I was at a workshop last week, and the workshop leader, a nice man (I genuinely mean this) mentioned the fact that OFSTED now are also looking for corrections of learners’ English. I sat there, with my smug “Yeah, I’m an English teacher so that’s not going to be difficult” face on, but as things went on, I began to get irritated. He began to start to waffle somewhat vaguely about making sure that learners use “standard English”. He made a pretence of a nod of acknowledgement to the fact that there is no such thing, but then proceeded to essentially ignore that concept and make sweeping statements about standard English.
Standard English is a term beset by problems, not least on issues of accent and dialect, where things can, and do, get quite nasty. Now I would probably take a fairly accurate guess that the accent which most people assume when they think of “standard English” is almost certainly somewhere in the region of RP. As a user of an English which also approximates RP, I have no real problems with this. However, our workshop leader was, by his own admission, from Northern Ireland. Therefore he was already not using this version of standard English, on account of his accent. And lots of the people, indeed most of the people in the room, were from Yorkshire. So again, not using “standard English” as the norm. Based on the RP (ish) model, most of the people would have struggled to say cup “properly.” In the north of Britain, there is no distinction in the vowel sound of “foot” and “strut”, which is not true of RP and other southern varieties of British English. I mean, come on people, I felt like saying, nobody here is using “standard” English because most northerners are essentially one vowel sound short of a standard full deck.
I am being facetious to make a point here. I would hope that northern readers would feel aggrieved by my final statements in the preceding paragraph, and for that I do apologise. However, explore that emotion a little, and identify how it feels when someone says that your version of English is not “right.”
Essentially, when we correct learners’ English (and indeed ESOL learners) we make huge, huge value judgements about language. Looking back I should have put my hand up and said “excuse me, does OFSTED have a standard English in mind?” I’ve seen their style guide, and it would worry me if that was the standard. It’s mostly fairly reasonable, but there are some anomalies and weirdnesses, including the fact that apparently OFSTED inspectors need guidance on how to use an apostrophes, and basic sentence structure. I’d have thought that such a mighty bunch of intellects would be above such guidance: my five year old daughter is pretty much up to speed on them, after all. My particular favourite pieces of advice are the splendidly phrased “Passives need not be avoided” (good job, really) and the cowardly cop out claim that “split infinitives are best avoided if you can do so without sounding awkward”. Given how easily the quango will quite happily trample over everything else in a teacher’s life, it seems odd that they should be so timidly non-committal on something as trifling as the split infinitive myth. Seriously, OFSTED, grow some grammatical cojones.
Anyway, back to the serious stuff. There is a perception, a pretence, that there is a fixed”good English” and that this is an entirely objective standard. Alas no. The uncomfortable reality of improving standards in English, whatever they may be, is that teachers are in the business of making sure that learners (of vocational subjects as well as ESOL and literacy) know how to defer to the holders of power in a socially or economically challenging context. The power-holders in many of our learners’ lives (employers, job centre staff, job interviewers, politicians, university tutors, etc.) all have expectations of language based on their own personal standards. These people are gatekeepers to success in learners’ lives, and they use language as a tool, arguably one of the most important tools, by which to assess whether young people are allowed access to the wealth and prosperity. It’s unpleasant, but within language is encoded facts about class, social background, education and so on, complex rules of a challenging game, and as learners progress they need know how to play that game. In the same way, when they are themselves in these gatekeeper positions, the growing common tag “innit” may be the standard across the country, and may be expected in a formal language context. The thing is that none of these are “right”. It’s just that one entirely arbitrary form of English has greater prestige than others, and is associated with wealth, success and prosperity. If learners want to buy into that, then they need to know how to use language in order to get there.
So rather than get learners talking about right or wrong English, why not get learners clued up on language and power. Much better than criticise and demean their normal language use as non-standard and “wrong”, we should get learners to actively, consciously and effectively select language for a given effect. I have purposely, consciously used full blown RP to annoy self -proclaimed working class northerners, and will consciously insert glottal stops and generally revert to my native northern Thames Valley English to make points about standards of English. Language is a weapon to be used aggressively and assertively, in both offence and defence. Learners need to know that this is the important point about language standards, and be able to use their language as a tool with which to play, beat and win the system.