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Sunday, 26 January 2014

What is standard English?

Since writing my blog 'The Nuts and Bolts of the English curriculum' I have been doing a lot of discussing, reading and observing of spoken English in order to try to give myself an idea of what standard English actually is. There are lots of definitions but actually I have found this definition most useful it says not what it is but what it is not:

What Standard English Is Not . . .
  • (i) It is not an arbitrary, a priori description of English, or of a form of English, devised by reference to standards of moral value, or literary merit, or supposed linguistic purity, or any other metaphysical yardstick--in short, 'Standard English' cannot be defined or described in terms such as 'the best English,' or 'literary English,' or 'Oxford English,' or 'BBC English.
  • (ii) It is not defined by reference to the usage of any particular group of English-users, and especially not by reference to a social class--'Standard English' is not 'upper class English' and it is encountered across the whole social spectrum, though not necessarily in equivalent use by all members of all classes.
  • (iii) It is not statistically the most frequently occurring form of English, so that 'standard' here does not mean 'most often heard.'
    (iv) It is not imposed upon those who use it. True, its use by an individual may be largely the result of a long process of education; but Standard English is neither the product of linguistic planning or philosophy (for example as exists for French in the deliberations of the Academie Francaise, or policies devised in similar terms for Hebrew, Irish, Welsh, Bahasa Malaysia, etc); nor is it a closely-defined norm whose use and maintenance is monitored by some quasi-official body, with penalties imposed for non-use or mis-use. Standard English evolved: it was not produced by conscious design.
    (Peter Strevens, "What Is 'Standard English'?"RELC Journal, Singapore, 1981)
What stands out for me is  'nor is it a closely-defined norm whose use and maintenance is monitored by some quasi-official body'. Yet according to our recent staff training on 'The Nuts and Bolts of the New English Curriculum' Ofsted will do just that. In fact they will, we are told, judge schools on their use of, not just teaching of 'Standard English.'

My husband and I were on the bus going into Liverpool for the day yesterday. We enjoy getting the bus as its a rare opportunity to leave the car behind and we get to 'people watch' a pass time we both enjoy. Yesterday's trip proved a fascinating insight into the English language, well the spoken part at least.

On the journey to Liverpool we were sat close to two young girls of about 16. Their accents were hard to detect but were mainly 'Wirral' accents. My first impression was how loud they were talking about all manner of things and without any shyness whatsoever. The next striking thing was the over use of the word 'like' at first we tried to count but we lost count very quickly because every sentence spoken contained the word. The use of 'like' is quite widespread, even the young children that I teach use it regularly yet I would guess less than 5 years ago it would not have been used in its current context at all. This got me thinking again about how the English Language and indeed any language both spoken and written evolves constantly. Below are some of the new words added to the Oxford Dictionary:

November’s quarterly update sees a wide range of words enter Oxford Dictionaries Online. Whether you are about to spend silly money to go on a vacay, or have spent up on merch and will be at home listening to a slow jamFrom the world of technology high definitionlive-stream, and iOS are now featured, as well as terms refollowresubscribe, and hackableAlso added are words from the world of food and drink, such as house-made, in addition to environmental and genetic developments including frack and gene doping.
How then can we define Standard English? Language is beautiful, it changes, the world changes. If the argument for the New English curriculums obsession with  Standard English is that it will prepare our children and young adults to communicate in the global community using a common language I would argue that 'tech speak'is the new global language and that in fact beyond that people will always find ways to communicate. Our young people communicate daily with people from within their own community and with people from around the world via social media and they are doing it far more competently than we give them credit for.

So Mr Gove and Mr and Mrs Ofsted perhaps you need to listen to our young people and stop patronising them.