Talking about an English revolution bout an English revolution

5th December 2003 at 00:00
British accents are cool in Canada. Even though I'm from Lancashire, my students tell me I sound like the Queen or Austin Powers, and am therefore much more "innerestin" than their other, Canadian teachers - who apparently don't have accents at all. But who wants to sound like an English bloke?

Accent isn't a problem, of course - but British inarticulacy stinks. Since moving to North America, I've had to adapt to a different, more confident way of speaking. Here, striking up conversations with strangers doesn't make you a weirdo and my colleagues speak effortlessly in full sentences.

When I arrived in Ontario, I was diffident and mumbly by Canadian standards. Now, if I concentrate, I can talk the talk.

Sue Horner, head of the English team at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, agrees that there's a problem with our national tongue. Perhaps she watched a recent episode of The Late Show in which David Letterman chatted to a high-flying couple from London in his New York studio.

Asked what they thought of the Big Apple, they said, "Yeah. Great. Yeah," then giggled and looked away. I didn't see the next person who spoke because my pillow was clamped over my head. So much for British professionals.

There is hope, however. Ms Horner recently developed guidelines for the Government's new multi-million pound strategy to improve children's speaking skills. Five-year-olds will be encouraged to debate, give full responses to teachers' questions, and adapt their tone for different situations.

But why is there a problem in the first place? Curriculum plays an obvious part. Most people my age stopped having to speak when they started A-levels, being assessed purely on written exams. More recently, the National Literacy Strategy took talk time out of the primary classroom, while GCSE coursework still focuses on research and writing. As British teachers report increasing levels of behavioural problems, it is easy to understand why difficult-to-manage oral work gets ignored.

Meanwhile, presentation and debating skills are an integral part of Ontario's curriculum. Eighteen-year-olds preparing to attend university still earn 25 per cent of their English mark by oral presentatations, and have more time for discussion. They are taught to be confident and to perform and, whether they end up as supermarket cashiers or lawyers, it shows.

This reflects broader cultural trends. Alan Wells of the Basic Skills Agency says British parents don't spend enough time with their children, and David Bell, chief inspector of schools, thinks students spend too much time watching TV.

But this is not a recent development, it is a tradition that runs deep. If parents don't talk to their children, it implies they don't value talk. And if TV is so harmful, why are North Americans, its biggest producers and consumers, still such effective communicators?

In England, we are conditioned to be suspicious of articulate people. Look at Hugh Grant, who is considered to be charming when he mumbles and stutters his way through films, but chooses coherence and slickness when - as in Bridget Jones's Diary - he plays a villain.

And Tony Blair, whose rhetorical delivery makes him a great statesman in North America, but cheesy and smarmy back home. Then there are our hang-ups about accent. "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making another Englishman hate or despise him," wrote George Bernard Shaw.

Best, then, to keep it shut - or move to North America, where they can't tell a Scot from a Scouser.

Finally, there's the famous British reserve and stiff upper lip that makes us avoid eye contact in public, and say "not too bad" when asked how we are.

I'm hopeful the Government's new plan will be effective, because tongue-tied diffidence is not good enough when we have to communicate with the rest of the English-speaking world. Perhaps in a few years, I'll watch The Late Show without cringing, and maybe we'll natter on the tube.

In the meantime, start saying "Hi!" to supermarket cashiers. And don't forget to have a nice day!

Nicholas Woolley teaches in Toronto, Canada

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