Communicative Competence and Style

In an area characterized by much controversy and, at times, contentiousness, the teaching of the so-called "disadvantaged"-Kochman's perspicacious comments and his studies on the ethnography of communication in the Black inner-city are to be welcomed and studied carefully. In a recent essay (Kochman, 1969) on "Black English in the Classroom," he discusses the issue which I considered at the end of the previous section on individual differences in communicative competence and arrives at conclusions which are congruent with those I have outlined. In particular, he indicts the educational system in the United States for remaining blind to the cross-cultural implications of the differences in life-style between American Blacks of urban centers and middle-class Whites, and for assuming that the Black life-style (including the language) is somehow inferior, in the absolute sense for some, and in the relative sense for others (i.e., less capable of meeting the conceptual demands of socio-economic and technological achievements). As a result of this attitude (prejudice), Black children are forced to be educated in a setting (school and language of instruction) which is not only foreign and unacceptable (cf. the 80% High School drop-out rate) but inimical and destructive of their own sub-culture, life-style, language, and psychological well-being (self-respect, group identity).

Leaving aside here the question of racial prejudice, there remains an issue that is centrally related to our discussion of communicative competence: how to educate the culturally different from the perspective of the culture of the White middle-class majority in whose hands lies the educational system in this country. Kochman's analysis suggests that the problem is one of teaching Black children new styles of communicative interaction, or rather, of developing the full potential of their own communicative competence within their life-style and language. The White middle-class child, upon entering the, school system, already possesses the varieties of speech in, which he is to be educated, in which new conceptualizations are being taught, and in which he can make progress by developing more complex syntactic manipulations, Which then serve the basis for attaining still higher and more complex conceptualizations. It is the basis of a sound and healthy process of an upward spiral.

In contrast, the Black child is not given the opportunity of building on what he already possesses upon entering school. Instead of receiving training for "elaborated" speech (see Bernstein, 1964) within Black English, he is presented with the problem of acquiring new syntactic forms appropriate to Standard English which amounts to not only diverting his energies at a crucial time in learning but actively subverts his chances for developing the more complex conceptualizations which is the true purpose of education. Kochman refers to this as "educational malpractice" and shows that it stems from the misguided and erroneous assumption that Black English represents a "code" or linguistic system that is unsuitable for academic-type thinking ("intellectualizing"). As I pointed out at the end of the discussion in the previous section, this is the strong version of the Whorfian hypothesis and is quite implausible.

On the other hand, the weaker claim as regards the relation between language and conceptualization is more nearly plausible, which is to say in this context, that the communicative competence of Black English speakers upon entering school is likely to have a different pattern of attained facility than that of the White middle-class child. It is likely to be superior in the interpersonal communicative functions involved in the verbal art of "rapping" (expressive styles) and inferior in the informational styles characteristic of formal and written English. The problem, then, clearly becomes one of developing their communicative competence in Black English for functions having to do with information transmission and manipulation as required for learning new modes of conceptualizing and handling "scientific" knowledge. Essentially, this becomes a task of getting the child to learn how to make certain types of inferences along the three levels of meanings that I have proposed (linguistic, implicit, and implicative).

At the linguistic level, the six-year old child does not have the same ability for complex syntactic manipulations as the adult. I know of no comparative studies of this sort for Black English speakers but there is no doubt in my mind that what holds for the child using Standard English (see Hunt, 1965) also holds for the child using Black English. Thus, composition classes in Black English would have to teach facility in sentence combining transformations particularly of the sort involving free modifiers in the final position that is characteristic of a "mature style" in Standard English (see Christensen, 1968).19

At the implicit and implicative levels, a child whose orientation throughout the pre-school period has been towards the expressive function of language, and furthermore, since this same orientation continues later to be the dominant one outside the school-as is true in the Black inner city-needs practice in inferential reasoning in communicative contexts where the self is not the focus. One should not expect automatic transfer effects in inferential reasoning from one communicative context to another. The facility for logical inferences is context sensitive. For instance, the following "Black Power" children's rhymes contain an "if. . . then . . ." logical relation easily understood by a first grader;

If you like black You have a Cadillac.

If you like white You're looking for a fight.
(quoted in Kochman, 1969, p. 68)

But there is no guarantee that this same child would understand the "if. . .then . . ."relation contained in the following example:

If the four sides are equal, the figure is a square.

There are at least two reasons that can be given for this lack of reciprocality. One has to do with the content of the utterances involved and the implicit inferences required to derive their meaning. Thus, the relation between "liking white" and "looking for a fight" assumes causality by virtue of the .special relation that exists between the inhabitants of the Black ghetto and "Whitey" on the outside-facts with which the first grader is intimately familiar. On the other hand, the "if. . .then . . ." relation between the equality of the four sides of a figure and its being a square presupposes familiarity with concepts peculiar to geometric figures (sidedness, angularity, and the relation between the two)-facts with which he may not be familiar. The second possible reason for the asymmetrical relation between the two sets of "if . . . then . . ." relations has to do with the fact that in the geometry context, the full logical inference is of the sort "if. . . and only if," whereas this condition is not true in the case of "if... [like white] ... then . . . [looking for a fight] . . ." Note that the problem is not a linguistic one, nor can it be attributed to the complexity of the logical operations in the two cases. It is simply a case of a difference in the logical or inferential operation involved.

In addition to logical differences of this sort, there are differences that relate to the culture of the Black child vis-a-vis the culture that the school represents and which it tries to transmit. Kochman tells the story of an African colleague of his who said that "a person reading a speech to an African audience as opposed to delivering it extemporaneously would provoke the response, 'Well, he's not very intelligent"' (1969, p. 73). The Black inner-city child must learn not only the particular logic of the written formal style but also the value of the written form of communication itself, a value which the middle-class first grader has already incorporated.

It is clear that an effective program for the development of communicative competence must rest on knowledge to be derived from ethnographic studies of communication that reveal the differences between the culture of the child and the culture that the school system is designed to transmit.

19. It is by no means certain that the underlying characteristics of a "mature" effective style should be the same in Black and standard English, although this is not an unreasonable hypothesis. A definitive answer must await linguistic analyses of the speech of effective Black English speakers.

Communicative Competence and Style

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