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Learning English: A Lesson in Language and Culture

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To those outside the educational system, the teaching of language may seem to be a simple communication of skills from one person to another.  For those involved in education, however, language instruction has long been linked to cultural bias and social engineering, leading to debates over the notion of a “neutral language.”  Such a language would facilitate the exchange of objective concepts such as spelling, grammar, and pronunciation without imposing subjective cultural constructs such as beliefs abut class, gender, and religion.

As languages originate and develop in response to needs and conditions all too human, and therefore highly emotional, it is unlikely that any truly neutral language exists, and this is particularly evident when we consider the English language. The teaching of English has sociocultural implications that extend far beyond the learning environment, and this is best demonstrated by examining the relationship of Standard English to other varieties of English as well as to other languages being taught.

The distinction between standard and vernacular forms of a language is based on the perceived differences between the educated and the uneducated.  The term “standard,” when used to describe language, generally refers to that form of the language that is used for formal and written applications by those who occupy the highest ranks of society.  Rules governing its usage tend to be rather strict and resistant to change.

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In contrast, a vernacular is the colloquial language used informally by a group of people, much less rigid in its forms and much more liable to change.  An online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, the recognized authority on the English language, exemplifies this divisiveness in its definition of the noun “vernacular” as “the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people of a country or region.”  Aligning the vernacular form with so-called “ordinary” folks naturally infers a similar association between the standard form and less ordinary people, the literate elite who use it.

This lofty status is often justified by reference to the wealth of classical literature, historical documents, and scientific/technical writings that exist in both British and American Standar1d English.  An understanding of Standard English provides access to these canons and to the educational systems that utilize them.  These systems offer the knowledge and expertise necessary for the highest levels of professional and intellectual achievement.  Simply put, a better than average knowledge of Standard English offers a better than average chance at attaining prominence in highly skilled and specialized areas such as education, business, or technology (Brindley 208).

Whether this effect is seen as favorable or unfavorable depends, as most things do, on the perspective through which it is viewed.  Any experience that affords people greater personal control over important life issues may seem universally appealing, yet insistence upon teaching only Standard English has evoked considerable controversy (Brindley 205).  Those who advocate the teaching of Standard English writing in a way that emphasizes its reliance on stringent rules and formats have been accused of perpetuating a desired status quo (Brindley 226-227).

By learning Standard English, students are carrying on a long tradition of literary scholarship that has yielded many important intellectual gains and brought the western world to the forefront in industry and science.  Detractors see the teaching of Standard English as an imposition of social norms that depend on conformity and narrow-mindedness.  By forcing people to think in constrained ways about language, teachers are hindering both creativity and individuality for the sake of convention (Bourne 243).

Such adherence to uniformity often puts the learner in an uncomfortable and confusing situation, as when the home background and the educational environment clash in terms of language.  Katharine Perera describes the difficulties encountered by children being taught Standard English while living in homes and neighborhoods where the vernacular is the mode of expression.

For them, a change in their manner of speech represents an invalidation of their customary way of life and may create barriers between them and their peers.  The experience of speaking one way with friends or family who share their idiom, only to then be told by teachers that this language is wrong, forces most children to reluctantly choose one identity at the expense of the other (cited in Brindley 212).

Concern over this loss of identity has fueled heated disputes in “mother-tongue” contexts, where English is taught as a first language and some form of it is used by much of the population as a native language (Brindley 206).  Davis and Watson report that in Australia, post-war migration increased the nation’s multiculturalism while weakening the influence of a common British legacy.  Responding to the resultant search for a national identity, the Australian curriculum acknowledges the relationship between this identity and language yet also recognizes the diversity that exists within “Australian Standard English” (cited in Brindley 206).

The Australian Education Council’s statement on the English curriculum sets Australian English apart from American or British English chiefly by differences in vocabulary and pronunciation, and describes this national variety of English as a combination of the Standard Australian English used in schools and several vernacular forms, any one of which a student may use at home.   The curriculum statement also advises that Standard Australian English should be taught as an extension of local idioms and not as a replacement for them.

Although the report further stresses importance of Australian Standard English because of its role in educational structures, professional fields, and spoken communication, it also recognizes the value of vernacular forms and the cultural backgrounds they represent.  Its national plan for teaching English also notes that language changes in respect to context and purposes, and it urges that students be made aware of this fact so they can apply their language skills accordingly.  The Council also officially confers equal status to standard and local forms of English, viewing neither one as inherently superior to the other (cited in Brindley 207)

Sue Brindley relates that the issue of the relative worth of different language forms is intensely debated in Britain, where the world’s richest history of English has led to much linguistic diversity.  Standard English is an integral part of the official school curriculum, yet there is no consensus about exactly what constitutes standardized English and how it is connected to a student’s home variety (Brindley 208).  A Department for Education and Welsh Office statement cites strict observance to rules of vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and pronunciation as the distinguishing features of Standard English to be taught in England and Wales, yet this description is too vague to give a precise definition.

Although the British policy encourages the use of standardized language for both written and spoken applications, it also recognizes that spoken English is more spontaneous and therefore less apt to conform to the same rigorous criteria used in more carefully planned written applications (cited in Brindley 210).  By associating Standard English with qualities like precision and clear diction, the British curriculum contradicts the viewpoint of many linguists and educators, as well as the sentiments expressed in the Australian English statement, by implying that school-sanctioned standardized forms are linguistically superior to other varieties (Brindley 211).  The obvious counterpart to this attitude is a belief that vernacular forms of English are inferior.

Brindley speaks of educators who are concerned that such a prejudicial position will necessarily lead to a gradual erosion of the traditional cultural values that underlie the home life of those whose first language is the vernacular. Some teachers have taken it upon themselves to teach Standard English in a way that does not discriminate against home-based language varieties and, by extension, their associated ways of life. In this manner, they hope to allow students to derive the benefits inherent in a multicultural approach: a greater fund of knowledge about languages, a richer social experience, and a keener appreciation of different manners of thinking (212-213).

In countries where the native language is not English, there is every bit as much controversy regarding the cultural aftereffects of learning English.  For people living in geographical areas marked by poverty and need, an education in English may be seen as a way to rise to the echelons of power and privilege.  Yet for those already enjoying that power and privilege, the promotion of English for the masses may be seen as either a welcome conversion or a dangerous threat.  Anthea Fraser Gupta’s account of the spread of English in colonial India traces the complicated history of the English empire’s influence over native Indians.  When Great Britain officially endorsed the teaching of English to Indians, the intent was to introduce not only the language of the United Kingdom but also its cultural and religious values.

British officials were in effect attempting to create darker-skinned versions of themselves, seeing the inculcation of western ideals as a means of eradicating a way of life that they considered idolatrous, immoral, and unrefined ( 190-191).  At the same time, Indians in positions of power worried that giving the lower classes a glimpse of what was possible through an English education worked against their interests.  S.N. Mukherjee (cited in Gupta 192) reports that the Calcutta upper classes feared that those below their social rank would become dissatisfied with their inferior status.

More than a hundred years after the events chronicled in Gupta’s account, teachers of English still encounter resistance from pupils who either feel that language is being forced upon them or resent social exclusion from English-speaking society (Bourne 243-244)..  Despite this, Jill Bourne informs us that the current trend in non-English speaking countries is to incorporate English language lessons into the primary school system.  Even in Malaysia, where this is not endorsed, private schools offer English instruction to students whose wealthy parents are willing to pay for what they perceive as an important step on the road to social success (244).

Several countries, including Germany, the former Czech Republic, Hungary, Malay, and Hong Kong, have implemented some form of what America calls Language and Content Teaching, which blends language instruction with course content.  The focus is shifted from the English language to the curriculum material, which is presented through the medium of English.  However, in most parts of the world where English is taught, the emphasis remains on English as a subject itself (Bourne 244).  This suggests that for most nations, what is truly being sought is not an adoption of English values but the attainment of proficiency in a language that offers access to more profitable pursuits.

It is easy to understand why countries such as Hong Kong, whose economy is deeply invested in international commerce, would feel pressured to acquire English fluency.  English is a major language of trade, and an inability to speak it proficiently is a definite disadvantage in the business arena.  This becomes clearer when we consider it on a smaller, more personal scale.  Anyone who has spent time among people who shared a common, foreign language knows the frustration and stigmatization that can result from an inability to communicate easily and appropriately with others.

There is a natural human desire to feel connected to others in some way, and language provides an excellent means of achieving that sense of belonging.  When essential life factors such as economic, social, and professional standing are at stake, language becomes even more crucial.

This relationship between modes of communication and key life issues is precisely why the concept of a neutral language is a hypothetical one.  The teaching of any language involves the transmission of much more than rules about grammar and pronunciation.  It inevitably requires some measure of cultural change on the part of the learner, and in the case of English instruction those changes can have profound effects upon many major aspects of life.  For this reason, educators and students alike must respect the various forms of language as reflections of valuable cultural and social traditions.

Works Cited

Bourne, Jill. “English for Speakers of Other Languages.” Learning English: Development and

Diversity. Eds. Neil Mercer and Joan Swann. UK: The Open University, 2002, 243-270.

Brindley, Sue, with contributions from Swann, Joan. “Issues in English Teaching.” Learning English:

Development and Diversity. Eds. Neil Mercer and Joan Swann. UK: The Open University,

2002, 205-228.

Gupta, Anthea Fraser. “English and Empire: Teaching English in Nineteenth Century India.” Learning

English:  Development and Diversity. Eds. Neil Mercer and Joan Swann. UK: The Open University, 2002, 188-194.

“vernacular.” Compact Oxford English Dictionary. 2005. (3 Dec. 2005).

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