Do We Need a "Standard" English? (With Professor David Crystal)

We ask David Crystal about standard English: why does standard English exist? How is it changing? Should students be exposed to different accents from around the world? And what role should culture play in English language teaching?

Do We Need a Standard English (with David Crystal)? - Transcript

Ross Thorburn:  Welcome back to the TEFL Training Institute Podcast. This episode, we have Professor David Crystal ‑‑ linguist, writer, editor, lecturer, and broadcaster. In this episode, I asked David Crystal about standard English. Why does standard English exist? How is it changing? What type of English or Englishes should teachers teach?

We talked about pronunciation and also the role that culture plays in language teaching. I hope you enjoy the interview.

David Crystal, welcome to the podcast. Can you start off by telling us, when did the idea of standard English first start? Is it something that also came into play in the 18th century along with things like prescriptive grammar and Samuel Johnson and the first dictionary, etc., or was it something that started earlier than that?

David Crystal:  One has to ask the question, what is a standard for? A standard is to guarantee intelligibility amongst lots of people, because if you carry on writing in your regional dialect, eventually you won't understand each other.

The first signs of standard English come in the Middle Ages when England becomes a nation rather than a set of independent kingdoms and there is a national civil service evolving, and a national parliament and all these things and English is becoming the language of the nation.

Then it became essential to get rid of some of these variations, and all sorts of influences caused the evolution of standard English ‑‑ civil service scribes, for instance, individual authors like Chaucer, the influence of the Bible ‑‑ many, many different variations, but the point is that between 1400 and 1800, standard English as we know it today evolves.

By 1800, virtually everybody was writing, and this is the point. Writing standard English is essentially a written form of English, not a spoken form. Even today, only a tiny proportion of the world's English‑language users speak standard English naturally at home as a first language. Most people learn standard English in school, and I'm talking not just about foreign language learners. I'm talking about native speakers as well.

Only about four or five percent ‑‑ maybe even that's an exaggeration ‑‑ of people in England speak standard English as a natural home language. Most people speak regional variations. Most people say, "I ain't got this. We ain't got no nothing" and things of that sort. Double negatives, all non‑standard features ‑‑ that's how they normally speak.

Then they go to school and they learn that, "That's not correct, dear boy. You have to say it this way," and you learn standard English. That's very useful, as long as you don't then your local accent and dialect demeaned in the process, which of course used to be the case.

Anyway, around about 1800, standard English in this sense of a universal, pretty unified form of writing had emerged, thanks to Dr. Johnson, with his dictionary. People like Lindley Murray and Bishop Lowth with their grammars, people like John Walker with their pronunciation dictionary and so on and so forth.

There's still a certain amount of variation, but on the whole, it's pretty standard. Then along comes Noah Webster in America and messes everything up, saying, "We don't want that standard anymore. We want a different sort of standard for a new nation," so he develops different standards for American English.

Again, only about five percent of American English is different from British English in terms of spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, grammar, and so on, but it's a pretty significant five percent, nonetheless. Suddenly there are two standards in the world, British and American.

Then that opened the floodgates, doesn't it, because any other country now who comes along and wants to use English. As soon as they adopt English they immediately feel they need to adapt it to express the identity of their own milieu.

This is where non‑standard comes into play, because what non‑standard does is it expresses identity rather than intelligibility. You and I are speaking now non‑standard English to each other. We're not going to understand each other, but I'm proud of my non‑standard English and you're proud of yours.

Of course, the result could be chaos but in many parts of the world, what happens is that the two varieties are so distinct that they don't mix each other up. I use standard English on some occasions. I use non‑standard English on other occasions.

Ross:  Presumably, now, then, most people recognize that one version of English isn't necessarily superior to the other. It's just that they get used at different times and in different situations, I suppose.

David:  Yeah. In other words, it's a notion of appropriateness rather than a notion of correctness. The 18th‑century notion was that only standard English was correct. Everything else was incorrect and rubbish and should never be used. You'll be punished if you use it.

These days it's a notion of appropriateness ‑‑ that standard English is appropriate for some kinds of functions, non‑standard appropriate for other kinds of functions. This is where it gets relevant to all countries. We're not just talking about British and American and Australian and Indian or the old colonial territories. We're talking about Chinese English and Japanese English and so on.

What is Chinese English for me? Chinese English is not somebody learning English from China and getting it wrong.

No, it's somebody learning English from China who is now developing a good command of English but using it to express Chinese concepts and Chinese culture in a way that I would not necessarily understand, because I don't understand Chinese culture, coming from outside it.

All over the world now, we see these "new Englishes," as they're called, being very different from traditional standard British English and traditional standard American English.

What they're doing is they're allowing the expression of their local identity to become institutionalized in dictionaries and in novels, you see, and plays and poetry and grammars and things like this, so that we now have to respect the identity of whatever it might be ‑‑ Indian English, Nigerian English, Chinese English, by which I mean, English written by Chinese authors expressing a Chinese milieu but with a competent command of English, so that one can't just say, "Hey, that's a mistake."

That is a genuine, shared expression of some section that's coming from China.

Ross:  Given all that, then, it really complicates the job of English‑language teachers, doesn't it? What's acceptable to teach and what is it acceptable to leave out? It's a lot more difficult, I guess, than it used to be, isn't it?

David:  Oh, gosh, it does, doesn't it? It is a fact that English‑language teaching has become more difficult because of the evolution of English in this way. It isn't a simple, "Oh, there's British and American English. As long as you know those two, you're home and dry."

It's not the case anymore. Everything I've said, mind you, is really only relevant for language comprehension, not so much for language production. After all, if you're used to teaching standard British English in Received Pronunciation, as many teachers are and in any case as many exam boards expect and as a lot of materials expect anyway, then fine. Carry on.

Standard British English is a good thing. RP is a good accent, etc., etc. But when it comes to listening comprehension and reading comprehension, if one restricts one's ability only to British English and RP, then you miss out Heaven knows how many percent ‑‑ probably most of the English language around the world.

How many people speak traditionally British English in an RP accent? We're talking about, what, a couple of percent of the world's population. It's a very useful accent still. No question about that.

Standard British is still a very useful dialect, but nonetheless, from a comprehension point of view, how often are you going to encounter it in the street, in literature, and so on? Only a minority of the time.

It's an increasing gap, it seems to me, between production and comprehension when it comes to teaching. That's me finished now, Ross, because now it's your problem to decide how to implement this in terms of syllabus design and at what point in the teaching process do you introduce these variations? I have the easy job here.


Ross:  That's a pity, because that was actually my next question.

David:  [laughs]

Ross:  What do you think? Should teachers and course books and writers be trying to work in examples of non‑standard English and non‑standard accents from all around the world into their lessons and in their course books?

It seems that even, for example, native speakers might even need help with their listening skills in developing an ear from accents from parts of the world that they're maybe traveling to that they haven't been before. Presumably the same is true for non‑native speakers as well.

David:  Absolutely. These days there is no difference, essentially, between a native and a non‑native speaker of English in this respect. I go to another part of the world just like a second‑language learner goes to the same part of the world and we're both equally foxed by the local identity of the language.

I have this all the time. I go to places. I don't know what the heck is going on, because I just don't understand the local words, the local expressions, the local nicknames of the politicians. All these cultural identity things are everywhere now. It's a problem for me as much as for the other.

As far as materials are concerned, yes I think one should build in right from the very beginning an awareness of variation. Some programs do this. Global, for example, does this to a certain extent. I think it's more general than that. All the materials, of course, have always had a certain cultural input.

You teach the present tense by for example saying, "Let us go for a walk down Oxford Street. Let's buy some things," and we'll use the present tense for that. It's drama driving the content.

You can also at the same time let culture help to drive the content. Not only do you have a vocabulary list at the end of the chapter which says what's going on or explains what's going on, but you have a culture list as well.

For example, we've done Oxford Street. When somebody says, "Let's look at your watch," and you say, "Oh, it's a nice watch," and the person says, "Yes, but it's not actually Bond Street. It's Portobello Road."

That's the kind of comment that anybody might make ‑‑ completely unintelligible to most foreigners until they know that Bond Street is the posh street and Portobello Road is the street market.

You could easily imagine how going into a shop to buy a watch to drill the present tense or whatever might also be supplemented by a little cultural panel somewhere or other which says, "Here ‑‑ this is a posh place to buy. This is not a posh place to buy." You gradually build up a sense of the cultural identity of the place.

I'll put it another way. If I go to Beijing, how do you translate Bond Street and Portobello Road into Beijing or wherever? How would you do it? If a Chinese person said that sentence to me in English ‑‑ "Go to this part of..." ‑‑ I would not know what it meant until it was explained, which, you know what I mean by saying it's a very general issue.

Ross:  I also wanted to ask you a bit about how new meanings come about, because obviously that's something that happens, I think, both in standard and non‑standard English. I think you mention in "A Little Book of Language" about encouraging people to look up word meanings in dictionaries.

Is it also the case that words often only really take on new meanings when people misuse them? Can you tell us a bit about how new meanings come about, or maybe how first they might be non‑standard or maybe even just considered to be wrong?

David:  To begin with, some people would say that any new meaning was a wrong use. There are always pedants around who will say that any change is an error to begin with. Then gradually usage grows and people forget that was ever a problem. They focus on new things that are taking place. This has routinely happened.

It's only happened since the 18th century. Before that, change just took place...People did object to it. Some people tried to stop it, people like Dryden and Swift and, to begin with, Johnson, said, "We must stop language change. Look, the French have done this with their Academy. They've stopped..." Of course they hadn't. But they tried and thought they were doing so.

Johnson himself recognizes this eventually and says, "Even the French haven't managed to stop language change. That's why we don't want an academy over here."

Change takes place. It will always get reactions. It's a very natural process, very subtle process. Most of the semantic changes that affect vocabulary take place without anybody noticing them happening at all until they become established, they get a new the dictionary, a new sense comes along, and people say, "Oh yeah. Of course. We've been saying that for years. We just haven't noticed it happening."

Ross:  One more time, everyone, that was Professor David Crystal. If you'd like to know more about David's work, please visit his website at I hope you enjoyed today's interview and we'll see you again next time. Goodbye.