There is a fabulous discussion over at Critical Mass ELT relating to the question of standard and non-standard Englishes. Apparently, the students’ seemingly contradictory comments posted on the university wiki prompted Sara to raise this crucial issue on the TEFL blogosphere. Our thanks to Sara, the students who inspired her with their comments, and the contributors for an excellent discussion and recommend readers participate with their experiences and ideas
From our perspective, we believe both students ( both non-native English speakers) are entirely correct in their positions. Student A is correctly prescriptive about logic, intelligibility and style:
Languages all over the world are changing at an insane pace to match our increasing demand for brevity, yet they often sacrifice logic in their formulation of abbreviations and ignorance of syntax structures. This is not an evolution towards a more Spartan and elegant speech but rather a devolution that I personally find less than aesthetically pleasing
And Student B is correct in asserting that a particular formal language is not necessary for scientific papers:
Should it be therefore desirable, the incorporation of a more non- formal language ? Would the use of other than standard English compromise the reliability and the validity of scientific scripts that are written distinctively? After all, language is just a code which provide the means for a successful communication
We reach this conclusion by the use of the Marxist method, which is well-outlined in Marnie Holborow’s generally excellent, Politics of English Language. She argues that language cannot be separated from the social relations of production, languages must be understood, therefore, historically, and, viewed in this manner, language is seen to be a site of intense political struggle. Indeed, what we see as Standard English is but the triumph of one English over others and attempts to devalue those which fall outside the accepted norm, are done from a political perspective and not necessarily a linguistic one. She is following Labov here, who demonstrates, quite categorically, that there is no language deficit in the Afro-American street language, rather it is as rich, if not richer, than it’s accepted WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) standard college English cousin. This would accord with Student B’s call for diversity in expression.
We would disagree with Holborow, however, in her treatment of Orwell’s prescriptive approach to the English Language. At first she praises Orwell for his attempts to bring more aspects of spoken language into written language but then we believe she diverges from the Marxist method when she claims:
His understandable criticism of unthinking style of contemporary communist leaflets (which h equates with the officialese of the BBC) should have been made on a political basis rather than a superficial stylistic one, especially for one so identified with socialist ideas.
Even the briefest of readings of the piece from which Holborow draws, Politics and the English Language, however, shows Orwell simply following his particular political philosophies. Namely, his hatred of elites who subvert the thinking process (most extensively developed in 1984 and his concept of doublethink) and his belief that socialism has been taken hostage by a new elite of technocrats (developed in both 1984 and Animal Farm). Orwell would have despised Alistair Pennycook (we are sure of that) not for the fact that ..the theoretical tools of post-modernism and Foucault tie Pennycook’s willing hand, but because such writing from Pennycook, as below, is so unacceptably elitist and anti-worker:
It has also been suggested that sustainable development has become something of an unquestioned given, a notion so linked to the moral discourses of enviromentalism that it is hard to question its practices. Adams(1995) suggests that in spite of the multiple meanings of the notion, sustainable development has “colonized academic discussion of development”, and is rarely given any careful scrutiny or critical analysis (p.87). The discourse of sustainable development, he argues, has its origins not so much in development theory as in “Northern environmentalism” (p.88), and thus it is tied more to a form of environmental moralising than to more direct concerns for local participation in local based projects for improvement of different conditions. Looking at the ways in which sustainable development derives from “technocentrist environmentalism”, Adams argues that it “shares the dominant industrialist and modernist ideology of …developmentalism”, based as it is on rational capitalist planning models (pp. 89-90). Thus, sustainable development may be seen “as simply one more transient label on the trickle of capital flows of aid donors from the industrialized North, and something that allowed ‘business as usual’ by international capital” (p.99).
This passage is an exercise in the elitism which Orwell despised, the empty repetition of fixed phrases
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
That Holborow does not challenge Pennycook for his obtuseness (it should be noted that she writes so well herself, except when attempting to take Pennycook on using his own linguistic jargon) is down to the fact her book ultimately exists on an academic and not a political level. We are not saying that Holborow does not suggest any political consequences of the theory she develops but she is ultimately concerned with general theory and not political action as was Orwell in his writing. Here she writes as a member of the academic community, (her own willing hands tied). Indeed, we know here at Marxist TEFL, we should attend to some of our writing in the spirit Orwell suggests. We would not, however, suggest that Orwell’s approach to these issues is non-political and purely a matter of style. Orwell’s pamphlet is, in fact, equivalent to sloganeering. He is attempting to raise clear politic goals in a definite political period as opposed to an excericse in outlining genral thoretical standpoints. It is Orwell who is the Leninist of language and not Holborow.
We would reiterate our claim, therefore, along with Orwell, that both Student A and Student B are correct in their approach to standard English. We need to make the language more real and everyday without sacrificing the intelligibility, logic and simple aesthetics of expression. The two students are raising clear political questions, unfortunately so many in the teaching profession are trailing behind them. The students have shown a lead, let’s follow them.