I’ve had some interesting conversations on Facebook recently about accents, standard English and whether it is or isn’t OK to use “ain’t”! So today’s newsletter is all about what standard English is and what learners should learn and use.
I looked online to see if I could find a definition of standard English. Here are some of the definitions I found:
It’s actually quite difficult to define exactly what standard English is. There is some truth in each of the above definitions although none of them gives a complete answer. And yet we all have some understanding of what the term means, even if it’s hard to explain.
There isn’t an organisation which decides what is and what is not acceptable or standard English. The idea of what is standard or not started to evolve in Britain during the 15th and 16th centuries as the English used by upper social classes, academics and government officials. Standard English continues to change over time.
It’s also important to know that there’s no such thing as standard international English. In England and Wales, standard English means standard British English. We also have Standard Scottish English, General American English, Australian English and probably many more, but there isn’t one standard form of English which is used worldwide.
Standard English isn’t superior to any other kind of English, just as British isn’t better than American or vice versa. However, for teaching and learning English, the idea of standard English certainly helps us to know what to teach and what to learn in order to avoid confusion.
Accents and dialects
In your country, are there different ways of speaking in different parts of the country? Or if your language is spoken in another country, does it sound different from how it’s spoken in your country? The answer to both these questions is probably yes.
In every language, there are different dialects. This means that some of the vocabulary is different as well as the accent, and maybe even a few grammar points too. I grew up in Nottinghamshire in England, where a lot of people say “I were” and “you was” instead of the usual “I was” and “you were”. My best friend is from Newcastle, where people use a dialect called Geordie. She sometimes says “aye” instead of “yes” and “canny” meaning “good” or “nice”.
There are also different accents. This means the way we pronounce words. For example, in the south of the UK, people say “class” with the same “a” sound as in “father”. However, in the north, people say “class” with the same “a” sound as in “cat”. In American English, the “r” in “car” is pronounced but in most English accents, the “r” is silent.
In Britain, there are lots of different accents spoken in different regions. In addition, there’s something called Received Pronunciation, also called RP, BBC English or the King’s English. A lot of people consider this to be standard English pronunciation. People who speak this way can come from anywhere in the country. It’s more about which social class you were born into and the kind of school you went to than it is about where you live.
Attitudes towards accents have changed a lot recently, thankfully. It’s now much more acceptable to speak with a regional accent or in a local dialect. The idea that people sound more educated if they speak “BBC English” is gradually disappearing. In fact, you’ll hear lots of different accents on the BBC these days!
You might be wondering how well we understand each other. Most of the time, we understand each other just fine. Some accents are probably stronger than others and harder to understand. Somebody from the south of England might struggle to understand a really strong northern or Scottish accent, for example.
It’s important for you to know that the majority of people in Britain speak with their regional accent and dialect. People who speak with an RP accent are actually a small minority. In fact, I’m not sure how many people speak “Standard English”! If that’s true, does “Standard English” even exist?!
Don’t worry! Despite the fact that we have all of these regional variations, we still know what standard English is. People change the way they speak and write depending on the situation. It’s not so easy to change our accent, although my Newcastle friend’s accent becomes more or less Geordie depending on who she’s talking to! We do, however, avoid using regional words when talking to somebody from another part of the country. And we know when it’s OK to use slang and when it isn’t. We do all of this without even thinking about it!
If you’re worried about which accent you should learn, my advice would be to first decide whether you’re interested in British, American or some other variety of English and then learn the most standard accent from that country. If you want to learn British English, then RP is still considered standard. In America, there’s a General American accent. At the same time, it’s good to be aware that regional variations do exist.
Slang and colloquial language
Colloquial English is informal English. It’s the language used when we’re having a conversation and perhaps in informal writing like emails and on social media. This includes idioms, phrasal verbs, slang and contractions (like “don’t” instead of “do not”). It’s acceptable in most situations, except the most formal situations.
Colloquial English is real English! It’s how real English speakers talk and not the artificial language that you find in some English course books. It’s good for you to learn this. If you watch films, Netflix shows and YouTube videos, you will definitely hear a lot of colloquial English.
Slang is very informal words or phrases, like “kids” instead of “children”, or “telly” instead of television (in British English). Some slang words are only used within specific groups of people, like teenagers or in the army. Some slang is not polite. It’s definitely not “standard English”! It varies from country to country and from region to region.
You can learn some slang if you’re interested and it might be useful if you want to live in an English-speaking country or watch English-language films. However, learning slang is not absolutely necessary, especially if international communication is your aim. And remember, you should be careful about when you use it. It’s only OK in very informal situations.
Ain’t, gonna, gimme
In the introduction, I mentioned “ain’t”. In Britain, this is often associated with the dialect spoken in the East End of London, although you can hear it in other parts of the country too. I’ve also heard it used on American TV shows.
If you do use “ain’t”, you need to understand more about it. What does it mean? It can mean “am not”, “are not”, “is not”, “have not” or “has not”. For example:
It ain’t easy = It isn’t easy.
I ain’t got no money = I haven’t got any money.
There are other informal contractions which you might have heard. For example:
gonna = going to
gimme = give me
kinda = kind of
So how do things like “ain’t” and “gonna” sound to a native speaker? Well, it’s a bit controversial. Some people like them and use them. Other people hate them! Most people agree that it’s not standard English. There are even people in some parts of the English-speaking world who say they sound “uneducated”, although I’m not one of those people! You can only use them in very informal language.
You should also know that it can sound very fake when an English learner tries to use language like “ain’t” and “gonna”. In fact, it even sounds fake when I use these words because it’s not the way I speak! You’ll actually sound more natural if you avoid this type of word.
My advice to language learners is this. Focus your efforts mainly on learning standard English, especially at the beginning. Decide which variety of English you want to learn - British, American or another - and learn the standard vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation of that variety. This way, you can communicate and be understood anywhere in the English-speaking world.
Be aware that there are lots of different ways to speak the language. Different countries and regions have their own accents, dialects and slang words but this does not mean that these varieties of English are inferior to standard English or uneducated.
Remember that the way we speak or write depends on the situation. We might be more formal with our boss and in business letters and more informal when talking to friends or using social media. Learn about things like slang words and “ain’t” if you’re interested but be careful about how you use them. If you really want to use them then you should only do so in informal contexts.
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