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Neighborhood Effects on Use of African-American Vernacular English

Authors:
John R. Rickford, Stanford University
Stub for 2017,
Lisa A. Gennetian, New York University
Ray Yun Gou, National Bureau of Economic Research
Rebecca Greene, Stanford University
Ronald C. Kessler, Harvard Medical School
Jeffrey R. Kling, National Bureau of Economic Research
Lisa Sanbonmatsu, National Bureau of Economic Research
Andres E. Sanchez-Ordoñez, Stanford University
Matthew Sciandra, National Bureau of Economic Research
Ewart Thomas, Stanford University
Publication Date:
Jan 2015
Published In:
Project Programs:
Social Inequality

African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is systematic, rooted in history, and important as an identity marker and expressive resource for its speakers. In these respects, it resembles other vernacular or nonstandard varieties, like Cockney or Appalachian English. But like them, AAVE can trigger discrimination in the workplace, housing market, and schools. Understanding what shapes the relative use of AAVE versus Standard American English (SAE) is important for policy and scientific reasons. This work presents, to our knowledge, the first experimental estimates of the effects of moving into lower-poverty neighborhoods on AAVE use. We use data on non-Hispanic African-American youth (n = 629) from a large-scale, randomized residential mobility experiment called Moving to Opportunity (MTO), which enrolled a sample of mostly minority families originally living in distressed public housing. Audio recordings of the youth were transcribed and coded for the use of five grammatical and five phonological AAVE features to construct a measure of the proportion of possible instances, or tokens, in which speakers use AAVE rather than SAE speech features. Random assignment to receive a housing voucher to move into a lower-poverty area (the intention-to-treat effect) led youth to live in neighborhoods (census tracts) with an 11 percentage point lower poverty rate on average over the next 10–15 y and reduced the share of AAVE tokens by ∼3 percentage points compared with the MTO control group youth. The MTO effect on AAVE use equals approximately half of the difference in AAVE frequency observed between youth whose parents have a high school diploma and those whose parents do not.

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