Sunday, October 22, 2017

Language discourses – the issue of ‘proper’ English

Some responses to ‘Modelling Good Speech. Let’s talk properly’

Thanks to Twitter I recently came across a blog post on teacherhead.com called ‘Modelling Good Speech. Let’s talk properly’. This was written in November 2015 and recently re-promoted on Twitter by Tom Sherrington, somebody with a background in education, an ex head teacher, no less. As somebody who spends most days working with students on A Level English Language issues I felt angered by what I was reading. Frustrated too. Not least because the attitudes and ideas in the blog are I think part of an ongoing blind drive to preach pedantry.

I want to have a consistent and more informed approach to the teaching of varieties of English, for my own children and all children and students of language. I want us to understand more about what language really is and how language really works.

Below are my own ‘personal bug bears’ (to quote Mr Sherrington) about the post. These comments are for my year 13 students to help them be critical of texts and evaluate attitudes.

This is me:

1. The image. ‘Innit: an invitation to agree’ This grandstands the issue in a way that showcases for ‘us’, the shocked and appalled reader and listener, an example of something we will of course have a negative attitude towards – even using the definition ‘an invitation to agree’ as a clue, in case you missed it, as to how you should be thinking about such a mangling of God’s own language.

2. Armstrong and Miller – I use these sketches in lessons sometimes because they are funny and excellent ways into exploring the real relationship between accent and dialect and attitude. They are a great learning tool, to celebrate innovation and diversity, not to be used to condemn or mock the way people speak. I think I might be right in thinking A and M were not proposing they be used as a stick to beat ‘improper’ speech. Random.

3. ‘the art of rhetoric’ being a ‘cornerstone’ of teaching and learning etc etc – building a lovely stately home of language here – remind you of anything?

4. Calling out his own negative attitudes by representing them as ‘squeamishness’ or ‘snobbery’ or ‘elitism’ – thereby defending himself from these accusations – a kind of reappropriation of the criticisms he thinks he is going to face. Damn right. Attack yourself first – a form of defence I suppose.

5. ‘without teaching them to speak correctly…’ – here we really go – this and other references to ‘proper’ speech. This piece time and again makes these judgements reinforcing the idea of a true hierarchy in language – of course based on nothing but his (by his own admission) ‘personal bug-bears’, not linguistic research. Students: do not base your exam essays on bug-bears. Or anything else you wish to argue convincingly for that matter.

6. Do schools really not try to ‘teach students to speak properly’? ignoring the properly idea for a moment I think any teacher would argue this – we develop the whole person, including teaching them about the real world, not the world seen through the eyes of somebody recently awoken from a cryogenic sleep clutching his gasmask and teddy bear, stood blinking at the world in his WW2 school uniform.

7. ‘our rich cultural mix’ – forgive me but this sounds patronising and the kind of things written from the stance of a white, middle class, educated teacher

8. ‘let’s’ – let. Us. Us? This is collectivising – positioning me – but no thanks.

9. Narrowing gaps and providing more equal opportunities – yes, we want this – this is 50% right but those gaps are being opened up by this piece condemning others

10. The emphasis on ‘family’ context is interesting – not defined – but at least it does sort of recognise that school often has no influence on the eradication of non-standard forms – evidence? Look up Stephen Levy’s work on community norms – the ‘was/were’ issue which this piece laughs at actually does have some research undertaken on it.

11. The extract from the book by Sedaris. What has this to do with the issue? Apart from, like the RAF sketch – give a comic context in which to couch and justify these dubious arguments I can see little connection between learning another language and the way I speak with my friends.

12. ‘We’, the staff, should mind our language too. After all we are not human beings, with identities, the product of diverse contexts are we? The issue here really is that teachers should be allowed to each varieties of English, contexts and appropriacy. Not be some Tippex-wielding pedant despised by students who are trying to find their way in the world. God help them.

13. Then we have the list of ‘errors’. This strikes me as simply ill-informed and frankly a poor show from somebody who has been an educator. I recognise that long list of grammatical issues. Anyone familiar with how language changes and those who have tried to stop this happening in the last few hundred years will also see that these are hackneyed, boring and prejudicial examples.

14. He then is ‘more picky’. More??!?. His ‘personal bug-bears’. Yup. But I agree, we all have them, but we shouldn’t use them to give a mandate to those seeking to divide and conquer or justify their place in society over others.

15. Radio 4. Why is this a bastion of correctness? Another throwback to a time of haloed gatekeepers when we listened with mother to the voice of authority and prestige, in black and white. Times have changed. Even on radio and television. Really, just listen, you will even here TH fronting.

16. ‘switching codes’ – credit where credit is due – yes, we must understand this – he seems to – but then he seems not to understand how it works.

17. The most offensive bit of the lot – let’s sit back and ‘laugh’, really ‘laugh’?!? at the way ‘those’ students speak. Mocking what is legitimate. The young people here using language in probably the most effective way possible given context of audience and purpose. MLE is a thing. Innit.

18. So overall, no this is not very funny and I for one am not laughing. This is a damaging piece of writing, bad enough on its own but in the hands of those in education it scares me a little. We live in an age where school inspectors are pleased when perceived ‘bad’ language use is challenged and corrected and this destabilises any more progressive work those of us in schools and college are trying to do to make students ready for the real world.

(A guest post by Nick King @nicking6)

2 comments:

Tom Sherrington said...

Hi Nick. Given that this is a full-blown take-down of my post, I wish you had directed it to me. I've found it by accident. I'm just writing another blog post as a follow up where I will cite this post. I won't make the arguments here. There's an important debate here. Thanks Tom.

Tom Sherrington said...

Here is the follow-up blog post: https://teacherhead.com/2017/10/26/empowering-speech-challenges-on-correctness-and-some-questions-for-sociolinguists/