Wot iz “articulate”?

The Queen is articulate when mingling at a garden party at Buckingham Palace, but probably wouldn’t be if chatting at a barber shop in Brooklyn. But isn’t she articulate anywhere? The Queen’s English has that name for a reason, right? Wrong.

having or showing the ability to speak fluently and coherently.
e.g. “she was very articulate”
synonyms: eloquentfluentcommunicativeeffectivepersuasive, lucidvividexpressive.

Being articulate is about what the listener understands as fluent and coherent. The environment dictates whether someone is articulate, not the speaker alone. Pronunciation features like accent and intonation change in every country in the world, so how can the Queen’s English (Received Pronunciation – RP) be articulate, and everything else “incorrect”, if only around 2 per cent of the UK itself speaks with RP anyway? Yet old-fashioned snobbery and even bigotry means that it is still revered by many as the correct model.

Listening to ‘TED Radio Hour: Playing with Perceptions’ the other day got me thinking about being articulate, and how I can apply it to teaching/learning English. Watch this excellent poem, taken from Ted, on how being articulate means three different ways of speaking for this university scholar of Caribbean parents, who grew up in an African-American neighbourhood in New York.

No one owns the English language. It may have rented a flat in the UK until the 1800s, but since the emergence of the USA as a superpower, colonising the Empire and the more recent Internet boom, it has no fixed address; it’s the world’s language. Nowadays, English is an official language in 60 countries around the world. Every single one has its own general accent and intonation, then these are subdivided infinitely within each country by social surroundings and region.


Take one of these countries: the UK. There are estimated to be 56 main “accent types”, but these can be sub-divided infinitely. There is no one accent even in a single town. Let’s zoom in on my hometown, Horsham, just south of London.Screen Shot 2017-01-15 at 9.37.31 AM.png

My friend Josh uses a very different English to be articulate working as a plasterer on building sites as I do to be articulate in my classroom in Riga, Latvia, even though we grew up only a mile apart. Is one of these varieties superior to the other, linguistically or socially? As long as we can communicate with the people in our everyday lives, of course not. Then zoom out from this medium-size town in West Sussex. South-east England, UK, 59 other countries where it’s an official language, every other country where English is learned as a foreign language. The result: hundreds of thousands if not millions of different ways of being “articulate”.

Repercussions for Teaching and Learning English

  • The more accents in the staff room, the better. Where I work at IH Riga, for example, students are lucky to be able to learn with qualified teachers with accents from northern Scotland (Matt), the north-east of England (Bronte), the north-west of England (John), Northern Ireland (Alister), south-east England (me), and India/Scotland (Vik), as well from as Latvian and Russian natives. As I’ve written about before (read here), as long as teachers are qualified and enthusiastic, I don’t see why a passport should block anyone from a teaching job.
  • Actively teach learners other types of English. This could be through videos, audios, podcasts or inviting other teachers or visitors into your classroom. This means that they are more likely to understand other types of “articulate”, and may even be able to adapt their own English to these in given situations.
  • Adapt language to likely use. For example, a student who is brushing up on their English to go travelling around south-east Asia. This sounds obvious, but it’s worth stating: a learner won’t be articulate speaking the Queen’s English when haggling in a street market in Bangkok. I doubt they’ll convince the vendor that this is the “correct” English and get a good deal on whatever they want to buy.
  • Be open-minded to learning different accents with teachers from different geographical and social backgrounds (see first Teachers point above). Asking only for a “native speaker” is like asking for a taxi driver when you need a mechanic: they may know how to speak the language, but that doesn’t mean they know how to improve yours.
  • Set specific objectives for learning English, so you know what kind of English you need to be learning to be “articulate” when you get to use it.

So if you’re invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace, I thoroughly recommend learning the Queen’s English to make polite and articulate conversation. Until then, though, we should keep an open mind.


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