By Dr. Don Kirk Macon
Professor of English, American Public University
“I can speak English, so why do I need to take an English class?”
So there it was before me–perhaps the most oft-thought question from student to instructor since English was first offered in an American classroom.
Though I was caught off-guard when asked this early in my career, I am no longer taken aback when faced with such a query. Through years of experience, I have come to the following conclusions about the study of English and eloquent English vs. cultural English.
I readily acknowledge this: Most people in most situations speak cultural English, also called or colloquial English. Cultural English is spoken and understood in informal situations and usually includes a dialect using vocabulary that is pervasive to a specific region. There is nothing amiss about speaking cultural English. We all do it and, in our daily interactions, it is expected.
We should be educated in proper, or eloquent, English for academic settings and learned conversations. The reason is simple: Not everyone with whom we come into contact will understand our cultural attempts at English because not everyone shares our regional backgrounds. Just because we speak, read, and write English, are we doing it in the “proper” manner? When we express ourselves in academic settings, or when we write about ourselves in a cover letter or in our resumes, are we putting forth the desired message?
[see also: Using Social Media in the Classroom]
Let’s examine audience and purpose. When we ask ourselves the questions “To whom am I writing?” and “For what reason am I writing?” we are subconsciously acknowledging that there is eloquent English and some other type. I often ask my students, “Would you express yourself in the same English to your grandmother that you use with your best friend?” I am often surprised that many people do not understand there is a line between eloquent and cultural English and “never the twain shall meet.” (With apologies to Rudyard Kipling, The Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses, 1892).
Cultural English serves a purpose, all right. Every day we speak and write in English and are understood just fine without worrying about an academic element of the depths of English taboos. There is slang, the use of text-speak (LOL, OMG, TTYL, etc.), and emoticons that interfere with the proper expression of English and can come between what we want to convey and what we actually convey. For instance, sometimes a smiley face can come across as a smart-alecky diversion rather than an expression of happiness. Slang can mean one thing in Cleveland and quite another in Tampa, San Antonio, Boston, or Laramie. Cultural English changes across regional borders, but eloquent, academic English does not.
There are many situations when we are in the company of those to whom it really matters what we say and how we say it. We should continue to learn and practice both eloquent English and cultural English for the sake of understanding in our sphere of the world. But we must remember that our words travel untold distances and to untold numbers of people. Our words, both oral and written, show our level of education and can have an impact on being hired for a much-desired position or receiving a promotion. Most employers seek the most educated and most capable and often rely on employment interviews to give them an indication of the level of the applicant’s literacy.
For the sake of comparison, let’s look at a similar question that began this post and then the eloquent response vs. the cultural response: You can speak English, so do you need to take this English class?
Here’s the eloquent English response: There are many reasons to take an English class. It has many benefits, including for workplace communication, in preparing job applications, and informal social interactions.
Here’s the cultural English response: Duh!
About the Author:
Dr. Macon is Professor of English at APU. He has published articles on English-related topics and has been a Faculty of the Year recipient. He holds four graduate degrees, one of which is a doctorate. He spends his time in the desert Southwest writing, reading, researching, and teaching.