Being in a global pandemic raises our consciousness to many things – being in good health is an obvious example. We listen intently to the information and advice that medical experts give us about what we should and shouldn’t do to achieve optimum outcomes: in this case, avoiding infection and staying healthy. These experts prescribe behaviour that we should adopt to reach these outcomes, behaviour that will bring us to the place where we want to be.
When it comes to our health, we can’t take chances, we need to listen to the advice and, if we want to reach our goal, follow it to the letter. But surely learning a language is a much less serious affair? Your teacher – your language expert – does not expect you to hang on every word they say and follow their instructions verbatim, do they? We hope that they want students to experience good communication health and navigate the English-speaking world with the least possible hindrance or risk, but are they prescribing the words and phrases that you need to use?
There has long been debate in language learning and teaching on the concepts of prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Prescriptive Grammarians tell us – according to fixed standards – what we should say, while Descriptive Grammarians tells us what native-speakers say, they describe how a particular language is used in the real world. English teachers have their own opinions on this debate and may take one side or another, or switch depending on their desired outcomes. For example, a teacher might be careful to point out what might be better to say at a job interview or first date. Students too will have their own ideas about what they want to learn and which type of English they would like to use in general, or in specific circumstances.
Should teachers prescribe English? Should teachers offer only the ‘correct’ language options for their students to use? Or should they simply describe language in the way it is used and help students understand these options?
Language is arguably our greatest gift; it is what separates us from those with whom we share this planet. Its embedded possibility for creativity is its greatest feature: from a finite number of sounds, many which in isolation have no significance, we can create an infinite number of comprehensible utterances, we can create worlds of understanding. Who are we to prescribe what should be said?