Non-Standard English and Education According to The Logic of Nonstandard English by William Labov

Categories: Research

In his paper, ‘The logic of Nonstandard English,’ William Labov has used a key term in his analysis, ‘Nonstandard Negro English (NNE)’. As defined by the author, Nonstandard Negro English is basically African American vernacular English which is spoken by adults and children in this argument. In his study, the author attempts to support his original argument of how the youth’s Nonstandard Negro English language is often spoken with intellect and unflawed logic which can be referred to as the formal-functional regularity.

Labov’s research was based mainly on interviews with youngsters and their responses led the author and his team to conclude that the inner-city African-American youth were suffering from a primitive verbal culture and a lack of verbal stimulation. Throughout his methods of analysis, the author examines and debunks on formerly created claims that have been done by linguists or psychologists such as Jensen, Engelmann, Bereiter and Deutsch among others to support his prevailing argument. His primary argument asserts that African-American youth lack their own language and their speech is often illogical and unsound.

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However, this conclusion was conducted with faulty test conditions which made many of the children under the study silent.

Many psychologists believe that children in the ghetto undergo a series of problems because of the verbal deprivation thus they lack knowledge of common names and common concepts. Ghetto according to the author is a city lived by members of the minority and isolated group. According to Labov, verbal deprivation can cause hypothesis of genetic inferiority among the Negro children in which case they would start feeling ashamed by the fact that they are Negros.

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Verbal deprivation is a fact that is well known to most linguists and there exists a huge relation between dialect differences and concept formation. The author explains the theory of verbal deprivation on the fact that many ghetto children attend bad schools thus they often do bad in reading and arithmetic. Most isolated ethnic groups such as Indian, Negro and Mexican-American often do worse. The situation worsens when one attempts to separate an individual from the isolated members since the other members regularly show even worse records. These groups often do badly in school because they lack the most favorable learning factors such as development of cognitive skills through efficient verbal interaction with adults in their growing environments thus they lack in their ability to reason abstractly and speaking fluently.

In this article, Labov emphasized on the need for educators and linguists to understand Non-Standard English variations especially the ‘Negro’ dialect. Like many other scholars who supported bi-dialecticism, Labov argued that teaching non-standard English speakers, the recognized Standard English would enable them to become a more upward mobile people in the society. According to him, having more knowledge varieties of non-standard English would make it easy to teach the appropriate ‘standard’ English. He discouraged scholars from considering the non-standard Negro dialect as a self-contained language system and not Standard English. This is because, according to him, a thorough examination of the rules and grammatical processes of both the ‘standard’ English and Negro dialect shows that they are closely related. However, although the different dialects have varying versions of grammatical rules, understanding the nonstandard Negro dialect in the context of Standard English is better for the scholar.

The author continues to explain that a teacher’s attempt to teach the African American scholar Standard English by precept is often received with an inexplicable resistance to understanding the Standard rules of English. Even after many English lessons, the learner is more likely to construct non-standard sentences such as ‘I am in love with nobody’ by mixing pretense and past tense. According to Basil Bernstein writings, negro children lack a language of their own thus may psychologists often pay more attention to the working class language behavior thus the middle class language is inferior in almost every aspect.

This conclusion was drawn from the Carl Berieter’s reports that revealed that 4 year old negro children communicated by single worded sentences such as ‘me got money’ and ‘they mine’ thus they couldn’t construct complete statements. The trainer thus decided to treat the learners as if they didn’t have a language at all. In the interview that Bereiter’s held with the Negro boy, the child experienced a difficult situation wherein anything that he said could be held against him. Thus he worked very hard in the interview to prove his points. This however cannot be concluded as a measure of the child’s verbal capacity considering he has had many other interviews on the child’s capacity. Nevertheless, his lack of fluent communication explains the poor records of performance in school. The second interview, the Negro child doesn’t give any response to the interviewer when he is asked about the fight he was in. However, when the interviewer who is a Negro man(he has grown in a similar environment with the boy) changes the settings of the interview by making the child feel comfortable, the kid shows more response, reacts actively and shows no difficulty in standard English language. Thus, a child’s social situation is a powerful determinant of verbal behavior and to unveil a child’s potential, one must enter in the right situation with the child to achieve the highest degree of verbosity.

In conclusion, Laboc insists that, children from ghetto should learn more verbal skills such as the ability to explain various meaning of words, spelling precisely, and handling abstract symbols to have a wider knowledge of vocabulary. The speech community reveals that the working class speakers are more effective debaters and debaters than the middle class who often qualify but lose their arguments in a corpus of irrelevant details. From the interview conducted by John Lewis on Charles M. and on Larry, we see that middle class language is not best suited for handling hypothetical questions and logically abstract and complex questions. This situation helps to explain that since the interviewers are often unaware of the interpretation problem, it is best for one to understand an individual’s verbal capabilities by studying the cultural context in which they have grown and developed. As Labov states, a teacher should understand the students’ cultural context in regards to their neighborhoods, where they grew up and how they are like. This will help improve the learners’ ability to articulate by integrating non-standard Negro dialect with Standard English. This is because; Standard English is mainly represented by style which is often vague and over particular. Verbosity on the other hand is easily learnt and easily taught, thus words can take the place of thought.

Works cited

  1. Labov, W. (1972). The logic of nonstandard English. In Language and poverty (pp. 153-199). University of Georgia Press.
  2. Green, L. (2002). African American English: A linguistic introduction. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Rickford, J. R. (1999). African American vernacular English: Features, evolution, educational implications. Blackwell Publishers.
  4. Wolfram, W. (1994). Language ideology and dialect: Understanding the Oakland Ebonics controversy. Journal of English Linguistics, 22(4), 333-343.
  5. Smitherman, G. (1977). Talkin and testifyin: Black English and the black experience. Wayne State University Press.
  6. Baugh, J. (1999). Out of the mouths of slaves: African American language and educational malpractice. University of Texas Press.
  7. Perry, T. (2008). Teaching Shakespeare in a ghetto school: One teacher's journey. University of Chicago Press.
  8. Wallace, D. (1994). Race and schools: The need for action. Routledge.
  9. Fishman, J. A. (1991). Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Multilingual Matters.
  10. Davis, A. (2016). A tale of two school districts: An analysis of the Oakland Ebonics controversy. Language and Education, 30(3), 202-216.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Non-Standard English and Education According to The Logic of Nonstandard English by William Labov. (2024, Feb 07). Retrieved from

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