In the latest from our English language seminars, Dr Christopher J. Hall of York St John University explains why the idea that there is just one correct and unchanging form of English is a myth.
English tends to be conceptualised as a monolithic entity, more like a planet than a galaxy. We talk about ‘the’ English language, ‘the’ grammar of English, and ‘the’ vocabulary of English, as though it was all one neat system. But linguists have long understood that this is no more than a convenient fiction. In the 21st century, the global diversity of Englishes and uses of English is revealing that the fiction can be rather inconvenient on many levels, especially in parts of the world where native speakers are scarce. Most English is used now as a lingua franca between non-native users in diverse global situations, and research suggests that the native-speaker norms of Standard English (SE) aren’t always the best solution for effective communication. It’s relevant, then, to investigate teachers’ beliefs about English. What kind of thing do they believe English to be, such that it can be taught, learnt, and used? And how do their beliefs help or hinder the disparate needs of their learners?
For many people, teachers included, this is a non-issue. It’s almost universally assumed that there’s one ‘correct’ version of the language, recorded in dictionaries, pronunciation manuals, and grammar books. Dennis Preston, a sociolinguist who studies ‘folk’ beliefs about language, suggests that most non-linguists define English in terms of an ideal system, existing outside of social groups or individual minds: ‘the language’ itself, as it were. Good language is correct usage of ‘the language’. Lower down the hierarchy is ordinary language, the way most of us use ‘it’. Ordinary language comes in two forms: (a) acceptable but more or less pleasing accents and dialects; and (b) unacceptable errors. SE is identified with ‘the language’ and is seen by many as the only legitimate variety for English-language teaching. (Non-native speakers don’t have dialects, only errors!)
But the monolithic view is spurious. Before the introduction of the printing press to Britain in the late 1400s, there was no single ‘standard’ variety. With the rise of the nation state during the Renaissance, the lucky dialect chosen for printing began to be viewed as the ‘National Language’. It was codified (e.g. in dictionaries) and mythologised (e.g. as purer and more logical than other dialects). In the 18th century, a doctrine of correctness was fostered, leading to the monolithic notion of SE that is equated with ‘the language’ today.
There are good reasons, of course, for using SE models and targets in English-language teaching. Use of the dialect is expected for study/work in native-speaker cultural contexts, and is seen as desirable due to its association with power and wealth. What’s more, it constitutes a codified, uniform reference point for learning, teaching, and testing.
But an exclusive focus on SE ignores what we might call the ‘plurilithic’ reality of world Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), where there is a great deal of variability in pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and usage conventions. In fact, SE (itself quite variable and only patchily described) is effectively unattainable as a target for most learners—including native speakers! The truth is that an insistence on a monolithic target represents a deficit model of learning, and is based on a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of language learning. Rather than the internalisation of an external set of facts (prescriptive rules about ‘Good English’), successful learning involves the construction of an internal set of effective procedures for communication (learners’ own rules for using English).
On heightening their awareness of Englishes and how they are learnt, teachers may realise that concepts they had taken for granted, such as ‘accuracy’ and ‘correctness,’ are contingent, not immutable. They might then discuss with their students the role of SE within a more plurilithic galaxy of Englishes. Steve Thorne recommends that teachers exploit the ways that their students are inevitably learning and using other Englishes outside the classroom (in social networking, multi-player online gaming, etc.), by getting them to bring in samples to be used in what he and co-author Jonathon Reinhardt call ‘bridging activities’. Through such activities, learners can explore how the SE structures and rules they are taught are part of a much broader English repertoire. This repertoire provides forms which are appropriate for multiple genres and identities, some more meaningful and useful to them than narrow SE.
So a more realistic pedagogy is called for, one which responds to the challenge of world Englishes and ELF. This will require a radical change in the mindsets of teachers, learners, educational authorities, parents, and policy-makers, and will only come about after a very long and difficult process. But if it succeeds, it will be because teachers are prepared to take the lead. The online, self-paced course Changing Englishes is designed to help them do this, and my recent seminar provides an accessible introduction to the topic. Take a look. They might convince you that ‘Planet English’ is indeed a myth, and prompt you to travel the galaxy of Englishes with your students instead!
You can also watch the seminar video.