Saturday, October 18, 2008

My English is Better than Your English!

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I returned some days ago from East Lansing, Michigan, where I gave a six-hour workshop on grammar to over 150 gracious, enthusiastic ESOL teachers from all around the state who eagerly wanted to understand more about the workings of the English language. The six hours flew by, and I feel very grateful to have had the experience of meeting and chatting with those teachers.

One of the topics that came up while some of us were chatting during breaks and after the workshop dealt with a subject I had brought up in the early part of the workshop, namely, standard English vs. nonstandard English, also known as regional variations. A number of the teachers wanted to know if one was better than the other, and which form of English (e.g., standard American, standard British, etc.) should be considered “the best.” I quickly explained that there is no such thing as one form of English being better than any other and that all forms are fine if they work all right for the people who use them. I added that we have what is gingerly referred to as standard English, which seems to be the language that’s understood and used by the majority of educated native speakers. I suggested that the teachers might want to teach standard language to our students first, but that there was nothing wrong with introducing regional variations, nonstandard English, at the appropriate level and appropriate time.

Here are some examples of regional variations as opposed to the standard forms. For example, in pronunciation, since it was the fall and the leaves were starting to turn colors, I mentioned foliage (/fo – li – әj/ as the standard, /fo – lәj/ as the regional variation). Then one of the teachers brought up auxiliary. She’d noticed that I pronounced it /ŏg – zIl – yә – ri/ while she always said /ŏg – zIl – ә – ri/. Which one was standard, she wanted to know. I told her the way I pronounce the word is standard, which surprised her. But she said she’d pronounce it that way from now on.

Then there are words. In Michigan, years ago, people called a couch (sofa) a davenport. And when you were thirsty and didn’t care for water, you’d go to the fridge and get a pop (a soda). So couch or sofa is the standard word, and davenport was the regional variation. Refrigerator and soda are the standard words, while fridge and pop are regional variations. Does that mean the former are better than the latter? Not really. The only thing that may be important for us ESOL teachers is to know which should be taught first to our students. Or perhaps the two forms should be taught at the same time. Food for thought. One other thing of importance is attitudes that native speakers have about standard language as opposed to nonstandard forms. How judgmental are people about nonstandard pronunciations and vocabulary compared to the standard language?

Of course, American ESOL teachers aren’t the only ones wrestling with these questions. While preparing this blog entry, I contacted a friend of mine, a writer and editor in London, to get his take on what is considered standard language in the UK. I did the same with a friend and colleague in Sydney, Australia to hear her views on this topic, and will discuss her answers in my next blog entry.

So here are the questions I put to my British friend, Mick O’Hare, along with his answers. Mick has written some wonderful books and is an editor at New Scientist magazine:

Mick, is there a standard British English that kids are taught in school that differs from their everyday speech? Is it different from “received pronunciation”? And if it is different, who learns that and who learns RP?

Only in the public schools such as Eton, Harrow, Rodean (posh private schools to you), I believe they still teach RP through elocution. Otherwise you are taught in the accent (generally) from the area in which you were born. I guess teachers tend to iron out dialect, but as far as I know there’s no law over pronunciation. For example, my teachers would have said /fæst/ whereas my wife’s would have said /fast/ purely because I’m from the North and she’s from the South. And, of course, we all had teachers who came from different parts of the country, so they just taught in their own accents. I don’t recall any calamities. RP is taught to the wealthy or the aristocratic, but it’s dying out to a certain extent as regional accents become more acceptable and as English homogenises generally through TV, etc.

Is there still any prejudice against certain regional variations rather than others? Do some Britons poke fun at the way other Britons speak?

Yes. my wife’s mum, for example, who speaks RP, thinks that only RP should be allowed on the BBC (even happily says it to me). But even so, society is far more egalitarian now and it matters far less. Nonetheless, certain prejudices apply to certain accents: good examples would be the Birmingham ‘Brummie’ accent, which is associated with being stupid and rather universally disliked, Glaswegian which is considered incomprehensible by everybody else, Geordie (much the same), Yorkshire (my accent), which is considered dour or down-to-earth. On the other hand, some accents such as Edinburgh, Highlands, West Lancashire, and West Country are considered ‘pleasant’. And everybody who is not a cockney hates cockney because they all love themselves too much, the chirpy l’il sparrers!

Are there words or pronunciations in one regional variation that Britons in other parts of the country wouldn’t understand? (I’m talking about regional variations within England, not including Scotland, Wales, or Cornwall.)

Yes, lots. Loads of dialect words. I’m not too up on other areas, but obviously, because of rhyming slang, there are simply hundreds in cockney. And I know East Anglia has a lot, but in Yorkshire we have plenty ― these are the ones I know best. My granddad could speak virtually in a different language if all the dialect words came out at once. A few that spring to mind are laik (“play” ― I still use this and also laikers for “players”), baht (“without”), allus (“always”), claht (“cloth”), and snicket (“alleyway”).

Pronunciation might still catch people out area to area.

Thanks very much for your i
nsights, Mick. I think it will be helpful for English teachers, no matter where they are, to read your take on these points about British English, compare them with things I’ve mentioned about American English, and then think about whatever form of English may exist in their parts of the world. This may have more of an impact on how they teach English than you might think at first glance.

Any thoughts, folks? If something comes to mind, please share it with me by leaving a comment.

Comments

Comment from Ismael Tohari
October 18, 2008 at 6:33 pm

What an interesting topic that was! I love it!

My questions:

Since what is a variation or dialect today,may become standard tommorrow.

1. I would like to ask who determines when a word moves the former category to the latter one?

2. Why doesn’t the Standard English keep its words in place without nothing omitted or added to them for the ease of study

Comment from Grammar Guy
November 10, 2008 at 8:32 pm

Glad you like this topic, Ismael.

1. It’s not one person or one group of people that do this. It’s more like a loose consensus of opinion. For example, when I’ve seen something used often for a relatively long time, and I’ve found it many times in print, not just the spoken word, I’ll feel rather confident about using it if I happen to like the term or expression. It really comes down to my choice as a native speaker, I suppose.

2. For ease of study? I don’t quite understand what you mean. Do you mean to make learning English easier for non-native speakers? I’m also having trouble with you phrase “keep its words in place.” Perhaps you can elaborate on these points, Ismael. Thanks.

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