To the editors, The New Republic:

John R. Rickford
Department of Linguistics
Stanford University

(E-mail sent to on 1/23/1997)

Jacob Heilbrum's "Speech Therapy" piece on Ebonics (what most linguists refer to as "African American Vernacular English") contains some grains of fact, but many more mountains of inaccuracy and misrepresentation. Please allow me to set the record straight.

To begin with, Heilbrum's contention that "There is no evidence that Ebonics has improved the English of black students" is simply wrong. I myself drew his attention to the 1989 study by Hanni Taylor that contrastive analysis of Ebonics and Standard English [SE] helped Black inner-city university students from Chicago dramatically REDUCE incursions from the former in their SE writing, while "regular English department techniques" resulted in a slight INCREASE in carryovers from their vernacular. I also told him about the 1981 paper by Gary and Charlesetta Simpkins reporting that over four hundred 7th to 12th graders who were taught initially with Bridge dialect readers, demonstrated almost four times as much progress in four months as those taught by conventional remedial techniques. There is also evidence from experiments in Norway, Sweden, Atlanta and Oakland that approaches which build on children's vernacular competence succeed better than those which do not, even with other relevant factors like school location and facilities held constant.The suggestions that all who study the linguistic intricacies of Ebonics are Afrocentric "Ebonologists," and that they are opposed to helping children master the linguistic intricacies of "good" English are also unfounded. My colleagues Peter Sells and Tom Wasow are theoretical syntacticians who coauthored a paper with me on an interesting grammatical feature of AAVE, but this no more makes them "Ebonologists" than writing this piece makes Heilbrum one. More to the point, virtually all linguists are agreed on the importance of helping children master the standard varieties--the January 1997 resolution of the Linguistic Society testifies specifically to this, and urges that increased resources be made available for this purpose.

Heilbrum's report of my discussion of the reduction and loss of does (not be) which precedes the emergence of invariant be as habitual marker also misses the fact that I was referring to a process I had witnessed first-hand on the South Carolina Sea Islands, where "Gullah" was and is still spoken. Several other relevant details of the process are misrepresented.

Finally, the trivializing implication throughout the article that "taking Ebonics into account" in the schools represents nothing more than a series of vocal affirmations or call-and-response exchanges is unjustified. There is both substantive theory and successful practice here, and Heilbrum has unfortunately failed to help his readers see either. That may unfortunately reinforce complacency about existing, status quo methods--methods which continue to "enslave a new generation in the chains of ignorance."

Stanford, California
(Department of Linguistics, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2150.
Phone: 415-497-0915)