Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"Correcting" local dialect and slang

The history of grammar teaching has often been associated with prescriptive models in which the "correction" of perceived faults in language has been paramount. While linguists are careful these days to talk about what is "grammatical" or "ungrammatical" and  "standard" or "non-standard", rather than what is "right" or "wrong", there is still a tension at the heart of the teaching of English.

Emma Thompson hinted at this when she was widely reported in the media last week as having criticised the language of young people at her old school (Camden School For Girls, incidentally one of the nine secondary schools we're working with on this project) for its supposed reliance on likes, innits and off ofs. While she was fairly careful to couch her criticisms in a liberal language of acceptance of slang in its context and awareness of the need for two languages, at the heart of her attack lies a prescriptive view that some forms of language are just bad and that they make the user of them look bad too.

The grammatical arguments about the terms she chose to pick up on are quite interesting. Innit has been studied in the last few years, and identified as an invariant tag question (a tag that doesn't change to agree with the subject of the statement it follows: so it's innit at the end of she's nice, I am pleased, we are going there and they are bad, etc.). Grammatically, it has become something new. You might - like Emma Thompson - dislike it, but it's got its uses and it is quite a powerful device. Another use, and probably a more recent one is as a response to its tag question form. So, younger speakers often employ it in a conversation to show agreement to it being used as an affective tag.

Also, with like we have a word that has often been used as a filler, but that has now become something else as well. In its quotative usage, we can see that it is used to perhaps dramatise and emphasise elements of  reported/direct speech in storytelling. For example:

I'm like, "You're not getting in. You weren't invited".
And she's like, "What you gonna do about it?".
Again, whether you like it or not, it's now got a new way of being used, reflecting the flexibility of our evolving language.

But it's not just slang that causes upset to a prescriptivist mindset: dialect is a threat too. In yesterday's Daily Mail, a short report told us that teaching assistants in Portsmouth (two of them - close to a national scandal) had been criticised by OFSTED for their use of local dialect. The example quoted in the story, "I likes football", sounds like a fairly typical example of south coast dialect to my ears.

Why is it a problem? Well, if you read the comments that follow the article (never a good idea if you're trying to stay balanced and the right side of happy on a dreary Monday morning) you'll see a splenetic outpouring of disgust. Teachers are illiterate! Tony B-Liar is to blame! Education, education, schmeducation! Country bumpkins shouldn't be allowed near our kids!

That's fairly typical for the Daily Mail's message boards, and among the vitriol and badly spelled attacks on immigrants and left-wing teachers who use street slang is an undercurrent of dismay that the grammar of Standard English is at risk. And here is the tension referred to earlier.

The common perception of regional dialects among many English speakers is that they belong to the lower social orders, that they are inferior forms, but the reality is that many of us use regional forms without being particularly conscious of them. Whether it's the Cockney we was or the Reading he done it, regional dialect is still alive and well, and it has a grammar of its own. The tension comes in establishing its place in relation the grammar of Standard English in the education system.

If one of the key aims of teaching Standard English is to establish a shared, mutually intelligible form of the language for everyone educated in the UK then does having a teaching assistant who uses a local dialect damage the educational opportunities of young people? Probably not. I think an argument that might be effective here is that if we properly study the grammar of both Standard English and regional varieties (and sociolects like slang varieties too) we will learn a great deal more about not just grammar as a system, but also about the history of the language, feelings we have for our own varieties of language and the connections we have to our own communities of practice and social backgrounds.

So, I think it should be argued that neither slang nor dialect should be seen as a threat to the education of young people, but as legitimate and rewarding areas of language study, both of which can help students enrich their understanding of language in all its varieties.

 I'd be interested in any views from readers, so please post comments.


  1. It sounds like the whole debate becomes a thinly guised facade for a greater conservative political agenda but then I'm just a scruffy, liberal, male English teacher. It does seem incredible the way that these discourses about language and the way that people use it are rooted in some kind of political agenda as is the case with political correctness, language and gender and in this case regional varieties. It seems that right wing ideology seems happy to point the finger at particular social groups, in this case the working classes, in order to "blame" them for something that isn't even wrong! What is so difficult to grasp about the fact that language changes over time...it is in a state of constant flux which is not a bad thing. We are not headed towards a place of Orwellian Newspeak and/or an ignorant proletariat as a result of people using regional accent and dialect features. Also, has no one ever told them that a lot of the more marked regional accent/dialect features are slowly disappearing? It just frustrates me that people actually get paid to write about stuff that they obviously know so little about. But that's just me, innit?

  2. It's an odd article, that Daily Mail one. They're confusing dialect with slang, teachers with teaching assistants, and then at one point liking plucky regional types with their quaint words and at another point hating the blasted bumpkins who can't conjugate "to like" properly.

    It's such a messy debate and the Mail does nothing to help. Neither - it has to be said - do the loon-eyed ramblings of its message board contributors who type such dross that you'd imagine that you could get more sense from 300 EDL members tanked up on Stella and home made speed, and locked in a Yates's Wine Lodge with only a laptop and internet connection for company.

  3. ROFL!!!!!

    A personal fave from the comments section...

    "I think parents should correct the assistants if they are within earshot of the children. That way BOTH the assistant and child will learn at the same time. If they don't like it, they can get a job at Tesco.

    - Lee, Portsmouth, 4/10/2010 22:59"

    I mean...WTF?! My jaw hit the floor when I read that. Where the hell do these people come from?!

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