Black English and Chinese

14 Dec 2008

I was helping a Chinese friend with her English, and was very interested to read the following dialogue in her book. (I have preserved the grammar and punctuation of the original, but I didn’t feel like writing “[sic]” everywhere.)

The dialogue:

> A: Your English is not like American English.

> B: Oh, I see. What I speak is true American English, but it is not standard American English.

> A: What kind of English is it?

> B: It is Black English.

> A: What is Black English?

> B: Black English is as perfect as Standard American English, and in sounds it is equally distinctive.

> A: Can you tell me the difference between Black English and Standard American English?

> B: Black English is similar to Chinese in a way.

> A: Is it like Chinese?

> B: Yes. For example, a Chinese said, “我有5分钱”, there is no -s behind “钱”; an English or an American said, “I have five cents.” After “cent” there is -s; the Black English is “I have five cent”, no -s after “cent”. Another example, a Chinese said, “花红”, an American said, “the flower is red”, but the Black English is “The flower red”.

> A: Oh, I see.

The textbook is called 衣食住行生活英语900句. If I remember correctly, this was Dialogue 1 of five in a chapter called “Learning a Language.”

What a bizarre topic to cover in a book supposedly focused on “useful English.” You only have so much content you can cover in the book, and only a small fraction of that is devoted to talking about language, but you kick off the chapter with a discussion of (morpho-)syntactic similarities between AAVE and Mandarin Chinese??

I’m well beyond being outraged about inferior English textbooks, though. In this case, I have to admit that it’s kind of cool from a cultural standpoint. I’d imagine that the average Chinese person is seldom exposed to such egalitarian linguistic concepts.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. These are the kinds of things you automatically, well it was for me at least, realise when you start to learn a non-English language. Once I got the idea that in Chinese there are no plural changes, no tense changes, I suddenly realised why all the Chinese people (with English as a second language) I know speak the way they do. “That 10 dollar..” or “I eat this before..” etc.. Hard to think of any proper examples off the top of my head but I found it quite an eye-opener.

    This is another reason why learning other languages, especially those that a native to the people around you, is so important. You begin to understand why they do things a certain way, how hard it must be for them to live in an English society and so on.

    It’s a fascinating topic but I agree that it is a bit weird to be in book like that, especially at the beginning. May be the intent was to lift the burden of being “perfect” from the learner…

  2. I think someone needs to write an Ebonics textbook for China and market it as standard English.

  3. How politically incorrect would that book be in the US? or would it be? Hmm.. I don’t know which way the pendulum would swing.

    So from a linguistic standpoint, ‘Black English’ is correct? and/or viable? I’ve always considered it slang and/or bad grammar, etc.. While I may understand it and can speak it, I wouldn’t consider it correct or a language like English, Chinese, French, etc.. Lastly, how would you differentiate ‘Black English’ from say ‘Black Slang’ or ‘Slang’ in general?

  4. light487 said:

    “This is another reason why learning other languages, especially those that a native to the people around you, is so important.”

    i found it hard to understand this sentence from your post, did you mean “…that are native…”?

    at Lin

    I think that Black English is viable. The best example is that movie, I think it was Airplane!, with Leslie Nielsen. There were two black guys chatting in their slang with subtitles in American Standard English.
    I can say that Black English is viable, is possible even, because something similar happened in Brazil. Here Brazilian standard vernacular that most people speak, from the president to his driver, is the very similar to black slang of Rio de Janeiro one hundred years ago. It just takes some time.

    Perhaps black slang will not be so influential as it was in Brazil, because there’s much more white people in the US, and colonization there began one hundred years later, so you’re a little behind.

    I think that Black English and Black Slang are perfect synonyms. You couldn’t call Gullah an English language, as it is not mutually intelligible with standard American English (white English?), so it could not be Black English.

  5. Yes. Black English Vernacular (BEV) is a recognized by linguist as its own dialect with working grammar and syntax. Well, at least according to my cultural anthropology textbook.

    Calling it bad English would be like calling Sichuanese bad Mandarin, at least for me.

    I remember I would sometimes speak in Ebonics for fun in China, just to see how the staff at our English school would react to it. Growing up in the ghetto of our town really trained my ears to it (plus being a fan of Eminem in high school helped out). They find it completely inconprehensible.

  6. Erick,

    how did you make it to China after growing up in the ghetto?:-)

  7. That’s pretty cool, actually, though I’m not convinced by its claims re AAVE — sure, “is” can be dropped from “the flower [is] red,” but there are still plenty of instances of “be” turning up, especially in habitual situations. (“He always be…” etc.) Interestingly, you get this thing a lot in Irish English too.

  8. 维特利,

    Well, Asian culture and ghetto culture have some joining points. I mean, there was the Wu Tang clan, right? 😉

  9. Great blog post. My entire life I’ve been monolingual, and I’m just now learning Chinese at the age of 23. English grammar and sentence construction has always fascinated me and like Erick, I’ve listened to rap for quite a while, and it’s incredible how incomprehensible “ghetto” grammar can be. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard sentence construction similar to “the flower red,” but it doesn’t seem like a particularly egregious mutilation of English.

    So here’s a question that I’ve never considered before, how prevalent are styles of Chinese that are similarly incomprehensible as “ghetto” English? It’s terrifying to think that learning Mandarin will only give me a vague introduction to those less formal speech patterns! Arg, so much to learn!

  10. I didn’t study linguistics at uni but I did study sociology.. And the general rule is, if it works for you then it is the right way to do it for you. In this case, even if it wasn’t a linguistically accept dialect of English.. It would still be a “right” language as long the communication barrier was being bridged.

    Yup yup.. I did mean “are”.. As in, it’s a good idea to learn the native languages of the people that you come into contact with on a daily basis. So even if Australia’s official language is British English, it helps to know where other people are coming from with their language because it brings everyone closer together.

  11. 谁会买“中国宇航出版社”出版的书? !!
    maybe you need to help her to find a right English book. which would actually help a lot .
    in book market, 是鱼龙混杂的。
    I’ve encountered the same thing when I look through Chinese textbooks (or dictionaries) that my foreign students got from their own countries. I can easily find out some mistakes .
    it’s always good to have a native speaker around when you learn that language.

  12. I remember taking a class a couple years ago that used a book with a similar title, the 900 phrases were just in Chinese. I don’t remember how much I learned from the class, but I remember being struck by how useless most of the dialogue seemed. I haven’t heard Obama speaking this black English yet, but I’d hate to see a student’s grade after he decided to use it to write a thesis.

    • Obama is not African-American in the sense of being descended from former slaves so why would he speak “Black English”? His father was from Kenya and he was not brought up in a place where he would have been exposed to African-American influenced language like anyone living in the southern states like Louisiana or Mississippi would be. See past the skin-colour, the issue is more complex.

  13. AAEV is more than just slang, and it is in some ways more complex than Standard American English. For example:

    African American Vernacular English Aspect Marking

  14. Don’t feel bad for not knowing much about African American Vernacular English, but if you want to know more about it, please do click the “Black English” link linked to in the entry (the above commenter linked to a different part of the same article), or the (much briefer) LanguageHat article (linked to at the end of the entry). Both present good informed views on the issue.

  15. Good to see america has been able to export the concept of dummying down language in the name of political correctness to China.

  16. @Chip: …and I’m not surprised to see that ignorance and close-mindedness are alive and well too.

  17. Tell ’em John.

    Certainly a subject worth studying more of, especially for someone who claims to know something about teaching English. But I have enough of a time understanding Aussies. Leads one to respect the Chinese that can master several dialects.

    Love bento’s comment about Airplane. Just watched that movie again for the first time in more than 15 years. I’m constantly telling students in China that they’re learning ‘book English’ (not even Standard English) and that while others should be able understand them wherever they travel, they often won’t be able to comprehend the local variety of the language.

  18. This has nothing to do with ignorance, and everything to do with political correctness. I know very well the explanation behind AAVE, and the fact remains that it is just apologetics for a slang “language” that only continues to exist because of well-meaning but misplaced efforts to preserve a language that derives from economic disparities and a lack of access to education, problems that if addressed and solved would inturn eliminate said “language”. If what I say is wrong, why does much of the criticism of AAVE come from within the African American community itself?

  19. Remember, slang refers to syntax — words we use. AAVE is a dialect (or, better perhaps, a variety) of English not because of words like “yo” or whatever, but because it has a unique grammar, pronunciation, etc., and is rule-governed. Surely many African Americans criticize AAVE, just as many Singaporeans (and the Singapore gov’t) criticize Singlish, and, as others have pointed out, many Chinese have a self-deprecating attitude about their dialects compared to Putonghua. These opinions are all valid, but of course, but they don’t change the fact that each of these varieties are real languages that people use to communicate.

  20. @Brendan

    I got the same idea. I could be wrong, but I think that what AAVE has is copula-dropping — there’s a copula in the deep structure but it gets lost in the surface form. In Chinese, there is no copula in the first place because the adjective is itself a stative verb. Though I think Chinese can have copula drop, too ( in (是)。。。的 constructions).

    But I’m not a linguist 😛


    I believe you have your causality mixed up. It’s not poor education that causes the dialect. Rather, the dialect is considered an uneducated or low variant because the demographic that speaks it is less powerful and less educated than the mainstream. If inner-city blacks were to rise up and overthrow mainstream Anglo-American culture, than AAVE could possibly gain a lot more prestige.

    As far as whether to call it a “language”, I would suspect most of the people studying it would say it falls into the fuzzy area between “different Anglic language” and “another dialect of English”. The language/dialect distinction itself isn’t always clear and many times has more to do with politics than evidence.

  21. Language is not static. It is continuously changing over time. Some of the contributors to these changes are the introduction of new cultures and the separation of groups of people from the mainstream. It is no wonder that innercity populations have developed their own dialects. They are both isolated (or should I say segregated) from mainstream America in many ways and also often cosmopolitan locations where immigrants relocate from various places in the world. In isolation, groups develop unique accents (Bostonians for example), spellings, syntax and grammar…American English vs. British English developed partly from a lot of “mistakes” that became standard in the isolation of the United States and also largely from the introduction of words and concepts from other cultures.

    And we are always incorporating new words to our language…The term Gung Ho, for example, is an import from China (though it no longer has the same meaning in English as it did in Chinese…work together). I agree that the distinction between slang and dialect seems to have little meaning in practice since it is clear that the type of English being discussed is responsible for effective communication and therefore doing its job.

    Black English is one of those stupid phrases that gets my blood to boiling. Since there is no such thing as race (scientifically speaking anyway…you can conjure up whatever fantastical concepts you like) then are no “Black” people and there is no Black English, unless you are referring to Prince Charles in a morose or ‘black’ mood. The assumption of this term is that the language has a connection to ones “race” or ethnicity. I, of course, do not speak this kind of English because I didn’t grow up in the inner city. If I did speak this way then no one in my family or hometown would understand me (and they would think I’d lost my mind). So, the connection is indeed to where people grew up, who they associate with, and what cultures they have been exposed to…Grammatical transformation is partly due to cultural exchange involving people from as diverse locations as Puerto Rico, Italy, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Portugal, among other places. When people immigrate to the American inner city, they bring their languages with them and contribute to the development of a regional/socioeconomic dialect.

    I found the comparison of this inner city dialect to Chinese to be absolutely fascinating but if I understood correctly then you found it in an English language textbook and that sounds like an odd place for it to be. Surely English students do not need to hear about any particular dialect of English before studying anything else about the language?

  22. @Moi

    You have some good ideas, but I have to nitpick at a couple of points about your rant.

    One, while it’s very true that currently extant humans cannot be divided genetically into “races” (we’re all just too closely related), the social concept of race is a powerful one. In a way, you can think of a racial group as a sort of ethnic group. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exactly break down along ethnic lines, blacks can include native Africans as well as slave decedents in the US who are very divorced from their ancestral culture. And there are additional issues in that different cultures have different racial categories (tell an Argentine something about the “Hispanic race” and you’ll have an argument on your hands).

    Also, there has been for some time some good evidence that the dialect of inner city blacks does have an origin as a slave pidgin, using a substrate of various East African languages while deriving lexical items from English. That’s not intended to mean white people couldn’t learn it. A Chinese baby could pick it up as a native language if raised in the right environment. It’s called Black English (or Ebonics, or African American Vernacular English), because it appears to have originated with African slaves and (AIUI) the majority of native speakers are black.

    As far as the textbook, I notice that really the writing is very standard and I can’t see any AAVE traits beyond the examples (then again, I don’t have much exposure to AAVE). In any case, I agree that nonnative speakers should learn the more standard variant first, just for social acceptance in the target culture. But it’s certainly good to instill some ideas of linguistic plurality, especially in a culture caught up in the hierarchy of their own language (It annoys me every time a Chinese rates there own dialect based on how close it is to putonghua. Granted, it also annoys me when perfectly competent native English speakers joke that their “English isn’t good”, but seems to be not as common and also tends to be more sarcastic than what I hear from Chinese friends.)

  23. Chinese people don’t even need to worry about all these differences in english the same reason foreigners don’t need to worry about learning local dialects. It’s too time consuming, confusing and only targets a small group of people for all the effort. If you werent born there don’t worry about the local speech, the same as new yorkers don’t worry about changing their talk when they go down south. Standard textbook english for chinese people is fine.

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