Thursday, October 03, 2013

A culturally relativist academic speaks...

While I was tapping out a blog post about Lindsay Johns' Four Thought programme, the linguist Paul Kerswill was already on the case, writing a response directly to him, which he has kindly allowed us to post here.

As one of the linguists involved in the Linguistic Innovators project - the work that put Multicultural London English (MLE) on the map and kicked off so much discussion about slang, dialect and code-switching in the media - he's well placed to offer a more considered reflection on what Johns has presented in his programme.

Thank you for your Four Thought programme this evening, which taught me how linguistic action on the ground can make a difference to young people. But I feel I need to challenge you on several points. First (and let me get this off my chest straight away), exactly who are these middle-class, culturally relativist academics who wish to oppress young people by withholding Standard English from them? Maybe you are thinking of academic linguists like me or some of my colleagues, and if so I'd like to engage in debate with you to show that you are some way off the mark. I'm keen to understand why some young people are failing to get a good education and failing to get good jobs, and I have always believed that the use of Standard English is part of the solution.

Second, you don't consider why so many, particularly black, youngsters speak what my colleagues and I call Multicultural London English. The criminologist John Pitts (, 29 minutes in) locates the origin of it to the East End in the early 1980s, when young black people's deteriorating position in London was preventing them from living up to their parents' expectations for them. Pitts argues that the new dialect reflects a 'resistance identity'. As such it's akin to youth language the world over and in all historical times, and is a kind of 'anti-language'. In London, it's an expression of some young people’s feeling that they have nothing to gain from investment in society. So you risk putting the cart before the horse by fixing the language and not the social attitudes (amongst many other things) that hold them back.

Third, you may be underestimating the breadth of young people's linguistic repertoires. For some purposes, they need Standard English and an avoidance of slang, but that's precisely the point: they need to be linguistically flexible - code-switching, if you like - though I know you reject that notion. Teenagers have rather specific needs in terms of belonging, and language expresses that. Then they grow out of it, or rather change their needs, in adulthood. Linguistic flexibility can be taught, and I'm pretty sure most teachers are aware of this, and act accordingly.  
Fourth, you seem to equate this way of speaking with impoverished language. It's true that kids vary enormously in the size of their vocabulary. This has nothing to do with speaking Multicultural London English. It relates entirely to social class, not ethnicity, and so you might as well criticise any local accent or dialect in the same way. You also castigate the use of ‘ghetto language’ editions of Shakespeare: don't these merely demonstrate that language is infinitely flexible and rich? William Labov, way back in the 70s, proved that African American English, including that spoken by gang members, is grammatically precise and richly expressive.

Your language work with the kids in Peckham is reaping rewards for them. The life of the young man you mentioned is undoubtedly the better for it. But aren't you in danger of turning him against the music he (probably) identifies with and alienating him from the family and friends he loves? I would bet he is now a proficient code-switcher, not just linguistically but also culturally.

Thanks very much to Paul for letting us print his response. 

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