Thursday, February 07, 2013

Driving up standards by driving out the non-standard

A school in Teesside has become the centre of an argument over acceptable English, with its headteacher's decision to send a letter home to parents asking parents to "correct" their children's language "errors".

According to the local paper, non-standard English such as 'I done it' (rather than 'I did it', or 'I have done it'), 'yous' (instead of 'you') and 'gizit here' (instead of 'give it to me, please') are all considered off-limits at the school, and risk making the children's employment prospects lower than those who use Standard English.

Standard English is what we're supposed to teach at school, and it's what we use to communicate in writing, most of the time - unless we're online or on our phones, in which case different rules apply - but the argument that's been stirred here is over whether it's acceptable to limit what young people say to just Standard English and whether we should be describing these usages as "incorrect".

Schools have tried similar things before,  with Sheffield Springs Academy having a "slang ban" (which is also how the Daily Mail headline about Sacred Heart School in Middlesbrough - mistakenly - puts it in their story), Manchester Academy doing the same a year or two before, and a school in Basildon allegedly trying to eliminate Essex accents through elocution lessons, a claim denied by the school itself.

Linguists have long argued that non-standard varieties of English are not "wrong" at all. In fact, some of them might even be seen as more logical: yous is a perfectly reasonable way of differentiating between second person singular and plural, which Standard English doesn't have, for example. Studying the differences between standard and non-standard is something that Key Stage 2 children do as part of their Literacy curriculum, so it's not as if they don't understand the differences, but is it really OK to ban certain terms or suggest they're inferior.

Peter Stockwell, linguist and Teessider, thinks not and is featured in an interesting follow-up piece. York University's Paul Kerswill, an expert in sociolinguistics (and writer of a damn fine chapter in this book) was interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme this morning, alongside Simon Gibbons of the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) and had some eminently sensible things to say about the whole furore.  You can listen to it here until next week and it's 1 hour 40 minutes into the programme.

Elsewhere, the Daily Mail has its take on it here, and you don't need to be a genius to work out that its online readership have plenty to say about it in the comments that follow, which range from the considered and quite descriptivist in outlook (see comment 1 below) to the dubious and rather poorly written (see comments 2&3).

If you've been studying Jean Aitchison's models of crumbling castle, infectious disease and damp spoon, you'll see nearly all of those appearing somewhere in the prescriptive comments put forward, with discourses of laziness, ugliness, infection and erosion, all making an appearance somewhere.

So, what do you think of the school's attempts to drive out non-standard English? Do they have good educational intentions, or are they misguided prescriptivists? Here are what some Mail Online readers thought: what about you?

Comment 1:

The school is just plain wrong. To call informal English wrong is to mess about with personal relationships: this is where you get some children looking down on others because they think they speak wrongly. What is more, it is actually a disadvantage to speak formally if you are in a service industry where you have to get on with ordinary people. You can always tell people who have been trained to talk formally all the time: they sound like daft, unconfident and untrustworthy pseuds. Besides the fact that there are historical reasons for dialect speech: North-eastern dialects use words which go back to the Vikings and put children in touch with a continuing culture which has existed for a thousand years. There is the formal English you need for interviews and work and there is the informal English that enables you to speak quickly with friends, family and locals. All children are capable of understanding that formal English is not right, it is simply for use in formal situations. - Dave , Wimbledon, 06/2/2013 17:24


Sadly, kids nowadays speak only one language and they use that single language in every social context. When I was a kid I spoke three types of English. One with my parents, another with my mates and a third in more formal circumstances such as education, police and other levels of authority. The component that has disappeared today is authority.

- AndrĂ©, Peckham, United Kingdom, 5/2/2013 20:13 

Comment 3:

Laziness from children and parents nowadays...and its shocking. Most kids seem to think talking in slang is cool, but its further from the truth. God help them with job prospects and further education ( if they're even attempting to better their lives! )

- flash25, glasgow, United Kingdom, 5/2/2013 19:41

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