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Why don't the English...?

Teaching children to speak properly is important, says Teresa Early

No prizes if you can complete that saying ... teach their children how to speak?!" We all know this line of Shaw's - made famous by Lerner and Loewe's wonderful vocal version of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. But the real answer to this question? Still a mystery. All we know is, that by and large, speech is what we do not teach.

I live and work in south London and part of my job is in teaching performance skills to a bunch of talented young persons attached to Magic Eye Theatre School. Although equipped with many skills, accurate spoken English was not these young people's strongest suit. After a perceptive theatre critic picked up on this, I decided it was time to re-visit the whole area of "English, as she is spoke" - and found myself back in a minefield.

Ask any teacher in a city comprehensive. "Nuff problem getting them to talk to me at all," he might mutter, thinking of the reception he would get from yout' at an attempt to alter their diction. "And, anyway, who am I to tell them their accents are wrong?"

Fair comment one might say. But could some of the trouble be that school is set up to be a place where we do not speak at all? Where we still routinely fail to teach pupils any sort of spoken language, English or otherwise? Maybe part of the problem is that teachers just do not know how to do that, and the question should be re-phrased: "Why don't the English teach their teachers how to teach...?" H'm.

At Magic Eye, 90 per cent of our students have "sarf London" accents. A regional accent like any other, but it includes an inability to make certain sounds common in "standard" English . "Th" becomes "f", and "butter" and "bottle" become "bu'ah" and "bo'le". This can sound odd when speaking the words of Keats or Shakespeare.

Then there are the problems of "tune" and problems of diction. Think of that child whose mother tongue is an African language, raised in Peckham playgrounds with "sarf London" in his ears. When trying to speak a standard English text, with three "tunes" running at once, he can be incomprehensible. For historic reasons, too, the "London" dialect has been held to be that of an underclass. We do not feel that our beautiful, talented children should be perceived as inferior. If only for pragmatic reasons, as we expect our youngsters to be able to write clearly and spell correctly, so we decided to teach them to speak.

But how to do this? Where does the expertise lie? The biggest repositories I knew lay in the big drama academies - so I rang the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and, trembling, we entered all the current Theatre School members for their first speech and drama examination. This was a challenging exercise. We had a lot of trouble with "bu'ah" and "bo'le". And "wiv", "somefink" and "arksin' f'r a bag er crips." (You translate.) There was no costume, no character, no lights. Just a piece of prose and a piece of verse to speak from memory, and an examiner with pen poised ready to assess how they had done. And how we did was not bad, not bad at all.

Of 19 final entrants, we had seven honours or high honours, nine merits and three high passes. Maybe we can teach our children how to speak, after all.

Teresa Early is artistic director of the Magic Eye Theatre, Peckham, London

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