The University Record, January 28, 2002

Zentella looks at issues of language

By Dana Ondrei Fair
News and Information Services

Discussing the relationships between Latinos and Blacks, Ethnic Studies Prof. Ana Celia Zentella, University of California-San Diego, spoke Jan. 18 at East Hall before an audience of 100 students, faculty and guests. The program, “Spanish and English in Black and White: Latino and African American Language Issues,” was sponsored by the departments of linguistics and romance languages, anthropology, Latino studies and the Program in American Culture.

Zentella describes her work as “anthropolitical linguistics”—there is always a way to make a political difference while also making a scholarly impact. Through her academic experience, she understands the conversational difficulties between Blacks and whites, which are exacerbated because the dialogues generally ignore cross-race issues, such as those of Latinos and Blacks. She points out that both ethnic groups deal with the same basic issues—prejudice, racial profiling and stereotyping.

Many Latinos, however, were incensed by the recent national census, Zentella stated, because the language used by the Census Bureau and the media implied that the Latinos’ numeric population increase over Blacks was immenent and at Blacks’ expense. This is potentially divisive given that Blacks and Latinos are very connected and tend to react on the same level in terms of societal issues, she said.

Drawing on her experience as professor of Black and Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College in New York, her affiliation with City University of New York, and her 1997 book, “Growing Up Bilingual,” Zentella said language can bring people together or it can separate them, and that cultures need not be linked by skin color.

Having studied the language and dialects of Latinos and Blacks living in inner city New York, Zentella asked several provocative questions: Should we respect those who say “aks” instead of “ask,” or “mines” instead of “mine”? Is Ebonics a language or a dialect?

She answered that we need be able to examine people’s language without looking at their lives. Society can be offensive by mocking the ways in which certain groups speak, she said, citing common expressions that incorporate stereotypically Latino and Black expressions. The term “non-standard English” isn’t a reference to the dialects of the white working class, but to ethnic-based speech.

Zentella, exemplifying this notion, relayed the experience of a West Coast, Latino student leader, who sent a hurried e-mail to the school’s student newspaper in response to something the publication had printed. In the fervor of the moment, the student leader inadvertently had forgotten to proofread the document. Instead of addressing the issues, the paper, in response, printed the student’s unedited e-mail message alongside an editorial response—one version in standard English and a “translation” in ethnic dialect—attacking the student’s credibility and suggesting that his college admission was affirmative action-based.

An impassioned Zentella shared how, in preparation for her presentation, she reread several of Martin Luther King’s speeches and was particularly moved by his commitment to “keep on keeping on.”

At the end of the program, Zentella encouraged the group to see Dr. King’s image of children linked arm in arm as opposed to the terrorists’ vision.