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.


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


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


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)?

Discussion Section

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