As humans, we have the great and all powerful ability to speak — though very few of us actually know how to effectively communicate with each other.
The notion of standard English is one that has been drilled into my brain because it is the accepted form of English regardless of whether it is written or spoken.
When a non-native English speaker says, “I had went to the store,” or when your grandparent says, “so I goes over to the barn,” we — that is this entitled ‘elite’ group of English speakers who know exactly how to speak perfectly — get our gitch in a knot because we know better. Some of the snobbier folks might even go so far as to correct the person who has apparently misused our almighty language.
From the two examples given, the meaning of both sentences is not lost. Even though the grammar of each sentence is not correct according to standard English, the action is evidently clear. So in this case, are the sentences actually wrong? I think not.
Susan Walsh from Mount Saint Vincent University works to integrate discussions about language in the classroom in her essay, What Does It Mean to Problematize Language as We Teach English? She suggests that we all need to be more critical of language, effectively challenging the supposed standard by which we are all — regardless of our regional differences, age or ethnicity — supposed to abide.
Language is not at all a black and white discussion point. We as learners and teachers must uncover and embrace the grey areas in which the majority of the populace resides when it comes to writing or speaking the English language.
Notably, each language does not translate perfectly into English and vice versa, which is perhaps why it can be so difficult to communicate with someone whose additional language is English. If a non-native English speaker does not share an equivalent word in their language for something so seemingly simple and common to native English speakers, the former is seen as uninformed or lesser for either not knowing the word or speaking way that’s grammatically incorrect.
Unlike world politics or religion, the English language actually has a solid, irrefutable structure — with dictionaries and thesauri to boot. There is little room for interpretation or argument when it comes to English, which makes it terribly exclusive.
For Walsh, there are many factors that we all should consider about language in relation to culture and identity before we berate someone for speaking incorrectly. First and foremost we must mentally problematize language.
Now, have you heard of the word “problematize” before? The long and the short of it is that when you problematize something, you critically think of it in such a way that you dismantle the common knowledge about the subject at hand and break it down.
So, problematizing standard English seems like an excellent thing to do since it is rarely challenged.
According to Walsh, language shapes our being. It has to do with what we know, who we are and who we become as humans. Thus, individuals from varying regions of the world will speak the English language differently — which is why we have dialects. Think about speakers from Newfoundland or Fargo, North Dakota and consider the ways in which their accents affect their spoken English.
Therefore language has multiple forms, although not all are valued equally. While I don’t want to speak for the masses, I will personally sonfess that I enjoy those who speak with British accents more than I do those individuals who have an accent from the deep south in the United States. I’d much rather hear “jolly good” than “yee-haw” any day.
In fact, people are often treated as others once they are identified as having an accent. An example would be an immigrant from any given country being told by a native English speaker that he or she has an accent. The child may speak English perfectly, but is still identified as lesser because of the apparent dialect. Having this mentality when speaking to someone or describing someone as having an accent after the fact adheres terribly to the racist world in which we live.
Why do we say, “an Indian doctor with an accent diagnosed my illness,” when we could just say “the doctor diagnosed my illness?”
Does that fact that the doctor was of Indian descent with an accent really matter to the story? It’s all about perspective and attitude.
This example ties in to Walsh’s last point: language operates in relation to identity markers such as race, ethnicity and gender. These relations have to do with power and hegemonic forms of that power.
As humans — especially those of us who are native English speakers — it’s important that we realize not everyone understands language in the same way or speaks it in an identical manner. Heck, I don’t understand so-called “academic” language half of the time, so imagine what an immigrant child who’s brand new to Canada must deal with?
Because English is spoken in so many countries the world over, it’s easy for us native speakers to be all uppity and snobby toward those who don’t have the training to adhere to standard English in its entirety.
If you were able to read this article, comprehend it and criticize it, you’re certainly in a position of linguistic power — but this is not the case for everyone.
Try for a day to be self-aware and critically reflective of the language that you speak. Listen to how others talk and see what your reaction is to hearing English spoken by people of different genders, ethnicities and races.
Let’s broaden our understanding of language and see what happens. Perhaps standard English does more bad than good because it shapes the ways in which we view others who speak the same language with different accents or grammatical structure.
While some may not adhere to perfectly grammatically correct sentences, these speakers should not be viewed as having any less value than someone who was raised with the apparent privilege of knowing and using standard English.
Graphic: Cody Schumacher/Graphics Editor