Battle betwixt talk and chalk;FE Focus;Opinion

17th September 1999 at 01:00
WHEN I WAS 19 I discovered sociology. As this was 1969 it had to compete with one or two other things I was busy discovering. But still, finding the "science of society" came pretty high up the list.

The thing was that it gave me ammunition. Not only did it confirm all my political prejudices (or beliefs as I preferred to think of them), but it also handed me a whole bunch of statistics, surveys and in-depth studies to help back them up.

Naturally, not all of my classmates (in an FE college as it happened) agreed. The few benighted Tories amongst them certainly didn't. Instead they sulked, resisted, declared it to be "not a proper subject". Sometimes they would mutter darkly about certain right-wing sociologists believed to inhabit the mid-Western universities of the United States. But as our teacher never told us anything about such people, they had little choice but to set off in search of a less subversive discipline.

What this tells us it that where learning impinges upon the things that matter most to us, it raises problems that simply don't surface in your ordinary run-of-the-mill class. Let's face it, how many students are going to get stroppy about the outcome of the Council of Trent or the peculiar properties of potassium permanganate?

Thirty years on I find myself rediscovering this simple truth from the other side of the fence. No, we are not talking sociology here: my spelling's too good for that. But, believe me, linguistics can be just as controversial. After all isn't our language and the way we use it central to our very concept of ourselves?

It is a Wednesday morning A-level English class and we are talking about linguistic diversity. As this is a humanities subject, talk is necessarily one of the things we do. But then there is talk and talk. Relevant talk and irrelevant talk. Informed and uninformed. And who decides what is relevant and informed? Me of course. At least I try.

The simple point I am attempting to put across is that languages - and the English language in particular - exist in a number of varieties. Linguistically no variety is "better" than any other, although in social terms one will inevitably be seen as more prestigious than the rest. Thus there is not one "right" form of the language with the others all being "wrong". Rather it is a case of difference and appropriateness. Linguistic relativism, if you like - though I wisely decide not to introduce the term for the moment.

"But," objects a lad (speech variety: Albert Square), "if I don't talk proper ." "There's no such thing as 'proper'," I say, "that's what I'm trying to tell you."

"If I don't talk proper my mother gives me a thick ear."

"All right. So next time why not explain to her that she is idealising the socially prestigious version of the language at the expense of the vernacular. And that studies show that women in particular tend to adapt their linguistic usage 'upwards' in order to enhance their sense of worth in the eyes of themselves and others."

"If I told her that she'd give you a thick ear."

I try another tack. What you might call the historical approach. "Where do you think language comes from?" Silence. The question has killed language at a stroke. "Well, surely you've noticed that language changes over time. We don't talk the way they do in Shakespeare's plays do we?"

Over in the far corner of the room a young woman stirs herself from her slumbers. "Shakespeare was from the Midlands wasn't he?"

"Yes, but."

"There you are then. He spoke Brummie."

"Uurgh!" says somebody else. "I hate the Brummie accent, don't you?"

"I don't quite see."

"Now that's not proper English is it? What they speak up in Birmingham?"

Oh dear. There has to be a better way. "Look, take it from me that language hasn't always existed in the forms it takes now. Just as we as humans have evolved from one form to another, so with language."

Now I've really done it. Despite my best efforts, there ensues a furious debate at the conclusion of which it is clear that half of the class are perfectly happy to believe as literal truth the story of Adam and Eve. They much prefer it to all that stuff about us dragging ourselves from the primeval soup only to end up a few million years later as monkeys. And then another 50,000 years after that as A-level students. They don't think that sounds very plausible at all.

"Hold it," I yell above the racket. "We are meant to be talking about language, not evolution."

"Adam and Eve-olution," calls out a wit.

All right. That's it. Bugger discussion. Clear your minds. Empty your brains. Pick up your pens. Teacher's talking!

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a London FE college

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