A few months ago, federal projects officer James Wormley approached a secretary in his office and brought up a taboo subject: how she talked.
The secretary, Bertha Askew, spoke a black street slang which went over just fine in her Anacostia neighborhood but which her office typewriter translated into grammatical mistakes and which made a poor impression when she talked to people on the office phone.
Eager to improve, Askew took Wormley's recommendation and soon found herself sitting in a federal classroom with a no-nonsense English teacher grilling her about the difference between "you is" and "you are," "he be" and "he is," and "axed" and "asked."
Since the civil rights movement of the '60s, the government has attracted tens of thousands of black employes like Bertha Askew seeking to take advantage of its anti-discrimination and upward-mobility provisions to work their way to a better life.
The trouble was that, like many of them, she didn't speak the language.
"I'll think a phrase out in my head, but it doesn't come out the way it should," she said last week, speaking slowly and carefully. "This course has made me more aware of me, and the things I say, and how I sound."
Despite intelligence and ambition, many blacks remain shackled to low-paying job slots because they never had a chance to learn the 9-to-5 speech that remains a key to success in white-collar America.
This communications gap has fueled tensions in many offices, but because of heightened racial sensitivities, federal administrators have generally avoided any frontal assault on the problem.
Wormley, who is black, said he still can't bring himself to correct Askew's spoken mistakes directly: "I feel awkward."
Askew had come into her job at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare through a special program for the hardcore unemployable. She was functioning very capably, from a technical point of view," Wormley said. But he knew, he added, that her difficulties with standard, workplace English would prevent her form advancing.
Now, some agencies have begun to offer an unusual course designed to attack problems like Bertha Askew head-on.
The course, called Up With English, and originated by a lady Pygmalion named Lorraine Goldman, is drawing praise from training officers, supervisors and -- most of all -- from student-employes who have participated.
Carefully coordinated with supervisors, Up With English has helped some workers write more grammatically, answer the phone and generally speak more effectively, supporters say. Beyond that, to their suprise, in some cases the course is having a more subtle and far-reaching impact on participants' self-awareness, confidence and relationships with others.
"I've taken other courses," Askew said, "but this one is different. In the others I was thinking, but not saying . . .I like to talk to people, but I used to make it short. I was skeptical, I was worried it wouldn't come out right. But when I start a conversation now," she laughed, "I could talk forever."
For his part, at Goldman's urging, Wormley said he no longer uses the black vernacular when he speaks to Askew, so that now she is encouraged daily to use the standard English she is learning in class.
"I think this is a very, very good approach," Wormley said. "In the short time Bertha has been in the class, I've noticed a tremendous effort on her part, I'm really pleased."
Askew, 29, said she is trying also to carry her lessons home, especially to her 10-year old son. "I wasn't listening to him before. Kids, you know, use the street language. Now, I'm really listening and I correct him. I get a dictionary, so he gets the real meaning and not just the street meaning."
Vernadean White, 30, another of Goldman's students, said, "I just never realized I talked like that."
A clerk-typist for the U.S. Geological Survey, and sole support of her 14-year-old daughter, she wants to move up into a higher-paying secretarial job.But she is still going to school nights just to complete high school requirements.
She talked mile-a-minute slang, had poor pronunciation and bad grammar when she started taking Goldman's course, she said. She still has some problems, but she has forced herself to slow down and "I know that it's 'he, she and it does,' not 'do.' And I'm working on my daughter now, too."
She has demanded that all her coworkers correct her whenever they hear a slip. "A gutsy thing to do," Goldman called this.
Other examples of noteworthy effects that administration, students and teacher report so far include:
A young HEW messenger who had been hanging out with a "bad crowd" and never read anything but comic books. He has "turned around" and begun to read books not only to himself but to his kids.
A white supervisor who thought his black secretary was "lazy" and sullen and treated her accordingly. Buffaloed by his attiude, she "mumbled and projected an awful image." Since the two started working together on her English as a result of the course, he sees her in a new, more positive light, and she is making an effort to speak up and be generally more responsive and outgoing.
English teacher Goldman originated the course with a pilot program at HEW last fall. There are now versions in progress at HEW, Navy, Interior and Agriculture.
"'He go' is a terrible red flag when someone says it," said Goldman, yet "employers and instructors alike are uneasy, unwilling, or afraid to say the unspeakable" and correct their employes.
"In the desire not to offend, they are helping to keep a rather large group of people 'in their place.'"
Goldman's approach is to teach standard English as a second language, not to replace the language spoken in the home terrain.
"I tell them they should NOT go home and correct their mother-in-laws's English . . . My rule is, correct people only if you are bigger than they are or you pay the bills."
When she taught black children at Washington's Dunbar High School, Goldman set up an unusual paperback lending library in her classroom to challenge disadvantaged students who had never been exposed to books. She also taught in jobs programs and in bilingual courses in Latin America.
English courses that the federal government generally provides for its employes are too "abstract," gingerly avoiding direct mention of these employes' real problems, Goldman contends. They do not draw the critical distinction between the language of the home and the "marketplace English" needed to get a job or get ahead. "They just say vaguely, 'We must improve.'"
"An immigrant to this country knows that he must learn English to survive," she said. "But when it comes to the question of 'black English versus white English' we are faced with a wide range of hangups."
As a contractor hired from outside rather than an in-house government teacher, Goldman is "in a better position to use that head-on approach than we are," said a federal personnel official. "It's awkward for us to go say, 'You people must improve your diction.'"
The direct approach is delicate. Some Equal Employement Opportunity officers and others "may feel that you're criticizing a culture" or putting people down, said Jim Ross, 49, who should know. As a high school dropout from West Virginia in the '50s, he started out as a messenger in the mail room at HEW and worked his way up to his present senior management position where, as head of the department's Southwest Career Education Institute, he spearheaded the push to inaugurate Goldman's Up With English course.
"Well, I'm black, I can certainly improve," he said. "But I already know how to switch. When I go to talk to my friend on the street corner, I can 'get down' . . . What we're talking about here is helping these people to develop another tool."
There's nothing abstract about one of Goldman's class sessions. She attacks students' grammar and pronunciation with no holds barred, though with a good-natured gleam in her eye. She encourages them to criticize each other. And she also praises them generously for their efforts.
The students, in turn, appear attentive and hungry for learning.
In a recent session, in a spartan conference room in an HEW building, about 15 women, almost all black (one white from Appalachia, one Hispanic), read aloud to each other an excerpt from black writer Richard Wright:
"He crawled through the hole of earth, dropped into the gray sewer current, and sloshed ahead . . . In a spasm of terror his right hand grabbed the concrete ledge . . ."
The passage may be know as an "extended metaphor for the plight of blacks," Goldman said, "but we're reading if for the good 'ed' words. Sloshed, grabbed . . ." These and other endings often get left off in black slang conversation.
In the class was a former first-grade school teacher, and another woman who said she had taken the readings home and was surprised to find that her young son sat still and listened when she read them aloud. She had never read to him before.
Goldman required each of them to talk a lot in class, to give a sort of "after dinner talk," for instance, about a day in the life of someone they knew, or to give examples of mistakes they had heard during the day.
"I corrected my husband [a police officer] when he said "truf' instead of 'truth,'" one woman told the group. "I told him he communicate with people a lot in his job --" Here the class broke in and corrected her nosily to add the "s": "It's communicates!"
Another woman reported, "My friend, he always say 'teefus,'" and the class promptly corrected her sentence to "My friend always says . . ." She went on, "It's TEETH," sticking her tongue way out to make the proper TH, and smiling at the teacher's approval.
The course prototype involves classes three days a week, two and a half hours a day for five weeks, then some home assignments and telephone work with Goldman for about five weeks and finally followup classes for two more weeks.
A key element is the cooperation and support provided by the employes' supervisors. "It's like a PTA operation which involves the home, only in this case it's the office. Without it, many of the students would fall back to the same old mistakes," Goldman said.
Supporters of Up With English are careful not to overstate their claims for the course. Many of the student-employes are struggling against overwhelming odds, they caution, and in any case the course won't guarantee anyone a promotion.
But it's one step in a right direction, they conclude.
"Standard English, like a hammer or saw, is a vital tool," Goldman said. "In a bureaucracy, it is THE tool."