Should we embrace Standard English and all other dialects equally depending on the context? ETHAN NEWTON explores the views of politicians and educationists

The term ‘Standard English’ (SE) couldn’t be any more subjective. What do these bickering linguists and politicians mean by it? Is it the written form? The spoken form? Or both? On top of this ambiguity politicians and academics have stated that the standard of English used by our children is falling. The consequence of this has been a number of education reforms.

Most cries of change came from employers, and politicians echoing employers in regards to the standards of literacy. Speaking In 1986, the minister for education Kenneth Baker stated: ‘frequently I hear employers complain that many school-leavers applying for jobs after 11 years of compulsory education cannot write simply, clearly and without obvious error’ (cited by Fairclough 2001:196).

The Kingman report in 1988 was the solution for the cries of the elites and was possibly the most publicised account into the standards of education. However, it was not well received by the right-wing conservatives who preferred a return to the traditional teaching of Latinate grammar.

Kingman on the other hand stated, ‘we are more concerned with the ability to write in SE than to speak it’ (cited by Crowley 2003:256). Surely this is how it should be though – a written and spoken form distinct from each other. I do not ever recall myself ever speaking in the standard written form, have you? Apart from maybe at a job interview, but even then the levels of prestige and eloquence varies on your understanding of English. Also you wouldn’t send a text to a friend in perfect grammatically correct standard written English (or Latinate grammar)…would you? But yet again it all comes down to a matter of context does it not?

Bullock believed it was more reasonable to talk and think in terms of ‘appropriateness’ than absolute correctness (cited by Crowley 2003:257). This posits the notion of applying a standard to contexts where it would be needed. This further stipulates the purpose of teaching a ‘standard’ English as an extension to our English language repertoire, rather than replacing our current one full of dialectal influences and variations.

Prescriptive attitudes from politicians to drill children towards how they ‘should’ speak was criticised by several reformists including Her Majesties Inspectorate. They believed a child should be able to modify their speech rather than replace it because not one form of English dialect is inherently superior. Otherwise the elites are just endorsing a hierarchy of dialects are they not? Additionally, Bullock (cited by Crowley 2003:237) added, ‘to criticise a person’s speech may be an attack on his self-esteem’. Obviously the elites in Whitehall only cared for their own dialect rather than the dialects of millions of others.

The result of the Kingman report was the implementation of the national curriculum. The intention of it was very clear: that grammatical ideas should be available to teachers and to pupils for use as tools (Hudson 1992:7). I for one advocate SE should be taught as an auxiliary dialect to be used in appropriate contexts as a tool, ‘written’ or ‘spoken’. Yet the question remains – what is the ‘Standard’? John Honey (cited by Crowley 2003:266) seemed to think it was the dialect of the ‘educated’, then again what is the dialectal criteria for the educated?

ETHAN NEWTON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester (UK)

References

Crowley, T. (2003). Standard English and the Politics of Language. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and Power. London: Longman.

Hudson, R. A. (1992). Teaching Grammar: A Guide for the National Curriculum. Cambridge, Mass.: B. Blackwell.

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