It’s a lotta variation in dis language

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?

Well, anyway.

@pysproblem81 for #eltpics

Which way is right?

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’)

About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.


  1. Really interesting post on a really interesting subject. Been doing a module on Methodology and Context as part of my M.A. and the issue of language variation and varieties and so on comes up a lot. Thanks for sharing, been a nice way for me to start my Saturday along with a cup of tea! 🙂

  2. Thanks Lizzie, nice to see you here!

  3. GREAT post…and no. You were not the only person thinking about linguistic variation whilst watching. There was at least two of us.

    • Phew! A geeky passion shared is definitely not a geeky passion halved- it’s doubled! Or something like that… it’s quite late here… Ahem, anyway, glad you liked the post. 🙂 And did you spot all the same things in this interview?

  4. Katy Davies

    Hey Laura, LOVED the post, and I know what you mean about sometimes finding it hard to switch off your ‘language detective’ mode, often to the rolling of eyes from family and friends!

    At the IATEFL Pron SIG day we went to, I think I mentioned to you how interesting I found it working in Newcastle in the UK when students used to deliberately cultivate a Geordie accent. They seemed to share that sense of pride in the strong cultural identity of the city, and they understood how the accent was tied up to this. It was interesting how aware of variation they were by studying in the north of the UK, and I notice the difference now that I’m teaching abroad and am often faced with the meaningless request from students who want a ‘British accent’. Thought you might be interested in this British Council event next week in London about accents:

    • Ah yes, the ever-elusive and yet ever-seductive “British accent”! And what’s even funnier is the same students who tell me they want to learn it justify their choice by saying they just want to speak how I speak! Ha!

      Thanks for sharing the BC seminar link. I’m actually already signed up to go! 🙂 And very much looking forward to it!

      Hope all’s well in Dubai – will be in touch soon about next year’s IATEFL…

  5. Reblogged this on Stop Complaining – Enjoy Teaching! and commented:
    How do we deal with all the variations in English? Or do we just go by the book?

  6. Ohh, what a good question! If only I had the answer…

    I suppose the main thing is firstly to raise students’ (and teachers’) awareness of sociolinguistic reality, then help them deal with that. Make them aware of differences between varieties, and–if they’re going to interact with people who speak different varieties–maybe some conversational strategies for clarification, repetition, etc…

    Just in general, I’d say we need to appreciate that the term “standard” is very difficult to define or use appropriately, the term “good” is even harder, and the term “correct” is virtually impossible! Everything is relative, and value judgments are very subjective. All this may not feel very reassuring, but pretending there’s one ideal or perfect variety that everyone could use and understand just isn’t realistic.

    Thanks for visiting my blog 🙂

  7. Matt Halsdorff

    Thanks for this interesting post!

    The first time I saw this interview… I had mixed feelings. The first was about how crazy and horrible the situation was for these girls. However, my ears couldn’t stop me from wanting to record this guy. As you mentioned, the “language detective” alert was ringing loudly. 🙂

    More than anything, I think we should always continue to make our students aware of the wide variety of English out there… and that anyone “harping on ONE pronunciation” as the correct one is doing a disservice to their learners (in my opinion). That does not mean there are not preferred pronunciations or ways of speaking in specific situations of course – being able to adapt to the listener when need be, and being open to the variations is something that I think is key. 🙂

    • Hi Matt,

      Thanks for your comments. And for alerting me to your existence – I’m just enjoying browsing your own blog posts now! 🙂 I particularly like the one about native speakers being aware of all the cultural references littered throughout their speech – this is so difficult to control, but, as you point out, so very important for mutual intelligibility and effective cross-cultural communication.

      Anyway, I agree that we need to make our students aware of different varieties of English. One way of doing this which I think can be useful (at least as a starting point – they’re not all linguists or language teachers, after all) is encouraging their awareness of varieties of their own language. That includes the associations of those varieties, so such conversations would need to be handled sensitively; but recognising the nature of linguistic variety, its implications and how we can adapt our language use according to the situation/audience is invaluable.

      As far as pronunciation goes, if you’re interested in practical tips, there are some good points on helping learners develop their accommodation skills in “Teaching the Pronunciation of ELF” (Walker, 2010) and a recent article by Mark Hancock from Speak Out! (the IATEFL Pron SIG newsletter)… I don’t have it in front of me but I think it was from issue 47.

      There’s also a journal article you might find interesting, which reported on a study of cross-cultural awareness training and linguistic instruction to aid native speakers’ comprehension of non-native accented speech. Here’s a reference:

      Derwing, T. M., M. J. Rossiter & M. J. Munro (2002) ‘Teaching Native Speakers to Listen to Foreign-accented Speech’, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 23:4, 245-259.

  8. Matt Halsdorff

    Hi Laura,

    I love when someone adds resources like that… 🙂 Will have to go and check those out. The article about “Teaching Native Speakers to Listen to Foreign-accented Speech” looks very interesting. I may have to get the book you mentioned also!

    I agree that getting learners thinking about their own language and varieties is a good starting point. The one challenge I’ve run into is that in their L1, there may be an entrenched concept of a standard *name of language* or “high” *name of language* . Let’s say in that particular culture they have always been taught that this standard is the only acceptable way to speak on TV or in school. Therefore there is the sense that English is the same… and there must be one version that reigns supreme. As you mentioned, this just needs to be handled sensitively in a group so that no one gets offended (that Bavarian dialect is horrid! :-p ) and so that the overall goal of raising awareness is achieved.

    Of course it’s something we’d have to be careful with discussing ourselves in regards to English also… as there is no lacking of opinions on accents & dialects 🙂

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