Slanging match

19th September 2014 at 01:00

Society has two aspirations for its children that exist in tension. On the one hand, we expect core literacy to be encouraged and applaud projects working towards this. On the other, we fear that cultural imperialism will inadvertently be strengthened by imposing a linguistic hegemony.

In the 1993 film Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone, thawed out from suspended animation, wakes in a politically correct future where swearing is fined by automated sensors. Similarly, last year Harris Academy Upper Norwood in South London posted a list of slang words and phrases banned in parts of the school called "formal language zones". They included "bare", "innit" and "extra". Predictably, some saw the move as evidence of neocolonialism, and the imposition of a bourgeois orthodoxy.

Except that I agree - at least with the principle, if not the execution. I remember one clever, funny student who wanted to be a journalist. But he simply couldn't express himself. In conversation, he was fine. In writing, his prose was leaden. Then his mother showed me his Facebook page: endless bon mots written in the patois common to almost every student at my school - the stew of slang and abbreviation that spans Bow Bells, Bangladesh and Kingston. Esperanto it isn't.

In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the fascist authorities use Newspeak to diminish the conceptual apparatus of the proletariat by slowly removing words that express any level of complexity. This is also the problem with slang: it's built for purpose, not for depth. I want all children to be able to do and say much more.

Is this imperialism? No. I don't want children to believe that the way they speak at home is inferior. I want them to understand that it's context-specific. I don't want them writing and speaking formal English all the time instead of their family register; I want them to be capable of both. I worked for years running nightclubs, bars and restaurants and interviewed hundreds of candidates for jobs. Too many wrote exactly as they would speak to their friends, without a clue about appropriateness.

That didn't hurt too much in the casual end of the service industry, but it matters more and more the higher up the income scale you go. If you're happy with children being able to access only the lower end of the job market, then fine. But I came into teaching to bring the world into my classroom and give it to my students. I've taught children in south-east London who had never been to Trafalgar Square. Social mobility matters, and rolling your eyes at an establishment that insists on standard English, grammar and diction because it doesn't represent the patchwork quilt of society is a great way of making sure that people on the margins of influence stay right there.

I was raised in Glasgow. It wasn't until I came to England that I even realised I possessed an accent and a dialect. I didn't need to be taught this way of speaking. I did, however, need to be taught formal English. There will always be a lingua franca of those in command. Wishing there wasn't is pointless.

Tom Bennett is a teacher in East London and director of the ResearchED conference

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