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27th Annual SCUTREA conference proceedings 1997

Crossing borders, breaking boundaries : Research in the education of adults

The significance of African-American language and learning in an adult education context: 'going back to our roots'

Doris Flowers and Vanessa Sheared
San Francisco State University

Terms like 'Africanisms in the Gullah dialect' (Turner, 1944) Black Dialect (Labov 1960), Negro Speech (Wolfram 1969), Black English (Dillard 1972), and Ebonics (Williams 1975) have been used interchangeably to describe the language of African-Americans. Most recently the term African-American language has been used to depict a linguistic system that is rule governed and its validation lies within its cultural and racial foundation. Some linguists have traced the language forms back to Africa, while others have traced it to African-American slaves. According to McGinnis (1975):

African slaves spoke a variety of languages when they were shipped to North American plantations. Most of the languages were of a distinct West African type, but some consisted of a great deal of pigeon English and others of a Portuguese pigeon. On the plantations, a common language emerged among the slave population. It became the principle means of communication. It was a rather 'simplified' version of English, which underwent many changes through use by successive generations. (1975, 4)

As early as 1949, Turner studied the Gullah dialect spoken by the inhabitants of the Sea Islands and discovered many traces of African language features. He concluded that there were definite linguistic features of African language systems among the Gullah people. He further concluded that the African-American Language was influenced by West African and Niger Congo Languages, such as Bambura, Ewe, Fanta, Wolof, Yoruba, Mandinka, Mende.

The language used among African-Americans has historically been characterised as deviant, deficient or at best different. In the last 30 years, studies (Brown 1980; Giles, Bourhis and Taylor 1977; LeMoine 1995; Labov 1972; Taylor 1968; Wolfram 1969; Wolfram and Fasold 1974) have analysed and assessed the ways in which African-Americans use the English language to communicate with one another as well as individuals outside of their communities. These studies add much to understanding the linguistic rules that govern African-American speech and contribute to determining the varied dialects within African-American communities (Labov 1972; Wolfram 1969; Wolfram and Fasold 1974).

Additional studies have also provided evidence of African-American learners' abilities to 'code switch' or 'style switch' (Edwards 1986; Faerch 1987; Labov 1972; Wyatt and Seymour 1990) to communicate outside their communities. While these studies have provided us with a framework for exploring Black English, they have also created what Hoover (1990) refers to as a 'deficiency philosophy that supports a negative view of the cultures of people of colour, negatively affecting educational policies and the direction of research'.

Furthermore, most of these studies have targeted population sets at the K-12 level. As a result of these studies, rules have been created to: 1) document the phonological, morphological and syntactic forms; 2) provide a basic understanding of the language and its historical foundation; 3) legitimate African-American language as a function of its culture; and 4) raise African-American children. Most of these studies were developmental in nature and provide limited information about the implications of these forms and structures on African-American adult speaking patterns.

Furthermore, even though rules exist to explain the African-American Language, this form still has not achieved legitimisation as a form of discourse either inside or outside its own community. This has become most evident in the recent debates that have ensued as a result of the Oakland, CA school board decision concerning the use of Ebonics as a way to facilitate the use of Standard English by African-American children (December 18, 1996).

This has grave concerns not only for young children, but for adults as well. Once an individual leaves the confines of the K-12 school system, they are expected to use what is considered Standard English, thus placing African-American adults in a position where they are expected to employ 'bidialectical competence' in educational and professional settings.

Flowers and Sheared (1996) offered an analysis of African-American adult learners' speech patterns on learning in an Adult Basic Education classroom. This study concluded that African-American adults employ language structures and forms that are consistent with communalism and sharing, according to the African-centred philosophy of 'Nguzo Saba' (Asante 1987), which promotes unity, sharing, and community responsibility. Through this communal sharing the polyrhythmic realities (Brown 1990; Sheared 1994) of the learners surface as a way of helping them gain control and power over their learning experiences. Particular focus in this study was given to an exploration of the polyrhythmic realities and the effect it had on the language adult learners used to communicate with teachers and peers in the learning environment, as well as other settings (Flowers and Sheared 1996).

Based on these preliminary findings recommendations were made to conduct further study to determine whether this was consistent with our understanding of how language influences language patterns and learning, as well as the principles of Nguzo Saba. Additionally the following recommendation were made:

1. Adult basic education teachers and speech language pathologists should encourage group think through dialogue and group discussion ...
2. Teachers and speech language pathologists should encourage the use of language that reflects community and sharing ...
3. Teachers and speech language pathologists should develop needs assessments that reflect the polyrhythmic realities (that is, their roles and functions, race, class, gender, language, sexual orientation, religion, etc.) of their students. (AERC, Conference Proceedings)

This is the second phase of an on-going study examining African- American language and its functions and effects on how students use their home language to achieve power and control over their learning environments. The preliminary findings and research concerning deficiency of African-Americans speech patterns led us to an examination of the following assumptions: a) African-Americans use an inferior linguistic system which must be remediated before they can actively participate and learn in a classroom; b) the African-American Language is not a legitimate way of communicating in American society; c) the African-American language is viewed as being used by individuals that are less intelligent and/or academically inferior.


The following questions guided this study: a) What language patterns begin to emerge in African-American adult learners' communication? b) Does black dialect, code switching or style switching effect African-American adults communication in the learning environment? c) How does 'communalism and sharing' affect African-Americans language use in the learning environment? d) Does 'communalism and sharing' offer an alternative interpretation to Black dialect, code and/or style switching as a way to determine effective communication in a learning environment? e) What impact does language have on the lived experience (polyrhythmic realities) of adult learners? f) How do African-American adult learners interpret their language and its impact upon communicating their knowledge and experiences?

This study duplicated the methodology used by Edwards (1986) to examine language choice and communicative intent among Black British adults and adolescents. A combination of qualitative (Glaser and Strauss 1967), Africentric Feminist (Hill-Collins 1990) and quantitative research (Patton 1990) methods were used. Interviews were audio taped and video taped over a period of two months. Three schools were contacted and agreed to participate in this study. The findings in this report are based on the audiotapes, videotapes and interviews collected in Site A. A total of twelve African-American adults attending adult basic education programmes were interviewed. A total of twenty students were audio taped and videotaped. Speech and language sample analysis of the narratives were performed to determine linguistic structure and content (Miller and Chapman 1985).


This report will address the questions asked above. According to Cusher et al. (1992), 'language and communication can bind or tear people apart' (1992, 74). In the learning environment we noted that the African-American language patterns were consistent both in and outside the learning environment.

While the methodologies and techniques employed by educators are often described as being highly significant in promoting the learners' understanding, this study suggests that it is the communication patterns employed by both teacher and learners that help facilitate the learning process. Even though the instructor used examples from the lived experiences of the AA learners and they (the learners) in turn responded in class with their own interpretations, when asked about those events, the AA learners were unaware of how those realities affected their learning. This is consistent with Hill-Collins' (1992) explanation of the ways in which African-Americans view their world. That is, the analysis employed within the African-American context is presented in a way in which one looks at the whole and not at the parts. The African-American takes the whole of what is given and uses that, rather than tearing it apart to determine its meaning. It is through the language that they 'symbolically store the knowledge of their culture which shapes their perception, values and behaviour'.

Metaphors were often used by both teachers and students to communicate and acknowledge their understanding of one another. However, even though the teacher and the students often used parables and sayings to clarify information, when interviewed most students did not or could not make a connection between the use of these parables as a way to facilitate their learning. The only metaphors the participants could recall in the interviews were the ones they might have heard in their homes. For instance Examples of this are:

Participant 8a: When you lie with dogs, you git fleas ...
Participant 9a: She put her foot in it...

Holt (1975) concludes that

Metaphor functions as a devise for promoting and maintaining the black world view, which is our frame of reference for analysis. The complexity of understanding in the frequent use (and other ethnotrops) in all probability represents to some degree reinterpretations of the African world view. Since Black Americans are descendants of West Africans...the African world view in part still reflects itself in the Black Americans use of communication. This view considers communication the art of performance. Performance is a presentation of self, which reflects the value of sheer personal being, of respect for the individuals integrity and interpersonal relations. (1975, 89, 90)

She goes on to state (1975) in her essay on 'Metaphor, Black Discourse Style and Cultural Reality', 'the new search for knowledge about the black experience must achieve synthesis with black cultural reality if an authentic understanding of educational goals for blacks is to be gained.

Polyrhythmic realities
Therefore language is only one mode used to communicate one's understanding of information as it is transmitted in the classroom. It was quite clear that the students' polyrhythmic realities played a significant role in facilitating their understanding of the words used (language) and the way they viewed themselves both in the world (their communities, their homes) and the learning environment (classroom situations).

The way that one constructs one's views and perception of the self (who am I) in relation to others (family, society) is grounded in both their and realities. This reality is the connection with and between race, class, gender, language, religion (spirituality) experiences (family, social). It is influenced by issues of power and control as it is embedded within the social constructions between the socio-political economic factors that operate within a given society. Just as in music, harmony, tones, and notes blend themselves together to make one melody, the individual must blend their both and realities into one whole in order to begin to make sense of the word and the world. As we look at this from an African-centred context, the individual learns to construct a reality that helps him/her survive wherever they are (Sheared 1997).

In this study, age, religion, life experiences, race, class and gender played a significant impact upon how information was transmitted and used by the learners and the teacher. Age was an extremely critical factor as it related to communication style and language used among both the older and younger adults. This was quite evident in the way the teacher had grouped them. This was also apparent in how they processed and completed their assignments. Religion and education were viewed by most as being necessary for the improvement of one's spiritual and intellectual growth and learning. Religious parables were often used by both the instructor and the students to clarify the readings they had undertaken in both small and large group discussions. Even though the assignments were not of a religious nature, both biblical passages and parables were often used to clarify the points they discussed.

While the language structures and forms that have been identified by sociolinguists and linguists as distinctive Black language (dialect, Ebonics), the African-American adult learners did not consider the way they spoke as being different or distinct from standard English. In fact when asked and given examples of standard, Black or slang language, some referred to Black English as Standard English and standard English as Black English, thus seeing no difference between two language systems.

Participants in this study were asked:

Do you think that Black English is standard English, non-standard English, incorrect grammar, a language or a dialect?

One participant responded:

Well, I tell ya wa...wha we raise up to....well I thank it standard because that all we know right?

Even though they did not make major distinctions between Black English and Standard English they did make a distinction between Black English, Standard English and Slang. Slang was seen as something they used primarily with their friends and in non-formal settings, whereas Black English/Standard English was used primarily in formal school and work/business situations.

In this study language is viewed as a medium for communicating ideologies, knowledge, and cultural capital. Because of the differences in age and experiences, the use of language in the classroom in this study was a critical factor to aiding communication and understanding. Even though the students did not note any major differences between Black English and standard English, it became clear to the researchers that the ways in which language was constructed and used by these learners was different. There was a lot of familiarity with and between them and their teacher. Moreover, the complexity of the speech patterns spoken by the African- Americans in this study, made it clear that 'communicators' (all people) need to become familiar with culture, history and language in order to understand one another.

In order to aid our understanding, a variety of linguistic measures were employed to describe the patterns that emerged from the data. The linguistic forms used to characterise the language spoken by African- Americans presented a pattern of speech and speaking which varies phonologically (sound), morphologically (grammatic structure), syntactically (sentence structure), semantically (work meaning), and pragmatically (language use). These features paired with social variables presented linguistic patterns typically observed in Black dialect speakers. The following patterns are examples used by the participants in this study that exemplify Black dialect as it was used within the context of the classroom.

It should also be noted, that black English has non verbal characteristics which are included to help define a message. This may be introduced into the communication through gesture, by way of body movement, proximity, and kinesthetics.

Paralanguage characteristics also help in defining the communication. This includes the vocal qualities such as pitch, intonation, pausing, and fluency. A message is often defined by how it is said, rather than what is said.


Adult educators are being asked to educate and retrain African-American adults so that they can fully participate in the American educational process and workforce. They are being asked not only to educate and retrain them, but they are asked to teach them how to communicate effectively. This study challenges the assumptions that AAL is: 1) an inferior linguistic system which needs remediating; 2) not a legitimate way of communicating in American society, therefore not acceptable by most; and 3) is viewed as being used by individuals that are unintelligent or academically inferior. This study begins to offer an alternative way of viewing AAL usage in the learning environment, as well as other settings. It expands upon the idea that communalism and sharing are specific traits that are rooted within the African-American culture and is expressed in our language, familial relationships, religion, education, music, and dance, work ethics our polyrhythmic realities.

Language is the tool used to articulate one's understanding of the word and the world. Educators must further their understanding of cultural norms, language forms, and moral beliefs of their students' culture. Educators must become aware of the lived experiences of the learners as well as their own, otherwise the knowledge that is transmitted will only consist of that from the dominant framework. The both/and realities of the learners (that is the realities they bring from their family and community, and that which evolves from the dominant culture) are critical to assisting them decode what is being transmitted both within and outside of the learning environment. This study concludes therefore, that an understanding of the polyrhythmic realities aids the teacher as well as the students develop relationships that allow them with opportunities to deconstruct the hegemonic relationships that exists within and outside of traditional learning environments. This requires that we as educators go back to the roots of one's history, language, and culture, experiences, race, class, gender, and religion in order to create learning communities that reflect individual differences and similarities.


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