Researcher Aims to Teach Teachers About African American Language, and Liberate Student Writers
Speakers of African American Language (AAL) are often made to doubt the value of the way they learned to speak and write. College of Education Assistant Professor Shenika Hankerson (below) works to help students gain respect for the unique structure and history the language while gaining fluency in writing in academic English, and to influence teachers not to impose dominant English varieties to the exclusion of AAL.
While a master’s student at Eastern Michigan University, Shenika Hankerson was asked to fix her writing errors and turn an assignment back in. The only problem was, what errors?
She couldn’t see them, and when she showed the paper to family members, they couldn’t either. It was almost as if she and the instructor were communicating in different languages—and today, the assistant professor in the College of Education’s Applied Linguistics and Language Education program knows that in fact, they were.
Rather than turning her off to higher education, or causing her to meekly endeavor to stamp out whatever offended the instructor, the incident helped spark Hankerson’s research career, which today explores how writing is taught to African American Language (AAL) speakers in universities and community colleges, and studying whether antiracist approaches can inspire learning.
At the core of her work is the conviction, based on decades of scholarship in the field, that Black students have a right to their mother tongue. What Hankerson calls AAL, also known as Black English or Ebonics, has structural features that reach back centuries to the languages of enslaved Africans shipped to North America. An estimated 80% to 90% of African Americans at times use some form of the language, she says, which like all languages evolved—and continues to develop—to suit users’ needs.
And yet her experience, and that of countless other Black students, pushes the conclusion on them that there’s something faulty about their language.
“It’s not an error, it’s a language,” she said. “If we’re going to have inclusive, democratic and socially just classrooms, educators must make an effort to educate themselves on what AAL is … and then it is important for them to integrate racial and linguistic equity as a core mission in their curriculum.”
What does such a curriculum look like? Fundamentally, it’s inclusive, she says, allowing students to stretch their writing wings and express themselves using their own language, while using academic language as well to help students work effectively in the classroom.
Hankerson also is the principal investigator and director of Project RISE (Research Institute for Scholars in Education), which provides underrepresented undergrads from local universities with a year of paid research and career development training in education. Such work is vital at the University of Maryland, which is set in an African American-majority county, said Jeff MacSwan, professor and head of the Applied Linguistics and Language Education program.
“It’s the university’s job to relate to and serve the community in which it’s situated,” he said. “Students often internalize the racism directed against them, and what Shenika is doing helps them work through that by developing respect around their own language, which itself is subject to racism.”
Students don’t necessarily have to flip a switch between their own language and someone else’s, Hankerson said. By becoming proficient in “code meshing,” AAL speakers can introduce elements of their language across language barriers, enriching the English language in general while ensuring mutual comprehension.
“We’re working on equity, which means honoring every language, including AAL,” she said.
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