Thursday, February 16, 2012

Playground prescriptivism?

A story doing the rounds yesterday suggested that a school in Sheffield was attempting to prevent its students from using slang. It was covered in the local Sheffield Star here, with a reference to one of Sheffield's most famous exports, Sean Bean (aka Boromir , Ned Stark and Sharpe) and in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Guardian.

Like many other arguments about language use, this one has become a bit muddied. In this case, the original story about the school - Sheffield Springs Academy - seemed to focus on slang (which might de defined as a type of extremely informal language used by specific groups of people) and a desire on behalf of the school to show its students that different styles of language suit different situations (what linguists often call the notion of appropriacy). However, the reporting of the story also refers to dialect being banned and regional pronunciations being frowned upon, and that's before you chuck in text speak too.

So what is actually happening here and can schools really control what their students say? The story is very similar to one we featured on this blog a few years ago about a school in Manchester which had banned street slang from its classrooms (covered here and in the Radio 4 programme Mind Your Slanguage which featured interviews with some SFX students) so it's perhaps not a big surprise to find that the head of the academy sponsors behind the Sheffield Springs Academy is the woman who was head teacher at the Manchester Academy when it introduced its ban, none other than Kathy August.

Her argument makes some sort of sense and goes something like this, according to the Telegraph report:

What we want to make sure of is that they are confident in using standard English. Slang doesn't really give the right impression of the person.

Youngsters going to interviews for their first job need to make a good impression so that employers have confidence in them. It's not difficult to get youngster out of the habit of using slang.

Mrs August said it was preferable for pupils to say "thank you" instead of the more colloquial "ta", and "goodbye" rather than "see ya".

The trust said its policy on slang was part of its "street stops at the gate" ethos.

It also asks sixth formers to dress in suits rather than school uniform to encourage professionalism.

Mrs August added: "It is about knowing what language is acceptable between friends and what is required in more formal situations.

We want to give each of our students the best start possible; understanding when it is and is not acceptable to use slang or colloquial language is just one part of this. 
So, according to August, it's all about reinforcing the students' grasp of Standard English and code-switching. The problem is - as several of the reports show - who defines what slang and regional dialect are? The references from parents in the Sheffield Star to teachers disliking regional accents and local dialect terms, and the strange notion brought up by August in the Mail's version of the story that "...when youngsters are talking together they use text speak..."(like B4,H8 and BTW? I doubt it...) suggest that there's much confusion over what actually constitutes slang.

This isn't a new confusion, and it's one that the linguist, Paul Kerswill noted in his response to a report on non-standard English in schools.The problem is that if all non-standard forms of English are lumped together there's a risk that the debate itself loses its focus. Are we talking about text speak in spoken conversations? Really? Or are we talking about the ways in which people from Sheffield might say about and right differently to those in the south? If it's slang then there might be a good argument for explaining how it is viewed or understood (or not) outside particular social groups, but there's also a decent argument put forward by Christopher Howse in today's Telegraph (albeit in his usual verbose style) that language play should be encouraged at school and that slang can be part of that.

No one is really going to argue that students don't need Standard English, but is their grasp of it so shaky that they should be encouraged not to use any other varieties of English that might interfere with the standard form? Is it really that bad? Obviously, the Daily Mail might want us to think it is, because that supports their reactionary, declinist agenda - English is in tatters thanks to immigrants, teachers who don't wear ties and Brussels bureaucrats - a classic "crumbling castle" argument. But are young people so vulnerable to the pernicious influence of non-standard forms that they should be protected from them at school?

What do you think? Comments (in Standard English, please - no text speak or ghetto grammar) are welcome.

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