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Non-standard is not sub-standard

This article first appeared at www.business-spotlight.de/blogs on 20 January 2012 and in the Business Spotlight magazine issue 1/2013.

Imagine this scenario: you are talking with someone and these are some of the things your conversation partner says. What is your immediate reaction?

1. I done me homework last night.
2. We got a temp to help we.
3. Yesterday, when I come home, …
4. I've never seen him for ages.
5. My last boss tret me well.

At first glance these utterances look like errors and in an English language class they would certainly be treated as errors, since they are deviations from standard English.

However, these statements, especially when spoken, are not actually mistakes, but are real examples from the dialect of English known as Geordie, which is spoken in the north-east of England. I know they are real examples because that's where I grew up, and I used to talk like this.

Typical features of the Geordie dialect include:

1. A switching of the past simple and past participle forms for certain verbs, as in I done and I gone. Thus "I've did" and "I've went" are common.

2. Personal pronouns in Geordie differ from standard English (SE), so me in SE becomes us in Geordie and us in SE becomes we (pronounced wu). Also, the possessive "my" becomes "me" ("Have you met me dad?").

3. Some verbs, such as come and give, retain the same form in the past simple. "I was home early yesterday because me friend give us a lift."

4. Never is used to negate in place of not, did not and have not. It is often used as a verb, especially to proclaim one's innocence, as in the example: "You told the boss I went home early yesterday, didn't you?" "No, I never!"

5. Some verbs, such as treat are irregular. So treat-tret-tret sounds like meet-met-met. In standard English, the verb "treat" is regular (treat-treated-treated).

This research by the British Library, taken from recordings by the BBC, presents more examples of non-standard grammar used not only in the Geordie dialect but in other regions of the UK too.

The problem is that, when we hear such examples spoken, we immediately think that they are incorrect. But this language is not incorrect; it's a regional variation that deviates from what is commonly accepted as standard English.

You could easily substitute any variety of English for my Geordie example. The result would be a multitude of non-standard utterances that are nonetheless considered common currency among discourse communities all over the world.

English teachers who use authentic materials cannot help but bring instances of non-standard English into the classroom, and that is healthy practice. The way that teachers should deal with this is to highlight the pronunciation and form and compare it to standard English, without passing judgement on the variety of English in question. Non-standard is not the same as sub-standard. It is, of course, necessary to point out to learners how the use of such forms may be perceived by their conversation partners - and also how likely they are to be understood correctly.

Language dialects and varieties are about belonging to a discourse community. Tolerance of other discourse communities is crucial to developing intercultural competence. So the next time you encounter an example of non-standard English, don't be so quick to dismiss it as incorrect. It's not right; it's not wrong; it's just different.

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