Spoken Standard English: A purely cosmetic commodity? RICHARD KELBRICK explores the role of SE in schools

Is the possession and application of spoken Standard English really that important? Will understanding be completely obscured if people speak naturally using their own accents and dialects? Will our children become washed-up, penniless losers with no stake in society just because they didn’t flaunt a Standard English dialect in that job interview when they were 21? The answer, in my opinion, is an overwhelming NO. However, some, albeit not so explicitly, would have you believe otherwise.

I believe the teaching of written Standard English in schools is important. This is an opinion shared by linguist Ronald Carter (1999: 163), who says that “there is little doubt that standard written English should be taught in schools” and curriculum documents are “right to stress its importance”. Furthermore, Peter Trudgill (1999: 127) believes that the teaching of Standard English within schools as the dialect of written English is “unassailable”. But what about spoken English in schools?

The Newbolt Report (1921) was commissioned by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and sought to address problems surrounding the teaching of English in schools. Regarding spoken Standard English, The Newbolt Report (1921: 65) did not mince its words: “It is emphatically the business of the Elementary School to teach all its pupils who either speak a definite dialect or whose speech is disfigured by vulgarisms, to speak standard English, and to speak it clearly, and with expression”.

Essentially then, the report wanted to eradicate any non-Standard dialects employed by children and replace them with the Standard English dialect. However, you or I would be wrong to assume that such opinions on spoken Standard English are limited to the stuffy early 1920s. The attempted suffocation of natural, unique, non-standard dialects reared its ugly head in 2013, when The Daily Mail reported that Carol Walker, the headmistress of Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough, sent a rather ambiguously-worded letter home to pupils’ parents, urging them to stop their children from using certain non-standard forms and phrases, offering the ‘correct’ versions instead. According to Carol Walker herself (as quoted in the Daily Mail article), the aim was to ‘equip’ the children “to go in to the world of work and not be disadvantaged”. Aside from my reservations regarding her reasoning, it was the wording of the letter that caused me the most confusion. The letter, an image of which can be found within the Daily Mail article, reads “if you hear your child saying the following [non-standard] phrases or words…”, yet lists spelling-based examples such as ‘werk’, ‘shert’ and ‘your’ (as opposed to, as the letter states, the correct ‘you’re’), variations which, if used in spoken language, would not cause any ambiguity whatsoever. Despite this, Carol Walker claims that she is “not asking the children to change their dialect or accent”.

However, opinions such as those expressed by Carol Walker and the Newbolt Report (1921) are countered in 1975’s Bullock Report, established by then Secretary of State for Education and Science Margaret Thatcher (you may have heard of her), who, according to Honey (1997: 172), “had hoped [the Bullock Report] would come down firmly in favour of an emphasis on standard English”. She was to be left “bitterly disappointed” (Honey 1997: 172) however, as, unlike the Newbolt Report (1921), the Bullock Report (1975: 286) sanctioned children’s usage of dialects other than Standard English, stating that no child “should be expected to cast off the language and culture of the home as he crosses the school threshold”.

In my opinion, the views expressed in the Bullock Report (1975) regarding the use of Standard English in schools are much more sensible than those expressed so emotively in the Newbolt Report (1921). If we are simply teaching children to speak with a Standard English dialect to enhance their employability, then the dialect exists as nothing more than an easily-expendable cosmetic feature that people can use in order to gain an advantage in certain contexts. Furthermore, I believe that the fact that Standard English (which is merely a dialect, and no indication of intelligence or diligence) is viewed as such a valuable commodity within both schools and the workplace is a sad indictment on British society.

RICHARD KELBRICK, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Carter, R. (1999) ‘Standard grammars, spoken grammars and education’ in Bex, T. and Watts, R.J. (eds.) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge, pp. 149-166.

Department for Education and Science (1975) A Language for Life [The Bullock Report]. London: HMSO.

Honey, J. (1997) Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London: Faber and Faber.

Newbolt, H. (1921) The Teaching of English in England. London: HMSO.

Trudgill, P. (1999) ‘Standard English: What it isn’t’ in Bex, T. and Watts, R.J. (eds.) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge, pp. 117-128.

Williams, O. (2013) Primary school tells parents to stop children using slang phrases as it is preventing them from learning ‘standard’ English. The Daily Mail. [online].  5th February 2013 [Accessed 24th April 2015]. A

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2 thoughts on “Spoken Standard English: A purely cosmetic commodity? RICHARD KELBRICK explores the role of SE in schools

  1. Olivia Stanyer says:

    Hi Rich,

    I agree with your view points that if you do not speak Standard English you should not be punished for this, and that the teaching of written Standard English in schools is important to a child’s education, thus children have to be able to understand the differences. Furthermore, I do believe that spoken Standard English should be used in the correct circumstances, but I am not saying that children should neglect their own dialects as I do not agree that everyone should speak the same; people should have the right to be different, retain their own identity and be proud of their accent. Children should be taught how to apply the use of Standard English over non Standard English and how to use it appropriately, for example attending a job interview.

    I also agree with your statement about the views presented in the Bullock Report being more sensible than those in the Newbolt Report. The Newbolt Report does seem a bit far-fetched, and so does the letter sent home to parents by Carol Walker. Children have the right to speak how they wish in the comfort of their own home and their dialect should not be questioned, as long as children know when to use Standard English in particular circumstances, they do not need to use Standard English all the time, it just would not be deemed a natural process.

  2. Jessica Metcalfe says:

    Hi Rich,

    Thank you for the interesting read!

    I think you are right in picking up the flaws in Carol Walker’s letter, as I too believe that written and spoken attributes should be dealt with separately and the examples in which she has considered an issue would not be such a problem (or as big as she is making out) in spoken language.

    The idea of culture identity also comes to mind. If using Standard English implies that a speaker is banishing their identity and culture in favour of the ‘correct’ form, then I agree that regional dialects should be encouraged to stick around!

    Reading on, I understand that there are many aspects that are considered within a job interview, so, for the most part, I agree with you when you say that in order to gain employment, Standard English is not essential. However, do you not believe that there is a level of sense in the view that Standard English heightens interview success? Surely using a Standard English dialect puts a person in a better position of receiving the job, over a person that is using their regional dialect and the interviewer hasn’t got a clue what they are saying?!

    That is my only question, as I do agree with many of your arguments!

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