McWhorter: A Language Test That Stigmatizes Black Children

Good example of a systemic barrier:

It can be hard not to notice that a suspiciously large number of children, of seemingly normal human linguistic capacity, are officially designated as language impaired. In 2019, two researchers set out to determine just how common this phenomenon is. Examining nationwide data, they found that each year, 14 percent of states overrepresent the number of Black children with speech and language impairments.

Just what does “language impaired” mean, though? Much of the reason this diagnosis is so disproportionate among this group and has been for decades is that too many people who are supposedly trained in assessing children’s language skills aren’t actually taught much about how human language works. And it affects the lives of Black kids dramatically.

The reason for that overrepresentation is that most Black children grow up code switching between Black English and standard English. There is nothing exotic about this; legions of people worldwide live between two dialects of a language, one casual and one formal, and barely think about it. Many Germans, Italians, Chinese people, South Asians and Southeast Asians and most Arabs are accustomed to speaking different varieties of language according to different forms of social interaction. So, too, are Black Americans. Black children, along the typical lines of bidialectal contexts like these, are much more comfortable with the casual variety of Black speech, only faintly aware that in formal settings there is a standard way of speaking that is considered more appropriate. Black English grammar is often assumed to be slang and mistakes. But it’s actually just an alternate, rather than degraded, form of English compared to the standard variety.

Here are the kinds of phrases that so many Black kids know and use effortlessly, phrases that are richer than standard English in many ways: “He be singin’”; “He done sung”; “He had sung and then he had gone quiet.” All three sentences are examples of how Black English expresses shades of actions in ways that standard English leaves more to context. “He be singin’ refers to someone singing regularly; you wouldn’t say that if someone were singing right in front of you. “He done sung” doesn’t simply refer to the past but to the fact that his having done so was something of a surprise, or something people urgently needed to know. Used on verbs one after the other in sequence instead of in the past-before-the-past pluperfect way that we use it in standard English, “had” in Black English indicates that one is telling a story; it is a narrative marker. None of this is broken. It is just different.

Now, suppose a kid raised in this dialect were asked on a test: “This bird is blue. What about this one?” “It red” would be marked wrong. Never mind that putting it that way is the way one would do it in the most standard version of Russian. If the kids tested see a girl with scissors and say “The girl cuttin’” instead of “The girl is cutting,” they are not just doing what Tolstoy would have thought of as normal but evidencing signs of linguistic impairment, as it is called.

The test asks the kid: “This is Jack. Whose dog is this? It is ______.” The kid may say “Jack dog” — in Black English, it is permissible to leave the possessive “-’s” out. Hence the late Black comedian Robin Harris’s classic routine about his girlfriend’s children saying, “Dem Bebe kids!” Apparently Harris had a linguistic impairment?

Imagine 7- or 8-year-old Black kids asked to repeat the sentence “My mother is the nurse who works in the community clinic.” If they happily say, spontaneously expressing it in the English they are most comfortable with, “My mother the nurse work in the community clinic,” they could be marked as linguistically deficient.

You don’t have to imagine this. Many of these questions are right from the CELF (Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals)-5 test, which is commonly used to assess children for disability status. And while the test includes modified scoring guidelines for students who may not have grown up speaking standard English, many test administrators do not abide by them. And even when they do, it can sometimes lead to underidentification of true language impairment when those test administrators cannot distinguish between language differences and language deficits. (This would help explain why the researchers also found that an estimated 62 percent of states underdiagnose Black children with these impairments.)

Tests like this one tend to be central to assessments of children as language deficient. The CELF-5 is used quite often. The dialect issue has been shown to be of key importance in overdiagnosis, which isn’t surprising given that, as Professor Catherine Crowley, from the program in Communication Sciences and Disorders at Columbia University’s Teachers College, tells me, in one subtest of the exam, 20 out of 33 of the constructions in the CELF-5 are used differently in Black English.

Imagine something else: If Black English were standard and a test asked white kids: Which is correct? “He ain’t be wearing that kind of shirt” or “He don’t be wearing that kind of shirt”? What would they answer? By the established parameters of Black English — and again, it is important to note that there are established parameters; this isn’t just slang — the correct answer is the second option. In that alternate universe, missing the distinction could get kids sent to a specialized classroom where they wouldn’t be taught according to their abilities.

I remember my mother, a child psychologist, talking as far back as the 1970s about Black kids being treated as linguistically deficient for being bidialectal; she resisted diagnostic tests as a result. Yet here we still are. Tests like this stay in place.

There are many areas in which I remain skeptical of the systemic racism analysis — for example, I am unconvinced that it’s systemic racism to require social workers to perform well on standardized tests. However, these speech evaluation tests imposed on children are something else. They can shunt kids away from mainstream opportunity when they have done nothing but grow up immersed in Black English as their linguistic comfort zone. Being born Black makes you more likely to suffer this abuse, whether it means your language impairment requiring special attention goes undiagnosed or your perfectly fine Black English is labeled a problem. Growing up with nonstandard English in general, as one study demonstrates about Filipino kids growing up in the United States from early childhood, can also lead to similar results.

It won’t do. But linguists can only have so much effect here. I have spent three decades listening to educators, psychologists, other linguists and speech pathologists giving talks about this lack of fit between speech evaluation tests and linguistic reality, and little seems to change except people in education circles being aware of and dismayed by the problem. Speech pathologists seeking to meaningfully participate in antiracism must start not just questioning but resisting en masse these outdated tests that apply a Dick-and-Jane sense of English on real kids who control a variety of coherent and nuanced Englishes.

Yes, all kids need to learn standard English in order to be able to access mainstream sources of achievement, not to mention to be taken seriously in specific contexts. This may not be fair. But the idea of standard English as a menacing, racist “gatekeeper” (which I have covered here) makes for good rhetoric yet will help no one in the real world. Certain dialects will be treated as standard as inevitably as certain kinds of clothing are considered more fashionable than others.

But for kids to be designated as linguistically deficient right out of the gate, based on notions such as that if they don’t always use the verb “to be” they don’t understand how things are related, makes no sense. It constitutes a dismissal of eager and innocent articulateness. And as such, it is an arrant and thoughtless injustice that must be stopped.

Source: A Language Test That Stigmatizes Black Children

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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