Prescriptive Grammar: fueling a culture of native speaker elitism

I took part in a discussion a while ago that arose from a grammatical survey on which of two sentences sounded correct. These were the sentences:

A) Mary was seen entering the building last night.

or

B) Mary was seen to enter the building last night.

It was an entirely casual survey given to a group of assistant English language teachers (ALTs). The complaint that brought this survey to us was that one ALT was sure that sentence A was correct but all of her Japanese, English teaching co-workers, were equally sure that sentence B was correct. Thus, she posed the question to an audience of ALTs to get their opinion. Unsurprisingly, all 84 of the ALTs who responded to the survey selected sentence A as being correct. It’s unsurprising because ALTs are all native (or near native) speakers of English (NES). But why are we dismissing the opinion of the Japanese teachers of English, who are undoubtedly all non-native English speakers (NNES)? Is their use of English less valid or somehow deficient in comparison to a NES’s English? Who is right? If you’re correcting a student’s writing for grammar, and they use sentence B, do you mark it wrong or not?

A discussion on this topic will quickly involve prescriptive and descriptive grammar teaching. As Wikipedia puts it, prescriptivism is the practice of championing one variety, or manner of speaking a language, against another. It’s a way of recommending how a language should be used. This is contrasted by descriptivism, which is an objective describing of how a language is used. In regards to our above sentences, saying that one is correct and the other isn’t, is prescriptive grammar. Saying that both are correct and are used by different groups of people in varying frequency is descriptive.

Prescriptive and descriptive grammar teaching is not inherently good or bad. In fact, I would say that almost all language teaching is predominantly prescriptive, due to the fact that each language teacher has their own idiolect from which they will make subconscious choices on what they say, teach, or deem as correct in the classroom. But a good teacher is an aware teacher; and awareness that your specific style of English is not ‘more correct’ than a different style is what separates the good teachers from the bad ones.

Some of the teachers who participated in the discussion about the survey said that they wouldn’t want to teach something that would sound awkward to a native speaker. Well, that’s a valid point. If something sounds awkward to you, perhaps you shouldn’t teach it. But if the ‘awkward’ sentence appears in the student’s textbook, should you tell them that it’s wrong? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, I fear that many teachers are telling their students that that sentence is wrong. This comes from what I believe to be a culture of native-speaker elitism.

But it's in the book!

But it’s in the book!

If you look at job postings for English language teachers, 90% of them will ask specifically for a ‘native speaker’. There is an unfortunate, long running belief, that NESs possess flawless English and are held as the prime example of how a learner should speak. But let’s look at the numbers. There are 1.2 billion people in the world that speak English, only 350 million of those are native speakers. That means that there are 850 million non-native speakers, outnumbering the native speakers by well over double. The odds are that a NNES will use their English with other NNESs much more frequently than they will with NESs. Yet despite this, the native speaker’s English carries the most prestige. This prestige comes from the fact that most NESs come from America, the UK and Australia; all highly developed countries that have a lot of socioeconomic power and influence in the world. Somehow this fact bleeds over to how our language is perceived, despite the fact that the Englishes of those three countries are extremely different; they are even very different within the countries themselves, just look at American southern English and American mid-west English for example.

Despite the reproachful preference for native-speaker English, the fact remains that native speakers are held on a pedestal, and this has unfortunately, for a few of us, gone to our heads. What baffles me even further is how a NES teacher can be blind to just how varied their language is. Far too few of us understand that English is a living language; perhaps due in part to the false authority given to grammar books as all-encompassing rule books. Actually, English grammar books are typically produced by one or two Ph.D.’s who have compiled an extensive list of linguistic observations on English. No two grammar books will agree on everything, the best will provide reasons (not rules) why English functions the way it does, and some will actually provide opinion polls on certain constructions that are used by different groups of English speakers.

Darn office workers and their preference to use 'family' as a plural noun!

Darn office workers and their preference to use ‘family’ as a plural noun!

This lack of standardization is very different from other major languages in the world. French has the Académie Française, which is in charge of publishing the French standard dictionary and is the ultimate decider on what’s ok in the French language. The Academy of the Arabic Languages does much the same thing with Arabic for the Arab League nations. In fact, there are over a hundred languages that have some kind of regulating body; this is a form of what is known as linguistic purism. Linguistic purism is recognizing one variety of a language as being the best. Some cultures feel this is important for maintaining cultural identity, or for religious reasons, as with Modern Standard Arabic which is based on the language of the Qur’an. But this is impossible for a global language like English. There can’t be an authorized standard form of English because nobody owns English, or more specifically, everybody who uses English has ownership of it.

With this topic, it’s easy for me to go on for quite some time, I think it’s very interesting because it deals with so many different aspects of language teaching, but I’m going to conclude here leaving a lot unsaid. But let’s look back at our original problem of sentences A and B. Will using either sentence lead any competent user of English into a misunderstanding? Extremely doubtful, so let it be. If you see something in your student’s text book that sounds weird, awkward, or unfamiliar, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong. So what’s a language teacher to do? We can’t say that anything goes in the classroom. I like how Diane Larsen-Freeman puts it: It’s up to the learners to decide what’s important for them.

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