Talkin proper? The standard English snobbery in schools

Schools should celebrate dialects and standard English – rather than telling pupils how to speak, says Rob Drummond
16th October 2019, 3:03pm


Talkin proper? The standard English snobbery in schools
Language: Why Schools Need To Promote The Use Of Local Dialects As Well As Standard English

There is a group of pupils in your school who are at a disadvantage you may have never considered. It impacts their access to the curriculum, their social interactions and their self-esteem. And the worst thing is, schools tend to make things worse, not better.

These pupils are those who do not have a strong background in "standard English".

This is the view of Rob Drummond, reader in linguistics a Manchester Metropolitan University, and head of youth language at the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies.

Speaking on the latest episode of  the Tes Podagogy podcast (click above), he explains that standard English is the language of written English in the press, in books, in textbooks and the type of English promoted in schools.

It's thought of as using the "correct" words in the "correct" order with the "correct" pronunciation. But Drummond argues it is no more "correct" than any other way of speaking.

"There's nothing objectively linguistically better, more superior, or more sophisticated in so-called standard English. It's just, we have this sense that is more correct because it has all the prestige and power behind it," says Drummond.

Standard English? 

He says those not brought up in an area - or a household - where standard English is the norm face a significant disadvantage in school.

"Going to school and trying to operate in this so-called standard English is like learning another dialect, it's like learning another language almost," he says. "So what many of us take for granted, a lot of people simply don't have that. Those barriers are there for some people in society, and they're not there for others. And this is an accident of birth, in terms of where, and in what context, you happen to grow up."

If having to interpret the language of school was not enough of an issue, Drummond argues that sometimes schools can adopt rules that make things even harder.

"You hear anecdotally about schools banning slang or banning regional dialect words and I know why they're doing it, you can see that comes from a good place, but it is misguided," he says.

"Because as soon as you start demonising or belittling or demeaning these non-standard variants, you're kind of saying, 'That way of speaking is bad and this way of speaking is better.' And it's making people almost feel ashamed of their own language, their own way of speaking, which, of course, is going to be the way of speaking of their parents or their grandparents or their relatives, so you're diminishing the whole family."

Certainly banning slang words, discouraging dialect words and urging pupils to speak in standard English is a common effort in schools, but teachers would argue that this is necessary to prepare young people to be able to navigate exams, the world of work and adulthood in general.

Drummond is sympathetic to the argument, but he feels we are going about things in the wrong way.

Celebrate dialects

"We need to challenge the dominance of this pretty arbitrary standard English in society in general. But, at the same time, we need to acknowledge that young people do need to be able to operate in standard English in order to succeed in society. I don't think the two things are mutually exclusive.

"I'll get into discussions with people about this and they'll say, 'Well it's all very well saying young people should be able to speak however they want, or use language however they want, and we shouldn't bow down to this prestigious form of language, but in the real world, they'll be judged for this.'

"Of course, I can see that. But for teachers, they should be focused on teaching young people to operate in standard English, yet at the same time, they should be able to do that in a way that challenges the status standard English has in the first place."

How might that be done? Essentially, Drummond advocates an additive, not reductive, approach.

"There is a real skill that the people who will have to acquire some kind of standard English as a second dialect have in being able to slip between the two varieties and to kind of switch and mix the two. Teachers should really celebrate this diversity, and encourage it being perceived in that way.

"So we need to take the approach of teachers taking a genuine interest in the diversity that's already there. And then using that as a kind of a method or the technique of getting to the standard English."

Teacher confidence

He feels school leaders can help here by ensuring teachers are able to speak in their own non-standard English language.

"Teachers should be modelling things in the same way that we're expecting the young people to, so I would have thought that teacher should be able to feel comfortable enough to be able to demonstrate their own regional diversity."

According to a recent interview in Tes with Dr Alex Baratta, that rarely happens. Drummond says this is often down to a failure to acknowledge that this is not an either/or situation - both adults and children (as shown in Drummond's research) recognise when it is appropriate to use different forms of language, he says.

"I know people argue against this with the idea that teachers should be modelling standard English because that's  what we're trying to learn, but I think if we take the approach I've just outlined of celebrating regional diversity and accessing standard English through that, then there's no reason why the teacher can't do the same, we're all quite capable of acknowledging that one particular variety of speaking is appropriate for this context, and another variety might be more appropriate for another context."

In the podcast, Drummond outlines more ways in which the insistence on standard English can be problematic in schools and talks at length about other areas of sociolinguistics on the podast. You can listen in the player above or type 'Tes - the education podcast' into your podcast platform. 

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