Would you ban slang?

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Kate Oliver, EMC’s  KS3&4 consultant, discusses whether schools should ban slang in the classroom.

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David Lammy, MP

school in London has recently banned slang from the classroom. Signs have been put up listing banned words, such as ‘coz’ and ‘bare’. The aims are worthy. London MP David Lammy said: ‘I think this is a very good idea. Speaking slang is fine in a social setting but a school should be a professional, educational environment and if part of that means banning slang then that’s fine by me.’

Many who commented online on the report of the ban were supportive,  and commented on the lamentable use of language by ‘millenials’ (that’s middle-aged people’s slang for those born since the year 2000, by the way). Nick Harding, in The Daily Mail, reported this scene at his home:

With her ear glued to her mobile phone, my 11-year-old daughter, Millie, was deep in conversation…

I listened in, as I made jam in the kitchen. ‘Lol, that’s well sick!’ Millie said. ‘DW, yolo!’

This indecipherable code-speak (‘sick’ means awesome, ‘DW’ is don’t worry and ‘yolo’ means you only live once) was delivered in an accent I could only place as somewhere between South London, downtown Los Angeles and Kingston, Jamaica.

It certainly isn’t indigenous to our home village of Ashtead, in the rolling Surrey hills.

When Millie ended the call, she turned to me, smiled and asked: ‘What’s for supper please, Dad?’ in perfect Received Pronunciation.

Although Harding uses this scene to illustrate what he considers to be a worrying trend, he neatly undermines his own argument. With her friend, Millie speaks the shared language of her peers. The fact that this is ‘indecipherable code-speak’ and an irritation to parents is precisely the point: slang bonds members of the group who understand it and excludes outsiders. However, Millie switches effortlessly as soon as she turns to her father, demonstrating her intuitive understanding of the appropriate register for different contexts.

Most pupils are similarly well aware of the occasions when it is appropriate to use slang, and when it is not. However, some of them don’t often find themselves in the kinds of situations where they would be expected to speak Standard English and switching to a formal register might not come so easily to them as it does to Millie. Obviously there is also an extra layer of difficulty for those learning English as an additional language.

So is a ban on slang in the classroom a good thing?

Personally, I think it’s a mistake. A ban denies the opportunity for important conversation and debate. After all, is the aim to launch a moral crusade against certain ways of speaking? Or to ensure pupils have a rich vocabulary, a wide repertoire of registers and a well-developed awareness of what is suitable in different contexts?

Attacks on slang often have, at their heart, prejudice about class and race. (See the contrast Harding makes between ‘South London, downtown Los Angeles and Kingston, Jamaica’ and ‘our home village of Ashtead, in the rolling Surrey hills’).  Paul Kerswill, professor of sociolinguistics at Lancaster University makes the point that ‘Education is essential so people understand how different social groups speak, and how their language relates to ethnicity or social class. You can very quickly slip into the brian-sewell-profileperception that there is good language and bad language, and then make the false link between bad language and bad people.’  And of course prejudice exists on both sides of the tracks. ‘Posher-than-the-Queen’ Brian Sewell famously rails against the disadvantages of his upper class accent, and describes being bullied by both pupils and teachers at school for the way he spoke.  Teachers need a sensitivity to the relationship between speech, identity, self-worth and self-confidence.

The relationship between testing ideas in speech and getting deeper, more thoughtful responses comes up again and again in research, for example on boys and writing, on EAL learners, and on gifted and talented pupils. Given how vitally important talk is to thinking and learning more generally, and not just in English, one has to think hard about constraining free, open, engaged talk. Lively, spontaneous, genuine debate, thinking aloud and rehearsal of new ideas will not happen in classrooms where the focus is always on formality and correctness. If you knew you were going to be challenged if you did not use correct, Standard English and full sentences, how frequent and spontaneous would your contributions to a department meeting be?

One view is that an insistence on the importance of explicit teaching of grammar and spoken Standard English is, far from being elitist, designed to give working class and ethnic minority pupils a better chance of competing in the market for jobs and further education, and many would agree.

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Unusually, in this case, we can have it both ways. Teachers can take responsibility for equipping pupils to cope in situations in which fluency in Standard English is an advantage without banning anything or attacking any particular type of talk. The key here is to be explicit, to open up the debate and involve pupils in it. Teach context; teach standard forms where necessary. In EMC’s Spotlight on Literacy publication we suggest a number of ways to do this, for example by taking an investigative approach to language rules, by using role play, or by having a class debate about whether or not pupils should be taught Standard English. When they take part in the debate, pupils are usually adamant that they have a right to be taught Standard English. Having engaged with the issues, they can see the point of it all. Ban slang, on the other hand, and they are more likely to roll their eyes at how out of touch teachers are.

In writing, pupils get plenty of practice in using a formal style, and this is just as important in speaking and listening. Practice in front of a real audience is particularly helpful here as it provides a genuine context. In our intergenerational project, ‘From Age to Age’, pupils were involved in discussions with older people from their community. This real audience naturally prompted the young people to avoid slang and, in some cases, to become more aware of what older people might consider to be slang. Of course the older people’s language also contained slang, albeit from a different era, and this prompted some fascinating conversations about language change.

Of course it is not only teenagers who use slang. If you’ve never set an A Level ‘FOFO’ lesson, a colleague may be able to explain to you what that means. Did you know that in the car industry ‘wind and skin’ means air conditioning and leather upholstery? Doctors, with characteristically macabre humour, refer to blood as ‘house red’. Meanwhile, in the business world, blamestorming refers to the process of sitting around in a group discussing why something failed and who was responsible. Slang is often the language of ordinary people at its most creative and playful, something the English student can learn from and delight in. But not if it’s banned.

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