A Pragmatist’s Argument for Standard Varieties in English Language Teaching


Welcome to the final entry in this week’s series on linguistic variation in the language classroom. In today’s entry, I’m going to be speaking from the position of a pragmatist that believes that linguistic variation has no place in formalized English language teaching (ELT). To write this piece, I will be playing the devil’s advocate, and I’ll admit that it was a bit of a challenge for me to write—mostly because of my own ideological and theoretical leanings. However, I feel that this is a useful exercise to prevent rampant bias and to help me better understand my own beliefs. Granted, because of my professional leanings, I’ve found it challenging to find supporting articles for this piece. So, this piece will be pure, but simulated, opinion.

The Importance of Standards: Or, the Case Against Embracing Linguistic Variation

The case for adopting global varieties of English in ESL/EFL classrooms has been well recorded (e.g., Canagarajah, 2006;2013). However, there is a strong pragmatic argument for eschewing linguistic variation in our classrooms. Said another way, there’s sufficient reason to believe that we should be working to teach and maintain a particular standard English in ELT.

First, it’s what our stakeholders want. Research suggests that our students have high perceptions of native speaker teachers (NESTs). Murtiana (2011) found that students at an Indonesian university felt that having a NEST would facilitate gains in their own linguistic competency, allowing them to reach a more native-like level of proficiency. From this finding, we can safely assume that part of the perceived appeal of the NEST is the standard variety of English that they are bringing with them. This desire for NESTs from the students is likely reinforced by their parents’ attitudes and perceptions. Anecdotally, many parents feel that if their children can have a NEST during their childhood, it will provide them with a linguistic “leg up” over their peers. And, this parental desire has had an impact on ELT hiring practices for private language schools and afterschool programs. Some of these programs openly advertise that they’re only hiring NESTs. Now, there are reasons why parents have this desire for students to learn a standard variety of English. There are real reasons why older students believe that NESTs are more effective teachers and will lead them to more salient language learning gains. Two of primary reasons relate to standardized assessment and to professional development and opportunities.

Standardized Assessment and the Need for Standard English in ELT

Our students, at one point or another, will face a standardized assessment. It may be a national assessment like China’s gaokao (普通高等学校招生全国统一考试) or the College English Test (大学公共英语考试). Or, they may decide to take TOEFL or IELTS for study abroad applications or for workplace advancement. Any one of these assessments will be testing students in standard English and expect them to produce standard English—the IELTS speaking band and its grading rubric show how high proficiency in standard English may translate to higher scores on this section. If part of our job as language educators is to prepare students for the linguistic demands, they will face in the future, and if those requirements include standardized tests that may penalize use of non-standard varieties, then our duty is to embrace standardized varieties in our classrooms.

Continuing with assessment, but moving away from standardized assessment, our students’ linguistic skills will be assessed by other teachers that they meet and by university administrators. These individuals may not be language professionals, and they may certainly not be open to linguistic variation—to the use non-standard varieties of English. They may not see Singaporean English or China English as legitimate varieties. They may just see a student in need of remediation, a student speaking Singlish and Chinglish. Also, their disciplinary teachers may not have been trained to recognize what is a linguistic error versus what is linguistic creativity driven by being multilingual in different varieties of a language. The strict educator will mark these instances as errors. The liberal one may choose to ignore what may be a genuine error in order to not risk marginalizing the students’ unique variety of English.

Professional Development

My pragmatist’s view of the world also applies to education. Therefore, I believe that education’s primary purpose to prepare our students for their professional lives. And, in this regards, abjuring linguistic variation and embracing standard varieties of English (e.g., Canadian English, Australian English, etc.) just makes sense. Take, for example, the graduate student in applied linguistics. If they are working on their doctoral studies, they will likely be working towards publication in any number of academic journals, because publications are equated with scholarly success. And, even in journals like The International Journal of Applied Linguistics, The Journal of Second Language Writing, TESOL Quarterly, The Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, The Journal of Language and Sexuality, etc., there is explicit instruction to authors that their manuscript should be very well-edited, and that it should adhere to either American or British standards of use.

Likewise, for our professional students, when they enter the workforce they will be judged based on their use of language. In the conference room, non-standard Englishes will likely be marginalized, and their speakers may be encouraged to seek out accent reduction or additional English language training. Likewise, when they engage in professional writing acts, non-standard Englishes will likely be viewed as indicative of linguistic error instead of a novel use of the writer’s entire linguistic repertoire. Managers will come to see these writers as deficient, and this may lead to negative career consequences. Therefore, we must embrace standard varieties in the classroom. While local varieties of English may be useful for communicating with their national/regional peers, it may disadvantage them in the higher education and in the workplace.

Closing Note

Again, this was an exceptionally difficult piece for me to write, because I’m rather set against the view expressed here. Wednesday’s entry is much more in line with my professional orientation to ELT. I actually got a little angry with myself while I wrote this, thinking “Well, this guy is a bit of a tool, isn’t he?” However, this was a very productive activity for me to engage in. When I talk about world Englishes-informed pedagogies and embracing linguistic variation in the classroom, these are some of the arguments against it that I am used to hearing. So, engaging in this exercise, and writing as a serious proponent of standard varieties, was very illuminating for me. I would encourage you, any time you have a firmly held believe try this exercise.

Source Articles

Canagarajah, S. (2006). The place of world Englishes in composition classrooms: Pluralization continued. College Composition and Communication, 57(4), 586-619.

Canagarajah, S. (2013). Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations. London: Routledge.

Murtiana, R. (2011, November). Student’s perceptions of native speaker and non-native speaker teachers: Implications for teacher education. Paper presented at the 5th International Seminar on Teacher Education in the Era of World Englishes, Sataya Wacana Christian University, Salatiga, Indonesia.

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