Course Introduction
Unit 1: Defining English
Unit 2: Using English
Unit 3: Learning English
Unit 4: Teaching English
Unit 5: Changing English
End of Course

1.2.2 ‘Standard English’: Beliefs

Concept: Monolithic concepts of English have 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)

Such factors have led to a set of ‘folk beliefs’ which are very different from the perspective offered by linguistics.

Activity

Look at Figures 1.4 and 1.5 which, adapting work by (Preston, 2002), depict folk and linguistic views of language.

image51

Figure 1.4: A ‘folk view’ of what language is

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Figure 1.5: A linguistic view of what language is

  • How do you understand these two diagrams? What do you think the labels in the boxes refer to in each case? Can you say how the different levels of concepts in the diagrams relate to each other?
  • 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?

Discussion point 1.2

The 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 in the discussion section at the bottom of the page.

Although popular beliefs about language should not be underestimated, they don’t reflect observable reality very accurately (and can often lead to social injustices). 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)?

21 Comments
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Jessica Franklin 25/03/2024 at 12:44 pm

Interesting regarding indigenous languages being classed as a dialect and not a language. Shows the need for decolonising our thinking when discussing ‘standard English’.
‘Standard English’ as a non-regional dialect challenges language prestige, elitism, and linguistic imperialism, which could further lead to cultural imperialism.

Johan Sandberg McGuinne 12/04/2024 at 1:38 pm

I agree – we definitely need to decolonise the way we talk about languages and language communities around the world, especially as calling Indigenous languages dialects, rather than affording them the same status as a majority language, is a fairly common practice, not just in Mexico, but elsewhere as well.

Despite the fact that North and South Saami in many ways are not mutually intelligible, they are often referred to as dialects anyway by Swedish and Norwegian authorities alike. Most Saami languages are treated as variants of a single Saami language, despite the fact that if the same logic were to be applied to Nordic languages, we would have to think of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian as dialects of an unnamed pan-Nordic language.

Comment *I am Colombian and I am proud of the rich linguistic diversity of my country. In different regions of Colombia indigenous languages are spoken, which in my opinion are not dialects since they are independent from Spanish and have their own grammatical structures, vocabularies and unique worldviews. According to official data, Colombia has 65 indigenous languages, each with its own history and cultural value.
In addition to these indigenous languages, Colombia also has dialectal varieties of Spanish, which are distinguished by their phonetic, lexical and morphosyntactic characteristics. These varieties have emerged from the mixture of cultures and history that has enriched the country. I believe that it is important to recognize and value both the indigenous languages and the dialectal varieties of Spanish and other languages worldwide. A single dialect should not be considered as something standard, but rather it should be recognized that there are different dialects and that each one has its own particularities within the language. The most important thing is that there is effective communication.

I am from Australia but I’ve been living in Germany for almost 25 years. When I first arrived here, I couldn’t speak German but I soon picked up that the people I was meeting through my German girlfriend (who later became my wife) were surprised to discover that I spoke “normal” or “proper” English. A lot has changed since then, but older generations (including German school teachers of English) have very strange notions of what constitutes “proper English”–it’s a mixture of Queen’s/King’s English and how BBC radio announcers spoke 50 years ago, along with a wish for English to be used as they imagine it must be in some idealised notion of a pretty English village in the home counties. They seem oblivious to the lingusitic diversity of the Brits. This is strange given that linguistic diversity is a prominent feature of German, whether it’s Hochdeutsch, Platt, Bayerisch, Schwiizerdütsch or the many dialects found in the rural areas left behind by the modern world. And then there’s Alemannish, something completely different from all the rest. But despite this, people who speak a “Dialekt” are considered to either be cute and worthy of protection, or simply stupid and simple.
Thinking about Standardised English: On my first visit to Germany, I was sitting in an Irish pub in Berlin with my German girlfriend and some friends of hers. A small group of Irish musicians were playing music and when they played a song about convicts being sent to Australia, I told them I was from that country. One of them said “But you don’t sound like an Aussie, mate” and so I countered with “Yeah, because I’m educated.”

Your situation is similar to mine! I’m British and have been living in Germany for 29 years, also arriving with very little knowledge of the German language. I noticed that, when I was in the company of several native-German speakers, they found it necessary to announce that they were switching to Hochdeutsch (“High German”) as there was a non-native speaker in their midst. It was a nice gesture, but as I learned German with a Schwäbische dialect by living in the Black Forest, this switch wasn’t necessary or all that helpful! They no longer do this!

Another thing I’ve noticed is that my English accent is valued here. As an English Language Teacher from Oxford, several adult students have said over the years that they always wanted a teacher with an Oxford accent. That’s all well and good, but as learners, they need to be exposed to speakers with many different accents and dialects, and I have always done this by using videos and podcasts, and the occasional classroom visitor. Some adult learners say they want to speak English “without an accent” and to “sound like a native speaker”. This always worries me as it’s only really possible when learned as a bilingual from childhood; adult learners would need to put in a great deal of work to achieve this somewhat unnecessary aim. I encourage them to improve their accuracy, but to concentrate more on fluency so they have a good working use of English. A student who had been in one of my adult classes for several years left recently, giving the reason that he can converse with anyone that he meets whether they are a native- or non-native speaker of English. His English isn’t perfect, and he knows that, but it’s accurate enough and he has fluency and the confidence to use it socially. He had achieved his language learning aims.

Tanja Galipovic 29/03/2024 at 10:45 am

I am Serbian, living and teaching English in Italy. I’ve noticed two distinct situations… in the UK, the dialect would probably depend on your (apparently low) education level and where you come from, while in Italy, the educated speakers do use their regional dialect, but can also speak “standard Italian”. I am not sure if it is the same in England, so I would be glad if someone could reply

Yes, I think this is a really good point! When I was teaching English in China my students spoke Mandarin/Putonghua at school, but also local dialect among themselves and with their families (and their grandparents sometimes could only speak in dialect). So, Putonghua was a sign of their education and I suppose ambition to move beyond their local area and communicate with people in a broader geographical area. I do remember one friend saying he ‘wasn’t very good at Chinese’, which at the time I found a strange thing to say. On the other hand, my students and friends found their local dialect very fun and thought it was amusing to teach me dialect words and pronunciations. They seemed to feel more ownership and playfulness with the dialect. All this is to say that I think English operates in a similar way, between local dialects/accents and ‘Standard English’, but that we are perhaps not so explicit or upfront about it.

Issy Shackleton 01/04/2024 at 12:12 pm

Being particularly familiar with Romania and Italy, I can say there certainly are tens of ‘dialects’ in these countries, and none are recognized as actual languages, as in the case of Mexico presented in the course. Wikipedia claims that Romanian dialects are all mutually intelligible, but I disagree to an extent. In my experience, you can put together a person from the south/south-east of the country with someone from the north and difficulties of understanding would arise, especially if there is a generational gap. Unfortunately, many of the regional languages of both Romania and Italy are vulnerable or seriously endangered, with older generations mostly being the ones keeping the languages alive. In Italy, these languages are so complex and have German or French influences, and one regional language I was exposed to sounded closer to Romanian than standard Italian!

I agree with the linguistic claim that Standard English is in itself a dialect…I would say it is a ‘variety’ of the language. It shouldn’t be given more importance or status than the other varieties, in a perfect world…

I’d be interested to learn more about others’ regional languages from their countries and their views on them.

Thomas Le Seelleur 03/04/2024 at 10:24 am

I have taught English for a variety of reasons, in different countries with a variety of different needs, goals and contexts. Most of the courses I have taught have been accredited ones leading to exams or internal assessment. Students want to know / learn an English that is standard or general as the exams and tests assess this ‘standard’ language. However, i have worked in Northern Ireland for many years and there major variations in language/ accent 50 miles apart and the students want to know whether they should be learning ‘standard English’ or Northern Irish English – it also depends on whether they intend to stay here in the north or move elsewhere to other English speaking countries or use their English in other countries.

In Myanmar, several indigenous groups and ethnics are coexisting together, possessing various language varieties as well as languages. Burmese being the official language, some regional languages are mutually unintelligible. For instance, သူပုန် /tha-bone/ means “rebel (n)” whereas, in Rakhine, it means “soap”. This shows ‘Standard Burmese’ is a dialect, just as non-regional as ‘Standard English’.

Patricia Bradley 04/04/2024 at 9:38 am

I’m from the USA, and there’s a Louisiana creole language derived from French. There are words and grammar and spellings derived from French, but over generations, the mixing with other languages slowly made it mutually unintelligible from French itself.

The thought that ‘Standard English’ is a non-regional dialect rings true, I believe. It didn’t originate from one particular area, it’s made up of codified grammar and spellings, some of which even native speakers would find archaic in nature. English amongst native speakers constantly evolves with each new generation, technology, and the mixing of different cultures.

Sopuruchi Christian Aboh 05/04/2024 at 11:23 pm

The popular linguistic phrase, ‘A language is a dialect with an army and navy’ seems appropriate here. I think that ‘Standard language’ is also a dialect that has been given more prestige and attention. Igbo, which is my L1, has more than 100 dialects. However, what is considered ‘Standard Igbo’ is a variety has been codified, used in education and other official settings, and used by all to promote mutual intelligibility.

In my experience, the term dialect is very often used when merely referring to a different accent. This is at least true when it comes to Swedes. We often refer to the word ‘dialect’ when we are asking people where they are from. In my opinion, the question is rather what accent they speak than what dialect they use. Unfortunately, in Sweden real dialects are slowly dying out. As we have such an easy access to sound and video of today there is not the same “need” for dialects. We tend to instead keep accents alive and the occasional regional word but on the whole it is fairly the same.

That is pretty much the case with dialect in Finland. Everybody knows ‘standard Finnish’ and that is used in the written media, but people speak either in more or less general spoken Finnish or in their own regional dialect, which is more clearly heard in for example eastern or south-western Finland than e.g. in the capital region.

I believe the same applies to the Malay language as well. Personally, depending on the region one resides, the individual will adopt the local dialect of the region. However, within linguistic education, the standard Malay is taught in schools to generalise its use to those who are unable to speak in specific dialects when travelling to other parts of the region.

The same could be applied to English. In educational settings, standard English is taught in schools. But as Malaysia is a multicultural country, much of what is spoken out of educational contexts has been adapted and changed according to the local context.

Marilyn Mansilla 26/04/2024 at 1:02 pm

I cannot help but mention that many people, organisations, and even countries have benefited greatly from the idea of “THE LANGUAGE”. The English Language Learning industry is a multimillion one.

Couldn’t agree more. ‘Standardised English’ remains prominent in ELT because of its economic values. I do hope growing research in English as a Lingua and Multilingua Franca and Global Englishes can finally make different in more practical sense:)

David Leal Cobos 06/05/2024 at 6:57 am

I lived in the USA a long time ago and I was always told I sounded quite formal and serious. It was the standard British English I had been taught in Spain for many years. What we call “the norm” is a set of established rules that should be seen as the rudiments we need to communicate, but language is different: it evolves and depends on many factors that we aren’t usually aware of unless you become a teacher or you experience ir first-hand. However, the business in ELT continues to promote standard models and nowadays there is a pressing need for international certifications that still support it. The context is everywhere and everything at the same time. If you work with an international team where communication is more important than form, you don’t tend to focus on the latter unless it leads to enhanced communication. As regards a more social perspective, I strongly feel as a non-native speaker that there is an unconscious movement to facilitate communication. In other words, as long as there is communication we don’t really “care” about standard or non-standard usage of the language. In brief, it is speakers who make up the language regardless of their origin.

Hi there:

I am from Colombia, and of course we have regional dialects that differ from one another in such aspects as grammar, accent, pronunciation, and even vocabulary. For instance, some days ago I was discussing with my students in class the differences in UK and US English considering words like “trainers” VS “sneakers” or “jumper” VS “sweater”. They were surprised to see how learning English also requires them to learn how to use vocabulary in different variations of the same language.

Then, one student said that learning all that was such a difficult endeavor, and that she was better off only learning the basics, like in Spanish. Then I asked them all to consider the word “perico”, which in Colombia can have up to 5 different meanings. In the capital city, the word means “coffee with milk”, while in the Andina region, the word means “scrambled eggs with onion and tomato”. Also, in most of the country, the word is also related to a bird, a psychoactive substance, as well as a tool.

That said, I consider that the idea of “Standard English” is in fact a non-regional accent. It is an idea of a normative conception of the language, one which is appropriate for scenarios like politics, technology, or the media industry. However, in everyday communication, English speakers bring with them different realities which are based on their places of origin, life experiences, as well as persona orientations towards the language.

Shukrullah Amiri 24/05/2024 at 2:13 pm

It is interesting that here mentions that Mandarin is imposed by China’s government, mostly criticised. But, Enough was also imposed in the past and still imposes. The difference is that today it imposes in soft power way.

Tiina Asikainen 27/05/2024 at 11:18 am

First I thought it’s rather easy to define the difference between a language and a dialect. In Finland we have two national languages, Finnish and Swedish: Finnish-speaking people don’t understand Swedish without teaching, but they do understand people speaking a different Finnish dialect. In the big picture, I mean. There are, of course, Finnish words that the Swedish-speaking people use (in Finland), and vice versa. And then there are also words that are only used in one dialect, but not in another. Or words may have different meanings in different dialects.

But then there are languages like Swedish, Norwegian and Danish that have more in common with each other than with Finnish, for example. When you know Swedish, you are able to understand at least some words in Norwegian and Danish as well. So, there probably cannot be one “true” definition of a language or dialect that we all could agree on.

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