Variation and Standardization in the Language Classroom: Are We Asking the Wrong Questions?

Variation is inherent to languages and language users, yet is it often the subject of consternation in the language classroom, especially at lower levels.  Essentially, the questions center around which variety to teach? Can we teach multiple varieties? Will this confuse students? Will they understand how to use them? What if they mix varieties? Per the request of a colleague, this post discusses the issue of variation and standardization in the language classroom.  I suggest that rather than worry about the challenges of variation, we should be questioning practices of standardization and the inequities they reproduce.  

Variation in language use reflects (or, one might argue, co-creates) a wide variety of social factors.  National and regional dialects are a prominent example, but other social factors also come into play, such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality, education, etc.  In addition to these larger social categories, we can also see variation based on peer groups (inside jokes) or hobbies (a hop and a spring have very specific definitions in Highland dancing!).  Since all of these social categories overlap, individuals also vary their language use according to context; no one uses exactly the same variants across all contexts. 

Standardization is a process where certain linguistic elements are identified as “standard” variants, leaving the rest to be “non-standard”.  While this can be a specific process (if we think of language academies), it is usually not this formal.  Generally, standardization is simply the insistence of dominant social groups on using their own variants in high-stakes contexts, such as educational, legal and professional settings. This social power is captured in the acceptance of the linguistic variants of dominant groups as “standard”. Decontextualization is also part of standardization, where standard forms are imagined to be universally understood, rather than specific to a particular social context.  Yet the universality of these forms is simply due to their belonging to a widely recognized social context and/or dominant social groups–they are not transcending social contexts altogether.  

Historically, standardization was essential to the European nation-building process, creating national languages taught in educational settings and expected in professional ones (and of course based on the linguistic practices of dominant social groups).  Colonization spread these standardization practices across the world, and they became particularly dominant in educational settings, where this is often framed as teaching the “correct” or “appropriate” version of the language. We see this in the language classroom today, particularly with colonizing languages, where the French of France or Spanish of Spain is taught as standard, despite the fact that most speakers of the language don’t use these varieties (including within France and Spain, because of course it’s the language of the dominant social groups within these countries too!).  

Of course, in the language classroom, focusing on a “standard” variety can seem appealing–everyone will be using the same variants, with the same meaning, and they will work anywhere! Yet, as described above, standardization is primarily about social power, so in choosing standardization we are also choosing to uphold dominant power structures, and the social inequities they create.  So, the question I prefer to ask is not “What to do about variation?” but “Am I okay with maintaining existing social inequities?”.  For me personally, the answer is no, so variation is simply part of my classroom reality, much like tenses and moods in verbs, or roots and patterns in Arabic.  It just is.  

So, to return from theory to practice, what do we do? Teach all the varieties? Won’t that confuse students? What if they mix varieties in a weird way? What if as a teacher I don’t know all the varieties? I’ll answer these questions from my perspective, but again, I think the most important step is questioning standardization, not variation.  What if I uphold racial and class hierarchies? What if I commit linguistic violence against my students? What if I limit their expression? Whose voices can’t I listen to if I only understand standardized forms? To me, these are far more important questions to be asking.  

Fine, but what do I actually do, as an Arabic teacher, teaching a language often used as an example of extensive linguistic variation and a diglossic situation? Here are my answers to the commonly asked questions above:

Won’t this confuse students? Probably.  So do roots and patterns, and cases and moods, and all kinds of grammatical features usually considered essential in the language classroom.  I’m not sure confusion is a bad thing, as long as we are there to support and explain to students.  Certainly, I’d rather confuse my students than uphold social inequities. Finally, learning to negotiate language confusion seems like an essential life skill, and one I need anytime I encounter TikTok or some other new social internet phenomenon.

What if they mix varieties in a weird way? They probably will, just as they’ll mix verb conjugations in a weird way. Really, who hasn’t mixed varieties in a weird way at some point in their life?  I think this is where being clear about our own expectations and mindset is important–language learning takes a long time. Period. Expecting students to have the skills of Arabic dialectologists because we decided to incorporate variation in our first year class is about as realistic as expecting them to be able to spontaneously use in sentences a list of 50 vocabulary words because we gave it to them in a chart the day before.  With time, learners will develop language that works in the contexts in which they want to use it, and this may (or may not) overlap with the ways in which we use language. This is okay.  

What if as a teacher I don’t know all the varieties? Of course you don’t, who does? Personally, I see this as a great learning opportunity for myself, and something that keeps teaching interesting.  If I come across something I don’t know (in any language), I get help, usually from the internet and/or other people.  Figuring out how to get useful help (beware of the first results in Google Translate!) is itself an essential skill I can teach to my students.

Just to be clear, these are my answers to these questions, but I don’t think they are the only answers. In fact, I’d love to hear how you incorporate linguistic variation in your classroom! 

To return to my original point, we often have questions and concerns about variation, but in fact it is standardization we should be questioning: does the comfort we feel having “standard” forms to teach and learn justify upholding the social inequities in our society? 


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