As reported in the Independent last week, the English language is under attack from “ignorance, inverted snobbery and deliberate dumbing down.” This is unfortunately reported as a regular occurrence with languages – quality and standards are always going down and it’s always the young who are responsible – they really should learn to talk properly! Whereas many people understand, and most academic studies of langauge development show, that language changes – its not really a question of it being good or bad, its just how it is. So what is this article all about?
Its main claim is that the proper use of English (Queen’s English) is the only way to use the language, and any departures from this proper use will be get noticed by anyone you are communicating with. The article reports “The head of an online graduate recruitment agency wrote that they reject one third of all job applications from graduates with good degrees from good universities, because errors in English in their CVs and covering letters show ignorance, carelessness and a bad attitude.“ To me that just means the people writing the letters are not taking care – writing job application letters is a particularly formal and specific use of English, but this is not enough to say all change is wrong.
The author does, on the one hand, seem to allow for different varieties of English in different settings (informal uses between friends for example) but still insists there is one proper unambiguous use which everyone should use. Of course this is lies at the heart of teaching English at UIC – a general widely intelligible standard form of English but we would also want to help students become aware of different varieties and how to make their own version understandable.
It is easy to come up with examples which show potential confusion – the example given in the article “Mary told Jane that she was pregnant.” would in my opinion be perfectly clear from the context and it would be obvious which of the 2 was pregnant.
Anyway, our advice when you are in London learning English is to enjoy yourself, enjoy the huge varieties of English you’ll come across and learn when it matters if you use particular forms. That is the skill of a proficient user of a language, not using a version of English that was common amongst the educated middle classes in 1950.