Is Standard English superior to other dialects? NATASHA MASON considers the role of SE in schools.

To understand the debate surrounding Standard English, we need to explore what the term means. Many linguists struggle to define the term ‘Standard English’ and it is difficult to establish exactly what the rules of a standard language are. Hayley Davis defines Standard English as a “variety of English which is usually used in print, and which is normally taught in schools and to non-native speakers learning the language” (1999:70). Although this definition explains the context in which Standard English is used, it does not explore the forms of language that constitute a Standard English. Tony Crowley insists in differentiating between a spoken and written Standard English and attempts to define ‘Standard Spoken English’ through the suggestion of what it is not: “Standard spoken English’ […] can be defined in terms of difference, which is to say that we know what ‘Standard English’ is  because we know what it is not (it is not vulgar, provincial, uneducated, inarticulate, uncivilised, bad, evil or perverted English)” (2003: 207).

Here, Crowley essentially just uses the assumptions of others’ opinions to define Standard spoken English. Taking these definitions into consideration, it is evident that Standard English is void of an exact definition, which makes it difficult to reach a sound conclusion regarding whether a Standard English is the ‘correct’ English to teach in schools.

The Newbolt Report of 1921 conveys a very prescriptivist attitude towards Standard English. The report states that “[i]t 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’ (The Newbolt Report, 1926: 65). Overall this is a negative outlook on those who don’t speak the standard. The Bullock Report of 1975 portrays a more liberal and open-minded attitude towards English. The report states that “[t]he aim is not to alienate the child from a form of language with which he has grown up and which serves him efficiently in the speech community of his neighbourhood. It is to enlarge his repertoire so that he can use language effectively in other speech situations and use standard forms when they are needed (The Bullock Report, 1975: 143).

The contrasting attitudes in these reports highlight how attitudes towards language have changed over time.

John Honey was one (controversial) linguist who argued that he was more in favour of similar (old-fashioned) attitudes conveyed by The Newbolt Report. Honey believed that Standard English is superior to all other forms of English and to achieve equality all children should be taught Standard English and use it in every communicative situation (Honey: 1997). This clearly indicates Honey’s attitude towards other non-standard varieties of English. However, having a Standard English is useful. Ronald Carter suggests that “Standard English consists of a set of forms which are used with only minimal variation in written English and in a range of formal spoken contexts in use around the world. Such forms constitute the basis for the teaching of English internationally” (Carter: 1999, 163).

Carter puts forth an interesting and valid argument, that yes, having a standard language is of course useful when taking into consideration that it has minimal variation and can therefore be used as a global language in order for people to communicate internationally. However, Honey suggests that “[t]he speakers of non-standard social and regional dialect forms suffer comparable forms of disadvantage” (1997: 21-22). Honey believed therefore that those who are not taught to speak and write in Standard English are not as intelligent as those who do speak and write in it. This is a problematic assumption to make, and many, like myself, disagree. Carter quotes Perera who claims that “[p]upils who speak non-standard English do so not because they are unintelligent or because they have not been well taught, but because it is the variety of English used all the time by their family and friends’ (1999: 164). If one can communicate successfully using a regional dialect then surely it is unproblematic to avoid using Standard English. Is it really necessary to enforce a use of Standard English at all times? Or should it depend on context, or situation?

NATASHA MASON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Carter, R. (1999) ‘Standard Grammars, spoken grammars: Some educational implications’ in Bex, T. and Watts, Richard J. (eds) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate London: Routledge.

Crowley, T. (2003) ‘Language against Modernity’ in Standard English and the Politics of Language. (2nd edn) Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Davis, H. (1999) ‘Typography, lexicography, and the development of the idea of ‘standard English’’ in Bex, T. and Watts, Richard J. (eds) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate London: Routledge.

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

The Newbolt Report (1921) <http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/newbolt/>

The Bullock Report (1975) <http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/bullock/>

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