The language dilemma facing teachers


The constant evolution of the English language, dialects and slang present many challenges, both to students and teachers. John Till takes a look.

Teachers, even more than parents, are only too familiar with the sudden emergence of new words and phrases used by children and young people which quickly become an essential feature of communication within peer groups. 

The origins of these expressions are often obscure as are the reasons why some become universally adopted.

It is not only young people who suffer from this affliction, if such it is. There are words which seem to become fashionable and almost obligatory and then disappear. Some years ago it was almost impossible to read a report which was not referring constantly to the “parameters” of whatever it was that was under consideration. Later “iteration” started to feature similarly. It is rare now to come across either word.

Then there are words which have been in use for generations which start to be replaced by others. “Railway stations” go back nearly 200 years, but recently have become “train stations”. The intention behind the use of “customer” instead of “passenger” is clear, even if it seems somewhat forced. But are all travellers “commuters” or is that just lazy journalism? And “ongoing” has been going on for so long that “continuing” seems almost to have been forgotten.

In education it is quite common now to see advertisements for school “principals”, a designation previously confined to further and higher education. “Pupils” have become “students” in many schools. 

Sometimes the loss of relevance of established terminology leads to the deliberate creation of the new. Thus a report this summer on a predicted shortfall in primary school places referred to “school districts” rather than local authorities.

From time to time, though, words are everywhere for no apparent reason but have no obvious purpose and add nothing to what is being said. Take “so as” before “to”, or the current indispensable phrase, “going forward”. Who started this, and why do so many intelligent, professional communicators feel obliged to use these expressions?

All this can be said to be part of the evolution of the English language, and only a pedant would deny that evolution is inevitable. But some changes do raise questions for teachers because they are more fundamental. Take, for example, “sat” instead of “sitting” and “stood” instead of “standing”. This use is common everywhere, even on that former guardian of correct grammar and pronunciation, the BBC. Who decided it was acceptable instead of warranting correction in red ink? 

Is it a consequence of the alleged failure to teach grammar in the 1970s and 1980s? What view will the examination boards take? How will it affect the employment prospects of students? Can or ought teachers to insist on a traditional use when popular use, even by some teachers, is different?

Similar questions are raised by attempts to improve standards of English by forbidding colloquial expressions or dialect. This is a dilemma for teachers. They have to respect the student, the family and the community. 

But if they do not correct and improve the spoken and written English of their students, they will be denying them opportunities in employment and in life. 

Yet by doing so they can appear to be challenging parents and their education or lack of it. This may not be a problem if parents are keen for their children to “get on” and accept the implications. If parents take it as a personal affront, however, the result can be tension, even friction, between home and school. 

This is not a new dilemma, but it remains one for every generation, particularly for those working with the stubborn tail of underachieving and unmotivated students and those who do not value education.


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