Ahead of UN English Language Day on 23 April 2014, English language and linguistics specialist Dr Urszula Clark presents research on variations in the use of English and what these could mean for education policy and teachers of English. Her live-streamed British Council seminar is later today from 19:00 to 20:00 BST.
You are what you speak: place of origin most important identity factor
My research took place in the West Midlands region of the UK and looked at variations in the use of English in creative spoken performance such as comedy, drama and poetry, as well as in written texts such as letters to local newspapers, stories and poems written in dialect.
The results suggest that people are increasingly and deliberately using English in a way that identifies them with a particular place. They do this by incorporating into their speech a set of linguistic features drawn from a particular variety of English. In the West Midlands, for example, people may pronounce ‘you’ as ‘yow’, use ‘Brum’ for ‘Birmingham’ and ‘cor’ for ‘cannot’ or ‘can’t’. By using features in this way, people emphasise their place of origin over other factors such as age, gender, social class and ethnicity.
Is there a ‘correct’ variety of English?
The research highlights how dynamic, fragmented and mobile the English language has become. At the same time, the influence of traditional gatekeepers of ‘standard’ English, such as the BBC, is weakening.
We live in a world where English crosses national boundaries and migration brings people together from different backgrounds and cultures. Consequently, we are probably more aware than ever before of the different ways we draw upon language in relation to linguistic and socio-cultural contexts.
Even though English is used around the world for the purposes of trade, travel, medicine and so on, it is an interesting fact that the majority of the world’s population today is largely bilingual, if not multilingual, even in nations where English is the mother tongue. In parts of Birmingham in the UK, for example, there are primary and secondary schools where nearly 100 per cent of pupils speak English as an additional language; in many others, 40 per cent is the norm.
The implications of this for education policy is that we can no longer speak of the ‘superiority’ of one variety of English over all others. Instead we need to recognise the roles and functions that different varieties of English, including that of standard English, fulfil.
Which variety of English should we teach?
A common and long-held belief among many in the English teaching profession is that the best people to teach spoken English are ‘native’ speakers of the language, especially the teaching of pronunciation. But we know from research that linguistic variation is a characteristic of all languages, and all varieties have their own rules and systems. Often these leak from one variety to another. Once we accept that English comes in many varieties, such concerns become redundant.
Successful communication is more a question of understanding, and being able to engage successfully, in the contexts of use rather than whether one is a ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ speaker. This is as true of English taught in the UK as it is in other contexts around the world.
Find more seminars for English language professionals live-streamed from the UK.