Ban students’ dialects at your peril, academic warns

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Pupils should be allowed to speak in their regional dialects, as banning them from schools might do more harm than good, an English language expert has claimed.

Josiane Boutonnet, senior lecturer in English Language at the University of Wolverhampton, said attempts by heads and teachers to enforce the speaking of “standard” English could backfire and deny children the right to a voice in school.

Her comments came after a school in the West Midlands made headlines for its attempt to ban the use of the Black Country dialect. It is reportedly part of a strategy to boost literacy rates. 

Parents of pupils at Colley Lane School in Halesowen rebelled after the school sent out a list of words and phrases that were banned.

John White, the headteacher, argued that children’s future prospects would increase if their spoken English improved and they avoided the use of certain grammatical constructions and pronunciations. Earlier this year, a school in Middlesbrough also asked parents to correct their children’s local accents and grammar.

But Ms Boutonnet told SecEd: “This is a retrograde step which will not lead to the outcomes the headteachers are looking for. These approaches to local dialects are very ill-advised.

“This is how these families communicate at home. Suggesting this is wrong is effectively denying these children a voice. 

“Most people realise the difference between the local dialect and Standard English and as children grow older this understanding becomes more pronounced. Probably the only family in this country which is mono-dialectal is the Royal family.”

In a blog on the subject, Ms Boutonnet added: “There is no denying that linguistic discrimination is still rife, and that speakers of English are judged by the way they speak, from the moment they open their mouth. 

“There is no denying either that speakers who learn to use Standard English are likely to be perceived as more competent language users, regardless of other abilities.

“It is therefore not surprising that those responsible for students’ educational achievement and future employability would focus on one of the key skills identified in the school curriculum, that of promoting language awareness and skills both in speech and writing.”

She continued: “It follows therefore that teachers see it as their role to ensure children become competent users of Standard English in speech and writing. The question remains of how best to do this.

“To publicly decry the language children use at home is to further distance the school staff from the community with whom they ought to liaise. 

“Classrooms are often rich in linguistic diversity and the language and dialect children bring with them ought to be considered a resource rather than a hindrance to learning.”

Mr White said literacy was the school’s biggest challenge, with many children arriving at school with “little, or no, proper English” and that the ban on certain words and phrases only applied in the classroom.


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