Dialect, Standard English, and the Child at Home and in School
Author(s): Andrew Philp
Copyright holder(s): University of Glasgow: re-use of Crown Copyright material
The child first identifies with the language of his parents as he constructs for himself a language system which accords reasonably well with that of those around him. As he increasingly interacts with siblings and young relatives, neighbours’ children or children in the nursery, he learns the language of interaction with peers, which for most children is likely also to be the language of the neighbourhood (the local dialect). Parents may say ‘You know?’ or ‘Give me that!’ while local children may say ‘Ken?’ or ‘Geezit!’ The child may not, in fact, be particularly aware of neighbourhood language – if different from home language – until he goes to school, but at school he will also meet a different form of language: teachers may say things like ‘Do you see what I mean?’ and ‘Give me that, please!’
Therefore, children may often find a mismatch between the typical language of home, neighbourhood and school. They may have to construct for themselves an identity or set of identities to cope with this; that is, the child has to find ways of interacting that cause least problems, according to which group he happens to be in at the time. Incidentally, he also has to learn a range of linguistic ‘manners’, including ways of taking account of the status of others. (‘You don’t speak to Granny like that!’ or ‘Right you! Just watch it, or I’ll batter you!’ or ‘Now John, call me Miss Smith in future!’)
Moreover the language style that the child habitually uses – usually that of the home – becomes the one in which he thinks and therefore the one in which he makes sense of the world – and this has implications for the way in which he learns through language in school. The language in which concepts are explained may be a more formal, technical style than the one he is used to; or a different dialect (Standard English; or it may even be a different language, if he has been brought up to speak an ethnic minority language such as Urdu, Punjabi, Cantonese or Gaelic). Consequently, the child needs opportunities to talk informally in groups about school learning, whether it be in informal Standard English, local dialect or an ethnic minority language.
The child is thus beginning to learn that he has an identity which he shares with his family, friends and community, and that he has a linguistic loyalty to them. He also learns that there is another, different, world of language and learning in the school, enshrined in the pronouncements of teachers or written in books or on computer screens. Many children cope with this mismatch very well indeed: they learn that there is a ‘school language’ – which they may already be familiar with from television – and they learn to switch between that and the home language, as contexts dictate.
Yet for some children in this mismatch situation, real difficulties may arise, because they gain the message from school – either explicitly or implicitly – that the school language is superior (it is ‘correct’) and the home language is inferior (it is ‘wrong’). This obviously can create a tension for the child, since the home language is so close to his own identity and all that he values, and he is now being forced to choose between that home language and the world of the school, with the promise of achievement in life that success in school apparently implies. Many children, of course, balance the claims of these competing language worlds and their cultural and ideological implications well enough, but for many this linguistic tension may be a central cause of their growing disaffection with, and rejection of, the school – precisely because language and identity are so closely bound up together.
Dialects and Standard English in Britain
Before considering what teachers can do about this problem of ‘mismatch’ between home and school, we must first consider in more detail the current pattern of British dialects – including Standard English, which is a dialectal variety too.
Dialectal variation concerns the way in which features of the language used by a speaker, such as features of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, relate to features of his/her background, that is, where he/she comes from, regionally or socially. In cases where we can identify a range of linguistic features as being typically used by a particular regional or social group, we can call the self-contained system used by these people a dialect. Most of the dialects of modern Britain are now termed ‘socio-regional’ in the sense that they indicate speakers of a certain social class from a certain region; for instance, the rural dialect still found in parts of Aberdeenshire and known as Buchan, or the urban dialect of Glaswegian, would in most cases be spoken by working-class speakers from those areas.
Standard English speech from these regions would probably vary little in terms of vocabulary and grammar (when used in comparable contexts), but for many speakers their use of a particular regional accent with Standard English would indicate their regional background. Accent, then, is the pronunciation level within dialect variation, and every speaker has an ‘accent’. Most linguists would now accept this use of the term ‘accent’, but some speakers still regard certain ways of speaking English (usually their own) as not having an accent. It is more objective, however, to regard all systems of pronunciation of English as accents. It is also important to distinguish dialects – which include also words and grammar – from accents – which refer to the pronunciation systems of both Standard English and the various socio-regional dialects.
Another important concept for describing the broad picture of present-day British dialects is that of the standard dialect, Standard English. Most linguists accept that one can identify, at least in the written mode, a basic standard form of the language; broadly, those conventions of grammar, vocabulary and – in the case of the written mode – spelling, which are printed in books and taught in schools as ‘correct’ written English. One can also perhaps recognise a spoken standard, comprising the broad range of publicly acceptable grammar and vocabulary, much of it reflecting written Standard English, together with one of the range of accents which are clearly comprehensible to speakers throughout Britain. These accents are all regional, with one notable exception, the non-regional accent of high social prestige often known as R. P. (Received Pronunciation). Spoken Standard English is the language in which much broadcasting takes place and, not surprisingly, it is normally the speech of those who regard themselves as educated.
In recent times, however, a number of linguists have claimed that it is not possible to identify a specific form of spoken Standard English. Certainly, it is true that it is more difficult to define spoken rather than written Standard English, because one cannot easily demarcate which spoken forms are and are not Standard English in the speech of many speakers. Yet most speakers throughout Britain can identify, as part of the standard dialect, various other forms of spoken English from other regions which they can understand and which they regard as acceptable in public contexts, such as public meetings or on television. Therefore, although it is not possible to identify in all cases exactly what constitutes spoken Standard English, it can be defined as that dialectal variety of English, with a particular range of accents, which can be understood by all speakers of English throughout Britain.
There is, of course, a tendency among many people to regard Standard English as ‘English’, implying that most other alternative speech varieties, apart from a few rural ones, are not worthy of the name of dialects. The view taken here, however, is that while it is reasonable to recognise Standard English as a unique and important dialect, and as a useful ‘lingua franca’ between speakers of other dialects, it is in fact only one of a large number of native dialects, all perfectly efficient as language systems within their own speech communities (the groups of speakers who use those dialects).
These other dialects, which may be called ‘nonstandard’ (which does not mean ‘substandard’ in this context), tend to be the native speech of those who originate from lower socio-economic class backgrounds. Yet this certainly does not mean that these dialects are deficient, or that those who speak them are inadequate communicators within their own speech community. All these nonstandard dialects are perfectly efficient and grammatical within the contexts in which they have evolved. In other, more public, contexts, or for use outside the speaker’s own region, an appropriate form of Standard English, spoken with a suitably modified regional accent, will be required. This standard variety may be appropriate in that context, but it is not ‘correct’ in the sense that other dialects are deficient or wrong.
Moreover, these nonstandard dialects are not ‘ungrammatical’, since they have their own clear and consistent grammatical rules, which happen to be different from those of Standard English. The term ‘ungrammatical’ is much more suitably applied to usage which all native speakers would find unacceptable, such as foreigners’ errors (‘I am being in this country since three weeks’) or native speakers’ ‘slips’, where a pupil, moving towards an unfamiliar expression, may fall between two stools and produce an ungrammatical form such as ‘I am disagreeing against’ (a combination of ‘I am speaking against/disagreeing with’).
A related term which is also often used unhelpfully is ‘slang’, when used to refer to examples of nonstandard English. ‘Slang’ is better used in the restricted sense of a ‘closed’ variety of language which certain close-knit groups (prisoners, RAF pilots, boarding-school pupils, etc.) use to distinguish insiders from outsiders, by using terms unknown to outsiders, and changing them as those outsiders begin to understand them. Therefore, while much of the vocabulary of nonstandard dialects has been current within those dialects for many years, slang is, by its nature, constantly changing.
We shall now examine the current pattern of British dialect variation, isolating certain basic types of variety:
Spoken Standard English with its various accents, indicative of the different regions, and RP, the regionless accent associated with upper-class speakers and national broadcasting.
• Written Standard English in its many genres.
• Variants of Standard English associated with the countries of the United Kingdom, so that there are recognisable varieties of Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh Standard English. Speakers of Scottish Standard English may use distinctive vocabulary such as ‘outwith’ (largely unknown outwith Scotland) and expressions such as ‘I will be coming’ (I shall be coming) and ‘These shoes need mended’ (These shoes need mending). These national varieties of Standard English are all, nevertheless, Standard English in that all of their features, except for a very few grammatical expressions and vocabulary items, are clearly comprehensible to speakers throughout the United Kingdom.
• Rural dialects from various regions. These are still to be found in some rural areas, such as parts of Aberdeenshire, but through the influence of broadcasting and other social changes they have been largely replaced by Standard English spoken with a marked regional accent.
• Urban dialects, associated with the cities. For some people, these are not dialects in the sense that the rural dialects are, but are, they believe, ‘corrupt’ and ‘slovenly’. There is no linguistic basis for this view as the city dialects are dialectal varieties with a history, a location and a range of language features, just as the rural dialects are, although on the whole they are rather less divergent from Standard English in vocabulary and grammar.
Another feature in the British dialectal pattern – which is now established in our multilingual society – is that speakers from ethnic minority communities may use their home language (Urdu, Cantonese, Gaelic, West Indian Creole, etc.) and also switch between Standard English with a regional accent, urban nonstandard English with a local accent (sometimes with distinctive ‘ethnic language’ features) and a version of their home language. Therefore, like those whose home language is Scottish dialect, these speakers can draw upon a range of dialectal varieties, each appropriate in different contexts.
Nevertheless, this neat picture of dialects is certainly less than accurate: the most noticeable feature of present-day British dialectal variation, particularly in the case of urban speakers, is the way these boundaries are fudged: there is great inconsistency in the usage of speakers, best regarded not as switching between two distinct dialects, but as a highly flexible form of speech modification. What Speitel says of many Scottish speakers is probably true for most nonstandard English speakers too: ‘It is not so much a question of their speaking either dialect or Scottish Standard English but rather more or less of the one variety or the other.’ (‘Dialect’ in Davies, A. ed., "Problems of Language and Learning" , 1975)
The Current Situation in Scotland
Yet the situation in Scotland is different from other regions of the United Kingdom: the ‘nonstandard English’ of Scottish speakers is distinctive from that of other regions, in respect of the extent of its difference from Standard English and its historical connection with a firmly institutionalised national culture, supported by ancient literary and folk traditions. Indeed, this distinctive Scottish situation has been heightened by the growing status and prevalence in recent years of the Scottish language (Scots): the status of Scots as a separate historically-based language, underpinning and uniting the various Scottish dialects, has been widely accepted by Scottish writers, linguists and educationalists. The Scots language scholar Derrick McClure regards Scots as having at least some of the characteristics of a full language: ‘a high degree of differentiation from the speech form most closely related to it [English], possession of a literature and identification with a well defined community’. (‘What is the Scots Language?’ in Niven and Jackson, eds, "The Scots Language: Its Place in Education", 1999).
Moreover, contrary to the former tendency to restrict ‘Scots’ to ‘Lallans’, augmented by reconstructed Scots vocabulary, the modern trend among scholars of Scots language is to regard all the regional and urban dialects of Scotland as part of the language known as Scots. As McClure says, ‘A long tradition exists in Scottish education of contrasting “good” or “real” Scots with the “slovenly speech” which is often encountered in reality. Yet the observations and assumptions of sociolinguistics [viewing urban dialects as integral parts of national languages] give such a view very little support’. It is refreshing that SCCC’s "The Kist" anthology (1996) of texts in Scots and Gaelic for schools includes poems or songs in Glaswegian dialect, such as ‘Lament for a Lost Dinner Ticket’, ‘The Wee Malkies’ and ‘The Jeely Piece Song’, and that the Scots School Dictionary published by the Scottish National Dictionary Association embraces urban, rural and older Scots vocabulary.
Yet this situation creates a tension for many teachers who feel obliged to discourage, if not ‘correct’, urban speech and yet are also being encouraged by the education system to use poems and other literary material couched in the same dialect. Similarly, the attitude of many generations of teachers to local Scots speech means that many Scots speakers have an ambivalent attitude to Scots: they are both proud of their ‘guid Scots tongue’ and also, at other times and in other contexts, ashamed of it as being ‘ungrammatical’.
A Bidialectal Approach
Perhaps the solution to this dilemma is for teachers to develop a ‘bidialectal’ approach based on the principle of appropriateness, rather than correctness. ‘Correctness’ implies that one form of speech or writing is correct and all other equivalent forms are incorrect, whereas appropriateness suggests that all equivalent forms are correct when they are used appropriately. Therefore, this approach is ‘bidialectal’ in that, instead of regarding the Standard English variety as correct in all cases and outlawing all dialect forms, both the pupil’s local dialect and Standard English are acceptable in the different contexts for which they are appropriate.
Thus we are not replacing the child’s own dialect, so close to his own identity, with an alien school dialect, but extending his range of language by enabling him to use spoken Standard English in ‘public’ contexts: as a newsreader, or a judge in a mock trial, or as himself talking to a school visitor, or speaking in assembly, etc.
In this approach, however, two factors are essential: firstly, that we talk about differences in usage and about when different forms of speech and writing are appropriate, so that the child can come to accept that both local dialect and public Standard English are equally valid and useful for different purposes and not feel guilty about using either, when appropriate. In encouraging this important kind of interaction about what is appropriate and when, surveys and investigations into local dialect forms or performances using local dialect are very valuable, as these allow pupils to take pride in their local speech and encourage their self-esteem. It is in this context that the use of poems, stories, songs and plays in the local dialect can have a valued place in the classroom without pupils or teacher feeling ill-at-ease.
Secondly, we need to encourage the use of spoken Standard English in the classroom, not by correcting the pupils and making them feel inadequate, but by giving them as much experience as possible of speaking in the kinds of public roles – simulated or real – which were indicated above. Thus, pupils may prepare to be kings, judges, newsreaders, interviewers, or quizmasters, or to adopt other public roles in class role play, or to take part in assemblies, oral reports on completed work presented to several classes (perhaps with the head teacher present), or to ask questions of policemen, firemen or other visitors to the school.
This approach does assume that in most cases children do not need to be taught the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of Standard English but that they will have assimilated most of what they need, from exposure to television and to books. In such circumstances, the teacher or other pupils may constructively help pupils with an appropriate expression, but this comes within a positive context of enabling the pupil to create an appropriate response, rather than the negative one of correcting his speech because his normal speech form is ‘wrong’.
Therefore, through the involvement of pupils in appropriate contexts which call for local dialect and Standard English respectively, the value of the local dialect is affirmed, as also is the value of Standard English as a means of communicating in more formal, public contexts.
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Dialect, Standard English, and the Child at Home and in School. 2023. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 10 December 2023, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=346.
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