May 3, 2005 Features

Difference or Deficit in Speakers of African American English?

What Every Clinician Should Know…and Do

What would you do if your client spoke a dialect and you were asked to evaluate him and determine if his pattern of speech was indicative of a language disorder?

One of the most important tasks of a clinician-and a continuing challenge-is determining when a true language disorder versus a language difference due to cultural linguistic factors exists in a speaker of African American English (AAE). At the core of the challenge is the issue of how to distinguish difference from deficit.

The Problem

It is a well-known fact that Standard American English (SAE) is often used as a referent when evaluating the language of all children-and adults-including speakers of AAE. When such an approach is used, speakers who do not use SAE are compared to a different, often conflicting language system, and the door is opened for results that do not exemplify the dialect user's true abilities. ASHA's position on dialects is ".... that no dialectal variety of American English is a disorder or a pathological form of speech or language" (ASHA, 2003).

One important component of assessing the speech and language abilities of an individual involves administering one or more standardized tests and determining the results of the test(s). The most frequently used speech and language tests were developed using SAE-speaking children and normed on those in the majority culture. It has been established and widely accepted that the speech and language forms used by African American English speakers have distinctive and predictable characteristics that are different from those used by SAE speakers.

Clearly, because many clinicians do not take into consideration that AAE-speaking children may be adhering to the linguistic rules of the dialect when scoring and interpreting standardized tests, a mismatch in systems can result. Thus, AAE speakers are frequently classified as language delayed or disordered when really they are language different. Administering and scoring SAE-normed tests on AAE speakers will therefore result in test scores that may falsely indicate a language disorder or delay.

While there is still a limited amount of published developmental data for AAE speakers, and even fewer on the nature of language disorders in AAE speakers, we do know that language development in AAE-speaking children is similar to that of SAE-speaking children up to age 3 across content, form, and use. However, under 3 years of age it is difficult to distinguish between dialectal and developmental variations. Past research has noted that there is a marked increase in the use of AAE features between the ages of 3 and 5. Reading these studies is a first step in gaining the skills and knowledge needed to work with AAE speakers.)

Back to Basics: Language Delay, Disorder, and Difference

Most clinicians are skilled in identifying language delays or language disorders in children, yet many continue to have difficulty in distinguishing a language difference versus a language pathology in children who speak AAE. We can all agree that a language delay occurs when language is developing normally across the various language parameters but at a slower rate. That is, a child's language skills may not parallel the child's chronological age. Similarly, we know that a language disorder refers to any difficulty with the production and/or reception of linguistic units.

According to Lahey (1988), a language disorder can range from total absence of speech to a minor variance in syntax; meaningful language may be produced, but with limited content, that is, reduced vocabulary, restricted verbal formulations, omissions of articles, prepositions, tense and plural markers, or a paucity of modifiers. Yet many clinicians may be at a disadvantage when called upon to distinguish an AAE speaker who has a language disorder from a typically developing AAE speaker. Clinicians should recognize that a language difference exists when individuals meet the language norms of their primary linguistic community but do not meet the norms of SAE. Furthermore, the clinician must possess some understanding of the fundamentals of AAE.

What is AAE?

Linguists have defined AAE as the culturally appropriate term referring to the language used by some (but not all) African Americans as well as others who are not African American. This type of English is a systematic rule-governed dialect of SAE that has been called by many names such as: Black English, Ebonics, nonstandard English, and Black English Vernacular. Speakers of AAE vary in their use of this dialect. Some individuals may choose to speak this way all of the time, while others tend to code-switch depending on the situation and the audience.

The two systems (SAE and AAE), though similar, are not identical and thus should not be judged against each other. In order to avoid inaccuracies in assessment, clinicians must use the knowledge we have gained regarding linguistic variation in AAE speakers and begin to use nonbiased assessment measures.

What Clinicians Should Know

The most crucial thing the clinician must know is that linguistic research has indicated there are features unique to AAE across morphology, semantics, syntax, pragmatics, and phonology. To one unfamiliar with AAE, these linguistic variations may appear similar to patterns of language delay or disorders. The following are examples of AAE morpho-syntactic features that are often regarded as errors in grammar according to the rules of SAE. For a more comprehensive discussion of AAE and a linguistic rationale of these features, refer to Green (2002), Labov (1970), Mufwene et al. (1998), Wolfram (1986), and Wyatt (1991, 1995).

Zero copula (or the deletion of the verb be and its variants) is a commonly cited syntactic feature of AAE. This feature is rule governed and systematic. Some researchers have noted instances where the copula is deleted (where the copula is contractible and not required) and where the uncontractable forms are not deleted because of their obligatory positioning in a sentence. Without its use, the meaning or intention of a sentence could be lost. For instance: Yes, he (not used in AAE) or Yes, he is (used in AAE as well as SAE), for example, He a hard worker (AAE) or He is a hard worker (SAE).

Lack of the past tense marker (ed) is a common morphological feature of AAE. For example, Last week he cook dinner (AAE) or Last week he cooked dinner (SAE).

Absence of possessive s. This marker in AAE is considered a notable morphological feature. For example, Here is John watch (AAE) or Here is John's watch (SAE).

Irregular verb form usage is a feature of AAE whereby in many instances a past tense verb is used in place of a past participle and vice versa. For example, She seen him (AAE) or She saw him (SAE) or She knowed he was there (AAE) or She knew he was there (SAE).

Absence of plural -s marker (with nouns of measure, i.e. numbers) has been noted as a salient feature in AAE as a means of reducing redundancy. Consider the example, James got 11 shirt. The number 11 already denotes plurality within the sentence, therefore the addition of an s after shirt is deemed redundant. James got 11 shirt (AAE) or James got 11 shirts (SAE).

Use of negation in AAE has two salient features. One is that the use of ain't is permissible and replaces SAE words and contractions such as am not, isn't, aren't, hasn't, don't, and haven't, for example, She ain't coming home today (AAE) or She isn't coming home today (SAE). Another feature is that of multiple negation, where more than one form of negation can be found in one sentence, for example, She ain't got no money for nobody.

Inflection of be. In AAE, the habitual state is marked by the inflected word be. In contrast, SAE expresses habitual aspect through the use of adverbs and inflected forms of the word be. Some research indicates that this inflection of be has parallels in other Caribbean creoles such as with the words steady, come, and done. For example, We be sleep (AAE), which would translate to We sleep all the time in SAE.

Irregular verb form usage is a feature of AAE whereby in many instances a past tense verb is used in place of a past participle and vice versa. For example, She seen him (AAE) or She saw him (SAE) or She knowed he was there (AAE) or She knew he was there (SAE).

Phonological features. AAE has distinctive phonological features that often are mistaken for phonological substitutions. Some examples of AAE phonological markers are:

  • Initial /th/ = d (i.e., them becomes dem)
  • Final /th/ = f (i.e., mouth becomes mouf)
  • Deletion of middle and final /r/ (i.e., all right becomes aiight, star becomes stah)
  • Deletion of middle and final /l/ (i.e., help becomes hep, will becomes wi)
  • Final consonant deletion (especially affects nasals, i.e., live becomes li)
  • Reduction of final nasal to vowel nasality (i.e., man becomes mæ)

Contrastive versus noncontrastive features. The clinician should be able to identify and distinguish contrastive features (features unique to AAE) versus noncontrastive features (features shared with SAE) in order to differentiate an AAE-speaking child with a disorder from a typically developing AAE-speaking child. A child may indeed use contrastive features consistent with his dialect, but that alone does not indicate a language disorder. However, if the child uses AAE but exhibits difficulties in use of the features shared with SAE, then a clinician may suspect a language disorder. That is, noncontrastive features are more diagnostically salient when distinguishing differences versus deficits. For example, if a 6-year-old child who speaks AAE does not appropriately use pronouns, articles, demonstratives, or complex sentences, a clinician may suspect a language disorder. For a more detailed discussion on contrastive and non-contrastive features and their importance in distinguishing language deficits versus differences in AAE child speakers see Seymour, Bland-Stewart, & Green (1998).

Assessment Solutions

There are a number of alternative assessment procedures one can follow to distinguish a disorder from a difference in an AAE speaker. Prior to using any of these methods, clinicians should know that it is often necessary-but more importantly, a model of "best practice"-to use a combination of these solutions. Not only will these methodologies render an answer to the problem/no problem clinical question, but, if carefully followed, a richer linguistic profile of the AAE speaker's abilities and/or deficits will be apparent.

Solution #1: Perform a Contrastive Analysis on a Language Sample of the Client

McGregor et al. (1997) has noted that contrastive analysis is particularly useful in cases when a clinician who speaks SAE attempts to serve a client who speaks a variety of American English. If the clinician is concerned about the child's language but is unsure if the child is an AAE speaker or exhibits language deficit, the clinician can elicit a naturalistic language sample from the child and then analyze the child's use of morphology, syntax, and phonology. In using the contrastive analysis method the clinician can separate expressive speech-language patterns that are consistent with a client's first dialect (e.g., use of copula deletion) from patterns that represent true errors (e.g., improper use of pronouns, lack of articles, absence of complex sentences). If the language patterns are consistent with the client's dialect, then a difference, not a disorder, is indicated. If, however, the language patterns are inconsistent with the client's dialect, then they constitute "true errors" and a disorder may be suspected.

Solution #2: Carefully Use Standardized Tests

Another option is to use standardized tests with modifications for dialectal features. However, caution must be exercised when choosing this option as research has indicated that not all modification methods ensure valid identification or a complete linguistic profile of the AAE speaker. Below are suggested techniques that may render non-biased assessment. For more details on these methods, refer to Seymour & Bland (1991) and Vaughn-Cooke (1986).

One could modify the test administration process by:

  1. allowing extra time for the client's response
  2. increasing the number of practice/trial items
  3. removing potentially culturally biased items
  4. rewording the test instructions
  5. continuing to test beyond the ceiling
  6. asking a client to explain incorrect responses
  7. recording the responses, particularly when a client changes an answer, explains, comments, or demonstrates
  8. adapting the test scoring process by using alternate scoring procedures ( e.g., % correct vs. raw score)
  9. supporting test results with dynamic assessment (e.g., language sampling, parent/teacher interview, and observation measures)
  10. conducting file reviews of relevant medical, social, developmental, and educational history
  11. conducting observations in the child's classroom, home, and other academic/naturalistic environments where peer interactions can be observed
  12. avoiding using standardized tests that have not made adjustments for dialect users
  13. using criterion referenced measures

Solution #3: Use Diagnostic Materials Specifically Designed for AAE Speakers

For example, there is now a test that can be used with children who speak AAE, the Diagnostic Evaluation for Language Variation (DELV). It is the first test designed to be dialect neutral with respect to AAE. The DELV (Seymour, Roeper, & de Villiers, 2004) is an assessment of complex aspects of children's syntactic, semantic, phonologic, and pragmatic development. It is designed for children between the ages of 4 and 9 and is non-discriminatory to non-SAE users.

The materials and procedures of the DELV capture the development of several aspects of language that are vital for success in early language learning, academic learning, and literacy. The test stimuli consist of underlying linguistic universals that provide the clinician with a substantial profile of the child's language strengths and weaknesses, not just a diagnostic categorization. It can be used on all English-speaking children regardless of dialect variation.

The DELV was developed with non-SAE English speakers in mind, which makes it different from other language evaluation tools. What is unique about the screener is that it elicits patterns typical of AAE that provide a strong indication of the child's AAE status. The resultant score will indicate not only if the child is a likely AAE speaker but it will also indicate if the child exhibits a risk for a language disorder. The at-risk status is determined by stimuli independent of AAE status. Thus, a child who speaks AAE can be identified as at-risk without being penalized for using AAE features. If the test score suggests a child is at risk for a language disorder the clinician then administers the DELV-Criterion Referenced Test.

The Criterion Referenced Test diagnoses speech and language disorders across syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and phonology. The syntax subtest includes grammatical forms not subject to variation/use of AAE. This subtest's focus is on deep principles of language and language universals that all typically developing children should know. For example, the child must demonstrate comprehension and use of various WH question forms, passives, and articles. If the child makes errors on this subtest we can conclude that there are deficits in comprehension and use of syntax.

An interesting feature of the semantics subtest is that, unlike most language tests, it avoids reliance on the child's vocabulary knowledge. Rather, the subtest focuses on the child's lexical organization, word retrieval, and ability to learn new words. Another unique aspect of the DELV is that the phonology subtest neutralizes the effects of dialect differences and clearly identifies AAE-speaking children with phonological impairments. Moreover, the pragmatics subtest allows for a rich interpretation of social/pragmatic language functions in children by focusing on communicative role-taking (e.g., eliciting discourse about what characters in pictures are saying/asking, how they are saying/asking). It also examines how children use narrative elements (e.g., character names, describing events, cohesion markers, use of time clauses, character intentions) as well as how children use/ask WH questions.

This comprehensive tool directly addresses the diagnostic problem of how to validly assess the language of children who speak AAE. Moreover, it proposes a level of analysis deeper than dialect for the discovery of alternate markers of a disorder in an AAE-speaking child. As a clinician and researcher who works with this population, I highly recommend that this be one of the tools to gather information on the language abilities of AAE speakers, be they typically developing or having a disorder.

In summary, in order to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to work with children who are speakers of AAE clinicians should familiarize themselves with the non-contrastive and contrastive features of AAE. However, clinicians should recognize that it is the non-contrastive linguistic features (those that are shared between SAE and AAE) that are more diagnostically important if the clinical goal is to distinguish a language deficit from a difference and bring us closer to our goal of providing non-biased assessment to AAE speakers.

Linda M. Bland-Stewart, is an associate professor, researcher, and pediatric clinic supervisor in the Department of Speech and Hearing Science at The George Washington University. Her research includes language disorders in children, AAE, learning disabilities, and emergent literacy in culturally diverse populations. Contact her at

cite as: Bland-Stewart, L. M. (2005, May 03). Difference or Deficit in Speakers of African American English? : What Every Clinician Should Know…and Do. The ASHA Leader.

Learn More About AAE

For more information about research and practice related to AAE, consider joining a Special Interest Division. Among the divisions concerned with this topic are Division 1, Language Learning and Education; Division 14, Communication Disorders and Sciences in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Populations; and Division 16, School-Based Issues. Each of these divisions publishes a member newsletter through which division affiliates can earn CEUs at no charge. Back issues may also be purchased. Visit the division Web pages for more information. 


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