Non-standard English is not sub-standard

28th September 2018 at 00:00
When a teacher highlights a student’s use of language as bad or wrong, what is really being criticised is that child’s identity, argues linguistics expert Rob Drummond

Every now and then, newspaper stories, blogs, or comments on social media appear that bemoan the falling standards of English among young people and argue for stricter policies around language use in schools. They suggest banning or restricting the use of non-standard forms and slang, insisting that pupils should be speaking in “proper” or “correct” – so-called “standard” – English.

My impression is that these stories are generally received in one of three ways by different groups of people:

1. Agreement (with varying levels of enthusiasm, from strong to zealous), by the general, non-teaching, public.

2. Despair (albeit slightly smug), by academics working in sociolinguistics.

3. Anywhere between strong agreement and strong disagreement depending on the context, the school, the class, the day, the motivation, the energy levels, the (lack of) space in the curriculum, the amount of actual contact with pupils and numerous other influences, by teachers themselves.

I should say that I am at number 2, and I spend some of my time arguing against the perceptions of people who hold the first viewpoint. However, this article addresses people in the third category, who can be a disparate group, holding wildly different views on certain topics while still sharing a profession. There is obviously a common goal among teachers: to educate, socialise and generally improve the life chances of the young people they work with. When it comes to language, this manifests in the need to teach young people to be able to operate successfully in standard English, as this is what will be expected of them as they enter wider society.

But what is standard English? Despite its familiarity as a term, it is actually quite hard to define, especially in relation to spoken language. It is fairly easy to agree on what constitutes standard written English in any particular context, as there are explicit rules and conventions to be followed. But spoken English is very different from writing, and natural speech simply doesn’t (and shouldn’t) follow the same patterns. We rarely speak in the kinds of complete sentences found in writing – even the most fluent speech will naturally include hesitations, false starts, repetitions and so on.

Hard-line view

If teachers are aware that we don’t speak the same way as we write, yet take the hard-line view described earlier around “correct” language, then what are they actually suggesting? They are probably thinking of standard spoken English as being language that adheres to general conventions around features such as subject/verb agreement (I was, you were) or the appropriate choice of relative pronouns (she was the one who/what/that did it), and language that doesn’t contain what they see as slang. It will also presumably consist of regular pronunciations of certain sounds such as “three” and “with” (rather than “free/tree” and “wiv/wid”), along with many others.

But it is important to remember that standard English, however defined, is linguistically no better than any other variety; its status and prestige are a result of historical chance, tradition and a powerful user-base rather than any inherent superiority. Unfortunately, this arbitrarily awarded distinction perpetuates an imbalance in society between those who happen to grow up surrounded by standard English and those who don’t.

So, assuming all teachers will see the need for young people to be able to communicate effectively in something like standard English, the question that remains is whether forced adherence to standard English at school, and forced rejection of non-standard English, is an appropriate way to go about achieving this competence.

I strongly believe that adopting an approach in which language is set up as being “good” or “bad”, “correct” or “incorrect”, is not only disrespectful and potentially damaging to large groups of young people but also completely misses a hugely valuable teaching and learning opportunity. The reason it is disrespectful and potentially damaging is that language is so inextricably linked to identity; so much so that, in many ways, we perform and enact our identities through the language we use.

In which case, we are doing far more than we might think when we dismiss someone’s way of speaking as “bad” or “wrong”. It is naive to suggest that, by criticising someone’s language, we are simply commenting on something that can easily be changed – we are actually taking aim at something that is part of what makes an individual who they are.

Too often, the criticism is a naivety that stems from the security (and pure luck) of being brought up in an environment in which meaningful exposure to standard English was the norm. The missed learning opportunity relates to the fact that the non-standard varieties some people are so keen to banish quite clearly have their own sophistication and validity. If you don’t believe me, just listen – really listen – to what your young people are saying to each other. The very fact that you won’t actually understand a lot of it, or that you won’t be able to pick up on the nuances of meaning in a discussion around whether person A is speaking about or speaking to person B (none of which, incidentally, necessarily involves any actual speaking), should start to tell you that there is something going on.

Or else find one of your young people who is into grime music and listen to them perform. Listen to the linguistic dexterity and poetic awareness that is involved in creating lyrics at that speed. Non-standard? Absolutely. Sub-standard? Hardly.

Surely an understanding and acknowledgement of this alternative sophistication and nuance is a perfect resource with which to explore a fundamental aspect of language – that its inherent and natural variation is entirely bound up with issues of identity, power and with what is or isn’t appropriate in any given context.

Language is not good, bad, correct, incorrect, proper or improper in itself; it is more or less appropriate given the particular context, the particular speakers, and its social and communicative purpose at that moment.

Natural ways of speaking

There is no question that we need to teach young people to be able to operate in standard English, but it is possible to do so without denigrating their own natural ways of speaking. Engaging with pupils’ own speech as a tool to explore and compare the natural variation within language will not only make the whole process more meaningful but will also instil a healthy critical awareness of a society that unfairly values certain ways of speaking so much more highly than others.

What is more, doing this will lead to a surprising revelation – that young people are almost always capable of shifting to a more standard way of speaking if they choose to. I know this from my own experiences researching and working with young people in a secondary pupil referral unit. Yes, there may be other issues that emerge in more formal situations (confidence, body-language, eye-contact), but it is simply incorrect to put all the blame on language.

So, instead of blindly advocating the use of an arbitrary standard form of language at the expense of equally sophisticated, non-standard varieties, let’s properly engage with the innovative ways with which young people use language.

In doing this, we can not only provide greater proficiency and awareness in standard and non-standard varieties alike but we can equip our students with the understanding and resources to challenge a society that so blatantly favours the linguistic style of a privileged minority.

Dr Rob Drummond is a senior lecturer in linguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University and head of youth language at the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies

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