African American Language and the Sense of Belonging
Mrs. Tiffany Grant is a business development manager with First Children’s Finance, an organization that provides financial and business development assistance to child care businesses serving low- and moderate-income families, and helps them connect with public and private resources. Drawing on both personal and professional experience, Mrs. Grant offers trainings on how a better understanding of what linguists call African American Language can advance equity and inclusion. Y4Y was eager to learn from Mrs. Grant how out-of-school time professionals can honor this dialect and culture in their programs. [Podcast]
Y4Y: Knowing it has driven your passion as an advocate, can you share a little about your own journey as a native African American Language speaker?
TG: As a native speaker of African American Language (AAL), my journey has been a very interesting one. I grew up hearing the language from multiple families and friends in my community. My parents spoke African American Language in my home, but there wasn't any recognition nor discussion about it at all. When I saw my parents interact with Caucasian people, I noticed they changed the way they spoke. What linguists are now calling “style shifting,” I grew up calling “code switching.” It wasn’t something that was explicitly taught to me, but it was something I learned from watching my parents and others. I grew up living in affordable housing in a suburban community. The people in my community mostly spoke AAL, and I had a strong sense of belonging; however, at my school it was mostly Caucasian people, so I had to do a lot of code switching, and I felt isolated. Having that home community helped me navigate through my differences and feelings of isolation at school, but when my parents moved us out of that community, I lost that support. This was my first experience with depression.
Y4Y: Your experience of isolation and depression is a powerful reminder of why 21st CCLC programs work so hard to provide a safe, nurturing environment and a sense of belonging for all students. I know you’re well read and eloquent on the history of AAL. What elements of that history would you say are critical for our audience to bear in mind?
TG: The first element I would like everyone to keep in mind is that African American Language is not bad or broken English, and although features of slang are included in the language, it is NOT slang either. Like other speaking systems, those that speak AAL speak words with sentence structure, systems, and sounds. The second element to keep in mind is that the research is relatively new, and many answers are still being discovered. The research of the language began in the 1920s, and AAL was first called “Negro non-standard English” (Krapp, 1924). Over the years, linguists have had several hypotheses on its history, but the definitive results are limited, and there is so much more research that needs to be done. Lastly, and in my opinion the most important element to be mindful of, is the negative connotations placed on the language. If we want to understand and support children and families that speak the language, we must understand what they are saying, how society views the language, and how that may influence our attitudes and beliefs about those that speak it.
Y4Y: Helping our listeners appreciate that there are beautiful and reliable features and patterns that distinguish AAL, can you share some of what you’ve learned about these structures?
TG: Yes, I can. I would like to reference the work of Dr. Lisa Green, a linguist who teaches at the University of Massachusetts. When breaking down the use of AAL, Lisa Green highlights four focus areas: Dual components, speakers based, features based, and patterns based. I would like to focus on the feature- and pattern-based components. When discussing feature base, linguists have a list of features AAL speakers use to describe the use of AAL. For example, copula absence is where an AAL speaker omits any form of the verb “to be” in sentences that require a form of “to be” in Standard English. “He going” or “They driving” are examples of the copula absence. Another feature example is the habitual be. In this feature, a speaker uses the unconjugated form of the verb “to be” to signal a habitual or regularly occurring action. For example, “We be playing football,” or “She be eating early.” There are also pronunciation features. The most popular is how speakers do not pronounce the “th” sound. The “th” sound is replaced with d, t, or f. For example, “dem” instead of “them,” “wit” instead of “with,” or “baf” instead of “bath.” Research suggests this is because the “th” sound is not present in African languages. But Lisa Green does not just focus on the features of AAL because the features alone don’t show how AAL is a system. Green likes to focus on the pattern-based approach because it shows the system of AAL. When discussing the pattern approaches, Green explains that AAL is on a continuum, meaning AAL speakers use different patterns based on factors such as region, sex, education, social-economic status, and generation.
Y4Y: Earlier, you mentioned “code switching,” which is something native AAL speakers might have limited experience or comfort with. What can our out-of-school time professionals do to celebrate diversity and support inclusion in their programs with respect to honoring language?
TG: I would like to say it’s very important to analyze our own beliefs and attitudes about the language. This will help educators open their minds and not focus on correcting students, but instead it gives them the opportunity to listen and learn. Next, it is very important for educators to learn and study African American Language. We cannot respect or be inclusive of the language until we have a clear understanding of it. I also like to encourage educators to become familiar with AAL vocabulary. They could create lessons that provide students the opportunity to learn about vocabulary and what certain words mean in AAL, or modify their whole curriculum to specifically include and teach AAL to all students. For this to happen, there would need to be strategic planning and advocacy while also getting the support and involvement of the parents and families. It’s important to partner with families that speak the language to provide perspectives on how speaking the language impacts them and their children.
Y4Y: Whether or not our listeners themselves are native speakers of AAL, what one message would you hope they can take away from this discussion?
TG: I want listeners to hear and understand how much children and families suffer every day for speaking AAL. Some are told they should change the way they speak so they don’t look dumb. Others experience being told to “speak with some sense” when going on an interview. We must learn the language by studying the history, system, and acquisition of the language. When we do this intentionally and consistently, we can begin creating spaces that provide a sense of belonging for all children and families.
Krapp, G. P. (1924). The English of the Negro. American Mercury, 2(5), 190–195.
Tiffany is currently a Business Development Manager at First Children’s Finance. Prior to joining First Children’s Finance, Tiffany co-founded and managed a family child care program for the staff of Excell Academy for Higher Learning 4 years ago. Tiffany brings 14 years of experience working in early child care settings assisting in curriculum development, training, coaching, and compliance work for licensed, license-exempt, and non-profit programs. A strong advocate for equity and inclusion, Tiffany, spends a lot of her time serving on committees that strengthen her professional skills to create systems of equity. Some of her previous work includes serving on the Minnesota Legislative Task Force for Family Child Care as well as representing her state at The Public Policy Forum through the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Tiffany received her bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Studies with a career focus on early psychology and leadership from Metropolitan State University.