What’s the Standard?


In my last post (Interacting with Linguistic Capital and Teacher Agency), I alluded to the balance that language teachers must find between working within the bounds of educational policy and making accommodations for inclusion, perhaps at times pushing the boundaries. I feel that the topic merits further attention.

One of the first questions to come to my mind is, “To what extent should the standard variety be emphasized?”

Before attempting to answer this question, let’s consider a couple of things. First, the standard variety of language is typically seen as “correct,” while non-standard language used by socially-marginalized groups is seen as a negative reflection of their “potential for achievement and… their worth as human beings” (Corson, 1993, p. 101). This is called linguistic stereotyping (Corson, 1993; Van Herk, 2012). Corson (1993) discusses studies revealing that teachers commonly hold linguistic stereotypes about children with non-standard speech, which results in negative expectations about “children’s personalities, social backgrounds, and academic abilities” (p. 109). Consequently, the children’s performance is negatively affected (Corson, 1993).

One cause for this type of linguistic stereotyping is the fallacious idea that standard English is “correct.” This perception of correctness is restrictive, prescriptive, and denies the reality that non-standard varieties are legitimate forms of communication that consistently employ specific (though sometimes “different”) rules of word order, meaning, and so on (Corson, 1993). Corson argues that standard language is better framed in terms of appropriateness, which has to do with which variety of a language is needed for different contexts. No speaker uses just one language variety at all times; rather, we all adjust our word choice, our sentence types, and even our pronunciation for depending on what we’re doing or who we’re with (Corson, 1993). For example, I’m probably not going to ask the Queen, “Whatcha doin’?” the way I would ask a good friend. According to Corson, correctness is defined by rules consistently followed in each variety rather than by prescriptive rules for one variety that is considered to be the right one.

In the language classroom, educators are often justified in teaching the standard variety based not on misguided views that is it better or more correct, but rather on the basis its appropriateness. According to Corson, it is advantageous for students to become competent with the standard variety because it will often be appropriate in the widest range of contexts. Corson notes that one of these advantages is that it helps to provide users with access to higher or technical education, which by extension means access to jobs.

If the standard variety is appropriate to a wide range of contexts and, therefore, necessary, then what place remains for non-standard varieties in the language classroom? As I suggested in my last post, I do not believe that the standard variety should be taught at the expense of home dialects or registers. Fishman (1999) discusses the standpoints of additive versus replacive teaching. Replacive teaching occurs when the standard variety of a language is taught with the underlying attitude that it ought to replace learners’ home language(s) or dialects (Fishman, 1999). However, Fishman also describes an additive approach to teaching, where the standard variety is viewed as adding to students’ linguistic repertoire, increasing the richness of their multicompetence (see Teachers are Learners Too…) or  opening up possibilities for diglossia, defined by Van Herk (2012) as the ability to switch between formal and informal speech styles in the appropriate social settings.

If teachers adopt an additive mindset, it becomes possible to teach the standard variety without overlooking or devaluing the parts of students’ identities and self respect that rest in their home language or language variety (Corson, 1993). However, in order to do this, it is crucial is to engage in critical self-reflection, as discussed in Overcoming the Myth of Neutrality, to expose the stereotypes we (often unknowingly) subscribe to. Corson notes that this can be very difficult, because it runs contrary to many teachers’ training and even personal beliefs about the value of standard versus non-standard language. Corson recommends that schools provide staff members with awareness training in this area. He also suggests that “while valuing non-standard varieties… by not censuring their use, schools have a major obligation to provide sensitive opportunities and appropriate contexts where non-standard speakers can use the standard variety widely and well” (p. 113). In other words, it is important not only to value students’ home dialects and languages, which are crucial to their identity and social value in local contexts (Corson, 1993), but schools should also equip students with the types of language that are needed in wider contexts they may encounter. However, as Van Herk (2012) notes, local attitudes toward the standard variety may not always be favourable, especially if there is a geographic or social/political distance between speakers of a non-standard variety and those who speak the standard variety.

What do you think? Do you agree with Corson that the standard dialect should still be taught, but with a more inclusive attitude? Do you think non-standard varieties or minority languages should be given a place in the classroom? If so, what is the balance? The thoughts I have offered here are really just to get the ball rolling; I would love to hear your feedback!


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Corson, D. (1993). Language, minority education and gender: Linking social justice and power. Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Fishman, J, A. (Ed.). (1999). Handbook of language & ethnic identity. New York: Oxford University Press.

VanHerk, G. (2012). What is sociolinguistics? Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.


Miss_Ball. (November 4, 2016). Bow To The Greatest: Your Faves Could NEVER!! Retrieved from http://www.lipstickalley.com/showthread.php/1103546-Bow-To-The-Greatest-Your-Faves-Could-NEVER!!.

3 thoughts on “What’s the Standard?

  1. Pingback: Translanguaging in the L2 Classroom (Part 1) | Ramblings of a Linguaphile

  2. Pingback: Language is Messy (Concluding Thoughts on Translanguaging) | Ramblings of a Linguaphile

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