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
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