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.