Diglossia, African American English, & Literacy Instruction in the United States
There is a concept termed diglossia worth exploring in relation to dialects of African American English used in the United States.
What is diglossia?
Diglossia can be defined as “the coexistence of two varieties of the same language throughout a speech community. Often, one form is the literary or prestige dialect, and the other is a common dialect spoken by most of the population.”
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. diglossia. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/diglossia
Diglossia is often discussed in the context of Arabic nations or China, in which there are formal, higher status forms of each language (learned and studied as the standardized system for reading and writing), while many divergent dialectal forms of Arabic and Chinese are also used simultaneously in everyday life. Regional, vernacular forms of Chinese can be so varied and distinct there’s an argument they can’t even be properly understood as dialects of one language, given not all are mutually intelligible. I will argue in this post that diglossia* can also be a useful frame for understanding African American English (AAE) use and its relation to literacy instruction in the United States. Though AAE use in the U.S. is not a specific example of diglossia, there are similarities worth exploring in relation to diglossic contexts and concepts, and the broader challenges that can arise when language varieties interact within a society**.
African American English (AAE)—also termed African American Vernacular English or Black American English—refers to dialectal forms of the English language used within African American communities that are distinct from General American English (GAE) dialects. When you think of GAE, think of the English news anchors speak.
AAE is a rule-governed linguistic system that can, according to linguist John McWhorter (as presented at a 2021 virtual Everyone Reading conference), be considered even more complex than GAE, in the way that Old English is considered more complicated: “it does things in grammar that standard English doesn’t.” Yet some social perceptions of AAE can be one of classist disdain, with an overlay of racism. As linguist George Pullum put it, “The majority of English speakers think that AAVE is just English with two added factors: some special slang terms and a lot of grammatical mistakes.”
A Bold Resolution
In the late 1990s, an “Ebonics” furor erupted when the Oakland school board adopted a strong resolution that suggested that African American students who use AAE as their primary home language, which they termed “‘Ebonics’ (literally Black sounds) or Pan-African Communication Behaviors or African Language Systems,” should have the same formal supports provided as students whose primary home languages are other than English (English language learners or ELLs). Such supports would include a home language identification process, teachers certified to teach students with AAE as a home language, and a matched instructional approach and program.
In the Oakland resolution, “Ebonics” was presented as more than a mere dialect of English, but rather a language of its own, unique to those of African descent who were enslaved and to their descendants.
It was a bold resolution, and it generated a backlash disturbingly similar to the current anti-CRT wave that has resulted in book banning and volatile school board elections and meetings.
Yet if you take a step back from the assertion that AAE is its own language entire, there is a falsifiable hypothesis implicit in that school board resolution: if we provide students who use primarily AAE at home with the instructional supports we would provide to students who speak a language other than English (i.e. ELLs), than we can improve their literacy achievement.
This is an empirically testable hypothesis — and some initial evidence supports it. Why would that be?
ELL & Bidialectal Instructional Supports
Let’s consider the kinds of supports that ELL policies have been developed to enact:
When you support students who speak (or sign) a language that is different than the language of academic instruction in core classrooms, you make adaptations and enhancements to your instructional resources and methods. You learn about some of the unique linguistic features of your students’ home languages. You invite and teach explicit contrasts and comparisons between your students’ home language and the language of instruction. This pedagogical method is called contrastive analysis. You highlight the sounds that are similar and directly teach (with clear articulation) the sounds that are different. You ask students to make connections between newly introduced vocabulary related to a topic or theme to words they already know, both conceptually and in terms of sound or spelling patterns. What other words do you know that look like or sound like this word? You amplify morphological and etymological features that are shared between languages, and those that are unique. You provide direct and explicit instruction on the meaning of new words, along with concrete and plentiful examples, never assuming that any given word is already a part of your students’ lexicon.
And you integrate, continuously, input and production across modalities in the language of instruction, ensuring sufficient and abundant opportunities for hearing and saying the sounds within words, and pairing them to their written forms, reading aloud written sentences and savoring them with echo and choral repetitions, selecting sentences that can then be analyzed as mentors for students’ own similarly patterned sentences. Plurals and verb tenses are enunciated and practiced with key words in varying contexts. Pronouns are explicitly connected to their referents. Conjunctions are studied and utilized to invite and extend complex reasoning and deepen knowledge.
In addition, because it is understood that an ELL is learning the English language simultaneous to the content of core instruction, additional instruction in small groups is either provided for targeted language supports or, even better, students receive paired literacy instruction in their home language within a bilingual program.
Some of the emerging evidence that supports this approach for speakers of AAE:
- Gatlin-Nash, B., Terry, N.P. (2022). Theory-Based Approaches to Language Instruction for Primary School Poor Readers Who Speak Nonmainstream American English. In: Saiegh-Haddad, E., Laks, L., McBride, C. (eds) Handbook of Literacy in Diglossia and in Dialectal Contexts. Literacy Studies, vol 22. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-80072-7_20
- Johnson, L., Terry, N. P., Connor, C. M., & Thomas-Tate, S. (2017). The effects of dialect awareness instruction on nonmainstream American English speakers. Reading and Writing, 30, 2009-2038.
- Fogel, H., & Ehri, L. C. (2000). Teaching elementary students who speak Black English to write in standard English: Effects of dialect transformation practice. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 212–235.
Diglossia & AAE
Let’s return to that idea of diglossia* we started out this post with. The concept—and growing body of related research—is useful as a basis for exploring the idea of linguistic distance between the spoken variations and forms of a language and its written form**.
When there is a greater distance between the forms of a language that are spoken and written, does that make it more challenging and complex for learners to acquire?
In other words, if you speak Cantonese, is it more challenging for you to learn to read and write in standard Chinese, given that it is based on Mandarin?
If you speak a dialect of Arabic that is further from the written form, is it more challenging for you to learn to read and write in Modern Standard Arabic?
If you speak primarily African American English, is it more challenging for you to learn to read and write in General American English?
As cited in the links above, the answers thus far appear to be ‘yes,’ with the caveat that there are many complicating factors well beyond any given features of a language that can make learning to read and write for individual students difficult.
That said, the emerging research certainly bolsters the approach taken by the Oakland school board. The written form of English is more closely matched to GAE, whereas there is a greater distance between AAE and written English. Acknowledging this distance and then providing direct and systematic instruction to bridge it, while building flexible language use and metalinguistic awareness, can be a potentially powerful support for students who speak primarily AAE at home.
Acknowledging differences and challenges around bidialectism does not mean, however, that AAE use should be viewed as a problem. Instead, AAE should be welcomed and affirmed for its unique history, complexity, and vibrant role in African American families and communities, in addition to celebrating its creative influence on U.S. culture.
As with students who are learning English as a new language, for students who speak primarily AAE at home, welcoming and affirming their home language, while providing targeted and sustained supports to classroom language and content, can provide a sense of belonging, while leveraging their linguistic knowledge and resources as a scaffold.
Further Information on AAE or Diglossia
- Teaching Reading to African American Children by Julie Washington and Mark Seidenberg in American Educator
- An Amplify Science of Reading podcast interview with Jasmine Rogers, Celebrating many meanings: Language comprehension and bidialectal students
- Many references cited in this post were drawn from this fascinating Handbook of Literacy in Diglossia and in Dialectal Contexts edited by Elinor Saiegh-Haddad, Lior Laks, and Catherine McBride in Psycholinguistic, Neurolinguistic, and Educational Perspectives
- Talking Black in America, a documentary from The Language & Life Project at NC State University (they also have a video on African American sign language, Signing Black in America)
*Technically, the context in which AAE is used in the U.S. may not be properly termed diglossic, but more accurately, something like a “standard-with-dialects” context—but for the non-technical purposes of this post, I refer to the term diglossia as an interesting global example of how different forms of a spoken and written language can interact and co-exist in some tension.
**Updated 3/5/23 thanks to a critique from Dr. Angus Grieve-Smith that I needed to be clearer and explicit that AAE use within the U.S. is not a specific example of diglossia. In the Handbook of Literacy in Diglossia and in Dialectal Contexts, they term AAE use in the U.S. as an example specifically of “standard-with-dialects,” and they do note that there are specific denotations of diglossia that differ. That said, they also note that “Despite some differences in sociolinguistic features…both diglossia and standard-with-dialects contexts share fundamental aspects of language use, exposure, and input that might exert similar effects on literacy development.”