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Reviewed by:
  • Language and the African American child
  • J. Michael Terry
Language and the African American child. By Lisa J. Green. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 288. ISBN 9780521618175. $32.99.

Lisa J. Green's Language and the African American child (LAAC) offers its readers a fascinating look at the acquisition of African American English (AAE) by three- to five-year-old children growing up in southwestern Louisiana. Filled with G's insightful analysis of both spontaneous speech samples and the results of structured elicitation tasks, it is an impressive book that aims to reach a remarkably broad audience. G is clear that she wants LAAC to be read by linguists of various kinds but also by teachers, speech language pathologists, and a variety of early childhood specialists (xxi). And it should be; for while it is not a book about the current black-white achievement gap or the role that language might play in explaining it, such issues—of concern to members of most, if not all, of the aforementioned groups—loom large, although unobtrusively, in the background. G's desire to ultimately affect such issues is demonstrated quite clearly in the book's final chapter (Ch. 8), which she titles 'The D.I.R.E.C.T. model: Linking linguistic description and education'. After making good on what she states to be her primary goals of addressing a number of current questions about child AAE and highlighting new issues for future research (13), G uses this concluding chapter to show how the kind of linguistic descriptions developed in the book can be brought to areas of education. This turn toward practical application makes LAAC not only an interesting read, but, should it be used the way G intends, a potentially very important book as well.

Broad in coverage as well as in intended audience, LAAC examines African American children's acquisition of the AAE tense and aspect system (Chs. 3 and 4), its most characteristic patterns of negation (Ch. 5), and its auxiliary system as that system relates to question formation (Ch. 6). G presents the reader with a big-picture view of AAE and its development, throughout the book stressing the importance of thinking of the dialect not simply in terms of isolated features, but in terms of patterns and systems like those just listed. Another theme carried throughout is the need, especially in the context of acquisition studies, to recognize AAE itself not as just a system (one made up of many subsystems), but as a 'variable system', one in which many of its most recognizable patterns may be speaker options and not requirements (7). To use one of G's examples, both Sue's playing ball today (with the contracted copula) and Sue playing ball today (without the copula) are sentences that could easily be uttered by an AAE speaker. As the first is grammatical in Mainstream American English (MAE), a dialect with which nearly all AAE speakers have at least some familiarity, G asks whether the AAE speaker who uses such a sentence is code-shifting, that is, temporarily adopting an MAE structure, or simply exercising a choice within an AAE system that offers both sentence structures as options (7). Consideration of these two types of variation and their teasing apart in the context of language acquisition is also given its own chapter (Ch. 7).

Because G is not talking to a group of like-minded scholars who share a single set of starting assumptions or even the same ground rules for some well-defined debate, LAAC's two introductory chapters must bear a significant weight in establishing common ground and direction for the book's diverse readers. Ch. 2, 'Characterizing AAE: Feature lists, dual components, and patterns and systems', does most of this heavy lifting. Deceptively compact, this chapter introduces exactly the kind of discussion a diverse group of scholars and professionals should engage in before embarking on an exploration of child AAE and its development. Beginning with the discussion-focusing [End Page 423] question 'What is AAE?', it firmly establishes G's 'patterns and systems approach' to characterizing the variety, the crux of which is a move away from examining AAE...


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pp. 423-425
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