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Promoting Diversity Through Language:

Fo' Sheazy This Scholarly Endeavor is Off the Hizzle!
By Craig Harrison DTM, PDG
Diversity PEG Member of NSA

Published in the May, 2002
edition of
Diversity PEG Newsletter

Since the Tower of Babel, language has been used to divide, isolate and marginalize populations. Yet from a city known both for free and politically correct speech, comes a story of the use of language to build community and honor ethnic and cultural roots. Word!

Last year students in a Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) English class at Berkeley High School in California created a Slang Dictionary to validate the language they use daily to communicate their reality. What started as one of many creative class projects of Instructor Rick Ayers, "blew up" in the words of student Daniel Silber-Baker, as adults nationwide began buying copies and media coverage came from CNN, NPR and national teen magazines.

ESL: English as a Student's Language

Ayers created this project as part of a language and linguistics unit that saw students writing a story in their own everyday vernacular before translating it into "standard" English. Students also studied language, discourse communities and word origins, and read books on American Youth Slang.

Ayers let students use the language they were good at to give them confidence in their own abilities to express themselves. He also recognized his students' facility in code switching, which youth do naturally. "I wanted to honor the discourse of the kids. They're often regarded as a bag of deficits. I tell them 'you're the leaders.' "

Diversity High

Berkeley High School is the only public high school in this university town. Their student body of almost 3,200 is as diverse as many universities: 32% White, 31% African American, 10% Latino, 8% Asian with the remainder of the student body including American Indians and Alaskan natives, Filipinos, and those of multi-racial heritage[1].

Students Sling Slang...Many Words Heard

Forty CAS Students scoured their campus, eavesdropping on conversations, writing down the slang they heard. Each student contributed five words. They then researched the origins of their findings. The result, a slang dictionary to momentarily freeze their ever-changing spoken language.


"Hip" Pocket Dictionary

The 17-page Slang Dictionary contains several hundred words. Each entry lists a word, its pronunciation, a definition and a sample sentence. The dictionary's content represents the diversity of its student body. Words have African American, Chicano, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Rastafarian or Yiddish origins. Many relate to topics of interest to youth: fashion, relationships, marijuana and the police.

Pride and respect are two prominent themes in the dictionary. Words for one's friends, lovers and groups proliferate:

He's my homey

Sit with my

I'm with my peeps

Hang out with our cliqua

What's Up Cuz?

You're my main nizzel

These are phrases of endearment, expressing solidarity and affinity between classmates.

Students I spoke with cited the sense of community their project created. Learning the roots of their shared language was illuminating. Said senior Darryl Perkins: "Sometimes you think that it's just you or your friends that have their own slang when in fact a lot of other people and cultures have their own slang."

Familiarity Breeds Respect

For Silber-Baker, whose Jewish roots exposed him to bits of Yiddish at home, the project opened his ears. "There were a lot of words from Latin culture I wasn't aware of and was interested to find out about. And then I'd hear them after I saw them (in their dictionary). My ear would pick up on them. Once I learned them I began hearing them all around."

For classmate Portia Boni the project helped her connect with others. "It binds the younger community a lot. They separate us so much at school…but I can communicate with anyone at this school by knowing words that they can relate to. There's a difference between trying to use the word that someone else might use, and actually being comfortable in the slang." Portia feels language bridges gaps: "Someone could look at me and have a certain perception of me but if I actually spoke to them they would probably feel a lot more comfortable being next to me.

Generation Gaffes

Student Darryl Perkins, whose father also went to Berkeley High, received some home schoolin': "Some of the words were used by my father who said 'you're not saying that right' or 'we used to say that.' As this author found out, old words have new meanings. Balling went from crying to having sex to playing saucy basketball.

And adults not only listened to what youth had to say, but how they said it as well. Said David Woodard, "It was cool to explain what it was to (adults), and to see their responses…Oh wow, let me get this." Added Silber-Baker: "This is the language teachers and parents have been telling us not to speak for so long; as soon as they can understand it they want more!"

Overall, the project helped students appreciate their own language and aided adults in understanding young people of many cultures on their own terms. Props to Mr. Ayers and his Crew for helping voice their vision and values!

To purchase your copy of the Slang Dictionary
for $5 e-mail Rick Ayers at rickilene@igc.org.

[1] Source: The California Department of Education's California Basic Educational Data System (CBEDS) data from October, 2000.

© Copyright 2002-05 Craig Harrison. All Rights Reserved.

Craig Harrison, who graduated Berkeley High School in 1978, thought he was old school. He learned that, while he's down with the youth of today, in their eyes he's hella old.

Today Craig Harrison is a professional speaker, corporate trainer and 2004-05 president of the National Speakers Association — Northern California chapter. Visit www.ExpressionsOfExcellence.com for additional tools for communication and leadership.

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