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May 16, 2007 || 6:37 pm
Global English

I've been following the debate summarised in this article for a while. Fundamentally, it is about whether there exists a 'standard' and 'correct' form of English, whether standards of written and spoken English are slipping among young people and students, and what the impact or place of the new forms of English used in India and China, among other places, is or should be.

This is a debate that I got into when I lived in the USA too, where I once had a heated argument about the validity of what is strangely known as 'ebonics' over 'standard' English. Should African-American children be taught, or forced to use, 'classical' grammar and spelling in school or is a petition to government, say, equally valid if written in a colloquial African-American vernacular form? As you can imagine, this was a highly charged subject - taking my point of view (which was that a standard form of English provides a level playing field upon which social and political actors can interact, with a mutually understood set of meanings) laid me open to accusations of racism, no less.

In the UK I am more and more amazed by the poor grasp of spelling and syntax displayed in the multitude of documents that I read for work - from papers put out by local authority officers (even tender briefs) to job applications or even tender submissions by reputable companies. One recent example was from a marketing and design company - and their spelling was so incredibly poor that I would have rejected them for that alone even if their design was good (which it was not). To me, being able to articulate ideas clearly and logically is vitally important.

With new vernacular forms of English developing across the world, I always find an interesting parallel in Arabic. Each Arabic-speaking country has its own form of the spoken language, often wildly variant to the extent that Arabic learners choose whether to learn Egyptian Arabic, or Gulf Arabic, or Levantine Arabic, or another dialect. But Arabic also has a Modern Standard form that is used for all written communication. It is also used as a spoken language on formal occasions and in education - although many less educated Arabic speakers can't actually speak this language, they understand it.

Does this not provide a direct precedent for the development of English? A standard global English that obeys strict rules of spelling and grammar can provide the basis for international communication - online, in law, in business. What you choose to speak informally with your friends or community will vary and take on as much vibrancy and local colour as you wish. Some of those words or verbal forms may eventually make their way into the standard vocabulary over time.

But meanwhile, we should insist on high standards of written English. It forms the basis of our communication - an essential tool for public and political participation, and thus of more importance than those who dismiss it as needless dogmatism claim. If you can't write to your MP and clearly express your concerns; if you can't complain to your local council in terms that will be understood, your democratic capacity is limited. Learning only a vernacular that can only be understood by a closed group means you can't access jobs or opportunities that demand wider communication skills.

Every novelist or playwright knows that the kind of language they choose is intrinsic to characterisation and carries strong messages. I cherish vernaculars for their often wonderful use of words - but I would argue that their users must (and already often do) understand the distinctly different associations that these lingoes and standard English convey - and have the ability to switch between the two. This is not snobbery - it is the acknowledgement that a common language form enables communication as equals. We must make sure that all sections of the community can participate in social, political and economic life to the fullest extent, and that means making absolutely sure that, if nothing else, our schoolchildren learn English properly.




As an Arabic speaker, I agree with you to agreat extent. I have noticed that with English language. There is not one form standard English which could be used globally while in the Arab world anyone with basic level of education can easily understand any prefessional arabic speaker. So the demand of one standard English is required. thats what i think. thank you.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:25 am  

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