Why Children Don’t Talk Proper

In my first post I emphasised the importance of the teaching of Standard English. I reproduce here a short article which Richard Hudson, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics, University of London, wrote for the Teachit Language newsletter in 2007. He suggests that Standard English needs to be explicitly taught.  He also points out very simply in his first paragraph that a form like them books is just as grammatical in nonstandard dialects as those books is in Standard English. Much misunderstanding could be avoided if those who like to discuss English grammar could grasp this fundamental point.

Is standard English easy to learn?

Some people say them books and others say those books. Both forms are perfectly correct, but they’re correct in different grammars – just like the difference between (say) UK lift and USA elevator (or, for that matter, between English hello and French bonjour.) You say those books, I say them books  – a pretty trivial linguistic choice, involving just one word out of the tens of thousands that we all know.

Unfortunately, when the choice does arise, it matters deeply because one form is standard and the other is non-standard. Those who use them books at home have to learn to use those books in more formal situations; and the place where they learn this is at school.

How many children does this affect? The bad news is that it affects a lot of them. According to a very small research project I did in 1995, about 50% of children use non-standard forms even when speaking in a fairly formal school situation, so the number who would use non-standard outside school is probably much higher.

But how many non-standard forms do they use? The good news is that only a tiny handful of the thousands of words in English offer a choice between standard and non-standard. Here are some of the main cases where a standard/non-standard choice applies:

  • some irregular verbs (e.g. She came/come.)
  • the present tense of the verb be with there (e.g. Are/is there any matches?)
  • adverbs formed in standard English with ly (e.g. Come quickly/quick.)
  • relative pronouns (e.g. the book that/what I read)
  • ‘double negatives’ (e.g. It’s not getting any/no water inside it.)

There are other choice points, but most of them are rare.

If so few forms are involved, you’d think it would be quite easy for children to pick up standard English at school; after all, they spend hours every day listening to – or at least hearing – teachers talking standard English. But do they get better at using standard forms? Our little research project suggests that in 1988 (when the data was collected) they didn’t. 15-year olds used just as many non-standard forms (when there was a choice) as 11-year olds (and, of course, boys at both ages used more than girls).

So what? Mere exposure (as in 1988, just before the National Curriculum was introduced) may be enough for some children, but not for most. If you want children to learn standard forms, you probably need to teach the forms explicitly. They may decide not to use them, but at least when they know them, it’s their decision.

If you want to know more about my little research project, you can find the full report at http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/dick/papers.htm#scaa. It’s time someone repeated the exercise to see if the National Curriculum has changed the situation.


Filed under Education, English Language, Language, Standard English

2 responses to “Why Children Don’t Talk Proper

  1. Would it also help to rename ‘Standard English” to ‘formal’ or ‘business’ – kids know that people standardly speak like they do, it would help to be clear when they were expected to use the different dialect. Also, I’m not sure that teachers all do use Standard English


  2. You may well be right about some teachers, Sarah. Standard English is the term we seem to have settled on for the variety used in formal contexts, and any attempt to change it might only create confusion. In my first post on this blog I proposed the George Alagiah test for Standard English, which I think would be valid most of the time.


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