Not all language errors are equal in status

A few months ago the results of a study published in Cognition on adult second language acquisition was making the rounds. In the follow-up flurry of headlines much subtlety was lost. Many headlines came across in a pessimistic, deterministic fashion:

Critical window for learning a language

Want to learn a foreign language fluently? Start before 10, study finds


Other headlines, often from opinion pieces, were both optimistic and defensive.

You can still become fluent in another language as an adult

MIT Scientists prove adults learn language to fluency nearly as well as children

Ignore the headlines: you can learn a new language – at any age

Apart from the fascinating and mildly disturbing way that the take-away message from a single study can be interpreted so differently, the whole kerfuffle reveals some issues about language, fluency, and the status of kinds of speech.

The study used this quiz, which was posted on Facebook. It asks a number of questions trying to tease from people what correct English is. It even prefaced the quiz by asking people not to guess what the right answer is and saying that “Scientists have discovered that many of the ‘rules’ taught in school are wrong anyway”.

I took the quiz and I would argue that the majority of native-English speakers might have difficulty explaining why answers were correct or incorrect and yet still be able to consistently identify correct responses.  Based on your answers and the likelihood that there are regional variations in identifying correct English, the quiz (yes I’m personifying it) guesses where you’re from. Surprisingly, it correctly guessed that I was likely a Canadian, native-English speaking user. Which I am.

The study’s findings support the common belief that kids are natural learners and their knack for acquiring the intricacies of correct grammar apparently osmotically. But the study also found that the age of offset for learning grammar well is much later than earlier believed, around 17 years old, after which it declines more rapidly.

A strength of the study was the sheer number of users that participated, more than 650,000 participants drawing from both native and non-native English speakers. A weakness, however, is that findings focused narrowly on grammar, even every day kinds of speech usage.

But what of it. Are the pessimists or optimists correct? Are older learners doomed to retain a second language accent? Or is that irrelevant to communication?

Well here lies the rub (BTW, it’s my blog, so I’ll mess and mix my metaphors up my way! Grammar too! GOT IT?)

You see, not all mistakes in grammar are created equal. Teachers have long known this as they’ve tried to fairly assess the work of their students. Assessment criteria in educational accountability regimes can produce tools that are hopelessly complicated or force the language to be used in certain ways. In a sense there is always a struggle in language with the natural directions it wants to go in, and the institutional forces that tries to constrain or tame it. Grammarphobes and airy-fairy folk wrestle with it all in the classroom.

John McWhorter on his fantastic podcast Lexicon Valley frequently brings up the arbitrary way in which rules of grammar have been applied and then absorbed to become a part of what’s considered acceptable speech. Some of the candidates are:

  • the plural their used in the singular, such as “Each student has their own pencil” has a long history English. As social media (sensibly, I think) seems to be coalescing around an emerging convention “Your friend Bob has just posted to their timeline….”, we are only, in fact, returning to some earlier conventions.
  • many well meaning teachers have insisted that the letter g at the ends of words like singing, or training, ought to be pronounced, something like this: sing-in-ge. 
  • there’s no logical reason to say that a sentence like “Bob gave it to my friend and me” and yet we’re taught that this is incorrect, even if the correct response to the question “Who is it?” is not “It is I” but “It’s me!”

Spoken speech is littered with grammatically incorrect utterances, ums, pauses, fragments, interruptions, and so on. Anyone who has tried to transcribe an interview knows this full well. Some creative license is almost always used when recording in print what politicians and other public figures have said. Which is good, because we’d go crazy trying to read it all.

And sometimes “correct” ways of speaking are actually inappropriate in many contexts. Budweiser exploited this with their infamous “Whassup” ads. Watch the first one and the feeling of cool conveyed.

Now watch this one where cool is replaced by a funny parody of preppy men speaking correct English with a short bewildering stare in by the original actors:

There are multiple dissertations worth of racial, social, cultural, and linguistic analyses in these clips, but they both help to highlight the point I’m trying to make: which is the varying degrees of status of grammar errors.

Two different speakers of English may not be using correct standard English, but each variation can reveal a considerable amount of information about the speaker. Here are some examples of the types of incorrect speech I hear at my school from a variety of students, most of whom English learners.

“Can you off it?”

“Yesterday, I go to library. Get book.”

“She like gonna get you busted.”

“She not buy four apple. She buy eight.”

“They’re going to look up it in dictionary.”

“John no come school today.”

“Why you always give test?”

What’s interesting, is the meaning of each of these sentences is clear, even with little context. And because I teach elementary kids, most of these errors will get ironed out if the kids continue to learn English at school. (That’s their spoken English of course. Written English is a whole nother* story.) But even if the students don’t acquire a native-like fluency, then what?

I’ve spent my entire career teaching in China, including Hong Kong. The majority of my students did not learn English in English speaking environments, but sometimes I have English learners who have spent time in the Anglosphere and have come back. They join others who are also still learning English, let alone still developing language skills. It’s always remarkable to see the ability of younger kids to acquire a native-like pronunciation, even cool, in a way that many adults might struggle. The effect is present all the way until high school, but it’s much stronger with the younger kids.

But here’s the thing, apart from the social, class, and cultural signification of incorrect grammar forms, there is often no functional obstacle to communication, as I just showed. In spoken language, we should be oriented towards effective communication. Of course high accuracy and high fluency are important goals. But it’s much better to align accuracy and fluency with how language is done by most people. That is, the goal is to have enough fluency and enough accuracy.

It can be hard for us educators because “enough fluency and enough accuracy” are defined by what is enough to get into a university. This is a considerably higher bar than chatting at recess with friends from another country.

Nevertheless, I still think we need to be especially† careful that calls for native-like fluency are not fronts for different kinds of biases we may harbor vis-a-vis standard speech. Language, dialect, and accent hierarchies have always existed wherever there is a large enough group of people. But English has acquired a particularly massive user base because of its usefulness. However, the necessity to be associated with the Anglosphere’s versions of it in order to improve one’s lot, has changed. English is now more of a lingua franca than a first language.  As Nicholas Ostler argues, once a language is no longer needed as a lingua franca, it quickly diminishes.

I believe this is what’s happening with a kind of English: the standard English being measured in the studies like the one I discussed above.

It’s not that I’m arguing there is no standard English, or that we should stop enforcing standards in our schools, one of our functions as language teachers. What am I arguing‡ is that there are variations of English, just as native, as articulate, as vivid, as the version used by Kipling and Churchill and Rowling. We ought to admire writers’ mastery and skill. Language is one of the great gifts of humanity, not just the versions of English. So let’s celebrate language. Teach it. Maximize it. Protect it. Argue about it. But let’s just not put people below it.


†a fine word!

World Englishes – an important and maturing area of research

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