More relish with your Big Mac?

24th November 2006 at 00:00
Walter Humes is research professor in education at Paisley University

At the risk of being misunderstood, I want to make a plea for more attention to be given to spoken language at all levels of the educational system.

Maybe I have been unlucky recently, but I've been appalled by a number of exchanges I've heard. What struck me was an apparent inability to string a coherent phrase, sentence or thought together, using varied and appropriate vocabulary.

I'm not recommending a return to the teaching of some form of "standard English" that would be inappropriate in a Scottish context. I enjoy and value the richness and diversity of the languages of Scotland. When spoken as they should be - with all the subtleties associated with accent, dialect, idiom, pacing, narrative and tone - they are a source of delight and inspiration.

What concerns me is the poverty of much of the language that is heard at home, in the workplace, on the streets, on radio and television - and, sometimes, in school. There are strong cultural influences deriving from TV soaps, commercial radio, the cult status of certain celebrities and the power of the advertising industry.

What is happening might be described as the McDonaldisation of language - the reduction of everything to a limited menu of homogenised choices. The features of this menu are common ingredients (no "posh" words allowed); tight portion control (keep utterances short); gimmicky promotions (what's cool this week will be passe next); and a disappointing aftertaste (nothing interesting has been said).

Let me stress that I'm not seeking to impose some norm of "proper" speech.

All I'm asking is that people be encouraged to speak audibly, at a pace that is comfortable for the listener, using words and phrases that make sense, with due regard to context.

At a supermarket checkout recently, I had a pleasant exchange with a young woman who was helpful and efficient but whose speech, with a little effort, could have been greatly improved. This was not someone who required specialist therapy - simply advice about projection and articulation.

I appreciate that there are sensitivities in raising such issues, particularly with adults. To criticise someone's language can be interpreted as an assault on their personal identity. That is why it is important to begin the process early, so that good linguistic habits are established as an expectation of the educational system. This has implications for teacher training. It used to be that formal speech assessment of prospective teachers was undertaken routinely.

Why does this matter? Carelessness of speech shows a lack of respect for the listener. There are many circumstances where precision of meaning is important and lack of clarity can produce misunderstanding. The human voice is a wonderful instrument whose resources we should nourish and celebrate.

Finally, the joy of words, in spoken as well as written form, is something that all youngsters should be encouraged to appreciate.

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