To define what it is to ‘speak English properly’ is not as straightforward as it might at first seem. It could be assumed that this means children should be taught to speak with Received Pronunciation (RP). This is to speak with a ‘standard’ accent – one which is perceived as socially superior. It could however be interpreted as Spoken Standard English (SSE), which means to speak a standard dialect with any accent. It is for the purpose of this essay that I define it as the latter. The National Curriculum states that by Key Stage Two, children should be able to:
“Speak audibly and clearly, using spoken standard English in formal contexts. ” DFEE 1999. P. 50. This statutory requirement raises many questions about the appropriateness this has in our schools today. The ambiguity surrounding what SSE actually is, is summed up with these words: “It is unduly ironic.. that there should be so much emphasis on spoken standard English in the National Curriculum.. and that pupils should be assessed on their ability to speak it, when so little appears to be known about what it is and when it is defined only as ‘not speaking non-standard English'”.
Bex & Watts 1999.P. 165. Despite no clear definition, we are forced to look at the linguistic, social and educational implications and benefits, that having this ‘standard’ gives rise to. Language change is a linguistic issue arising in the debate. It has been suggested that: “The chief linguistic characteristic of standardisation is suppression of optional variation at all levels of language. Standardisation is therefore partly aimed at preventing or inhibiting linguistic change. ” Milroy & Milroy 1985. P. 30. Just as standardisation causes problems for linguistics, linguistics cause problems for a standard:
“Linguistic change, especially in phonology and grammar, originates in speech rather than in writing: it is thus characteristic of spoken forms to be perpetually in a state of change. ” Milroy & Milroy 1985, P. 47. So, does this linguistic problem hinder the teaching of SSE in schools? This may be the reason why the DFEE are unable to give it a satisfactory definition. In my opinion, the diversity and evolving nature of language should be something that as teachers, we actively embrace. It is very important for children to experience linguistic variety to enrich their own language.
My concern is that if children are to come to school and be indoctrinated with the conformity of a spoken standard, are we suppressing their linguistic potential and in the process, hindering their progression? Is the government’s quest to ‘straight-jacket’ spoken English not doomed to failure? This is the first time any attempt has been made to enshrine a standard for spoken English in a National Curriculum and insufficient time has elapsed for us to see that the standard and the evolving language itself must inevitably part company.
Imagine a National Curriculum standard for spoken English having been established at the start of the nineteenth century, and think how out of step that would now be with twenty-first century spoken English. My point is that any standard is forced to evolve with the language in order to remain relevant. It has been suggested that a standard is needed because English is a world language and so to prevent breakdowns in communication and to help foreigners learn the language, a standard is required. I believe that for international communication, a written but not a spoken standard is required.
Trudgill, (1975), argues that: “There is no danger of English fragmenting to the point of loss of communication… convergence is much more probable than divergence. ” P. 84. As for people learning English as a second language, he insists: “Even if (the standard) were to disappear, grammatical differences between English dialects are generally so trivial… foreigners would be unlikely to suffer comprehension difficulties. ” P. 84. So is there an argument for children to be taught SSE because English is a world language, or is that irrelevant.
Having a standard spoken form of English is not without social implications. Trudgill (1975), believes that: “Judgements which appear to be about language are in fact judgements based on social and cultural values, and have much more to do with the social structure of our community than with language. ” P. 28. Trudgill is putting forward the argument that it is the social status of a dialect, which is judged not the language of it. It is quite ludicrous to suggest that one way of communicating an idea is in some way intrinsically ‘better’ than another.
It is equally ridiculous to suggest that ‘ain’t’ is wrong and ‘is not’ is correct, in the same way that 2+2=3 is wrong and 2+2=4 is correct. Yet this is what imposing a standard for spoken English sets out to do. The judgement is a subjective one and based on what we associate with different accents and dialects. Regional accents and dialects spoken by poor, working class communities are regarded as linguistically inferior, whereas the RP of the upper classes, widely spoken in the halls of Westminster, and other more fashionable accents, but still standard English are what those with social aspirations are expected to aspire to.