Thursday, July 22, 2010

Street slang has no place in the classroom

That old bugbear, street slang, makes another appearance in the news and this time it's not all "let's all laugh at the white children speaking like they're black" it's like "street slang is really bad for kids". Frankly, as I type this I am kissing my bloodclart teeth.

A new pamphlet (actually a rather poorly researched and sketchy document) published by the Centre for Policy Studies makes the claim that teachers in primary schools are either a) too scared, or b) not allowed to "correct" children's slang use and are therefore hindering their literacy development. It's a typical right wing argument that PC has gone too far and that we are no longer allowed to speak our own language in our own country, and it's therefore no surprise that Boris Johnson writes the foreword to the pamphlet, right wing bozo that he is.

Here's an extract from the report:

In other European countries argot and slang are not allowed into the classroom; children know exactly what is “correct” usage in their main language, and what is not. In this country, by contrast, primary school teachers – dedicated as many of them are to “child-led” education – don’t feel that it’s their role to interfere with self expression in any shape or form. On the contrary, they encourage children to read poems and stories written in ethnic dialects – in Barbadian patois, for example – which is fine, but they omit to point out that there are linguistic discrepancies. Only later, when they get to secondary school, do these pupils discover that “Street” is not acceptable in their written work. Understandably, they find this both confusing and discouraging. 

Where to start? The conflation of dialect and slang is all too common, so that's maybe a first point to pick out. They're not the same thing at all. Slang is a type of language marked by its informality and its association with particular groups of people who share a common shared interest. It's often used to mark an affiliation or identification with a particular way of life. Dialect is often associated with particular regions and varieties of English. So, for the writer of the document, Miriam Gross, to say that children are taught dialect poetry and then to extend this to street slang is just plain wrong. Yes, students of all ages get to study a range of literature from all over the world, some of it in dialect, but that's not the language they recognise as slang. I suspect the fact that some of it is Caribbean dialect poetry and a lot of recent slang is heavily influenced by Caribbean terms has caused her brain to melt down and assume it's one and the same.

Secondly, Gross then claims that "child-led" education (which she seems to hate more than slang) is a philosophy that prevents teachers from "correcting" children's "misuse" of language. That's news to me. If we're going to get anecdotal (and let's face it, there are no references in Gross's report to actual research so I won't be the first to) my own kids came back from their caring sharing child-led primary school the other week to tell me "Daddy, innit is not a word". So much for not correcting speech in primary schools. Of course, I tell them innit is a perfectly acceptable use of an invariant tag question when used in the appropriate colloquial context, but then they've already gone back to FIFA on the X-box to compare their bare skillz and that.

Thirdly, young people do not find reactions to different language styles "confusing and discouraging". They deal with them, like we all do and adjust their language to suit the purposes and contexts of what they're doing. It's called code-switching and we all do it. Children are taught Standard English at school from a very early age and to claim that what they get is a diet of patois and slang is utter rubbish.

Finally, the whole report has a horrible whiff of Tory back-to-Victorian-values crustiness about it. English is great. Everything that's not proper English is bad. Children need facts not self-expression etc etc. 

The Lancaster University linguist Paul Kerswill, in the reader comments to a Guardian piece on this report puts a very convincing case against the report:

This is a big debate and we mustn't jump to conclusions. Four points: (1) The English language like all living languages is always in a state of change. There was no Golden Age. (2) London's English has always reflected the city's multiethnic, multilingual character, and today is no exception. We cannot suppress creativity in young Londoners’ use of language, written and spoken. See my short article(3) We empower children economically and socially by helping them achieve literacy, but with the huge technology-driven changes in the way we communicate we should recognise that ‘literacy’ nowadays needs to encompass much more than it did 20 years ago. It goes far beyond a question of apostrophes or whether we should say ‘fewer’ or ‘less’. (4) Teachers and the people who train them need to be absolutely clear about their objectives when teaching literacy skills, and to develop methods accordingly. The Guardian’s report about Miriam Gross’s work suggests this isn’t the case, regrettably.

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