Don’t ditch standard English. Teach it better

TEACHING ENGLISH as a first language is not easy—many youngsters leave school feeling they never quite mastered its finer points. Recently some commentators have been wondering whether the standard version of English really deserves to be singled out as “proper” and worthy of teaching at all. The debate they set off has been unedifying because of entrenched views that have as much to do with politics as with language.Listen to this storyYour browser does not support the element.Speaking recently to the Daily Telegraph, Willem Hollmann of Lancaster University argued that standard English is not uniquely “correct”. This view is common among linguists. Today’s standard English just happens to descend from the dialect prevailing near the seats of power (London) and learning (Oxford and Cambridge) at the critical time when printing took off. It uses “you were”, and not “you was”, only because that dialect did so—not because “you were” is more logical. (If standard English were logical, “to be” would have a single past-tense form, as every other verb does.)Linguists know perfectly well, though, that standard English does have a social superiority, if not a grammatical one. It is the language of serious writing (including linguistics journals) and formal speech. It binds together Dorset, Kent, Yorkshire and London, as well as Alabama, Massachusetts and California. It can be spoken with any accent, allowing a speaker from Belfast to talk to one from Johannesburg or Auckland with little misunderstanding. There is nothing wrong with black vernacular American or Yorkshire English; they just don’t happen to be the dialect that newspapers are written in, or parliamentary debates are conducted in. Both halves of that proposition are equally true, and pupils should be apprised of both.But when linguists make this case, they are often misconstrued as saying students should not be marked down if, for instance, they write “you was” instead of “you were” when deploying standard English. No longer considering “you was” to be incorrect in formal prose would imply the end of any standard at all.Even from the left-wing perspective that many academics share, that would be counterproductive. Sociolinguists are at pains to point out that all dialects are valuable to their speakers—Yorkshire English and so on persist for that very reason. But standard English is valuable to its speakers too. It is dear to those lucky enough to have it as their native tongue (a category that includes most newspaper columnists). But it is also hugely important to those many strivers who didn’t grow up with it—yet hope to master it, so that they can join the wider community around the world that uses it.And there are ways to inculcate it without resorting to snobbery. To begin with, it helps to avoid irrelevant pet peeves. In a column in the Times replying to Mr Hollmann and supposedly sticking up for standard English, Clare Foges was distracted by things like accent (saying fencin for fencing), slang (including the British tag-question innit?) and minor variations such as off of in place of off.These ephemera have nothing whatever to do with standard English. “G-dropping” isn’t lazy, merely an accent; it used to be an upper-class habit, too. Nor does relaxed have to mean incorrect: innit may not be common in the boardroom, but it has its place in casual British English. And off of is standard in America, if not in Britain.Pedagogues have already devised thoughtful approaches for teaching standard English without making students feel stupid for speaking another variety. Linguists like Mr Hollmann are working to get these techniques into classrooms.In the early years, they might include what are in effect translation exercises, getting kids to take the “you was” of their home English and turn it into “you were” for essays. In advanced classes, that sort of task may open up the chance to talk about things like dialects, class and power. Mr Hollmann says all this makes for a “deeper, more engaging and more inclusive discussion of standard English”—not an elimination of it.Yes, standard English stems from the vernacular of power in the 1500s, and is preferred by a middle- and upper-class, mostly white elite today. Some academic types hang labels like “hegemonic” on it. So be it; but it was also the English that Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela enlisted to fight for change. Mandela learned Afrikaans, too, while imprisoned on Robben Island. He did not reject the languages of his oppressors. He knew that changing their minds first required knowing how to reach them.This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "Standing up for standard"

Don’t ditch standard English. Teach it better

TEACHING ENGLISH as a first language is not easy—many youngsters leave school feeling they never quite mastered its finer points. Recently some commentators have been wondering whether the standard version of English really deserves to be singled out as “proper” and worthy of teaching at all. The debate they set off has been unedifying because of entrenched views that have as much to do with politics as with language.

Listen to this story

Speaking recently to the Daily Telegraph, Willem Hollmann of Lancaster University argued that standard English is not uniquely “correct”. This view is common among linguists. Today’s standard English just happens to descend from the dialect prevailing near the seats of power (London) and learning (Oxford and Cambridge) at the critical time when printing took off. It uses “you were”, and not “you was”, only because that dialect did so—not because “you were” is more logical. (If standard English were logical, “to be” would have a single past-tense form, as every other verb does.)

Linguists know perfectly well, though, that standard English does have a social superiority, if not a grammatical one. It is the language of serious writing (including linguistics journals) and formal speech. It binds together Dorset, Kent, Yorkshire and London, as well as Alabama, Massachusetts and California. It can be spoken with any accent, allowing a speaker from Belfast to talk to one from Johannesburg or Auckland with little misunderstanding. There is nothing wrong with black vernacular American or Yorkshire English; they just don’t happen to be the dialect that newspapers are written in, or parliamentary debates are conducted in. Both halves of that proposition are equally true, and pupils should be apprised of both.

But when linguists make this case, they are often misconstrued as saying students should not be marked down if, for instance, they write “you was” instead of “you were” when deploying standard English. No longer considering “you was” to be incorrect in formal prose would imply the end of any standard at all.

Even from the left-wing perspective that many academics share, that would be counterproductive. Sociolinguists are at pains to point out that all dialects are valuable to their speakers—Yorkshire English and so on persist for that very reason. But standard English is valuable to its speakers too. It is dear to those lucky enough to have it as their native tongue (a category that includes most newspaper columnists). But it is also hugely important to those many strivers who didn’t grow up with it—yet hope to master it, so that they can join the wider community around the world that uses it.

And there are ways to inculcate it without resorting to snobbery. To begin with, it helps to avoid irrelevant pet peeves. In a column in the Times replying to Mr Hollmann and supposedly sticking up for standard English, Clare Foges was distracted by things like accent (saying fencin for fencing), slang (including the British tag-question innit?) and minor variations such as off of in place of off.

These ephemera have nothing whatever to do with standard English. “G-dropping” isn’t lazy, merely an accent; it used to be an upper-class habit, too. Nor does relaxed have to mean incorrect: innit may not be common in the boardroom, but it has its place in casual British English. And off of is standard in America, if not in Britain.

Pedagogues have already devised thoughtful approaches for teaching standard English without making students feel stupid for speaking another variety. Linguists like Mr Hollmann are working to get these techniques into classrooms.In the early years, they might include what are in effect translation exercises, getting kids to take the “you was” of their home English and turn it into “you were” for essays. In advanced classes, that sort of task may open up the chance to talk about things like dialects, class and power. Mr Hollmann says all this makes for a “deeper, more engaging and more inclusive discussion of standard English”—not an elimination of it.

Yes, standard English stems from the vernacular of power in the 1500s, and is preferred by a middle- and upper-class, mostly white elite today. Some academic types hang labels like “hegemonic” on it. So be it; but it was also the English that Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela enlisted to fight for change. Mandela learned Afrikaans, too, while imprisoned on Robben Island. He did not reject the languages of his oppressors. He knew that changing their minds first required knowing how to reach them.

This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "Standing up for standard"