Standard English

The question of standard English is a thorny one for those of us who work with adult learners, and you will hear many opinions about how we should teach students who come from communities who use non-standard English.

Standard English is the language spoken by people who have been educated in the mainstream system. That means it is the language invented by people who have power, who are wealthy and who are white. It is by definition not the language invented by our students.

Standard English is not “correct” in itself, and in fact is constantly changing. For example, it is now considered correct to sometimes split an infinitive, and in Canada most people manage to get through days, weeks, and even months, without using “whom.”

Incorrect, sloppy, and ugly

When we teach reading and writing, we invite learners to join us in our use of standard English; we ask them to modify their own ways of speaking, to leave the ways of their families, friends and communities, to take on a new form of language that marks them as one of “us.” If we insist that standard English is inherently correct and more precise or more beautiful than non-standard English, learners have to admit that the way they speak is incorrect, sloppy, and ugly. Even worse, they have to agree that the way their families and friends speak is also sub-standard. Nothing good will come of asking learners to put themselves and their communities down in this way.

What’s the matter, you too good for us now?

Many adult learners are troubled by friends and families who say that they will become “high and mighty” if they carry on with school, that they will be too stuck up to keep old connections. As a result, when we insist that learners use standard English “because it is correct,” we put them in an untenable position.

Of course they resist the idea that they and their families are sub-standard. If they have to choose between us and their community, they will find it a difficult choice to make. They want the education we offer, but they may not be willing to pay such a high price.

As teachers, we will likely not enjoy having to fight their resistance to learning standard English, and our task will be more difficult than it has to be.

Standard English must be learned

However, we do not want to forget about standard English, accept everything learners write, and send them on, unaware of the conventions and grammar of standard English. They will almost surely be penalized in further education or on the job for not using standard English.

We would do them a disservice not to teach them standard English; as they gradually emerge as more fluent and confident readers, as they begin to make the transition to further education, they can make decisions about where and when to speak and write standard English. They can decide about where and when to speak the language of their community. And we can support them in their decisions, and recognize the conflicts that they have when making that decision.

What can the literacy practitioner do?

What can the literacy practitioner do to facilitate the learning of standard English? What stance can we take?

  • We can tell students that standard English is the form of English that people who have gone to college or university usually speak and write, and the form they always use when they are in formal or semi-formal situations.
  • We can acknowledge that non-standard English is perfect at conveying meaning, and is beautiful and rich with history and culture.
  • We can acknowledge that in a general sense the people with education are the people with status, so they get to say what is the “standard” way to speak. We might mention that if the people of Newfoundland (or any other group whose way of speaking is looked down on) woke up one morning to find their province covered knee-deep in diamonds, the whole world would soon want a Newfoundland accent, vocabulary and grammar.
  • We can reveal that we, ourselves, speak standard English while we are in class, but that in other situations we use less formal language, adapting our language to the situation we are in.
  • We can let learners know that they can use standard English in some times and places, and use non-standard English in others.

A puzzle, not a moral dilemma

When we take this attitude, we allow learners to think of standard English as a kind of puzzle rather than a moral dilemma, and to be in control of the way they speak in any situation. Then they don’t have to resist our teaching. We invite them in, rather than punishing them.

They already monitor their language in different situations; for example they may control the amount of swearing they do in church or around children. They can learn to use standard English when they want to show that they can do it. They can choose when or if to resist the way that Standard English is used to keep people in line. And we can be allies in that resistance.

NOTE: I revised this post after attending online conference “Be About It: Unpacking White Privilege, Bias, and Anti-Racist Instruction” June, 2020. 

12 thoughts on “Standard English

  1. Pingback: Getting to Grammar | Working in Adult Literacy

  2. I enjoyed this post, Kate. I used to work in England in a working class community. My working class friends and colleagues derisively referred to Standard English as “posh” while my upper class relatives there abhorred this term and instead referred to it as “The Queen’s English.” It was obviously a sensitive issue there and can be a sensitive one just about anywhere English is spoken—whether there’s an obvious class system or not. Food for thought. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. I find that the thing that changes the meaning in Standard English is the use of colloquial terms in a formal communications. We have so many different cultures in the United States; Basic English for us is a matter of interpretation. If I have an Indian (India) background then my Basic English is formal always. If I have an English (British) background then there is a variety of colloquialisms as well. In addition, we have the French Creole mixes that throw a twist in everything down south and let us no talk about Gullah in North Carolina down to Florida. Adults come to the table with a wealth of background, which makes it difficult at best to agree on policies for the greater good.

    • Even if you and I and all the readers of this blog could agree, we do not have the power to decide what is best. You and I can write standard English, so we can pass as educated, as members of a certain class of people with status in the community. We can also, when we choose, modify our writing/speaking to indicate our membership in other communities of non-standard speakers.
      We can inflict standard English on our students as a “better” way of speaking/writing, or we can teach them standard English in such a way that they acquire the same options we have, to use standard where thart is appropriate, and to use non-standard English where that is appropriate.

      • Kate,
        I agree with you statement “to use non-standard English where that is appropriate”. I try to mentor my younger co-workers about appropriate language and behavior in situations. We have had arguments in the states about appropriate language; since the 1970s there was a battle on school policy and how to best teach students. Do they teach the students where they are intellectually and adjust? The topic I remember was “Ebonics”, training teachers to speak Ebonics, slang, so that the students would learn in a language the students understood. This case went to court and became a national and social battle. On the adult side, fast-forward to today, college students are writing TEXT in their essays and other formal communications. We do not write in full words and sentences anymore. Educators are truly trying to find ways to communicate with the Y generation and trying not fail every student who cannot write proper essays. The students are highly intelligent but they choose to TEXT and TWEET.

  5. Great topic. I was looking for topics for my program of study that would relate to adult education, formal and informal. We were discussing why people are marginalized and language (English) is one the areas I thought about. Here in the U.S. we have the same problem with individuals trying to better them with college, training, or jobs and trying or just trying to fit into to a safe space. As soon as they open their mouth to speak they are judged as well spoken or ignorant. Younger adults are bullied if they are well spoken; they called names like, you are trying to be white if they are African American, or bugy, and they are trying to be better than the other students. The younger adults do not know how to handle the harrassment. If the adult student has broken English, they are put into the ignorant category. We are trying to teach diversity awareness but it takes time. My daughter adjusted her language from well spoken to slang because she wanted to fit in. I understand why but I wanted her to be herself and know that intelligence is not a flaw in your character.

    • You describe a complicated situation, thanks, Corliss. I think it helps if we are clear with students about the complexities of the situation, and respect their judgments about what kind of language is right for a given situation.
      I hear your desire for your daughter to use her standard English.

  6. One time in the 80’s, you and I, Kate, were on a self-made committee to help folks write what we called Basic English – now usually known as plain English. We were translating a one-page pamphlet for a lefty party. Their version read “We will take other democratic measures.” Our group translated that as a call for an election. When the authors read our version, they said, “Oh no. We can’t say that. We have agreed in the party that we couldn’t win if we called an election.”
    “Well what do you mean by ‘other democratic means’?”
    “Oh well, that would probably be calling an election, but we don’t want to be the ones who mention it first.”
    So we told them how hard it is to write plain English if you want to obliquely refer and obfuscate your real meaning. Just another story of another version of English struggling to gain credence.

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