white background with black letters, saying "what the cuckoo is proper english". subtitle reads, "English's inconsistency and its many dialects vs functional English"

What is proper English anyway?

accents + dialects business english conversational skills engineering ielts language patterns myth buster Jul 03, 2023


There’s the Academie Française, the official guardians of the French Language. There’s High German from the highlands of Germany, which is still considered standard German. There’s “standard” Japanese, the most commonly used form. But there isn't a standardized English dialect.


(Some might argue that Received Pronunciation is the standard form of British English. Yet very few people speak it, and it isn’t "the normal English" in many nations.)


So when you say you want to learn proper English, what are you referring to?


English’s Inconsistency

English has always been a melting pot of languages, taking terms and pronunciations as it likes. For language learners, English's refusal to be defined by its rules can be confusing.


Of course, there are norms to the English language. One of the most famous is the adjective order native speakers intuitively use and have no idea is a rule. But even English doesn’t follow it all the time. Terms like “attorney general” follow the French rule, where the adjective often comes after the noun.


Grammar can change from country to country, too. Americans will use the past simple tense to signify a finished action. The Brits are more likely to use the present perfect for speaking about a past action that is still relevant. (“He already had lunch” vs “He has already had lunch.”)


So, what is an ESL learner supposed to study?


The Many Dialects of English

It's easy to categorize English between British and American dialects. But, this overlooks the regional variations. You don't have to travel outside the UK or the US to see that there is no "High English." There’s a big difference between a Galaway, Scotland dialect and one from London. Or a southern Alabama dialect compared to an American “Siri” western accent.


Not to mention, English has become a global language. Its dialects spread well beyond the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada with variations such as Malaysian English, Indian English, Filipino English, African English, and Pidgin, among others. Each dialect has its own unique characteristics and flavours. You can’t pick one.


Learning Functional English

As a non-native speaker, it's okay to have a foreign accent because there is no proper English dialect. It can even be helpful, giving you the freedom to incorporate elements from many countries.


That's the beauty of speaking English as a second language — we have a vast linguistic palette to draw from. We can communicate without rigid grammar rules. I will happily use the Scottish "wee" for little and the Southern US "y'all" for plural you and native speakers understand me. When one of my engineers asks me why I'm using Scottish and American English in the same sentence, I respond, "Because I can."


Taking the focus away from accents and dialects to functional English will help you actually communicate -- and have fun doing it.


When you learn functional English, you don't need to memorize definitions or worry about specific grammar terms. Instead, the goal is to understand how people speak so you can express yourself clearly and politely.


Of course, English grammar is important when it comes to communication. But if you speak to the average English speaker, they won’t be able to rattle off rules or explain why they say what they do. All they know is what they say works for them and gets them what they need. So take a page from the native speakers' book, and focus on communication over whether you're saying things correctly.


What is Communication?

Communication is not solely about grammar or sentence structure. It's not about constantly studying to expand your vocabulary, learn more idioms, or master collocations. Communication is about utilizing the English you already have to convey your thoughts and ideas. It's fine to feel nervous, have a strong foreign accent, or ask someone to repeat themselves. What matters is that you are expressing yourself.


Communication Style Vs. Proper English

While there may not be a defined "proper English," communication styles can vary within any language. For example, Natalie Peart teaches immigrants Australian business English. This communication style includes phrasal verbs and colloquial language.


As a technical English teacher, my focus is on functional English skills for engineers. We don't need to be country specific because English is used globally. We don't study for the IELTS because that's not teaching us to communicate.


You see, Business English or Technical English needs to do one job: empower you to communicate with your group of people while navigating cultural differences.


So, What’s Better Than Proper English?

There are a lot of better uses of your time than worrying about proper English. Things like:


  •  Using the English skills you have to communicate effectively. Stepping out of your comfort zone to seize opportunities.
  •  Giving up on perfectionism.
  •  Engaging in networking, and speaking at coffee shops and seminars. Talking as much as possible to build confidence and improve your skills.


Taking action, whatever that may be, will teach you far more than any theoretical study ever could.


So, is there a one-size-fits-all English lesson? NO!


But, there is an underlying linguistic system you can learn with the right expert who understands your unique position (like me).


Ready to learn practical English? Check out my English for Engineers offerings here.