Time for a change in the educational practice

Emmanouela Tisizi

Trying to differentiate between language and dialect is definitely not an easy task. While brainstorming in groups on the matter, criteria such as the proportion of a population that uses a language variety over another, the region where a language variety is most frequently used and the context of language use came to mind. The more our group tried to come up with examples of language use to determine whether these fell into the category of a language or a dialect, the more we started discussing issues related to power and the institutionalization of certain language varieties.

Our definition, by the end of the exercise was that the dominant language variety becomes widely recognized as such through its institutionalization, and is referred to as a so-called standard language or an official language, whereas other varieties deviating from it are labelled as the so-called dialects. Interestingly, a language does not necessarily become predominant for being used by the majority of a population. On the contrary, a language variety often becomes salient because it is associated with high education and social prestige. This association is the outcome of this variety’s extensive use in the media, in educational institutions, in formal settings, among politicians, policy makers, businesswomen and businessmen, scholars and people in general who are widely respected in their fields.

Throughout their learning experience, language learners seem to identify the so-called standard languages as ‘correct’ and ‘pure’, and undervalue other varieties for not adhering to their norms.[1][2] One cannot help but question the reasons why certain varieties are given such power, while others are marginalized. The effects of empowering a language variety over all others are not solely linguistic; they are also social, economic and political. Indeed, language and politics always go hand in hand and while it is beneficial to seek for intelligibility between language users and a common ground is indispensable, the fact that several languages are undervalued or even on the verge of extinction, and scholars discuss about the need of their revitalization, is disheartening as well as alarming. In view of these inequalities, one needs to consider whether there should be a shift in the educational practice so as to familiarize learners with different linguistic varieties and validate them in their eyes, as opposed to solely focusing on the standard language and the ways in which an idealized native speaker would allegedly express herself or himself. Is it high time for change?

[1]Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. New models, new norms, new goals. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

[2] Kachru, Y. (2005), Teaching and learning of World Englishes. In E. Hinkel (Ed.), Handbook of research in second language learning and teaching (pp. 155–173). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


6 thoughts on “Time for a change in the educational practice”

  1. Hi Emmanouela! Thanks for sharing your view on language variety. Perhaps it is hight time for change! Some of the leading academics in the field of language teaching have been calling for and recommended the teaching of different varieties of one language, never solely the standard. The views of the linguists David Crystal are very interesting on that matter, he thinks that English teachers should expose their students not only to English, but to Englishes, encompassing the varieties spoken in India, Singapour, South-Africa, etc. In my opinion, although it is commendable, there is sometimes so little time in foreign language learning contexts to ensure the student’s learning of the standard, that for a question of time I doubt this is always realistic. However, with advanced classes, that have a good grasp of the language, this seems like a very good idea! Here’s the video where appears David Crystal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItODnX5geCM


    1. Emmanouela Tisizi: Thank you for sharing your thoughts Samuel! David Crystal’s contribution to this discussion is indeed of paramount importance, as is also the contribution of scholars such as Jennifer Jenkins and Barbara Seidlhofer. When considering to change aspects of one’s educational practice, there are many actions that can be taken including reconsidering the choice of textbooks, the use of new technologies, the incorporation of exercises which place emphasis on the communication of students as opposed to their adherence to Standard English rules, or even the use of audio materials with real conversations of non-native speakers as opposed to entirely constructed dialogues between idealized native speakers. I definitely understand your point, but I believe that when there is a will there is a way, irrespective of the level of one’s English proficiency.


  2. Simon Desmarais – Reply 1

    Very insightful post, Emmanouela! As you briefly mentioned, teaching one language as the ‘standard’ is an inherently political decision: many people argue over whether American English (because of its affiliation to the USA, a contemporary world power) or British English (because it’s where the language ‘comes from’) should be taught, but rarely consider teaching other varieties of English. On top of the linguistic arguments that Samuel has presented, this practice is also problematic on cultural grounds. Nault (2006) argues that teaching only American or British English wrongly implies that these are the only two ‘English cultures’, whereas there are in fact a lot more English cultures, even within the Inner Circle (e.g. Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, Australia). Furthermore, there are now several Outer Circle countries with a significant number of L1 speakers of English (e.g. India), and these people do not simply imitate US/UK English culture: they actively reinterpret and create new forms of English culture, that are equally valid. I think it is important for us as potential ESL teachers to be mindful of those issues and try to resist ‘Anglo-Americanizing’ our students.

    (link to Nault 2006: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07908310608668770)


  3. It sounds like you really gave the discussion points a lot of thought. The difference between what is a dialect and what is a language seems kind of obvious until you really think about it and discuss with other people. Then, of course, you begin to consider what constitutes a language versus a dialect and all kinds of questions comes up, such as whether the key thing that separates the two is institutional legitimacy. The group I was in also had a really thought provoking discussion about this, and at one point we fell on the question of accent vs. dialect. For me, there is a need for a standardized variety of a language in order for clear communication with as many people as possible. But, when this diminishes the value of specific dialects which then begin to disappear as a consequence, it makes me wonder what can be done to help preserve linguistic diversity. High time for a change? Perhaps!


    1. Emmanouela Tisizi: Dear Matthew, in my mind accent is slightly easier to distinguish as it is related to the pronunciation of words and to me all accents should be acceptable. I agree with your point about the need for a standard variety (I tried to imply it by referring to the need for a ‘common ground’). The problematic part is related to the amount of power given to a certain variety over all others and I guess a good start to tackle this, is to raise students’ awareness and legitimize alternative varieties in class (not to impose them on students, just to mention that they exist, they are marginalized and equally fine varieties).


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