A standard conversation?

IMG_20150816_150840 (2)The other day I had the pleasure of finally meeting my best friend’s partner, a 35- year-old Nigerian lad, who’s been living and working in the Czech Republic for more than 10 years now. For the sake of simplicity as well as anonymity, let’s call him G.

On Monday night, G was invited to a party we organize each summer with a group of friends/colleagues (mostly language teachers). In the course of the evening, we discovered that G understood and spoke Czech to such an extent that we could easily converse in L1 most of the time. We did occasionally switch to English, though, especially when speaking one to one or when clarifying things. I didn’t ask G directly, but I think he normally speaks Nigerian Standard English. However, I remember my friend (his girlfriend) once said that when speaking with his friends, G uses some type of ‘unintelligible language’ (constantly using the word dey), which, I googled infer, is Nigerian Pidgin.

Anyway, it was a wonderful evening and we were having a great time. It was after G and his girlfriend left the party when somebody opened the topic of G’s English nativeness. And later on, one of the non-language teachers used the expression ‘bastardized English’ to describe the language G speaks.

I quickly stepped in to explain that it’s not really fair to call Nigerian English bastardized English. But then more people joined in claiming that his English is obviously not the standard. I asked what exactly they meant by standard and somebody replied that standard is the English that was once exported from the British Isles (this was actually said by an English teacher!). I added in surprise: You mean, something like Shakespearean English is the standard then? I could see a somewhat irritated puzzled expression materializing on my friend’s face when the conversation was interrupted by the host who had boisterously come out of the house with a tray full of meat or something.

And I was really happy that it was over because it would have been really tough for me from then on – I felt I was about to defend a ‘bastardized’ English in front of people who had never heard of the concept of Englishes and who had some really firm opinions about what a standard English is. I suddenly realized that it was not the right time and the right place to discuss this anyway, so I did my best to avoid the topic for the rest of the evening. As the old saying goes, no man is a prophet in his own land.

Apparently, I’m no David Crystal. I simply failed to come up with a persuasive set of arguments and I gave up before I even managed to sort out my ideas. In hindsight, I realize that standard can mean different things to different people. From a linguistic point of view, standard means conforming to models or norms of usage admired by educated speakers and writers. But it can also mean normal, familiar, or commonly used. 

I’m sure my colleagues meant the latter when talking about standard. And I believe that by no means did they want to justify linguistic imperialism, even though they incidentally promoted linguistic unequity. For many people here in the Czech Republic, normal and familiar still equals British and American. We buy coursebooks produced by British and American publishers, not Nigerian ones. We go to Oxford and Cambridge for summer language courses. The films we watch were made in Hollywood. We listen to BBC Radio when we want to practice English. And we wish to speak with a British or American accent, not a Nigerian one…

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
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10 Responses to A standard conversation?

  1. Marc says:

    My own English has been discussed by language teachers from America and I have been labelled as German or Belgian. I get othered sometimes because outside the classroom I allow my accent and sometimes dialect to enter my speech, especially among fellow Britons. The other ing bothers me, but mainly because of the expectation that I should be speaking like Hugh Grant or something.

    Who has the prestige in language and who passes the prestige on to other varieties is an interesting topic. Myself, I see prestige as identity politics: I will never be an RP speaker so choose not to accommodate outside the classroom because I see prestige in my dialect/accent. Probably G is accommodating everyone with a standard, just not RP, and then when he’s with a community with shared language he doesn’t accommodate except when necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Well, I don’t want to open a topic that has been discussed so many times before, but I would probably partly blame the situation on coursebooks. People usually have expectations based on previous experience, but most of the experience L2 learners get comes to them vicariously – through coursebooks and all sorts of inauthentic ELT materials which mostly promote British and American varieties of English. No wonder that people are shocked when they hear something different (Indian English, for instance) in the real world. I remember my own shock when I first arrived in Britain and heard a bunch of teenagers chat to each other. It didn’t sound like something I had learnt so laboriously. The good news is that it’s getting better, and now and then you can hear a recording of someone speaking with a Spanish or an Italian accent, for example, which, by the way, is usually so artificial and unnatural that it only makes students laugh.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Marc says:

        My students laughed at the over-the-top English Midlands accent in a business book. There aren’t many Vietnamese accents or Chinese ones. That’d be gold for me!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s what everyone calls Standard Indian English too — a bastardized language. No one controls English anymore. It is a living thing in itself, so widespread, always evolving. My own English is hybridized. I’m glad you wrote such an interesting article and even defended a variety of English. Great article!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Tesal. I absolutely agree that no one controls English anymore and I’m actually not surprised that it makes some people feel panicky. *Standard* and *norm* have always meant safety, and everything which is getting out of control may be seen as a potential threat. We like to own things, and languages, especially English, have become commodities, too. By acknowledging that no one owns English anymore, some people may feel they are losing something which is only theirs, be it their L1 or L2. But that’s just an illusion, of course. Also, EFL teachers may fear that their authority is in danger since more varieties mean more knowledge that they feel they have to possess. I believe that once we get rid of the burden of having to know every answer, we’ll welcome all the variety and start loving it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A great post, dear Hana on a controversial issue that affects every aspect of our lives. I find words like “standard” and “normal” upsetting and loaded with so much subjectivity. Their use in modern societies where diversity and individuality must be embraced and encouraged is -for me, at least- obsolete. I totally agree with you that we also “fall” into this trap of standardness and I’ve seen teachers consciously trying to sound more British. It’s not only stressful and nerve racking, it’s useless as well. The world is multicultural and the only way to allow for other voices to be heard in our classrooms is by embracing them. This can show our students that “standard” has many different forms and (hopefully) that standard and normal don’t really exist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Yes, Maria, standard and norm are very tricky concepts. Yet, some people will look you straight in the eye and tell you convincingly that it’s scandalous when a gay couple adopts a child, for example. It seems to me that these types of beliefs are deeply rooted in our psychés and the people who claim these things will hardly change their opinion in the course of a casual conversation. They need to experience something that will totally change their view. It’s similar with the issue I discuss in the post. The view that there is a standard we must stick to is a result of many years of experience or a lack thereof. As I said, one conversation will hardly change this. But it’s important to plant seeds of hope and wisdom everywhere we go 🙂

      Like

  4. ven_vve says:

    Hi Hana,

    It would be interesting – for me, at least – to hear how those at the party feel about standard vs non-standard Czech. My feeling is that they don’t approve of TV presenters, for example, speaking in non-standard dialects. Just curious. Is there a Czech dialect that the average layman/non-linguist considers particularly prestigious or undesirable?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hana Tichá says:

      Yes, Vedrana. You’ve just hit the nail on the head. Non-standard dialects on TV get on my nerves. Although I’m currently based in Moravia, the eastern part of the country, I can’t stand a presenter speaking with a Moravian accent. I like it when people in public media use Czech devoid of any ‘regional colorations’. Ideally, it should be hard for you to tell where the presenter comes from. But this is more to do with the fact that any deviation from the ‘standard’ is only distracting for the listener. The presenter is there to read the news, not to display his or her linguistic background (I believe). I should add that Prague accent would be equally annoying, though. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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