Is Standard English worth all the fuss? LOGAN VINTERS explores whether Standard English should have a place in education

A repeated discussion you may hear is whether or not Standard English has a role to play in education in Britain. Is Standard English purely cosmetic or does it bring with it a certain prestige and notion of sensibility?

The concept of a standardised language in general seems very appealing. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) has revolutionised the way that people who would typically be mutually unintelligible to each other because of their geographical location, to communicate with a fair amount of ease. Both of these languages have a regulating board that gives some guidelines as to what constitutes part of the standardized language.

So what seems to be the difficulty with Standard English? Well to begin with it seems that critics cannot come to an agreement on what constitutes Standard English. Hayley Davis explains that for her, it is a variety of English that is usually seen in print and the variety that is taught to non-native speakers of the language (1999: 70). Peter Trudgill says that Standard English is purely ‘a social dialect’ and that it no longer has a geographical location linked with it (2001: 124). Paul Kerswill goes as far to say that Standard English is ‘subject to how the observer views the matter’ and that it is more of a ‘social judgement’ (2009: 238).

Differing opinions on what constitutes Standard English makes it extremely difficult for any individual to make a decision on whether it has a place in education. How can it be taught if we do not know what it is? Trudgill finds it in his heart however, to explain what Standard English isn’t. According to him Standard English is neither a language, an accent, a style nor a register (1999). Put simply, Standard English is a dialect; a singular dialect amongst many of the English language. A common misconception that people tend to make is thinking that Standard English has a bearing on accent or pronunciation – specifically with Received Pronunciation (RP) – but this is simply not true. All RP speakers will be able to speak Standard English but not everyone who speaks Standard English must speak in RP.

Why bother with Standard English (SE) then? There does seem to be some use in teaching SE. The idea is to have something similar to MSA/MSM where there is a middle ground in terms of language that everyone can converse in, making communication easier between geographical locations in the country. This carries over into written forms of SE, anyone familiar with speaking SE will be able to read it in written form which encourages the idea that written forms should be in SE.

There is the argument that for a child it is beneficial for them to learn SE to prepare them better in later life. The Newbolt Report encouraged this line of thought and reports that ‘it is emphatically the business of the Elementary school to teach its pupils to speak Standard English’ (1921: 65). Furthering this, the Daily Mail recently reported of a school in Middleborough who handed out letters to parents asking them to correct their children’s speech to something more akin to SE. Christopher Rollason agrees with the teaching of SE and says that SE ‘is a means to individual empowerment’ (2001: 11)

The other side to this argument however, is the notion that the teaching of SE will result in the destruction of regional cultures. Tony Bex and Richard Watts explain that ‘learning Standard English can lead to devaluation of other dialects’ (1999: 14). If certain elements of knowledge are ingrained in a region’s culture and dialect and this is lost, there is the possibility of losing this information; this being an argument very similar to ‘language death’. Also, try and imagine watching the film Trainspotting without the regional dialect. The loss of regional dialects means a loss of different forms of expression, which for creative writing would be a disaster.

In my opinion it seems to be an extremely difficult task to teach children to verbally speak SE; a child will continue to converse in the dialect that they use at home because it is used more frequently. The Bullock Report sums this up quite sensibly when it talks about the teaching of SE. It reports that the idea of teaching SE is not to‘alienate’ the child from their regional dialect but more so to ‘enlarge his repertoire’ (1975: 143). I agree with this and – especially in written form – believe that SE has an important role to play.

LOGAN VINTERS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Bex,T. Watts, R. (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge.

Culpepper, J. et al (2009) English Language: Description, Variation and Context. 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.

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

Holborow, M. (1999) The Politics of English. London: Sage Publications.

Rollason, C. (2001) The Question of Standard English: Some Considerations on John Honey’s Language Is Power. Published in Terminologie et Traduction / Terminology and Translation: A Journal of the Language Services of the European Institutions (Luxembourg: European Commission), No 3. 2001, pp. 30-60

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.

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

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One thought on “Is Standard English worth all the fuss? LOGAN VINTERS explores whether Standard English should have a place in education

  1. Oliver Mills says:

    I do think you make some very good points Logan. Children will naturally be influenced by what they hear at home, but they will also pick up parts of the language in-public, from television, radio etc. so it is difficult to ensure they are taught one form of English only.
    You mentioned schools, I recall myself and the other pupils being told off and reminded that ‘like’ cannot be substituted for ‘said’ in a sentence. In addition, the teachers made a real effort to all speak RP during the school day in order to set, what they perceived as, a ‘good’ example to the students, in the hope they would replicate this way of speaking.
    When you say about regional dialects being in-danger it is indeed worrying. A huge part of British humour is stereotyping and teasing others about where they came from and how they speak. In some ways, it is a real ‘conversation starter’ on the first day of university when everyone has come from far and wide with their different ways of speaking English.
    People should be allowed to use our language however they please and ‘mix it up’, in order for us all not to be specifically defined and somewhat less interesting!

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