Dear members, colleagues and friends,

This, my second letter, is going to look at the concept of ‘correctness’ in the English language. Of course, that’s a huge topic so I’m only going to touch the surface here.

Who owns English? I think we must all agree now that so-called native speakers (NS) do not, any longer.

The English language is used by and influenced by many more non-native speakers (NNS) than NSs and varieties of English around the globe are almost countless. British English is a variety amongst those many and within that over-all term, we have a hundreds of local varieties, from Birmingham, to Liverpool, Glasgow, Belfast, Newcastle, Bristol to name but a few, each with its own characteristics of accent and lexis. And then of course we have English spoken in Singapore, sometimes called ‘Singlish’ and many varieties from the Indian sub-continent, Australasia, South Africa and elsewhere.

All of this is wonderful in my view, the diversity is stunning and should be celebrated but then what happens when you meet “double confirm”, for example? Is it wrong, is it right? What about “I was stoked!” And “If I was you, I’d…” or “If he would go, I’d be happy.”? Are these conditionals wrong because they don’t fit into the standard 4 types presented by most course books? Are they right because NSs have been heard using them? “We was there all night” is also something you might hear. Is it correct? Is the term ‘correct’ even appropriate anymore?

And that’s my point really. ‘Correctness’ as an idea can be applied to something which is well formed as opposed to something not well-formed, so ‘We bought a big green van and sold it on’ is well-formed but ‘we big green van bought and on sold it’ is not, even though it’s intelligible. On that basis features of English which exist locally must be considered ‘well-formed’ if indeed they are and even if they are not common or known elsewhere. So how then do we as teachers manage a student utterance: “We wasn’t happy”? Is it wrong? If so, where is it wrong? “That was a sick film!” Is that ok? Would you say it? Is it generational? Isn’t correctness also strongly linked to context?

I am not saying we should no longer manage errors in the classroom, nor am I saying that anything goes but I’m suggesting that we might do well to re-calibrate our notion of ‘correctness’ and ‘incorrectness’ so that we are recognising the huge variety of language which is possible. This debate also touches on the massive on-going controversy about NS teachers vs NNS teachers; something which I’ll leave for another day! Happy teaching and learning!

Steve Hirschhorn

Chair of Gallery Teachers Membership Committee.