Letter: Rights and wrongs of teaching standard English

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Sir: Those who consider that teaching standard English to British schoolchildren is wrong, because it imposes 'a middle-class language' on them (report, 16 April), adopt a bizarre view of education. Standard English is no longer merely the language used by middle-class people in England, but a lingua franca used throughout the world.

Can it be reasonable to assert that the form of English that Russian, Japanese, Ghanaian and Dutch children learn throughout their schooldays is inappropriately taught to native speakers of English? It would be as absurd as objecting to the teaching of all foreign languages on the grounds that the form of language taught will inevitably be that which is used nationally and internationally by educated people.

However, it is worrying that the new curriculum requires the teaching of spoken standard English to begin at age five. Those who framed it cannot have appreciated that the only stable model of a standard language is to be found in its written form. About 15 per cent of the population speak standard English and even they frequently produce non-standard spoken forms.

How on earth is an East Anglian five-year-old who hears a mish-mash of dialects on television, and parents, relatives, schoolfriends, postmen, bus drivers, and shopkeepers using the dialectal paradigm 'I was, you was, he was, we was, they was' supposed to distinguish between the bits that are all right and the bits that won't do?

Only after the child can read and write confidently, at least at reading age eight, is it reasonable to begin working from the relatively stable forms of the written language to point out grammatical differences between the standard language and the dialect.

Yours faithfully,


Professor of English as an International Language

Research Centre for English and Applied Linguistics

University of Cambridge


16 April