Crikey, let's get real

7th October 2011 at 01:00

If you teach English - and, one way or another, there's a lot of English taught in FE - then you teach the language. But what does "teaching the language" actually mean? First and foremost it has to be about developing students' capacity to understand and use standard English (SE). And for this we should make no apologies.

There was a time when some would have questioned such an approach. By forcing students to adopt the standard form of the language, the argument ran, you were undermining and devaluing what might be described as "their" language - the variety used in their homes and neighbourhoods.

It is not a line you hear much any more. Today, it's generally accepted that the acquisition of SE is a right for all, necessary for functioning in a world that expects all its citizens to be plugged into the mother lode. There is also recognition that language styles don't have to be eitheror. Just as people are brought up to be bi or trilingual, they can also handle the concept of a language existing in a wide range of varieties, each of which will have its use in the appropriate context. One doesn't have to steamroller the other. Nor is it difficult to point out to students that, linguistically, all varieties are equal, and that only social factors have promoted SE to its "super-variety" status.

But is the propagation of SE the sum total of what "teaching the language" is about? Some in the profession clearly think so. One of them wrote to this publication recently (16 September) complaining about my fellow columnist Anne Thrope's use of the words "fucking" and "shit" in a piece about exam boards. Identifying herself as a senior marker for an exam board, the correspondent went on to say: "Considering that Ms Thrope is an English teacher, I would have thought that she had sufficient vocabulary to avoid using such offensive terms."

To me this smacks of what might be termed the "maiden aunt" school of teaching English. Because sometimes, I would argue, the vehemence of a well-placed swear word is exactly what the situation requires. As English teachers, we don't spend all our time ensuring students write "shouldn't have" rather than "shouldn't of". We also teach creative writing, where the rules are there to be broken and the expletives so often found on the lips of English speakers of all backgrounds and classes might well have a place.

Many of us teach literature, too. Here we are as likely to be teaching The Color Purple as Romeo and Juliet - which itself is stuffed full of lewd puns and sexual innuendoes. James Joyce is considered one of the great innovators of 20th-century prose writing, but no one seems to have suggested that his vocabulary was limited because of the overt and libidinous monologue of Molly Bloom.

And even the F-word can be used in a creative and inventive manner. When the army corporal's truck broke down on manoeuvres for the fourth time, he could have said: "Crikey, this vehicle looks like it's finished." Instead he gave us the wonderfully expressive and robust: "Fuck! This fucking fucker's fucking fucked!"

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a college in London.

FE Lecturing Forum


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