Like-minded? Not me;Opinion

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Modern life is plagued by a four-letter word that should be expunged from the classroom, says Hugh Dougherty.

THERE is one great contribution that the Scottish education system could make to the communication skills of the up-and-coming generation. Pupils would be taught that the word "like" is banned from everyday use, except when it is used correctly and traditionally.

To some extent communication skills, much lauded by employers and the Scottish Qualifications Authority, are debatable. You may be shocked that a simple public relations man who daily shocks education chiefs and school supremos with press releases in which every second sentence begins with "And" or "But" should be bothered.

But (there I go again) the fact is that nearly every pupil with whom I make contact as part of the job seems incapable of putting together as much as a sentence without using the four-letter word that irks.

Take "I was like, no way!", where "like" replaces the non-Americanised "I said". Or in the traditional language of Glasgow playgrounds: "And Ah goes like . . ." where the verb "go" describes comprehensive communication activity including, in the case of most secondary pupils, much gangling, talking and winding chewing gum round one finger, and all at once.

"Like" has become common parlance from primary 1 to sixth year, and it is now, so teaching colleagues tell me, creeping into written work. Teachers, however, are themselves at fault for not doing something practical to stem the spread of the misused word, once the property of American teenagers. Translated into general speech by television and video, it renders nearly every Scottish child semi-articulate.

You encounter it from pupils on work experience. It is omnipresent if you go to a school to do a session on being a press officer. Most worrying of all, when I gave a talk last year to postgraduate students of journalism, one question went like this: "If you're like up against it, with like the education department, in like getting some facts you like need to go back, like to a news desk, how do you like deal, like, with that, like? Are you just like, 'I can't deal with this like', and like don't get back to the like journalist?" This from a young man with an honours degree in English from a long established Scottish university.

Schools remain the scene of the worst offences. There is a creeping extension of "like" language even to nursery school, where, perhaps under the influence of young nursery nurses, the word has become part of the teaching language with tots.

That is why teachers should pull up children of all ages when they commit the solecism. It is sloppy, encourages a poverty of precise thought and, allied to a Scottish accent, sounds highly inappropriate.

The other week we were asked to nominate a group of secondary pupils who would fake a classroom discussion for national network television. They were great until one girl used the "like" word and followed it with the classic teenage tactic of a long pause, giving the impression that she had run out of anything to say.

Therein lies the real problem: in an era when spoken communication is a marketable skill, pupils seem hell-bent on practising a mode of speech, built round "like", which results in a halting delivery that impresses no one.

Maybe as a sign of advancing years, the Doughertys have waged a domestic campaign since our eight-year-old daughter returned to school after the summer and came back on day one using the "like" word 10 times a second in emulation of the playground norm.

So "like" is off the agenda and Mary has to come up with words that explain what she means. For her it is more challenging and demanding but vital for fluency. Over our dead bodies will she degenerate into a pseudo-American on the south side of Glasgow.

For teachers and parents it is an uphill battle. Only last week I realised the fight has to be at close quarters. I was in a school when I heard this: "And he was like, 'Ah'm no taking a punny'."

Looking round I did not see what I expected, a couple of second-year girls. The conversation was between two of the English staff, infected by what is a virulent virus, like.

Hugh Dougherty is public relations manager for East Renfrewshire Council.

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