Should we teach a “standard” English?

Throughout the years, one thing above all continually astounds me about my fellow English Language teachers, researchers, writers, administrators and even students. What is it? Well, it is how conservative they are about language and how they believe there is a “standard” English that should be taught.

I vehemently disagree and really believe we should be totally descriptive and teach with the aim of introducing students to how people actually use the language. Whenever doubtful about usage – I don’t turn to a grammar book but to another foreign speaker (or a few of them). They are my standard, they are my constantly updated living dictionary.

Recently, I ran into the argument that a teacher was dead wrong to use in class – “I have ran many companies”.That it was an “error” and “incorrect”. The correct sentence is “I have run many companies.”

I said my usual – poppycock! That right now, many teenagers and youth are using this form, so it is appropriate and that it actually is very forward leaning. Language changes, we should make our students aware of this variety and help them to “tolerate the ambiguity” of language.

What do you think? Are you one who believes we should teach a “standard” form of English or like me, do you believe we should guide our teaching by how the language is actually used. Are you a kind of prescriptivist or a descriptivist? I’ve set up a poll with a couple short videos highlighting each side of the argument. Let’s see who believes what!

By the way – one great place for grammar discussion is Richard Firsten’s Grammatically Speaking.

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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7 Responses

  1. ddeubel says:

    Is anyone having a problem with the Poll Link? It won’t open for me but the address is correct.

    sorry for the difficult questions 🙂 And most are right, doesn’t have to be either or. A teacher can have a “core” English grammar to teach but at the same time can make students aware of the wonderful diversity and difference in all the “Englishes”. Ellen’s point is well taken – we shouldn’t freeze ourselves into a mindset that English is just “this way” and all else is a blasphemous error and degradation.

    Most teachers don’t believe this but I’m even more concerned with the edges. How we become so attached to language that we won’t accept as you say – it is organic. Take for example the following;

    A) How many oranges would you like?
    B) I’d like quite a few.
    A) Here you go.
    B) Oh. That’s too many. I’d like less.

    Now, I meet many teachers who jump up and down and say this is an ERROR carte blanche. You CAN”T possibly say that and still be an English speaker let alone a native speaker. However, that’s how we speak! I know very few people who say – “I’d like fewer.”. English changes, we should be aware of that. Same with the example of “have ran”. In perfect tenses, we are using the simple past for many forms of the past participle. For example, in the imaginary past, it is almost that the “grammar book version ” is the exception.

    ex. If I had been there, I would have ate that apple!

    What’s even more curious and muddles the waters more is;

    1. Teachers swear up and down that they don’t speak like that. But then if you listen to them in normal, casual conversation – they do! But they continue to believe that they only speak the grammatically pure gospel. Like some preacher drinking wine but continuing to delude him/herself that it’s grape juice.

    2. Writing is more conservative and last to change. (and regarding “have ran” – yes, I’d caution students about using that form in any more formal writing/register). We believe more what we see than what is actually at the forefront of change, invisible speech. So we cling to dying grammar until it is almost too late.

    David Crystal lays out some of the concerns with prescriptivist thinking in this interview and also in this short video. As always, nicely put. I”d also recommend his blog. He doesn’t write much but when he does, very poignant.

  2. Anonymous says:

    In teaching students, especially EFL, I think some king of norm is necessary. Most non-native speakers will be unable to keep up with the latest trends, and students who are learning a language need some sort of structure. Later they are free to adapt their English according to their environment.
    I do, however, think that it is more important that studens dare to speak the language than that they speak it correctly in every respect.
    So some sort of middle ground seems reasonable – we need to stick to some basic rules, but at the same time allow for variety.

  3. Ralph Sirvent says:

    Standard English should be taught to all students. Teachers should teach it in order to create the proper way that English should be written and spoken. Teachers are in the prescriptive mode.
    Certainly we cannot control how students use their language in their home or when they speak with their friends. They have their own idiolect. Other forms of English exist. However, if they have knowledge of Standard English, they will be able to communicate quickly in the business world with anyone who speaks English whether they be Canadian, Australian, or Irish. A universal form of the English language must be taught so that students can structure their speaking and writing around it. We cannot just throw out Standard English out of our lives. It is the most effective way of communicating our ideas. It lends itself to thought and ideas can be created more efficiently with it. Standard English helps students who are upwardly mobile and want to be successful. It lends itself to acceptance at higher levels of society.

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