Ann Mroz

Knowing pupil slang isn’t just educational – it can save lives

If teachers can keep on top of students’ slang, it gives them an advantage in identifying any possible safeguarding issues, writes Ann Mroz

Pupil slang 2020

In my first job as a journalist, on a music paper, long before computers and even fax machines were a thing in offices, I decided I would demonstrate my shorthand prowess. Fresh from passing 100 words per minute, I would impress my boss, or so I thought, by taking down the reggae charts over the phone.

This was a big mistake. I could not make head nor tail of what I had written and had to shamefacedly ring back and take them down all over again laboriously in longhand.

When you are unfamiliar with slang, be it Jamaican or English, the pitfalls can be merely embarrassing or they can prevent you from doing your job well. Or, indeed, as I found out, both.

For a teacher or anyone working in a school, it’s important to know what young people are talking about. But like with all education, learning the intricacies of student slang is an ongoing process and you’ve got to put in the work to stay on top of it.

Some slang terms go as quickly as they’ve come; some endure (think Cockney rhyming slang); and some even enter the mainstream and go into the Oxford English Dictionary.

Teacher Amy Forrester recently provided fair warning of the WAP (no, I’m not going to spell it out for you – you’ll have to look it up) craze to hit schools, courtesy of a song by American rappers Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, which is full of very creative sexual innuendo. As Forrester deftly pointed out, “as with any fad, the quickest way to kill it is to ensure that teachers bring it to the classroom”. For the young, everything becomes less attractive if your parents or teachers start talking about it.

And before we start to get all snobby about it, let’s not forget that Shakespeare used lots of slang and sexual innuendo, as well as some damn good insults. Slang has a good, long pedigree.

We shouldn’t try to ban slang, says Ian Cushing, an education lecturer at Brunel University and expert in applied linguistics. This could cause pupils “long-term damage”, making them feel stigmatised and discriminated against, he told Tes in January. School policies that ban the use of non-standard English words – such as “bare” and “peng”– can have a negative impact on pupils’ learning and make them feel that their language is “worthless”, he warned.

Slang is designed to include those in the group and to exclude those outside. It’s how teens talk and live; it’s their language. We shouldn’t denigrate it or dismiss it but instead try to learn and understand it. Because it may be more significant than you think.

A knowledge of slang could prove to be incredibly important in keeping children safe. It’s possible that you could overhear a conversation between two Year 11 boys about carrying a knife outside of school, says Thomas Michael, a safeguarding and welfare officer in a secondary school, but if you’ve never heard the words “cheffing”, “splashed” or “Rambo”, you might not know what they’re talking about.

If you are familiar with the words, it means that you can intervene early and perhaps prevent a tragedy down the line.

But a word of warning: not only does slang change all the time, it can also vary across different parts of the country and even across postcodes. That makes it even harder to stay abreast of, especially when you’re changing jobs or moving about as a supply teacher. Compiling and maintaining a comprehensive school list of the latest slang may not only save blushes, it could also save lives.

@AnnMroz

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