Good or Bad English
Aug 22, 2008 Speaking/Listening 2976 Views
It's difficult to determine whether something particularly is good or bad since we are all different and have our view towards different things. This then suggests a relationship of power and anyone doubting the power of language need only consider two historical moments to have their doubts vanquished. The first comes from Germany, when on May 10th 1933, crowds of students made a huge bonfire of certain books, in a square on Unter Den Linden in Berlin. The second historical reference is the treatment of writers such as Osip Mendel Stan and others by state stooges during Stalin's regime. Such uses, or abuses, of language also crop up in literature. Orwell's, 'Nineteen Eighty Four', for example, depicts the authoritarian Big Brother manipulating both the vocabulary and details of events, in order to control the populace. Language then can be censored or eliminated, in order to resist challenges on authority. However, censorship and destruction of language are not the only methods used to exclude voices in a society, which may differ from that of the establishment. Within our own society forms of spoken, or written English, are considered unacceptable because they differ from established notions of correct or good English.
The recent Kingsman inquiry into English language teaching, is proposing to reintroduce the instruction of grammar, nineteen century style. That is where students are supposed to learn a set of grammatical rules i.e. noun clause, conjunction, preposition etc. so that they can apply these rules to their own language and speaking. The belief that their exists some abstract grammatical model of English language, which can account for the diversity of expression, in a plethora of situations and by countless different users, is in my view erroneous. Wunderlich the German linguist argues, "There are so many aspects to human language and its manifestations, their individual and social functions, their psychic and physical qualities, their acquisition and history, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish connections between them all.". Moreover, most of what is spoken is unreflective, in that the speaker is unaware of the systems that shape our own or others speech behavior. Similarly written language is also unreflective; in fact the American Linguist Nelson Francis said that although he spent his working life studying grammar, whenever he wrote it was the meaning he concentrated on and not the syntax. However, it should be pointed out that writing is partially different, in that it offers us the opportunity to stop and reconsider. So that as I write these words, I have the chance to review and rephrase this essay. Nevertheless, if in our general use of language we are unaware of these linguistic rules, it must be asked of what use are these prescriptive notions of good English.
As we are concerned with education, let's look at what results the reintroduction of nineteen century forms of language teaching are likely to have. Douglas Barnes, an authority on language teaching and someone who has spent seventeen years teaching English in Secondary schools argues that, "It is precisely those children who most need help with standard usage, who are least likely to master generalized conceptual systems at the level that would enable them to be used for guiding language use. The study of linguistic forms seems pointless to many young people, whereas they recognize the point of thinking about effective communication. » So to revert to nineteenth century methods of teaching language, would most probably result in a worsening of language use, as more children would undoubtedly opt out of language instruction, to use a politically fashionable term. Moreover, if the study of language was restricted to linguistic forms then: feeling in language; attitudes; logic and the rationality of arguments; and thinking processes in oral exchange, would all be omitted. However, in some forms of written communication, most obviously in the field of commerce, conventional 'correctness' should be applied. But this concern should not result in the reintroduction of abstract grammatical models of language instruction.
In my opinion there is far too much concern for conventional correctness in English language usage, this concern being a manifestation of the relations of power in society. The desire to exclude the masses from positions of power with the excuse that they can, in the opinions of the establishment, neither speak or write properly, are all to evident. In terms of spoken English we are informed that a B.B.C., or South Eastern accent, should constitute the cultural norm, thus excluding regional dialects from representation on the most popular media form in society, excepting of course a minority of programmes such as drama. Elocution lessons are one obvious pernicious by-product of such thinking, where the speech of an individual undergoes training, to remove any regional accent - or personal idiosyncrasies - supposedly resulting in 'clear speech'.
Elitist views of what constitute the appropriate spoken voice, become even more apparent when we look at the treatment of Creole, or what is derisively called Pidgin English users. These forms of English, even though they have been given the linguistic seal of approval - in that they are equal to 'normal' English in terms of their ability to express concepts, ideas, thoughts and emotions in an equal degree of depth and complexity - are frowned upon and considered inferior. Consequently the users of a Creole or Pidgin English are at a disadvantage in society, as the establishment has branded them inferior speakers. The consequences for the users of these forms of English are: a rejection of established ideas and a withdrawal into themselves; assimilation and the resulting loss of part of their identity; or what is known as code switching, whereby speakers of these forms of English will alternate from their natural spoken expression to the cultural norm and back again, depending on such factors as to whom they are talking.
So far I have looked at the term good English, from the perspective of relations of power and how I think certain elements of society would view the term. The effects of this elitism being the continuation of the hierarchical nature of society and more specifically, the exclusion of sectors of society from positions of power. However, the term good English, needn't conjure up such a negative response. Although of course good English is a qualitative judgment, which presupposes bad English, this is a matter of context, the context being the concrete situation in which the language is used. We should therefore consider the following when assessing what is, or is not, good English: the field of discourse or subject matter; the mode of discourse spoken or written and the tenor of discourse, that is a consideration of the relationship between speaker and hearer, writer or reader. The implications for teaching, are that we should consider whom we are teaching and tailor the information into an appropriate communicative form. We should therefore take into consideration: whether we ought to speak or write; the tone to be adopted; the vocabulary used and whether the sentences are too long and convoluted.
It is generally agreed among both Psychologists and Linguists, that human beings have an innate ability to discover and use the: functions; rule systems; syntax; phonological and into national aspects of language. We are also equipped with the ability to find pleasure in language use. The use of a definitive linguistic model to assess written language, coupled by a belief that a South Eastern accent constitutes the best possible spoken voice, can only deter people from finding pleasure in writing, reading, speaking and listening. I would agree that it is necessary for certain conventional forms of writing to be learnt, especially in business communication, but cannot agree that all writing should be confined to these boundaries, or that the use of underlying linguistic rules in teaching such writing, are effective. Moreover, the exclusion of different dialects and varieties of English, such as Creole, can only result in a dull uniform culture, without any variation or dynamic vitality.
The title of this essay argued, 'Is there such a thing as good English', my answer to this question is a definite yes. The criteria for deciding what is, or is not, good English however, arises from a consideration of the context in which the language is used, not from any preconceived elitist notions as to what constitutes the best spoken or written voice. As the Shropshire National Association for the Teaching of English argues, "The proper business of English is fundamentally the processes of language. Language never happens in a vacuum. It must be about something and it must be presented and received in a certain form. Language has no abstract existence. Its reality is always in a particular utterance, which serves a particular purpose for the presenter and the receiver, whether or not either party is conscious of the purpose and whether or not the purpose is the same for each." We must be wary of any attempt to define what is good English by any other criteria, especially considering who is laying down the definitions and for what purpose.