Talking roughage

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Surely an authentic ingredient of language is a little 'natural fibre' says Karina Law, who remains unconvinced by the rationale for the Better English Campaign.

Children should be taught to use language correctly, say promoters of the Better English Campaign, which was launched by Education Secretary Gillian Shephard last October and is chaired by the broadcaster Trevor McDonald. But what is meant by "correctly?" Language is empowering, they say. But language comes in many different forms. Is any one of them more "empowering" than another?

One would be well advised to follow the conventions of "correctness" when pursuing a job interview or grovelling to the bank manager for an extension on an overdraft. But "correctness" might not be so effective if evoking emotive responses or entertaining is the aim you have in mind. Neither is it the best medium for reflecting "real" life. In language terms it is a synthetic substitute for human expression. Some of us prefer a bit of "natural fibre" in our language diet.

Language should be about communication, which is the key to social integration. Lack of communication is blamed for many of society's ills, from the breakdown of marriage and family life to the failure of government. With communication we can access all that society offers. If we develop the skill in children we will indeed be empowering them to enter the adult world as confident, well-adjusted individuals.

We admire the artist who can accurately reproduce an image on paper but that image might as easily be produced through the lens of a camera. It is those artists who break the rules that we truly revere; those that step outside traditional conventions. Why then do we restrain children in their use of language? Why are we not encouraging them to break the rules, if by doing so they are able to achieve the desired response more effectively?

Language is contentious. It is difficult to rationalise why that should be so. It is possible to arouse shock by writing an expletive. There are many readers who would be more outraged if I were to write a certain four-letter word than if I were to write a racist statement. We should be saving our shock responses for anti-social attitudes.

Others will have found it irritating that I have chosen to begin several sentences with a conjunction - "but". There was a time when I would have found it difficult to do so. But I now allow myself that freedom. And I enjoy it. I feel my writing has improved as a result.

Most of the "best" writers frequently break the rules of grammar. They also write unspeakable words. But this is acceptable to the literary world and the public alike. They enjoy reading books about real people in real terms - hence the success of Roddy Doyle's Booker prize-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, which was the best-selling winner in the history of the prize and has been printed in 19 languages.

I do not wish to take a sledgehammer to the Queen's English, I merely want to strip its users of their inhibitions. I recognise the need for adherence to certain language conventions, both written and spoken, at certain times. I just feel we are inflicting them on children at too young an age. Give them room to develop their innate creativity first. Give them the freedom to indulge in playing with language. Give them opportunities to express themselves incorrectly before insisting that they adhere to our rules of correctness.

Spelling is another hot potato. Teachers are bombarded with criticism from politicians and parents about children leaving school "unable to spell". There is an interesting contradiction here in terms of correctness. Who is to say "people" is correct and "peepal" is not? A child using the latter spelling is adhering to the "correct" conventions of our ludicrous language but is still told he or she is incorrect.

English language defies logic. Children learn this truth at an early age. "I patted the dog" is correct, yet "I hitted the dog" is not. The English language is not a fair game to play because the rules are changed as you go along. The English language is a deeply flawed system and we ought not to be so self-righteous in holding its users to its conventions.

We must also accept that language grows and develops alongside its users. The language of the 16th century is no more "correct" than that of the 20th century, just different. Better to allow future generations to experiment with and make their mark on language. We must embrace dialects, accents and cultural nuances. We must not be possessive and elitist about language. Above all, we must not place too much emphasis on the surface skills - like hand-writing and spelling - at the expense of communication and self-expression.

I wonder if I've used a wide enough range of sentence structures and vocabulary to achieve a level 6?

Karina Law is English manager at St Dunstan's primary school, Woking

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