The way you talk shouldn't obscure the meaning of what you are trying to say. Speaking skills are back on the agenda at school, Biddy Passmore discovers
Once upon a time, children who made it to grammar school from a poor background were offered elocution lessons to help them "talk proper". The unspoken assumption was that, since their schooling would set them on the road to a middle-class profession, they should acquire the accent of the professional middle class: Received Pronunciation.
That would be unthinkable now. When teachers in many inner-city schools face a growing number of pupils for whom English is a second language, fussing about a dropped aitch or an impure vowel seems positively Victorian. Over the past 30 years, most people have become more tolerant of difference and more intolerant of an accent that reeks of privilege. Even public school-educated Prime Ministers now produce glottal stops to connect with the voters. And presenters on the BBC, once the guardian of RP, speak everything from Welsh to Brum to Cockney or, at least, the Estuary variant that has now swept nearly the whole of southern England.
While few people would openly admit to prejudice about accents and dialects*, surveys suggest that some are still a turn-off to the Great British public and may therefore affect young people's career prospects (see box). While employers cannot object to a slight regional twang, they still mind very much about recruits who cannot speak clearly and correctly.
In 2006, "communicating information orally" came second from top of the list of aspects of literacy that employers would most like to see improved. More than one in five of those surveyed by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) felt it was the most important area for improvement.
According to research by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, young people are acutely conscious of their shortcomings. They say speaking confidently on the telephone to a stranger is one of the biggest challenges they face when they start work. Now speaking skills are to become a more central feature of the national curriculum. But how are teachers meant to go about turning shy primary pupils and mumbling teenagers into confident, fluent speakers of standard English?
The answer seems to be to get pupils to talk more. And the last way to do that, according to teaching and language experts, is to correct either their pronunciation or their grammar in the classroom.
"We don't alter the way we speak because somebody else tells us to it tends to reduce us to silence," says John Yandell, subject leader for the secondary English PGCE at the University of London's Institute of Education. "If teachers were to think their first task was to apply figurative red ink to the oral language of learners in the classroom, that would be pretty counterproductive.
"Pupils instinctively know how to operate at different levels," he says. "Anyone with a strong accent will use a much more pronounced version of it with friends and family than when speaking to an outsider. If, say, you asked pupils to model the headteacher ticking off a pupil, they would use an accent much closer to RP the majority would change their grammar to match."
The key to greater fluency, he says, is to use more dialogue in the classroom, encouraging pupils to explain their ideas to other pupils, rather than simply calling on them to give short answers to teachers' questions.
Claire Pattern, head of Maybury Primary School in Hull, also supports more talk in the classroom, but pays great attention to the way pupils speak, providing a discipline her pupils do not get at home. She and her staff do correct the speech of younger children in the school.
"This is a deprived area, and children come in at three years old with speech well below the baseline," she says. "They have enough learning disadvantages without allowing them to speak badly. For instance, we correct lazy speech such as 'fing'. With older pupils, at key stage 2, we have to be more subtle.
"I accept there's a Hull dialect and a Yorkshire dialect," she says, (she is from South Wales) "but that's no excuse for mispronunciation. And I'm very hard on teachers who don't speak correctly."
Christine Callender, who co-ordinates English primary training at the Institute of Education in London, says teachers should act as good models rather than correcting mistakes. "We encourage them to model English for the children, and provide opportunities for them to speak in a variety of ways and consider what is appropriate for particular contexts, especially at the top of key stage 2. We don't encourage any teacher to correct a child's accent we say you can speak standard English perfectly well with an accent."
Deborah Cameron, Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at Oxford University and author of the new OUP Teacher's Guide to Grammar, is scornful of the whole idea that schools should bother about pupils' accents.
"Accent is just pronunciation," she says. "There is no educational value in teaching children to 'talk posh'. Employers' complaints about recruits who speak incomprehensibly need to be taken with a bucketload of salt. The accents people complain about Scouse, Brum, Glaswegian are just the accents of the old industrial cities, thought to be full of yobs and chavs. Why should schools pander to these snobbish prejudices?
"There is no doubt that command of the standard dialect (standard English) matters," she says. But, while she certainly favours more talk in the classroom, she doubts if either correcting or "modelling" spoken language is an effective way to improve pupils' command of standard English.
"Correcting doesn't work," she says. "That's been shown by modern language teaching, where no amount of correction shifts mistakes. But I don't think modelling back what the pupil has said in a more perfect form which is implicit correction works either, although it does no harm. The proportion of pupils' daily speech produced within earshot of a teacher is tiny.
"The really important thing for a child to learn standard English is literacy skills. Essentially standard English is the spoken form of the thing you find in books. My question with a child who never uses standard English in any context is: how well does this child read?"
*Dialect refers to unique words and expressions spoken in different parts of the country, whereas accent is the way words are pronounced
CHERISHING THE DIFFERENCES
When John Murray left Hull, where he'd been teaching for 30 years, to become headteacher of Wetwang Church of England School, a village primary in the East Yorkshire wolds, he was given a curious welcome.
"You're one of them soft buggers from town," said a father, clad in tweed jacket with baling twine round his middle. He added, not unkindly: "Don't worry, lad, we've got some soft buggers in't village, an' all."
"I had to work hard to be accepted," says John. But he never struggled either to understand the locals or to be understood, even though he is actually from Middlesbrough, on Teesside. (He struggled a little more when he first arrived in Hull.) For him, differences in accent and dialect are worth cherishing, and he worries that the speech of the older people in the village is being lost, as the children acquire a more homogenised, Estuary accent from television.
"I encourage both local dialect and standard English in school," he says. Children write and perform poetry and dialogues in both. "Sometimes I deliberately say things to the children in my own north-eastern accent, which is still fairly pronounced when I'm with my family.
"We put a lot of emphasis on the right speech for the right situation," he stresses. "If a child says 'we was' in class and they're in full creative flow, I tell them afterwards that's fine but I might then ask them how they'd change their style if they were at a public meeting. They need to be able to use different styles by the age of 11."
Can they do it? "Oh yes," he says. "Tell me a kid who doesn't like showing off."
EMPLOYING THE RIGHT SPEECH
Employers may have strong prejudices about accents. But they are turning against "posh".
A survey in 2003 found 77 per cent thought a Home Counties accent was a sign of success in business, followed by 73 per cent favouring an American accent, 63 per cent a Scottish accent, 52 per cent continental European and 25 per cent Indian or Asian.
However, 64 per cent rated those with a Liverpudlian accent unsuccessful, closely followed by a Birmingham or West Midlands accent (63 per cent), Cockney 52 per cent and Geordie or West Country, 48 per cent.
Business people who speak with an Indian or Asian accent were considered hard working and reliable by 69 per cent of their peers, a higher rating than any other accent.
Those with a Scottish or Home Counties accent also did well on this score (61 and 50 per cent). In contrast, less than a quarter (24 per cent) of those with a Scouse accent were considered hard-working.
A more recent survey found nearly half of UK company directors and senior managers believe that an upper-class accent is now a hindrance rather than a help when it comes to succeeding in business. But far more 86 per cent considered a working-class accent even worse.
Two-thirds of businessmen now consider the best accent to be neutral.
Source: The Aziz Corporation
SOME WHO SHED THEIR ACCENTS
Eliza Doolittle, the Covent Garden flowergirl of Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, who changed from saying "niaouw" ("no") to the RP vowels of 'the rain in Spain'.
Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who took elocution lessons in her teens to get rid of her Lincolnshire accent, and then speech training decades later to lower the register of her voice.
Author Beryl Bainbridge, from Liverpool, who had elocution lessons from the age of 11 and says "uneducated regional accents", such as Scouse, should be "wiped out".
AND SOME WHO DIDN'T
Samuel Johnson, of dictionary fame, who kept a strong Staffordshire accent all his life.
William Wordsworth, who was faithful to his Cumbrian accent despite attending Cambridge University.
Cockney cricketer Phil Tufnell and Glaswegian footballer Alan Hansen.
A VARIETY OF TALK
Jennifer Logue remembers all too clearly the words on her tutor's report at Jordanhill College of Education in Glasgow.
Her use of resources, lesson content and teaching style were all excellent, it said. But it went on: "you will have to do something about your Ayrshire glottal stop."
"I never forgot that for 30 years," says Jennifer, now a senior lecturer in primary education at the Jordanhill campus of the University of Strathclyde. But did it make her change the way she spoke? "It certainly raised my awareness of it," she says, "but I did find it quite upsetting as well. And my father was furious. We lived 25 miles from Glasgow and he thought Glasgow people didn't know how to speak."
Today, Jennifer would not dream of saying something so insensitive to a trainee teacher, whether from Glasgow, the Western Isles or Canada. She might suggest to pupils that they slow down their speech a little and enunciate more clearly, but a glottal stop would not be corrected unless it was "really extreme". Accents and dialects should be valued, she says; they add richness to the language. What matters is that both teachers and pupils should be comprehensible to their audience.
"Sometimes schools say to tutors that they are unhappy about the language and grammar trainees are using," she says. "For instance, a trainee from Glasgow might say 'what they've wrote' rather than 'what they've written' because it's the local dialect. I point out to the trainee that if they want to carry on like that it's up to them, but it's not a helpful model of the language for pupils."
In London, too, lecturers at the Institute of Education sometimes have a word in the ear of their students.
"Some of our London-based students do start the course using expressions like 'innit?' and 'you get me?' says Christine Callender, who co-ordinates English primary training. "We have a conversation with them about it say it's not appropriate for instruction in the classroom, do you realise that? and they address it."