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Friday, February 19, 2016

Why We Need to Teach Standard English

This recent video is not well-written, but it expresses an argument I have read hundreds of times. It is the conventional wisdom in linguistics and TEFL. And it is quite wrong.

The basic claim is that there is no right or wrong in English, no better or worse accent, and it is prejudice to value or teach any one form of English over any other.

This ought to be self-evident nonsense. If it relly does not matter, why teach English at all? It follows that whatever form of English the student now speaks, however non-standard is as good as any other. He or she uses mostly Korean grammar and vocabulary? Who are we to impose our ideas of propriety on him/her? Teaching is cultural chauvinism. They are simply speaking “Mexican English,” or “Gulf Arab English,” or “Korean English.”

To continue with the erroneous assumptions of the article:

“The problem with what we called the “standard” form is that it is always made by whoever is in power at the time. If there are two major dialect groups, but one is the working class and the other is the ruling class, it’s the ruling class who gets to make the dictionaries and decide what is 'right' or 'wrong' to say. “
This is commonly claimed, and it is not true. It is Marxist cant. The ruling class might have such power if they wanted it, but they naturally has no desire to sound like everyone else. If they did, how would they be recognized as the ruling class? An upper-class English accent is very different from RP (Received Pronunciation, the British standard, aka BBC English). In the US, Thurston Howell III speaks with a distinct and recognizable posh accent. So did the Kennedys.

The standard pronunciation is not chosen by the ruling class, but by professionals in the field of communicating: broadcast journalists, actors, direcrors. The written language is determined by professional writers and editors. It was ever so. Check the Oxford English Dictionary for their citations. Perhaps these are a ruling class in a sense: they rule over language and usage.  

The video supposes that valuing RP or General American (the American standard) is simply discrimination. But here is why it is important. Language existsts primarily for communication. Accordingly, the most widely and easily understood dialect is the most useful to know. Learn Ebonics, and no doubt you can speak effectively to other urban blacks. Everyone else is going to struggle. Speak Standard, English, and urban blacks will understand about as easily; but so will everyone else, including non-native speakers from India or Lapland. Which is more valuable to know?

It is an interesting fact that most Norwegians claim to understand spoken Swedish, yet most Swedish say they cannot understand Norwegian. Why? Because Sweden is a larger country, and Norwegians are used to hearing Swedish on TV and radio. Swedes do not get much Norwegian TV. Similarly, cable TV news, pop music, Hollywood movies, and so forth, ensure that everyone worldwide has little trouble with RP or GA. Give them a rural Yorkshire accent, though, and even other native speakers will struggle.

And why shouldn't employers discriminate against you if you only speak ebonics and not standard English? Your communications skills are intrinsically less valuable.

Some argue that this is not fair to minorities. They must learn the majority dialect. It is easier for the privileged people with white skin, because they speak the more useful dialect from birth.

But this too is not true. RP is spoken as a native dialect by only 3% of the British population. Native speakers of GA are restricted to a portion of Iowa. For all the rest of us, it is a matter of learning a second dialect. The article tacitly admits this without realizing it by speaking of how we all “code shift.” We generally learn the standard dialect in school.

Accordingly, it is completely correct to judge those who speak in inappropriate circumstances in a non-standard dialect as less well educated and probably less intelligent. This is not discrimination; this is a good and useful marker, like hiring only those who have completed high school.

The fact that language changes over time is perfectly irrelevant here. Nobody so far as I know is opposed to this. The issue is whether the changes are useful and follow the logic of the language, or are  unnecessary noise, hindering communication. This is generally what the professional communicators decide, and why they are needed. There is expertise in language just as in anything else.

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