Don’t ditch standard English. Teach it better

From The Economist:

Teaching english as a first language is not easy—many youngsters leave school feeling they never quite mastered its finer points. Recently some commentators have been wondering whether the standard version of English really deserves to be singled out as “proper” and worthy of teaching at all. The debate they set off has been unedifying because of entrenched views that have as much to do with politics as with language.

Speaking recently to the Daily Telegraph, Willem Hollmann of Lancaster University argued that standard English is not uniquely “correct”. This view is common among linguists. Today’s standard English just happens to descend from the dialect prevailing near the seats of power (London) and learning (Oxford and Cambridge) at the critical time when printing took off. It uses “you were”, and not “you was”, only because that dialect did so—not because “you were” is more logical. (If standard English were logical, “to be” would have a single past-tense form, as every other verb does.)

Linguists know perfectly well, though, that standard English does have a social superiority, if not a grammatical one. It is the language of serious writing (including linguistics journals) and formal speech. It binds together Dorset, Kent, Yorkshire and London, as well as Alabama, Massachusetts and California. It can be spoken with any accent, allowing a speaker from Belfast to talk to one from Johannesburg or Auckland with little misunderstanding. There is nothing wrong with black vernacular American or Yorkshire English; they just don’t happen to be the dialect that newspapers are written in, or parliamentary debates are conducted in. Both halves of that proposition are equally true, and pupils should be apprised of both.

But when linguists make this case, they are often misconstrued as saying students should not be marked down if, for instance, they write “you was” instead of “you were” when deploying standard English. No longer considering “you was” to be incorrect in formal prose would imply the end of any standard at all.

Even from the left-wing perspective that many academics share, that would be counterproductive. Sociolinguists are at pains to point out that all dialects are valuable to their speakers—Yorkshire English and so on persist for that very reason. But standard English is valuable to its speakers too. It is dear to those lucky enough to have it as their native tongue (a category that includes most newspaper columnists). But it is also hugely important to those many strivers who didn’t grow up with it—yet hope to master it, so that they can join the wider community around the world that uses it.

And there are ways to inculcate it without resorting to snobbery. To begin with, it helps to avoid irrelevant pet peeves. In a column in the Times replying to Mr Hollmann and supposedly sticking up for standard English, Clare Foges was distracted by things like accent (saying fencin for fencing), slang (including the British tag-question innit?) and minor variations such as off of in place of off.

These ephemera have nothing whatever to do with standard English. “G-dropping” isn’t lazy, merely an accent; it used to be an upper-class habit, too. Nor does relaxed have to mean incorrect: innit may not be common in the boardroom, but it has its place in casual British English. And off of is standard in America, if not in Britain.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Quite a number of years ago, competitive debaters on elite high school or college debate teams were advised to not use their normal Southern or other regional accents during debate competitions.

The rationale behind the advice was that debate judges, particularly at the most advanced levels of major debate tournaments, would likely speak standard American English and regard a notable regional accent as a sign of a less-accomplished intellect and judge the accented arguments more critically.

2 thoughts on “Don’t ditch standard English. Teach it better”

  1. I couldn’t agree more.

    What we call “standard formal English” is a social good — it signifies a useful social status, necessary for job interviews, etc., just like learning to dress appropriately.

    … with one distinction. What is taught is no longer a “living” language. People who have internalized their education’s standard formal version as their normal speech (when they’re thinking about it) tend to believe that makes it a living language, but they’re wrong.

    All dialects are living languages, and all move along and change as such things do. We all use a variety of registers for effect when speaking — it’s just that many of us have learned to only use the one standard for formal writing.

    But in the actual living language that even the best-educated speak, you can see it parting ways with what they were taught, inexorably. The elimination of some of the 19th c. artificial constraints (split infinitives, sentence-ending prepositions) is one result, but I am most struck by the evolution of the 3rd person (no-gender) plural pronoun as a stand-in for a non-existent 3rd person (no-gender) singular in my own lifetime. “If anyone comes in, give them a drink” — this is now unexceptional to hear from even the best-educated speakers in conversation (replacing “him or her”, always awkward in speech or writing). It’s like living in the period when we lost the singular 2nd person pronouns (thee, thou, thy, thine) to the plural forms (you, you, your, yours). This is the sort of change that living languages do.

  2. In German you have your local German dialect (or national dialect, in Switzerland) and Hochdeutsch, the common, formalized German. One is for at home and in casual settings, or things where dialect is important, and the other is for common communication. Why should English, or other languages, be different? Everyone should learn and use proper, standard “high English” for communicating outside of the local and/or casual sphere.

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