Was I the only one this week watching Charles Ramsey describing his rescue of the three kidnapped American girls and thinking not only ‘what a hero’ but also ‘what a great illustration of linguistic variation’?
Oh. OK. Just me?
Try as I might to rein it in, my brain–its contents a constant scramble of several years’ linguistics education and teaching experience, not to mention a lifelong propensity for asking millions of questions–has a disobliging habit of sometimes missing the point in favour of curiously probing all the minutiae that made up the point!
If you get me.
And of course, I’ve also got that annoying teacher habit of not being able to switch off from ‘language detection mode’, even when I’m watching the news or something.
So aside from my general appreciation as a member of the public of the furore around this particular news item, it got me thinking about language variation, one of the most fascinating areas of linguistics.
Variation is a natural, inevitable part of language. Any language. People think about it, talk about it, care about it, argue about it–linguists and non-linguists alike.
People have opinions on it. They get passionate about it. They make judgments and policies based on it.
It’s in the news all the time. Here is a great example from today’s Guardian about how up-in-arms people get when terms like “correct grammar” are thrown around. [Update: this debate continues elsewhere in the media, 3 days later… At the time of adding this update to this post, it’s the second most read story on the BBC website, after one about the murder of a 12-year-old schoolgirl.]
Then I also got thinking about what trainee teachers are taught about ‘error’, ‘correctness’, ‘standards’… and what they’re usually NOT taught about variation.
Let’s have a quick look at how pre-service teacher training courses are supposed to include awareness of language variation:
Cambridge CELTA assessment criteria (especially pg. 6, point 1.5, which reads:)
Successful candidates are able to…
a. understand the main ways that varieties of English differ from one another
b. demonstrate awareness of the need for teachers and learners to make informed choices about language models for teaching and learning
c. make practical use of this knowledge and awareness in planning and teaching
Trinity CertTESOL validation requirements (especially the top of pg 16, which reads as follows:)
The varieties of spoken and written English deemed appropriate for a teacher of English include regional and world varieties as well as British Standard English and Received Pronunciation. It is accepted that teachers from many parts of the world with English as a second or foreign language may have distinctive features of pronunciation, grammar and/or vocabulary which conform to the model of English prevalent in their own linguistic/cultural group.
(Interesting how that mention of varieties suddenly jumps to those who don’t speak English natively being implied as the ones whose varieties are “accepted”…)
And the notes on Unit 2: Language Awareness on pgs 23-25, which state:
An awareness of typical differences between British Standard English and other varieties of English and of the nature of English as a global language is also required.
An awareness of the following aspects of phonology is required […]: allophones; consonant clusters; discourse intonation; British Standard English and other varieties of English; English as a global language.
(Also interestingly, the notes on the Student Profile assignment, which requires trainees to transcribe and analyse a short recording of a learner’s spoken English production, refer to the possibility of their encountering in this speech segment “sounds not normally found in acceptable varieties of English” – but they don’t qualify this phrasing. Hmm. A point for another blog post, perhaps.)
I haven’t yet been part of any teacher training course (either as a trainee or trainer) that gives serious, lengthy consideration to the nature, politics or implications (for teaching) of language variation. Sometimes it’s been mentioned, but superficially. And yet variation is part and parcel of language.
As language teachers, could/should we make an effort to be (more) aware/accepting of variation?
And as teacher trainers, isn’t there a responsibility to open trainees’ eyes and ears to the variation all around them? And in an impartial, linguistic, non-judgmental way? Certainly the assessment criteria above seem to consider this… do they take it far enough, make it explicit enough, make it something that can really be done justice to in a short pre-service training course?
If we’re sending newly qualified teachers out into the world to teach the language, will they be going with enough appreciation of the implications of using/teaching their own variety, ostensibly the main model in their classrooms? What if their students ask them “what’s correct”?
And–I’m sure this has happened to all of us at some point–what will they do when a student comes back to class after the teacher has answered this question with an example of someone who ‘broke the rules’?
Certainly in London this happens all the time. The number of times students come into class asking about English they’ve heard around them in the city–there’s no ignoring the variation on show here.
Anyway, back to Mr Ramsey.
Here’s a task in language feature-spotting/sociolinguistics for you.
Watch the clip and identify some features of his dialect and accent that are different from yours. Think about grammar, lexis and pronunciation. (I had a lot of fun with this, hence the inspiration for this post–and my ‘key’ is given below the video.)
And as a secondary task – think about how you would deal with these features if a student produced any of them in a lesson. I imagine you’d correct a lot of them–I probably would too, in several cases, if I’m honest–but could it also provide an interesting springboard for discussion of variation. They’re all things which, in my experience, trainees on pre-service courses would be told are “incorrect” (not just “non-standard”).
Here are the things I noticed, mostly in order of when they occur in the interview:
- I’s eatin’ my McDonald’s (grammar: contraction of a PAST auxiliary; pronunciation: /n/ instead of /ŋ/ for -ing ending and glottal stop [ʔ] for intervocalic /t/)
- I hear some girl (as opposed to A girl)
- my neighbour, he come across the street (two subjects, no third person -s)
- [I’m] wondering where he going (no auxiliary ‘be’)
- she just going nuts (no auxiliary ‘be’)
- what’s your prollem? (pronunciation: dropping of /b/ in a consonant cluster)
- you stuck (no copula ‘be’)
- she says he got it locked (no auxiliary ‘has’ in have got construction)
- we naturally gonna pry it open (no auxiliary ‘be’ – and incidentally, how do you feel about “gonna”?)
- with, then, they (pronunciation: substituting /d/ for dental fricatives)
- police (both syllables pronounced with full vowels, rather than schwa in the first)
- she says “it’s three more girls up there” (‘it’ as dummy subject rather than ‘there’)