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Charleston schools consider Gullah language barrier

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When Michelle Govan-Seymore started teaching freshman English at Baptist Hill Middle/High School, she ran up against a language barrier.

Students who had lived their lives in Charleston County's quiet southern outskirts came to class with odd bits of syntax and turns of phrase on their tongues, foreign to her ears. She learned that their way of speaking had Lowcountry roots predating the Revolutionary War. 

"Before day clean," meaning before sunrise. A long "E" sound, sometimes spelled "i" in writing, as an all-purpose pronoun replacing "he," "she" or "we." Verbs gone missing from sentences, implied by context or tone of voice.

A native of the Pee Dee who attended South Carolina State University, Govan-Seymore thought she had a good handle on the state's dialects. But as she overheard the melodic way students addressed one another in the halls, and especially as she began grading the students' journal assignments, she realized she was still learning.

"For the most part, they don't write formally in the Gullah-Geechee way, but they do leave out a lot of verbs," Govan-Seymore said. "They do leave out a lot of things that are important when you say a sentence or write a sentence, but they try to correct themselves."

For the first time in recent memory, the Charleston County School Board is discussing how to address the specific needs of Gullah and Geechee students, children of a culture whose linguistic origins trace back to the west coast of Africa via the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Some teachers have said the students' way of speaking — whether in the heavily West African-influenced Gullah language or in the more Anglicized dialects sometimes known as Geechee — can present an obstacle to understanding in the classroom.

In surveys conducted by district staff this fall, teachers at Hollywood-area schools Baptist Hill and Minnie Hughes Elementary estimated that half to three-quarters of the students have some exposure to Gullah language and culture. District leaders have proposed hiring an extra English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher to focus on improving students' writing at those two schools.

Michael Miller, the West Ashley school board member who first raised the issue in board meetings this year, said he recognizes the need to tread carefully when dealing with a language and dialect that have been stigmatized in the past.

"It does not mean that people are worse or less-than," Miller said. "I believe that as an education system we need to embrace the difference but at the same time recognize that there may need to be some intervention."

Miller said he has heard from teachers who aren't correcting students' subject-verb agreement or conjugation when they use Gullah or Geechee speech patterns in class. In a committee meeting Nov. 14, he told the board that one teacher was grading students' essays "based on what she thinks they're trying to write, not based on what they're actually writing."

To some Gullah speakers, that kind of teaching is a symptom of a longstanding prejudice or an assumption that a child is simply ignorant. Miller said he wants to address the language in a positive way.

"I think what (some teachers) have done is accepted the way people speak as ignorant, and so there’s no reason to address it," Miller said.

The board is still considering the ESOL proposal, with an estimated cost of $85,000. The written proposal also mentions the possibility of partnering with institutions like St. Helena Island's Penn Center or the College of Charleston's Avery Research Center "to further delve into the impact of Gullah/Geechee on CCSD students." Staff members are looking into creating a central document or special training to help educators teach "code-switching," or the ability to make a deliberate jump from Geechee to English and back.

Some Geechee speakers have scoffed at the idea of schools treating the creolized dialect the same way they treat, for example, the Spanish language. The district's survey report found that most students were "bilingual" and could switch to standard English in the appropriate setting. It also noted that exposure to Gullah language was most common when students spent time with their grandparents, not their parents.

For 11th-grader Kiara Maxwell, who has lived her whole life in Hollywood, Geechee is a vital way of speaking. It's how she communicates at home, even if she has to switch to another dialect in class at Baptist Hill.

"Every time I meet somebody that's not from out here, I say, 'We talk funny? We sound different?' Well, you got to deal with it. You out here now."

Painful memories

The Beaufort County teacher's words still rattle in Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine's memory:

"You will never get anywhere in life speaking like that."

Like many Lowcountry Gullah speakers of her generation, the current head of state for the Gullah/Geechee Nation carries painful memories of adults who taught her to hold her family's way of speaking in contempt. While some teachers understood their students' native language and treated it respectfully, others used corporal punishment, she said, meting out physical blows when students slipped into the speech patterns they had heard since birth.

Goodwine, who still speaks fluent Gullah and has testified at length about her culture before the United Nations, said she and other advocates from the Gullah/Geechee community reached out to Lowcountry school districts, including Charleston County, two decades ago. They asked that their language and history be addressed in classrooms, but she said the response was near-silence from the school boards.

Today, Goodwine said she would be wary if the Charleston County School District were to hire a language specialist at Baptist Hill who wasn't fluent in the local dialects.

"Personally I have a red flag waving in the air in front of me when (school leaders) that have never respected what we proposed in the past 20 years, that have never fully understood our language, are attempting to teach you about your own language," Goodwine said. "It only adds insult to the injury that you have already suffered."

While Gullah was not originally a written language and has never had a governing authority or dictionary, linguistic scholars have found that the language is internally consistent and in some ways more efficient and expressive than standard English. Elements of the language have seeped into African-American Vernacular English across the country, and particularly in the Charleston area, traces of the language can be heard from Mount Pleasant to Summerville.

At Baptist Hill, Principal Vanessa Brown said all of her students speak with some form of Geechee influence, with the exception of some Spanish-speaking newcomers. A graduate of North Charleston High, she recognizes some Geechee patterns showed up even in her own speech as a child. Her relatives in Moncks Corner would laugh when she said" fush" instead of "fish," for instance, and she still remembers the flush of shame when a fifth-grade teacher corrected her for saying "screet" instead of "street."

Today at Baptist Hill, when a new teacher comes from outside the area, Brown takes them on a "mini-professional development" tour of the students' neighborhoods, introducing them to the area's unique history and language. She doesn't want teachers coming in blind or assuming things that simply aren't true.

Brown questions whether the school board's current proposal is feasible in the face of such a widespread dialect. She said she sees value in teaching code-switching, but she doesn't think ESOL is the correct approach.

"I think most of it could probably be addressed by professional development and awareness," Brown said.

A positive approach

For some students who grow up immersed in Gullah culture, the Geechee dialect never seems like an obstacle until they leave the Lowcountry. Some don't even call it Geechee; it's just the way people speak.

Trevon Smalls, a senior at Baptist Hill who plays linebacker on the school's football team, experienced a bit of culture shock when his family evacuated to Columbia during Hurricane Matthew. A cashier at a Walmart there stopped him and asked if he was from Jamaica.

"That's like my people's version of correct English, if you know what I'm saying" Smalls said. "My grandma talks like that 100 percent. If you listened to her talk, you probably wouldn't even understand it, but I'm used to it."

A stigma still clouds public perception of Gullah culture, particularly when it comes to language. Some students at Baptist Hill call the Geechee dialect "ghetto." Some parents have forbidden it to be spoken even in the home.

But some researchers say the Gullah culture should be seen as a resource, not as a stumbling block. Meta Van Sickle, chair of the College of Charleston's Teacher Education Department, has observed and worked in local schools since 1992, and she said teachers are missing out on a wealth of opportunities when they ignore or denigrate the Gullah culture.

Many Gullahs' conception of the world is "highly systemic," Van Sickle said, a useful mindset for thinking about environmental, geologic or economic systems. In one published paper, she said teachers could benefit from taking their classes to family compounds when teaching geoscience, particularly with families who still work the land to provide food.

"The elders are then able to share with the youth agricultural methods that they have engaged in all their lives," Van Sickle wrote. "The students hear their own language from the elders and realize that what they may be thinking about saying is all right to share in an educational context."

Van Sickle said an ESOL teacher could be helpful in schools with a large proportion of Geechee speakers, although it would only work if the teacher completely understood the students' native syntax and grammar. She said, for example, that some teachers have seen Gullah students write the word "i" in their assignments and mistakenly thought it was just an un-capitalized "I." Without a knowledge of the universal pronoun, some teachers have only sown further confusion.

"I think it's really hard sometimes to face what we've done and the narratives we've created," Van Sickle said. "There are some strengths — huge strengths ... I think teachers, like everybody else, get immersed in these negative narratives, and I think they really appreciate hearing a positive one here and there."

K.J. Kearney, a former teacher's assistant at Daniel Jenkins Academy who works as a consultant with the International African American Museum, said he's seen the negative narrative play out in the classroom before. He's also seen moments of sheer cultural confusion, like when a teacher from New Jersey told a Geechee student to stop being "fresh" — a word that meant disrespectful in her own vernacular, but that implied sexual licentiousness to many of her Geechee-speaking students.

In Kearney's opinion, the best thing the district could do to address Geechee speech patterns is to teach its educators some basic cultural sensitivity. The culture was here long before the schools, after all.

"This is the only city in America where you can speak the native dialect and be thought of as a second-class citizen," Kearney said. "In Charleston, if you sound like you’re from Charleston, people automatically think you sound stupid."

The school board will meet Monday at 3:30 p.m. The Gullah/Geechee language proposal is not up for immediate approval on the agenda, and district leaders say their research process is ongoing.


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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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