ConceptMonolithic concepts of English developed for both social and cognitive reasons
The popular view of English as a monolithic system has developed largely as a result of two factors, one cognitive and one social:
- • our generally unconscious use of language, and our inability to observe its development, storage and processing in the mind (Hall, 2005)
- • the association between ‘Standard English’ and nationalism, fostered by the education system and other institutions, and the consequent doctrine of correctness (Armstrong and Mackenzie, 2013)
ActivityLook at Figures 1.4 and 1.5 which, adapting work by Preston (2002), depict folk and linguistic views of language.
- • Can you guess how each of the concepts (named in the boxes), and the relationship between the concepts, is supposed to be understood?
- • With which concept would you associate ‘Standard English’ in each diagram?
- • Where do you see non-native users of English being placed in these diagrams?
FeedbackAccording to the 'folk' view:
- • 'THE LANGUAGE' is an ideal, abstract system, existing outside of particular communities and individual minds. 'Good language' is what is considered correct usage of the abstract system of 'THE LANGUAGE'. 'Ordinary language' is the way most users use 'THE LANGUAGE', and comes in two forms: acceptable but more or less pleasing 'dialects' (depending on region and often viewed as quaint, comic, ugly, etc.) and unacceptable 'errors' (normally in writing, where 'good language' is expected).
- • 'Standard English' is, essentially, 'THE LANGUAGE', which 'good language' adheres to and 'ordinary language' often departs from.
- • The arrow represents decreasing 'correctness' or some other normative value.
- • Non-native speakers are often assumed to lack proficiency, and their usage is therefore associated strongly with 'errors' (which teachers correct). The minority of 'successful' non-native speakers are assumed to use 'good language', and not their own, or native speakers' 'dialects'.
According to the linguistic view:
- • 'THE LANGUAGE' is a social construction, an abstraction from the dynamic and highly variable nature of idiolects and dialects, and defined in terms of common structure and mutual intelligibility. 'Dialects' can be understood here as the commonalities in language structure and use of distinct groups of speakers who are usually defined in terms of region and socioeconomic status. 'Idiolects' can be understood as the language forms and uses of individual users.
- • 'Standard English' is one of the dialects—which just happens to be codified, institutionalised, used in writing, spoken with a prestigious non-localised accent, etc. (In the actual practice of linguistics, this belief is hard to sustain, and many argue that it has led to significant distortions in supposedly 'objective' description and analysis: see Armstrong and Mackenzie, 2013.)
- • The arrow represents abstractness, going from the neuropsychological level (of individuals' minds/brains), through the sociocultural level (social groups), and ultimately to idealisation.
- • Non-native speakers have typically been ignored in linguistics.
Discussion point 1.2The word dialect is often used outside linguistics to refer to language varieties that are not viewed as having the status of ‘full languages’. It is used in China, for example, for the hundreds of regional languages which are written with the same system of characters but which may be mutually unintelligible with Mandarin. It’s commonly used in Mexico to refer to indigenous languages. Is there anything similar in your country or other countries you’re familiar with? What do you feel about the linguistic claim that ‘Standard English’ is (just) a non-regional dialect? Share your thoughts here.
Although popular beliefs about language should not be underestimated, they don’t reflect observable reality very accurately. So although people have monolithic beliefs about English, the actual forms and uses of English continue to be plurilithic, even in the heartlands of ‘Standard English’. Even after over a century of mass schooling and mass exposure to ‘good language’ through radio and subsequently TV, ‘the language’ won’t stay still.
This is especially so with globalisation. Indeed, Pennycook (2007, 2009) coined the term plurilithic as part of a critical analysis of the cultural politics of national language institutionalisation in our increasingly hybrid and globalised world. But what does it mean for English language teaching (ELT)?