We must teach our students to use appropriate language


It's a controversial debate – to what extent do you stop the use of urban slang among your students? Karen Sullivan argues for a tough approach.

Like many people, I was heartened and amused to hear that the Harris Academy in Upper Norwood, London has banned urban “slang”, with words and phrases such as “you/we woz”, “bare”, “innit” and “like” no longer tolerated, and even beginning sentences with “basically” or ending them with “yeah” being deemed unacceptable. 

While language is something that continually evolves, with numerous examples of slang becoming part of an acceptable vocabulary, there is and will always be a place for this type of speech, and students actually do have to learn what (and when) that is.

The disintegration of social speech has been hastened by social media and texting, in which abbreviating words to their most basic phonetic elements obviously makes sense. However, casual social interaction (the type of urban slang that educators are trying to stamp out) really should have no place in a formal learning environment, in which correct speech, respectful choice of vocabulary, and an emphasis on clarity and appropriate communication should reign.

The most obvious reason for this is that both spoken and written English are effectively a reflection of a student’s linguistic ability – and their capacity to read a situation and to speak, write and behave in a manner that is appropriate to it. This is an essential skill in the workplace, so getting it right – teaching it, in fact – is paramount to the long-term success of this generation of students.

But there is more. Creating a formal learning environment – one in which students understand their role and the expectations held for them – is associated with improved student performance and productivity. 

In fact, schools with strong discipline policies (including a focus on things like uniform, punctuality and the way teachers are addressed), tend to produce students who are happier and more confident – largely because they know where they stand.

There has always been “street speak” – forms of language specific to social groups, including teenagers – and there is no doubt that this enforces a sense of community, belonging, and identity. Teenagers have always had a sort of private language, loosely based around slang and popular culture, and it has a firm role in development of both self and of language in general. In fact, the evolution of a vibrant language in any culture involves adopting and adapting elements of street talk into more formal speech.

However, peppering language with so many diminutives of words and using this “private” language in social and public situations does nothing towards maintaining important standards and aiding communication. Correct speech, including choice of vocabulary, syntax and grammar, is very much the mainstay of successful communication between communities, age groups and cultures.

An inability to communicate with all ages and sectors of society is bound to put the speaker at a serious disadvantage when it comes to long-term achievement. It’s not “old-fashioned” to know when to use socially acceptable language; it’s a life-skill that should be nurtured.

It’s clear that platforms like Twitter encourage the cannibalisation of some language skills. However, I think they can also encourage elements of the written word. We can actually use something like Twitter to help students use correct language and develop the art of getting across a point without a load of waffle. In fact, why not try this out – get your students answering questions in 140 characters or less, without any abbreviations, and you’ll find that they’ll focus much more on their choice of words. And then, perhaps, we’ll find that common ground of acceptable communication that is so necessary to self-presentation and understanding.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com



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