The problem with stigmatising slang and dialect in schools

I have an article in the Guardian this week in response to yet another school cracking down on students’ use of slang, regional dialect, and informal language. It’s in the Opinion section and is titled There’s nowt wrong with dialects, nothing broke ass about slang.

(Pretend there’s a hyphen in broke-ass.) Here’s an excerpt:

Standard English is a prestige dialect of huge social value. It’s important that students learn it. But the common belief that nonstandard means substandard is not just false but damaging, because it fosters prejudice and hostility. Young people can be taught formal English, and understand its great cultural utility, without being led to believe there’s something inferior or shameful about other varieties. . . .

People feel strongly about correctness in language, but this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by knowledge and tolerance. And because children are sensitive to how they’re perceived, stigmatising their everyday speech can be harmful. By educating them about linguistic diversity instead of proscribing it, we can empower students and deter misguided pedantry.

I’ve been reading the Guardian for as long as I can remember, so I’m glad to finally write something for it. (That split infinitive is a bonus.) The comments section is proving lively, as you’d expect, and I’m joining in here and there. Your thoughts are welcome at either location.


John E. McIntyre follows up at the Baltimore Sun, where he elaborates on ‘why schoolteachers’ policing of language is so misguided’.

toy story woody buzz meme - slang dialect linguistic diversity


34 Responses to The problem with stigmatising slang and dialect in schools

  1. egbertstarr says:

    The idea of persons of authority attempting “evolve” language is ridiculous; it borders on ignorance and what I’ll skeptically and charitably call ‘benign bigotry.’ Basic linguistic principles hold two approaches to language: ‘grammars’ which are prescriptive or descriptive. The former attempts to uphold the rules and regulations (in this case Standard English) of a language—for example spelling, and modes of grammar meted out in the classroom; the latter simply observes what on its own language does, or, how it naturally evolves. Standard English is nothing more than a dialect. There are all sorts of English dialects. And the ability to go from one dialect to another is called without any judgment ‘code-switching.’ Of course it’s advantageous to know and to be able to produce on the spot Standard English (and its equivalent variants, depending on which side of the Atlantic, or in which hemisphere you reside); but real richness rests with others who can switch with ease back and forth between one English dialectic and another—and a peculiar dearth remains with those, if you can imagine such a human being, whose only mode of expression is the Queen’s English itself.

  2. solsdottir says:

    Congratulations on being published for the Guardian. I’m tempted to make a joke about non-standard English and the Grauniad, but I’ll just say it’s a good article.

  3. puigpantxin says:

    Ok, but don’t forget about context. I recently heard a former high representative of a non-English-speaking country speaking to an invited American TV audience in very good English. He suddenly spoke of ‘smackers’, and quickly added, ‘dollars’ when he sensed surprise from the audience. Maybe his audience was more accustomed to ‘smackeroos’, but I think he sensed – and credit to him, too – that his first choice of words was out of place.

  4. klyse3 says:

    Congratulations on the publication! And great article :) This is a significant problem in the American South, where slang and accent are considered “uneducated.”

    I was reminded of this idea recently–Paul Tough touches on it in “How Children Succeed,” implying that our attempts to teach “proper” etiquette and language to disadvantaged children is useless without also teaching them how to (and that it’s ok to) code-switch. And there lies the necessary message–not that the way someone naturally speaks is wrong, but that other ways of speaking can be more useful in certain situations.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thank you. :-) Slang seems to have a pretty poor reputation generally. You see it used as a label of contempt for almost any kind of usage the speaker dislikes. What you say about the ‘necessary message’ is spot on: it’s not about absolute rights and wrongs of language use but what’s appropriate for a given context.

    • Dan L-K says:

      Seconding this. I grew up (but wasn’t born) in rural Appalachia, and a whole lot of the English education in the schools I attended was an attempt to iron the wrongness out of the speech of kids from the hollers. Whereas I was a kid from a family of middle-class, highly-educated urban Pennsylvanians, and I cheered on all the “correction” – which only fed my contempt for the way my peers talked. It’s taken me a lifetime to start to unlearn that contempt and appreciate the richness and character of the dialect surrounding me. Those kids didn’t need to be taught “this, instead”; they needed to learn “this, too.”

  5. It is an indisputable fact that all dialects are equally valid and equally rule-governed. This is true of the standard dialect, of non-standard varieties, and all across the prestige spectrum. Students should definitely be taught that there is no “incorrect” native language variety, considering that acquiring a native language is a function of the human brain.

    However, while someone who fails to master the standard dialect cannot on that basis be deemed to be intellectually deficient, such a person certainly is educationally deficient. Fluency in the standard dialect, and awareness of when to use it, is a marker of education. And there is “nowt” (to echo your aping of that quaint Northern slang) wrong with acknowledging this.

    It makes absolutely no difference how one talks with one’s friends in private; let a thousand varieties bloom in that environment, as well as in the arts. But the only appropriate vehicle in more formal communication — and for all public discourse — is the standard dialect. To use a variety other than the standard in those settings is to commit an act of boorishness.

    The entirety of the non-school portion of a person’s life provides exposure to the multiplicity of language varieties that are used in that person’s society. School is the only place to learn the standard dialect; indeed, one of the chief functions of school is to give a student training in the norms of the standard dialect. Therefore, restricting in-school communication to Standard English is a good policy.

    • Stan Carey says:

      If you’ve read the article, and I assume you did, you’ll know that I made many of these points in it. But I disagree with some others you’ve made. Standard English is not ‘the only appropriate vehicle […] for all public discourse’. My last paragraph links to an essay in a different dialect (which I encourage you to read), and there’s nothing inappropriate about it. Many authors write books in non-standard varieties; their styles may not appeal to everyone, but it’s not ‘an act of boorishness’, for goodness’ sake.

      Schools can and should train students in standard English, but it doesn’t follow that they should suppress other forms of the language.

      • Please note that I specifically cited the arts as a setting where many language varieties ought to bloom. Novels and poems and songs and plays written in regional and non-standard dialects are great repositories of culture; it was certainly not these things which I was labelling boorish.

        What is boorish is when, for example, a football pundit who is speaking on a national network pronounces the sound of TH as F, who says “them players” for “those players”, and so forth. Someone who is paid to talk for a living should be required to use the standard dialect in his work — even if he, quite appropriately, uses his native dialect in his private life. […]

        Everyone who is interested enough to read your blog will agree on the inherent equality of all language varieties. Yet the very existence of a standard dialect is predicated on its being the one that is appropriate for settings that are not personal and private.

        And, contrary to your suggestion, suppressing the non-standard forms of the language in the school sphere does indeed go hand-in-hand with teaching the standard variety to students. This suppression helps train students to understand that there are times when only the standard will do; students will learn that the norm that was expected at school is the same one that will be expected at work or when seeking work, or in any setting apart from social gatherings with their most intimate friends and family.

        • Stan Carey says:

          About your mentioning the arts: fair enough. I had overlooked that. I don’t think the different domains of discourse are – or must be – as clearly delineated as you do. If I met someone I didn’t know, at a public function for example, I wouldn’t mind if their speech had dialectal features. Nor would I judge them for it; more likely I’d be charmed by the linguistic difference.

          Of course there comes a point where such use of dialect strays towards unintelligibility, which should be avoided. But from regional to standard dialect (and from intelligibility to unintelligibility) there is a continuum, and there are grey areas. It’s not a sudden break between laudable communication and ‘boorishness’. A football commentator might slip occasionally into regional dialect or lower register because it feels appropriate given the game’s largely working-class origins and audience. My point about intelligibility applies here too.

          We’ll have to agree to disagree on the merits of suppressing children’s normal speech instead of allowing it and educating them on context-appropriate communication.

          I deleted some paragraphs from your comment, which at 700+ words was several times longer than my post and virtually as long as my Guardian article. This isn’t the place for essay-length arguments about variant spelling and anti-intellectualism. I am slightly curious about your spelling of ideosyncratic; the OED says it’s a rare variant, but perhaps you were just having fun.

          • Sorry for the length of my response. I do go on so!

            And “ideosyncratic” was not an example of idiosyncractic spelling (or my idea of meta-referential humour). It was the product of inattention. I apologise also for that.

          • Stan Carey says:

            No apology needed for the misspelling, but I appreciate your clarifying it!

          • Vinetta Bell says:

            Stan Carey: The final paragraph of your article, with its embedded quote, and your extended discussion with Ferdinand Cesarano illustrate my position and experiences with this topic. For me, a former magnet high school English teacher in the south (USA), especially with both highly intellectually gifted students from high SES families who profited from the socio-economic advantages of their station in life and struggling students from low SES families who did not always understand or accept how or when to code-switch from various personal dialects to standard American English, this discussion is not “either-or” but “both-and.” Thanks, as always, for a lively, highly interesting, and productive post. P.S.: Happy Mother’s Day to your mother and to all other mothers out there.

          • Stan Carey says:

            Vinetta: Both-and, not either-or, is a useful and concise way of putting it. Thanks for following the discussion and for adding your insights based on real experience of the issue. And many happy returns – though Mother’s Day in Ireland (and in the UK) occurs earlier in the year.

  6. David L says:

    I think — or at least I hope — that this view is slowly gaining ground. I recall that back in the 1960s, everyone on the Beeb had to have a posh, RP sort of accent. I don’t remember when it happened, but at some point the BBC took the revolutionary step of having newsreaders with regional accents. It’s sad to think that even today some schools are peddling a silly notion of “proper” English.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Things are improving gradually. This article (from the Daily Mail, but the link avoids the site) has a note on the BBC’s policy change:

      In 2010 the BBC nailed its colours to the mast when Jana Bennett, director of BBC Vision, said the corporation needed to ‘increase the amount of network TV content which offers distinctive voices with an authentic sense of place.’

      J.D. O’Connor’s book Phonetics (1973) had the following to say:

      From the point of view of social justice it is very sad that one pronunciation should confer social advantage or prestige and that another should bear a stigma. It would be much more equitable if we could all pronounce in our native way with no feelings of guilt or smugness, of underdog or overdog. However, language does not itself shape society, rather the reverse, and in language, particularly in pronunciation and the attitudes it evokes, we may see a faithful reflection of the society in which we live. If it is true, as we surmised earlier, that younger speakers pay less attention to correctness and prestige in pronunciation this may well be a sign, and a welcome one, of change in our social attitudes.

  7. astraya says:

    A lot about my more-or-less-standard Australian English is considered non-standard somewhere else in the Anglosphere. I am always surprised when I read lists of ‘Australian slang not used anywhere else in the world’ and find words that I have always thought of as perfectly standard on it. (I’m not talking about out-and-out slang, but everyday colloquial speech.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      Can you give me an example? I’ve experienced this too with features of Hiberno-English, like amn’t, the after perfect, and put something on the long finger.

      • astraya says:

        So maybe ‘a lot’ is a bit of an exaggeration, but certainly non-rhotic pronunciation is non-standard in many (?the majority of) varieties of English (as well as being standard in others). Aussie hypocoristics are also non-standard in many varieties. I can’t even say ‘uni’ here.
        I know about amn’t and the after perfect, but I had to follow the link for ‘put something on the long finger’.

  8. M E Blockley says:

    Congratuations! I was so happy to see you found a place in your piece for Jim Sledd.

  9. linsee says:

    We spent a sabbatical year at ETH in Zurich, and conversations during the coffee hour (if not in English in deference to foreign visitors) were always in Swiss German. But everyone switched to Hoch Deutsch instantly at the first indication that the formal proceedings were beginning. We asked, and friends told us that the schools do it that way too; before class, or at meals, students and teachers spoke Swiss; the moment the bell rang, everybody switched. No stigma, but complete fluency in either form of German. Pretty much all-or-nothing, too; very little code-switching within a conversation.

  10. […] supports my recent article in the Guardian, where I argue that banning slang and regional dialects at school is misguided because children can […]

  11. […] It’s an interesting article, and I think you’ll enjoy it. (I’m also touched that Stan is bugged by the fact that the Guardian must have edited out his hyphen: “Pretend there’s a hyphen in broke-ass,” he says at his own blog.) […]

  12. […] mention self-awareness) were available to authority figures who systematically shame students for using their native dialects in everyday speech. We have a ways to […]

  13. […] is ‘correct’ and ‘proper’ and other varieties are therefore substandard or illegitimate is widespread, wrong, and destructive. Different forms of language are appropriate in their own domains. Standard English is socially […]

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