Friday, October 25, 2013

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Slang ban debated

The recent slang ban in a London school was debated on a Canadian radio station recently and you can hear what was said through this link.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Another slang ban attempted

Basically, tings is getting bare random with this kind of shizzle, yeah?

In another (futile) attempt to control behaviour in a school - and language is clearly a powerful type of behaviour - the Harris Academy in Croydon has tried to implement a "slang ban".

The BBC covered it here, the Daily Mail here and The Guardian here. It was also discussed by the linguist Paul Kerswill on today's World At One (start listening after 13.30 to hear it).

We've gone over the arguments about this kind of ban on several occasions on this blog - first in London, then in Manchester, then Sheffield, and finally in Middlesbrough - so there's not much else to add.

Edited on 17.10.13 to correct Guardian link and add Guardian Comment is Free link to Will Coldwell article

Thursday, October 03, 2013

A war on the young? More like a unilateral assualt

In a week or so, we'll be looking at the representation of young people as a social group for our ENGA2 AS English Language lessons, so it's kind of nice of David Cameron to give us some extra ammunition for our classes, even if in the process he's basically sticking two fingers up to every under-25 in the country!

Here's Ally Fogg of The Guardian on Cameron's announcement yesterday:

It would be wrong to think of David Cameron's proposals to take key benefits away from the under-25s as a new initiative. They form merely the latest chapter in a chilling horror story that began shortly after the coalition took the reins, with the tripling of university tuition fees, the abolition of educational maintenance allowance and the future jobs fund, and was still under way this summer when the chancellor's spending review slashed another £260m from the further education budget.

It would be also be a mistake to describe this as a "war on the young" as many commentators have done. A war implies two sides vying for supremacy. This is a strictly unilateral assault, a grand act of persecution. Indeed watching the prime minister singling out unemployed youngsters for uniquely punitive measures while pretending it is for their own good, cheered on by a gang of braying chums, it looks less like the behaviour of a national statesman and more like the petty vindictiveness of a schoolyard bully.
 There's some lovely stuff to analyse in there, not just in the language used to characterise the policy announcement - playing on the semantic field/discourse associated with war and conflict - but in the way he represents Cameron and his "chums".

We'll have a look at the whole way in which discourses around young people are often based on fear, threat and otherness, but in the meantime, this makes a good read.

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. 

Dissing ghetto grammar to Mikey G and Funkmaster David C

Fresh from his appearance at the Conservative Party conference, where he angrily denounced "trendy teaching" and "hip hop Hamlet" productions as "viciously racist", while (not so freshly) trotting out a tired Stevie Wonder joke, Lindsay Johns made an appearance on Radio 4's Four Thought programme, with a 15 minute attack on his old favourite, "ghetto grammar"

We've looked at Johns' arguments about this subject - the need for Standard English and the dangers of street slang to inner city youths - on this blog before and, to be honest, much of what he says in the Four Thought lecture is a slightly reheated version of his older articles which you can find here and here.

Unlike Johns, who sees the issue in stark terms - Standard English = good, slang = bad - the issue is more complicated than he suggests. I think he probably realises that, but why let research, reality and facts gets in the way of a good rant? And hey, it seems to be doing him some good, as he gets to stand on stage among an overwhelmingly white, pensionable and right wing crowd and denounce lefties to big applause.

One of the stand-out moments in his Four Thought piece (apart from the Stevie Wonder joke - Stevie Wonder is blind? LOL!) is his hugely overstated attack on white, middle class liberals, who espouse a doctrine of "cultural relativism" in which all language styles are just as good as each other and where street slang is viewed as the authentic voice of the streets and therefore not to be discouraged.

Instructively, he doesn't name a single one of these sinister lefties, or tell us about a single paper, article or case study that they've produced to make such a claim, but he reaches heights of rhetorical flamboyance in making these claims:

Contrary to the risible notions promulgated by cultural relativists - often white, liberal, middle class ones - notions which are deeply patronising, obnoxious and offensive, not to mention viscerally racist, of accepting black kids from Peckham speaking in inchoate street slang because they deem it to be the "authentic rhythms of Africa", I tell my mentees "We don't live in Timbuktu, or the south Bronx; we live in England, so speak proper English".
For a man who likes teaching young people how to use adjectives, he sure uses a lot of adjectives...

But, as I stated back in 2011 in the response to his original ghetto grammar piece:

Firstly, you'd be pretty hard-pressed to find any linguist or educator who doesn't argue that a mastery of Standard English is a prerequisite of a good education. Who are these cultural relativists that Johns is referring to? It smacks of the right wing arguments about the "PC brigade": some nebulous and sinister cabal of liberals and lefties hell-bent on messing up everything about young people's education with their crazy commie views. They don't really exist...

Secondly, code-switching is not that difficult for young people. They do it all the time. But only if they have another form to switch into. That's essentially the point that Johns is missing. The young people he works with - if they have as poor a command of Standard English as he claims - don't have a problem with slang: they have a problem with basic literacy. To lay the blame for these young people's inability to write and speak clearly at the door of street slang and those people who don't condemn it out of hand is a very weak argument.
While Johns is clearly right to say in his articles and lectures (and yes, even his speech to the Tory conference) that "language is power" and that some of the most marginalised and underprivileged in our society desperately need that power more than their pampered Eton-educated counterparts (err, not that he said that at the Tory party conference), he's spectacularly wrong in claiming that slang is the problem.

Yes, there may be some young people who struggle to grasp a sophisticated level of Standard English - that has pretty much always been the case and we should strive to help them - but there are many many more young people who know exactly how to code switch when they use language in different situations and who know exactly when and when not to use slang and the value of that slang.

In attacking street slang, Johns misunderstands the real power of language: its ability to serve us in different situations and with different people and to convey a massive range of different, nuanced attitudes. Language is power, but rather like in the anecdote Johns tells us about being pulled over by the police and bamboozling the Met copper with the word "abstemious", Johns seems to equate power with the superficial quality of knowing a few more adjectives than the next guy. Really? Is that it? If anyone is patronising young people, it's not an anonymous collective of liberal lefties but Johns himself.

Putting up with prejudiced sit

Following on from last week's Tonight programme and its focus on attitudes to regional accents, here's a great piece by accent coach Erica Buist on what she describes as snobbery and disdain for foreign accents among many English people.

While accent prejudice is nothing new, it's troubling to see how it can apparently stand in the way of well qualified people getting jobs and being accepted. As Buist points out:

Even out-and-out xenophobes start sentences with, "I don't mind foreigners, but …" While it's tedious to hear bigotry tarted up as a point of view, at least the lie is an acknowledgement that xenophobia isn't acceptable. But companies don't start sentences with, "we're not xenophobic, but …" – they make it company policy.
Elsewhere in the piece she quotes research from the University of Chicago that suggests foreign accents undermine a speaker's credibility with listeners, even if the listeners aren't aware of it at the time. Rather like the ComRes survey for the ITV Tonight programme (also reported in The Telegraph) it appears that it's not just what you say but how you say it that affects how you're viewed by others.

Buist is going to have watch out, though - sounding a bit like a Jenny Foreigner and having the nerve to criticise anything to do with the UK -  while Paul Dacre's Daily Fail is still frothing at the mouth and accusing one and all of hating the country.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Grammar do and grammar don't

Last time there was a teachers' strike, I put the blog on strike for a day; this time round, I've decided not to. I'm on strike but have decided that the blog is a labour of love, for which I get no payment, and anyway, I update it so infrequently at the moment that nobody would be able to tell it's on strike. A bit like my teaching, in fact...

Anyway, today's post is a quick one about the rules of grammar - which ones to worry about and which ones not to - by The Guardian's Style Guide author David Marsh. In it he deals with some of the arguments people have about things like split infinitives, starting sentences with conjunctions, who/whom and all the rest of it.

It's a particularly useful article for A2 students looking at ENGA3 and Language Discourses, but is also handy for anyone who cares about writing clearly and how clarity can be improved with a a bit of careful thought.

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...