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Vague speech is, like, well cool

Acadamic analysis of the way teenagers talk shows the sophistication and complexity of terms such as 'sort of' and 'whatever', reports Warwick Mansell

PUPILS and teachers at 30 schools in England have been given what many weary parents must see as a mission impossible: making sense of teenage speech patterns.

A Qualifications and Curriculum Authority pilot project is encouraging youngsters to analyse the way they speak, believing it will give them a better grasp of language.

The academic co-ordinating the work believes pupils should not be discouraged from using vague terms such as "like" or "whatever", which he says can be quite sophisticated uses of language.

Professor Ron Carter of Nottingham University, a leading linguistics expert, said teenagers and others often deliberately used vague language ("or something", "sort of", "like") because they did not want to alienate people by sounding too authoritative.

He said: "I call this successfully vague language. Words such as "like" and "thing" are inclusive, because they are not threatening for the listener.

They also give the speaker thinking time.

"People who do not use vague language are very strange people. For example, if you're asked what time a film starts, you might well say "it's around 7pm, I think", even if you know what time it starts. People respond to it because it sounds less authoritative."

Pupils understood vagueness would not be appropriate in formal contexts, such as a job interview, Professor Carter told the national conference of the UK Reading Association in Croydon, south London. He has spent most of the past decade compiling a new grammar of the English language, which incorporates everyday spech. He concludes that informal verbal communication has conventions which are just as valid as the rules of formal writing.

The QCA project is part of a drive, revealed in The TES last year, to improve the teaching of speaking and listening.

It comes as the Government's Basic Skills Agency released a survey that found teachers believe many pupils now enter school unable to recite or sing the simplest nursery rhymes or songs.

However, some experts believe speech is improving. A recent Durham University study shows that the vocabulary of children at 722 schools had improved in the past five years.

The new project will involve teachers carrying out experimental lessons where pupils conduct a short discussion, then analyse it to judge how they used grammar and how effectively they used the language.

The QCA will publish a report on the project next year. It believes that encouraging pupils to analyse how communication works is better than simply telling them how to speak. Sue Horner, QCA head of English, said: "Getting pupils to explain their use of language can give them power over it. You are more likely to communicate effectively if you understand what you are doing," she said.

The QCA will issue guidance on improving the teaching of speaking and listening in the summer.

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