A new category stimulated by some books I’ve been reading which take on directly the effects of prescriptivist attitudes. In the past, I’ve placed comments on this matter in the Linguistics, Grammar and Language Change or Tidbits from the History of English or Two Views of Language. But there is so much material just on the effects of prescriptivism that I thought I’d better dedicate a new category to. For a long time, I’ve tried to point out the deleterious effects of prescriptivism, but have been unable to break through the wall of resistance to recognizing some of the limitations of prescriptivism. Immediately, members on listserv decide I don’t want our students to learn standard English (SE), even though I state explicitly every time that the goal should be to teach students SE. Yes, it is bizarre.
My contention has been that we learn our speech from our speech community. I’m just now reading in Authority in Language (Milroy & Milroy) that not only does mass media not seem to influence anything more than awareness of speech patterns like BRP or BBC English, but that the media actually tend to follow rather than lead their target audience. My own thinking on that came from my study of anthropology, not language, but linguists are now investigating (probably Labov comes to mind in this research) patterns of diffusion and adoption. Speakers of varieties of language will respond to innovation within their speech communities rather than innovation from outside.
This is the sort of fact that is inconvenient for Americans because we have to admit that a good number of our students do not live in the same speech communities as their teachers; in fact, they are answerable to a very different group of people. For example, my son-in-law’s mother is a nurse and he grew up in a middle-class existence. His students this past year live in a small desert town in Arizona. The poverty is so deep I helped him out in trying to describe the difference between those kids and the ones in the school he is moving to this year as the difference between simple poverty and a third world community; his previous school was a third world community.
We cannot ignore ethnic issues: my son-in-law is White, his students were either Hispanic or Native American. We cannot ignore language well, that’s what this book by the Milroys and this blog category are about since the children either hear almost no English at home (the Hispanic kids) or hear a dialect of English that grew out of the tribal and reservation experiences of their families. So it’s poverty, ethnicity, language……and the school itself, which receives no support to compensate for the abysmal poverty of the community.
Now, given all this, just how is it that the students are to learn Standard English? The Shamans would have us believe that simply being told what the correct form is should do the trick, IF the students are intelligent and motivated; therefore, if they do not emerge from the school setting speaking and writing SE, the conclusion reached by many, including teachers, is that the students are unintelligent and “just don’t care.”
That is one example of a result of the Shamans’ view of language: it is passed on via authority and refusal to use SE is either defiance or stupidity. This, I can see, is why the Milroys titled their book Authority in Language, 3rd ed., Routledge, 1999.