Study Examines Neighborhood Effects on Language of African-American Youth

A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates the effect of neighborhood poverty on the use of African-American Vernacular English by low-income minority youth.

African-American Vernacular English, a systematic dialect spoken by some African-Americans and commonly known as Ebonics, is rooted in history and an important identity marker and expressive resource for its speakers. However, like other vernaculars including Appalachian English, African-American Vernacular English can trigger discrimination in the workplace, housing market, and schools.

“Understanding what shapes the use of African-American Vernacular English versus standard American English is important for policy and scientific reasons,” said applied economist Lisa Gennetian, a researcher with NYU’s Institute for Human  Development and Social Change.

Researchers studied data from 629 African-American youth in a randomized residential mobility experiment called Moving to Opportunity, which enrolled mostly minority families living in distressed public housing. Audio recordings of the youth were collected and transcribed for use of grammatical and phonological features of African-American Vernacular English.

The researchers found that youth who moved with their families from public housing into lower poverty neighborhoods had less frequent use of African-American Vernacular English.  The estimates suggest that such neighborhood effects on speech could increase lifetime earnings by up to $18,000.

“Rising residential economic segregation may be contributing to growing differences in African-American Vernacular English use, which has benefits to in-group solidarity and identity but is associated with discrimination in schools and workplaces, and therefore may further exacerbate the disadvantages of youth growing up in high-poverty areas,” Gennetian said.

In addition to Gennetian, the study was conducted by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, UC Irvine, University of Chicago, the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the Congressional Budget Office.

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