Standard English – What should we be teaching?

Standard English


As a self-confessed grammar geek, it pains me to read some of the posts on my Facebook page : ‘I’m always loosing my keys’ or ‘He don’t love me no more’. Grrrr! But these mistakes are made by native speakers (I know I just started a sentence with ‘but’) should they really be considered a mistake if everyone is doing it?

Should we be correcting students who say ‘It were well good’ and ‘we was at the shops’ when this language is used every day by native speakers and is considered part of the dialect of Multicultural London English (MLE)?  Should we correct students for their lack of adverbs and present perfect when they are learning English through American films and TV?

The definition of Standard English refers to whatever form of the English language is accepted as a national norm in any English-speaking country. How do we define Standard English today when social media saturates users from around the world with varying dialects, sms language and misspellings?

Linguist Geoffery Pullman states that ‘The rules of language are defined by how people use that language’, so does that mean anything goes?

Over to you, what do you think? What should we be correcting in the ESL classroom?

If you would like to read more on this subject, follow the links below.

Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English Language?

What’s wrong with nonstandard dialects?

Bringing Europe’s lingua franca into the classroom

8 Responses

  1. Joanne Mitten

    I battled with this when teaching in secondary schools. The problem was getting students to recognise when dialect and sociolect was acceptable and when they needed to adapt their language for formal situations. It’s such a tricky situation! And controversial in teacher rooms!

  2. I just revel in my middle class diction and teach what’s correct like the snob that I am 🙂

  3. Nadine Early

    I often have this argument with an English acquaintance, who has been living in Ireland for the past 25 years. It drives him crazy when he hears comments such as ‘be careful – the floor is slippy’. He insists on correcting it each time he hears it. ‘Bloody hell’, he’ll say, ‘it’s slippery! Not slippy. Slippery! The Irish have it wrong!’ I ask, but how can it be wrong if everyone uses it?
    I believe that if you are teaching in an English-speaking country, it’s important to expose your learners to language as it is spoken in the community. But I agree with Joanne’s comment – it is important to ensure that your learners are aware of when the use of such language is appropriate, and when it is not. I also believe that this should only be attempted with higher level students who have already fully acquired the ‘standard’ form.

  4. Colette Diamond

    I take the view that when teaching, it’s important to point out to students what they will hear in their host families and in in coffee bars, pubs etc… In fact, students at a higher level quite often point this out to me before I get the chance. However that doesn’t mean that we should just submit to the expression which annoys me intensely… ” But that’s how we speak”. I really dislike that general comment and furthermore it’s overused. I often reply ” Excuse me that may be how you speak or how others do but I don’t” And then I get a look!! I have German nephews and an Italian niece and they have excellent English as one parent in each situation is a native speaker. They still have difficulty in Ireland understanding what people say because it’s not the English they’ve been taught in their schools!!! So who are we reaching out to??

    • I think students, even sometimes at lower levels, often pick up on these differences between coursebook English, the teacher’s English (which isn’t always ‘coursebook’), movie/TV English and what they hear on the streets. It usually makes for an interesting discussion topic in class. The students may be interested in learning about the different sociolects/dialects, and they like to pick up bits of Irish slang, but ultimately, most of them will tell you they want to speak ‘proper/correct’ English. Generally, they’re learning English for work or university study, so that’s the standard of English I think we should be aiming for, just as we would with native speaker secondary students. Our students may enjoy a chat in the pub, but that’s not usually their reason for coming here.

  5. Cheryl Malanek

    I agree with Colette that we should be teaching useful local language that the students will hear ouside of class and as Nadine said it is probably best to introduce this at a higher level, when they already have a firm grasp of the basics. What about the language they are hearing from around the world though? They watch an American film, then switch over to ‘TOWIE’ on the TV, then chat with facebook friends from Australia. The community that we live in is no longer based in the area we live in. Should we be exposing our students to varying dialects or is this something they can only really pick-up outside the classroom?

  6. Valerie Long

    A teacher has to be careful to explain to students that not all English that one hears especially in films or on tv should be copied. I often gave as an example what English tv presenters are always saying: he was stood there or she was sat there! It is dreadful to hear and so many English people say this! I don’t know why, though the Queen or more educated person won’t speak like this. So I wouldn’t agree that everything goes! We should encourage students to speak English as it should be spoken.

  7. Sarah Gannon

    Totally agree with awareness being key here. When this issue comes up in class, I like to challenge the students to recognise and record the common errors they hear in everyday situations, analyse why they are “incorrect”, and advise them on which would be the more widely acceptable forms.

    Some interesting reading in the book ‘Teaching English as an International Language’ (link provided below)

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