1980s and 1990s and by 100% during the 2000s (Capps, McCabe, and Fix, 2012).

(Stats adapted from U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2013. Estimates generated by NCELA using Census DataFerrett.)

What do these statistics mean for Black ELs and their educators in these areas? How might this information impact educator training preservice, in service, and in community outreach initiatives? What else do we need to know about Black ELs and do in order to become more aware and action oriented? Why does it matter? The questions about nationwide data are posed to encourage dialog and further research about Black ELs.

African American Vernacular English Debate
Nearly 20 years after the Oakland Unified School District sparked a fierce debate by declaring Ebonics (African American Vernacular English, AAVE) a distinct language, native-born Black students remain the most misunderstood, misidentified, underserved population of English learners. They are positioned in the center of the native/non-native speaker dichotomy and at the margins with regards to eligibility for language services offered at school. African American students remain at the lower end of the achievement gap, and as suggested by the Oakland School Board, this is due, in part, to the lack of attention given to these students’ linguistic needs, the lack of language services being offered to them, and the lack of legitimacy given to their native tongues. In many states, native-born Blacks are ineligible for language services simply because it is assumed that they are native speakers of English and would not benefit from these services. Are these students really native speakers of English? There is no simple answer. For the most part, by the time they enter preschool, African American children have receptive knowledge of Standard American English. The majority of these students also have productive knowledge of Standard American English as well as AAVE.

Figure 1. World Englishes from McArthur (1987) above

In some regions of the U.S., like coastal Louisiana and Coastal South Carolina (Gullah-speaking regions), nearly all Black children grow up speaking a more creolized variety of English and AAVE (see Figure 1 for a list of world Englishes). While the majority of English Creole and AAVE label their languages as English and self-identify as native speakers of English, their English is significantly different from the language used in America’s classrooms.

Caribbean English and English Creole Speakers
While the Caribbean English–speaking population is significantly smaller than the AAVE-speaking population, Caribbean English– and English Creole–speaking families have been migrating to the U.S. in greater frequency over the past 40 years. Most settle in the larger cities such as New York, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale. Caribbean immigrants represent about 60% of the Black immigrants living in the U.S. and are a major source of growth in the total U.S. population. In 2008–2009, a reported 3.3 million Black immigrants were living in the U.S. Just over one million of these immigrants reported that they were born in one of the English-speaking Caribbean countries (Hernandez, 2012; McKinnon and Bennett, 2005; Thomas, 2012). Like African American students, anglophone Caribbean students are often marginalized, misidentified, and misplaced in (and out of) language education programs. Their language use often varies between Standard English varieties, African American Vernacular English, and English Creole. Such varieties reflect their identities in different contexts (Green, 2002; Nero, 2005; Pratt-Johnson, 2006). Indeed, this population of Black ELs has added a new and changing dynamic to the Black student population. Schools are often challenged by their presence, as either they are classified as native speakers of English with disregard to their actual level of English language proficiency or they are placed in traditional ESL programs where the assumption is that all of the students identify as non-native speakers of English.

While native-born Blacks are wholly ineligible for language services, the immigrant status of Caribbean English speakers often supports their eligibility. This eligibility, however, does not always equate to appropriate identification and/or programming. The linguistic identities of these students often leave school districts confused and this student population underserved. In her study of Jamaican Creole English–speaking students in New York City public schools, Pratt-Johnson (2006) found that upon entering school, these students were not provided the opportunity to linguistically self-identify, and when they did self-identify as native speakers of English, school personnel often challenged them. She noted that the Creole English–speaking students were usually faced with one of three situations:

1. Classified as English language learners when their language seemed decidedly creolized;

2. Identified as native English speakers when they were from dominantly English-speaking countries; or

3. Classified as disabled and assigned to special education classes in the hope that the smaller class size and slower pace would solve their obvious language differences.

Because these students fall outside of the native speaker/non-native speaker paradigm, they are often misidentified in terms of their native language and English language proficiency and abilities. In addition to their linguistic needs, several scholars have reported that Caribbean students often experience poor educational outcomes, including low academic achievement and high dropout rates (e.g., Roopnarine et al., 2004; Smith et al., 2004; Thomas-Hope, 1992). These poor outcomes are often attributed to diverse issues such as racial discrimination, and inappropriate assessment and placement in curriculum levels and programs (Mitchell and Bryan, 2007; Waters, 1999). Further, Caribbean immigrant students and other Black immigrants typically experience acculturative stress that manifests in poor psychological wellbeing, including feelings of isolation, anxiety, depression, identity confusion regarding race and ethnicity, difficulty making friends, and behavioral and family problems (Mahoney, 2002; Morrison and Bryan, 2014; Seaton et al., 2008; Winer, 2006).

Lack of Value, Lack of Affirmation
Country of birth and historical factors (e.g., colonization, slavery, etc.) make a huge difference in whether or not a language is valued as well as in expectations of proficiency for students. Anglophone Caribbean students are non-native to the U.S., so it is expected that their English may be different. Traditional ESL students have distinct native/first languages, so it is expected that they may need to be provided language services. In fact, all of the professional language organizations advocate for ESL and bilingual programs to be additive in nature. They endorse use of the first language as a bridge to support the acquisition of English. However, this is not the case with native varieties of English, as it is a deeply rooted sentiment that AAVE is slang, “ghetto,” bastardly, and lazy and does not belong in the classroom, despite it being the first language of the majority of the country’s Black students. Columnist Debra Saunders wrote, “Apparently the board hasn’t noticed that many Black students speak English just fine, thank you. Their parents may not want their kids forced into a linguistic ghetto” (1996, p. A15).

The child who speaks in a vernacular dialect is not making language errors; instead, she or he is speaking correctly in the language of the home discourse community, which is often not a linguistic ghetto (Wheeler and Swords, 2004). In 1979, writer James Baldwin suggested that the argument concerning the use, the status, or the reality of Black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language and the status of its speakers. If the speakers are devalued and marginalized, then so will their language be devalued and marginalized.

Professional Development
Because Black ELs are a population whose voices often go unheard, we must begin to consider their voices, their plight, and our role as educators. In 1979, Baldwin stated, “It is not the Black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: it is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be Black, and in which he knows that he can never become white.”

Teacher-training and professional-development programs in this country have an enormous task, theoretically training teachers to work with all students so that they are socially, emotionally, and academically successful. While most teacher-training programs aim to address the sociocultural foundations of education and the results of racial discrimination and cultural bias, to what extent are teacher educators providing opportunities for preservice teachers to consider their attitudes and ideologies regarding language varieties and how these views position and possibly marginalize students? How often do methodology courses incorporate strategies for teaching Standard English as a second dialect? How often do texts depict successful Blacks speaking AAVE, code switching, or speaking a language other than English? It is only when these questions can be affirmatively answered that Black ELs, and Black students who do not identify as ELs, will see themselves in our curriculum.

Community Outreach
In addition to teacher training, current educators must tap into communities’ funds of knowledge and resources. In order to show that we value our students’ languages and cultures, we must welcome them into the classroom. We can do this by inviting the elders and leaders of the communities into our schools to establish relationships and partner with teachers, administrators, and staff. The most successful schools in African American and heavily populated immigrant communities are those that have an open door to the community and those that actively seek ways to show culturally and linguistically diverse members of the community as role models. Figure 2 illustrates our goal, which is to ensure that Black ELs don’t repudiate their experiences or identities, but that their unique linguistic identities are viewed as assets, their social and emotional needs are considered and met, and their academic and career trajectories are monitored.

Figure 2. Implications of Race/Ethnicity and Language

As the population of Black ELs becomes more highly recognized, the students bring forth the opportunity for educators and community members to think more about U.S. race relations, academic and career trajectories including barriers and opportunities, socioemotional development, diverse socioeconomic statuses and language and literacy as capital. It also encourages educators to self-assess their own biases and ignorance as catalysts for change. Inevitably, by being action oriented, we’ll be on the forefront of improving outcomes for all English learners so that no subgroup will be silenced, be ignored, or go unrecognized.

Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is an educator, author, and advocate for culturally and linguistically diverse learners. Cooper supports educators in becoming change agents and leaders within the field of English language teaching. She’s a co-author of Evaluating ALL Teachers of English Learners and Students with Disabilities: Supporting Great Teaching, Corwin Press.

Kisha C. Bryan, PhD, is clinical assistant professor of ESL at Texas A&M University. She is an advocate for ELs and other linguistically diverse populations. Her research focuses on identity construction among Black immigrant adolescents, language acquisition in urban contexts, and ESL teacher preparation.

Babatunji Ifarinu, MEd, is a success facilitator for English learners in one of the largest and most diverse school districts in Georgia. Ifarinu delivers workshops that demonstrate “practical and tactical” strategies, while delivering paradigm-shifting information that can be immediately utilized in classrooms.
All three authors are members of BELPaF, Black English Language Professionals and Friends, of TESOL. BELPaF is a forum for educators with an interest in issues related to the professional growth and development of ESL professionals of color and their students.