Speak standard English!

There’s regularly talk of ‘correct’ or ‘standard’ English in the media and on Twitter. Some people apparently wear their bad grammar like a badge of honour or refuse to learn the ‘correct’ way of speaking because, the critics say, it makes them look cooler or ‘down with the kids’. And don’t even ask about glottal stops! In the second part of our discussion, Ian Cushing and I look at what ‘standard English’ is, and why we should question policies that insist upon it being spoken in full sentences, at all times. Why does grammar get people heckling each other and cause headline news?

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Following on from part one of our discussion about grammar, Ian and I talk about the idea of what ‘correct’ language is in more detail. Where does this idea that a language has a standard form come from? Why do some hold it up as the only ‘proper’ way to communicate in some classrooms?

Grammar is not just a set of rules, and ‘standard English’
is not the only way to use English.

Speak proper!

If a student has their hand up to contribute to a discussion in class, do you:

A) insist they speak in full sentences with no fillers or conversational markers; or
B) welcome their intellectual contribution to the discussion?

To what extent should we ‘police’ students’ spoken language, and encourage them to use ‘better’ English when speaking? This is a really hot topic, and has sparked lots of interesting debate recently. Ian explains that YES, of course it is important that students know and can use standard English. But it is equally important that they know *about* standard English. This is because it comes with several layers of political, social and personal oppression and has a chequered history.

Teachers need to be talking to their students about the politics and the power of language.

Ian Cushing

What is ‘standard’ English?

The standard form of any language is a social construction, invented by powerful social groups who continue to perpetuate and promote it. It protects their interests to do so. The standard form of a language becomes a gatekeeper for access to education and employment, for example. It is definitely worth investigating the history of what we mean by ‘standard’ English, since it is bound up with notions of race and class. The standard language ideology gets upheld quite often in schools because we see lots of real-life effects of the ‘standard/non-standard’ ideology.

Ian explains how non-standard varieties can get constructed as ‘deviant or non-compliant’ or even ‘subordinate’. This leads to a hierarchy of ways of using language. The whole notion of stratified (‘better’ or ‘worse’) language is problematic as we explored in part 1. See also my conversation about accents with David and Ben Crystal here, and Michael Rosen’s question about who ‘owns’ language here.

Should we teach it, then?

The debate on social media quite often centres on whether linguists are encouraging teachers to shirk teaching standard English, when it is our duty to teach the curriculum. Teachers also seek to provide our students with the ‘best possible’ education to prepare them for their future work and further education. Sometimes it seems linguists are at odds with this when arguing against the blanket ‘standard English at all times’ policies. The debate can get quite heated! In this podcast we delve into this issue of ‘social justice’ in more detail. Let’s look at how linguists and teachers can work together to provide the best possible education for students. Linguists are not trying to stop teachers from teaching standard English. Far from it!

We really do need much more joined-up thinking in terms of language study from primary through to higher education.

Ian Cushing

Where next?

Ian points teachers to several useful resources including the work of Julia Snell at the University of Leeds (language and social class, and performing different identities through language); Rob Drummond at Manchester Met University (identity, youth language and non-standard grammar); and Marcello Giovanelli at Aston University (language study in schools). There is brilliant work and support available at the English and Media Centre too. And in the US, Ian mentions work on standard language and race in schools such as the work of April Baker-Bell, Nelson Flores, Mariana Souto-Manning and Jonathan Rosa. Plenty of further reading for you to enjoy!

Listen below, or click on the buttons above, and on iTunes, Google, Amazon, Spotify etc. And do join the conversation about language on Twitter. Should we encourage our students to develop diverse linguistic repertoires and discuss attitudes to language in class? Students, how do you feel about teachers correcting the way you speak in school? Find us on @langrevolution and @ian_cushing. Let’s talk about talking!

Grammar… friend or foe?

Let’s talk about the G-word: grammar. It’s a bit of a Marmite subject. People seem to love it or hate it, and for some it is a trigger word. When I mention that I like linguistics, people can get a bit defensive and ask if I’m going to correct their apostrophes. There is, it seems to me, a conflation of linguistics with the ‘naming of parts’ and subjects, verbs and objects. Grammar can be a real bone of contention in education too, and even cause ripples in politics. 

To untangle the issue of grammar teaching in school, I spoke to Dr Ian Cushing from Brunel University in London, where he is a Lecturer in Education, previously Teaching Fellow in English Linguistics at UCL  and leads the English PGCE programme. He has research interests concerning language policy in schools, grammar in schools and teachers’ knowledge about language.

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Grammar teaching – where are we now?

When I was at school in the 80s and 90s, we didn’t really learn explicitly about grammatical terms in our English lessons. I’ve heard from other people my age that they ‘discovered’ that verbs were a thing in English once they started learning French or other foreign languages at school. And yet, grammar is now a significant part of teaching in primary schools. How do teachers feel about this? Are we feeling confident and qualified?

Before we dive in too far, Ian asks us to question what we mean when we use the word ‘grammar’, since we can define it in different ways. Do we mean the study of ‘clause level’ grammar, such as identifying parts of speech? Or are we talking about ‘discourse level’ grammar, and how linguistic patterns contribute and shape meaning? And then there are the ideologies about grammar, and the differences between spoken and written codes. It is a big subject, so we begin with some contextualising of what we mean when we say ‘grammar’ and how the cycle of grammar teaching has returned to quite a prescriptive approach.

German and English are closely related. Knowledge about the history of English can shed light on some of the eccentricities of English grammar.

Teacher knowledge about grammar

Rather than discussing ‘knowledge about grammar’, Ian suggests we use the phrase ‘knowledge about language’ or language awareness. There can be quite a lot of pressure on teachers to get their pupils through the SATS at the end of primary school. Pedagogies can often (not always!) be written in response to the spelling, punctuation and grammar elements of these tests. In secondary school, teachers have a little more freedom to move beyond the prescriptive approach of clause level grammar. We can investigate ‘discourse level’ approaches to language, looking at meaning, contexts, patterns and language choices. Below A Level English Language, however, there could be more space in the curriculum for talking about attitudes, linguistic variation, accents, dialects, history of language, language change, ideologies, and standardised/non-standardised Englishes. It’s all really helpful to get pupils interested in language, and the way we use it. Teachers could be supported to develop a more critical, political and sensitive approach to language teaching. Connecting linguists and teachers could be a good way forward for this kind of collaboration.

Grammar rules

Different theories and frameworks for talking about grammar and language all come with different metalanguage (language about language). It’s not surprising that teachers can sometimes feel overwhelmed when googling a grammatical term, as different approaches explain the same things in different ways. We might clutch at the ‘rules’ because they seem solid, when in fact language is more diaphanous and vague. What we do have, however, are conventions about how we use language in different contexts and for different purposes. Thinking about grammar conventions is a bit more helpful in terms of avoiding the ‘right/wrong’ approach of talking about language.

Language is a bit messy, and doesn’t always conform to these so-called invented rules.

Ian Cushing on grammar ‘rules’

As Michael Rosen said in episode 10, language is always ‘language in use’. Talking about grammar in a very abstract way suggests that it conforms to a set of rules, but it is much messier than that. There are conventions and patterns which we apply in a context and for a purpose. To find reliable resources for teaching language in use and knowledge about language, Ian suggests looking at Deborah Myhill’s work at the University of Exeter here and to the Englicious website, which Ian worked on during his time at UCL.

Why study ‘grammar’ at all then?

Some knowledge and understanding of the metalanguage allows us to discuss language in use in a critical way, and apply ourselves to dissecting attitudes and approaches to language. Whilst knowing the names of grammatical terms does not improve pupils’ writing, if our language lessons are a rich environment for talking about talking and writing, I think this would empower pupils to think about language more critically. Language is something we do, choices we make to reach goals we want to achieve, not something that is done to us. Grammar in context is an exciting approach with a focus on the writing, and what is happening with language, rather than simple labelling and identification of grammatical features. David Crystal talked about this as well in episode 8. Linguistic possibilities, creativity and meaning and choice underpin this approach.

There’s absolutely no research that suggests that explicit knowledge of grammatical terms equates with improved writing.

Ian Cushing on whether ‘clause level’ grammar knowledge improves writing

‘Better’ English

We finish off part 1 of our discussion by thinking about some of the words we put in front of ‘English’ such as ‘better’ or ‘standard’ or ‘articulate’. Who gets to decide what is better or standard? Do teachers have a responsibility to focus on ‘correct’ notions of language when teaching? Join the discussion on Twitter by following @langrevolution and @ian_cushing. Are you a student or a teacher? What do you think about current approaches to ‘grammar’?

Listen to Ian Cushing on The Language Revolution podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon etc. or here:

EAL – where to start?

The term ‘EAL’ gets more airtime in educational circles these days because our world is becoming more super diverse. This means that our schools have more children who are learning English. But does ‘EAL’, which is short for ‘English as an Additional Language’, simply mean a child doesn’t speak English yet? Actually, it is much more nuanced and complicated than that. In the second part of my conversation with EAL specialist Eowyn Crisfield, we talk about how parents and schools can work together to support multilingual learners.

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What is EAL?

Let’s start with some definitions. When a child has a parent at home who speaks a language other than English, the school assigns that pupil EAL status. It is often used as a catch-all term to describe children who are learners of English. However, just having a parent who speaks another language does not mean a child is an English learner! In fact, the child might only speak English and not the home language.

The designation EAL is hugely misleading and could apply to a child who is an English monolingual or, the complete opposite, a child who speaks no English yet at all. Professor Victoria Murphy, chair of EAL subject association NALDIC and applied linguistics lecturer at the University of Oxford department of education, has called EAL a ‘reckless’ definition in the TES.

What is the impact of starting school on EAL learners?

When EAL pupils start school, this may be the first time they have encountered English, or they may already be bilingual in English and another ‘home’ language. Or they may fall somewhere in between. The impact of starting school is immense. They will have less contact time, and thus input, in their home language once they spend all day in an English-speaking environment. They will also start to notice that they are perhaps different and have a language that other children do not speak. Depending on how this affects their feelings about their home language, this is sometimes when children ask their parents not to speak to them in public in their home language.

Make children partners in language development

The way to support children in fostering a positive self-identity as a multilingual person is to make them partners in their own language journey. Language is not something that is done to them, it is something they actively choose. Without a positive approach to multilingualism in school, it is highly likely that a high-status language like English will swallow up the child’s home language. This is especially true when parents feel discouraged in continuing home language support, or that English is more important. As Eowyn said in part one, English is the ‘Pacman’ of languages because it eats up all the minority languages!

It is important to talk to children from an early age about their languages. This can begin when they are very small by simply talking about how mummy says ‘cheese’ and papa says ‘fromage’ for example. Then as children grow, the conversation around languages grows in an age-appropriate way. This develops the children’s metalinguistic awareness, that is, their understanding about languages. And this awareness, in turn, makes them better at learning languages.

School environments

The school environment has a huge impact on pupils’ attitudes and motivation when it comes to languages. If a school reflects the diverse multilingualism of its pupils, they are more likely to feel encouraged and maintain their multilingualism. If a school suppresses the languages of the pupils, they will work towards conforming to the monolingual ‘norm’.

Why does this matter, you might ask? Shouldn’t we focus on teaching them English?

Great question. You will be forgiven for thinking that in order to learn English, children need to spend more time learning English and less time on their home language. It sounds like a simple equation, right? But MORE ENGLISH does not actually support children learning English if it is at the expense of supporting their development in a more dominant or well-established home language.

Learning languages is like building a tower of blocks

Imagine a stack of bricks. As the tower gets taller, it requires firmer foundations or the whole thing topples over. Languages are the same. If a child as a strong foundation in their home language, it is a more secure platform for adding further languages on top. However, if you REMOVE a foundation block from the bottom, the entire stack might tumble.

The better their home language is, the better they’ll be at English

Eowyn Crisfield on maintaining home languages

The earlier the better, right?

Erm, not quite. Listen to episode 20 (part one of this conversation with Eowyn) for a fuller analysis, but in a nutshell, this is not as simple as it sounds either. Children at age four are slower to learn a language than they are at age 10. It takes them years longer, in fact, and they will all end up at the same place eventually anyway. This is because young children are still developing their cognitive (thinking) skills. We are worse at processing things when we are young, and get more complex thinking strategies with age.

So if you add in the complication of being a learner of English, it isn’t surprising that sometimes EAL children get misdiagnosed as having special educational needs. EAL does not equal SEND! It takes between 1 and 3 years for children to learn enough English to speak it (ask for pencils, play football, etc). It takes anywhere between 3 and 9 years for them to reach academic fluency, whereby they think and process at an age-appropriate level in English. Incredible, eh?

The younger they are when they start, the longer it will take them to learn the language.

Maintaining home languages is vital

The more developed children are cognitively, the better they are at learning English. Eowyn explains in really clear detail why cognitive development is entirely dependent on having age-appropriate language skills. It is therefore vital that children who do not have an age-appropriate level of English continue to have a rich home-language environment as this scaffolds and supports their learning of English as a second language.

What this means is:

Do not stop speaking and using your home language(s) when children start school!

The strength of the children’s home languages is going to pull them up the hill of learning English and make it easier to acquire English. This message is so important, I have written in big orange letters. Schools, do not advise parents to stop speaking their languages at home. Parents, if you are advised to drop your home language ‘to help your children learn English’ it is incorrect advice and will slow down their progress in English. The same is true, incidentally, if you move abroad and the children are being schooled in a new language, say, Spanish. They’ll need home-language support to access the curriculum in Spanish too, right?

Teacher training in EAL

The PGCE course for teacher training in England is so jam packed, there is no real time to learn about EAL. And since the government does not require it, individual courses have to decide whether or not to include training on EAL, language acquisition or bilingualism for teachers. If they do include a module on it, it means they are sacrificing training on another aspect of teaching. It’s a busy year!

So where can teachers get training on EAL? How can they find out about translanguaging and using home languages as a resource or scaffolding for learning in school?

Take a look at the NALDIC website, the national subject association for EAL. The blog is called EAL Journal (also available as a termly print journal) and is full of practice-related content from real teachers. I wrote a piece for it in January 2020, here. There are regional meetings of EAL specialists and teachers too, and an annual conference that is taking place online on 21st November 2020. You might also enjoy browsing the excellent RiPL network site, where you’ll find summaries of research and lots of practice-based ideas on improving language learning in primary schools.

You can also get in touch with Eowyn Crisfield via her two blogs: Crisfield Educational Consulting for schools, and On Raising Bilingual Children for parents (but interesting for all).

Food, flags and festivals

I hope this blog and the podcast will encourage teachers to have a look at how the school environment reflects the actual languages of their pupils. Rather than taking a superficial approach with ‘food, flags and festivals’, how about discussing how to make translanguaging a reality in your school?

Perhaps your school or colleagues are nervous about letting the children speak all kinds of languages? What on earth are they saying in that language you don’t speak? Honestly, they are probably a) relieved to find someone they can discuss Pokémon with in depth, and b) glad of the mental respite of trying to speak their second (or third, or fourth…) language all day. When adults are immersed in a new language, we are exhausted too, and grateful to find some English speakers occasionally! It’s the same with children.

Eowyn has some brilliant ideas for embedding a truly multilingual approach into your school’s ethos. The best part is that encouraging parents and children to identify with and enjoy celebrating their home languages will really support the children who are learning English. And this multilingual approach has a positive effect on your monolingual English speakers too. Everyone is a linguist!

Listen below, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, Google and Podbean. Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter! You can find Eowyn on @4bilingualism and me (Cate) on @langrevolution or @lomo_linguist.

Bilingual Families Eowyn Crisfield EAL
Eowyn’s book, Bilingual Families, is published by Multilingual Matters in January 2021

Bilingual Education Roadmap

There’s a wealth of information on the Internet about bilingual education and raising bilingual kids. But for parents or teachers navigating their way through an online search, it often feels overwhelming. Facts can get taken out of context, and statistics from research are quoted as set in stone. However, the science of bilingualism is relatively young and ever-evolving. I discussed raising bilingual children in Episode 5 with psychology lecturer Dr Katerina Draper. In Episode 20, I talk to Eowyn Crisfield in more detail about what parents need to know about bilingual education.

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Parents need a plan. A family language plan.

There are some prevalent myths around bilingual education that I’ve heard time and again whilst teaching Babel Babies, or chatting to other adults about my work. A couple of favourites are that ‘children are sponges’ and ‘the earlier the better’. Eowyn explains why these statements are problematic. The metaphor of children being ‘sponges’ suggests they are inactive absorbers of languages. Babies are actually conducting scientific experiments with language from early on. They actively pursue knowledge about which contexts to use which languages in, and for what purpose.

It is not quite as simple as saying ‘the earlier the better’ either. Yes, early bilingual education can be effective but success can look different for different families and even for children within the same families. Therefore some understanding of the different processes is really helpful for parents navigating the subject. ‘Bilingual first language acquisition’ is where children learn two languages from before the age of two, and ‘sequential language acquisition’ is where they learn first one language, and then add others to their linguistic repertoire after the age of two. These are different approaches and one isn’t necessarily better than another. A lot depends on the situation and context of each individual family.

Family language planning

This is why Eowyn advocates for parents to understand more of the science of bilingualism than they perhaps imagine they need. Surely bilingualism just happens naturally, in the right context? Well yes, if there are multiple languages used regularly in a child’s home and supported in the wider family and community, as is often the case in South Africa or India for example, children can appear to acquire more than one language effortlessly. If, however, parents are raising a child away from the community where their language is dominant (eg, raising a child with Greek whilst living in London), it’s helpful to have a plan of how to make sure the child hears enough Greek to acquire it.

The family language plan involves parents, family members, teachers and the child(ren), and is a dynamic document. It flows with a family’s needs and goals, rather than being set in stone. Eowyn explains why planning ahead can also be really helpful when facing skeptics, such as family members or health professionals who do not understand bilingual education. It turns parents into advocates for their own children’s multilingualism.

How much is enough?

Coming back to the question of ‘how much language is enough input?’ Eowyn analyses a few key statistics that people often quote as fact. Do children need 20% or 30% input in a language to become bilingual? Parents are perhaps seeking certainty, or quantifiable amounts of language that can be charted, when in fact what matters is the quality of the language a child hears at home.

Quality is more important than quantity.

Eowyn Crisfield on the question of ‘how much’ language a child needs to hear to become bilingual

It’s a fairly repetitive task being a parent, and we often repeat the same basic language to our children: where are your shoes, have you brushed your teeth, it’s time to go, etc. For successful language acquisition, children need to hear a rich and varied amount of language rather than merely the same things over and over again. When there is more than one language to learn, time is divided between the languages. If we only want them to be able to understand and say those basic everyday things, that’s absolutely fine. The key thing is to measure our expectations, whether that is full literacy and spoken fluency or achieving simpler communicative levels of a language, and to plan accordingly. Higher expectations will require higher levels of quality input.

Bilingual education roadmap
Where do you want your child to go with their languages?

Starting school and bilingualism

‘Should I stop speaking to my child in the home language when they start school?’ is a question we often hear, and sadly many parents have been told to do this by teachers or health professionals. Even speech and language therapists might offer this advice if they do not understand how bilingualism works. It is particularly common in the UK and US where English is a dominant and ‘high status’ language. Eowyn told me she calls English the ‘Pacman’ of languages because it eats up all the minority languages. We will discuss bilingualism in school in more detail in part two. Here is one of our favourite quotes from bilingual education Professor Jim Cummins to whet your appetite!

We are faced with the bizarre scenario of schools successfully transforming fluent speakers of foreign languages into monolingual English speakers, at the same time as they struggle, largely unsuccessfully, to transform English monolingual students into foreign language speakers.

Jim Cummins, (2005). A proposal for action: Strategies for recognising heritage language competence as a learning resource within the mainstream classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 89(4), 585–591.

Cyclical bilingualism, passive bilingualism and semilingualism

Sometimes even the words we use to talk about bilingual education can sound terrifying! It’s no wonder that the topic is shrouded in mystery and parents can feel lost. Eowyn and I talk about some of the terms that we hear more frequently on social media and what they mean. We also discuss which languages parents ‘should’ pass on, and when it’s possibly better to let one language remain passive (so a child understands it but doesn’t answer you using it).

Eowyn Crisfield is an international bilingual educational consultant, senior lecturer on multilingual education at Oxford Brookes University, member of the executive committee for NALDIC (the national subject association for English as an additional language in the UK), and mother of three trilingual children. Her book, Bilingual Families, is being published by Multilingual Matters in early 2021.

Join Eowyn and Cate on the podcast by clicking below, or on iTunes, Spotify and Podbean. Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter! You can find Eowyn on @4bilingualism and me (Cate) on @langrevolution or @lomo_linguist.