The problem with stigmatising slang and dialect in schools

May 4, 2016

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.

Update:

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


British Council seminar on language learning

June 4, 2014

Yesterday evening I watched a seminar from the British Council on language learning, which took place in Cardiff and was broadcast live on YouTube (video below). There were two talks, each followed by brief Q&As, and both are well worth watching if the topics interest you.

First, Miguel Angel Muñoz explored whether learning a foreign language makes you smarter – and if so, how. He reports on research into the cognitive benefits of bi- and multilingualism, and clears up some of the uncertainty in this area. Miguel wrote a post for the British Council blog which will give you an idea of the content of his talk.

Next, Michael Rundell of Macmillan Dictionary spoke about the difference between real rules and mere usage peeves, and how we should therefore teach grammar. For a flavour, see his excellent related post where, referring to Nevile Gwynne’s championing of pre-modern grammar books, he writes:

It is hard to imagine any other field of study in which a source is recommended precisely because it is out of date.

Here’s a slide from Michael’s presentation. The reference to “Heffer 2014” will be familiar to anyone who has read my recent posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

michael rundell - british council seminars - language learning - using data vs claims

The video is 2½ hours long. If you want to skip around, introductions begin at 3:20, Miguel starts at 7:45, and there’s an interval from 1:02:45 to 1:13:18. Michael’s talk starts (after a technical hitch) at 1:16:15 and ends at 2:20:00, at which point there’s a few minutes of closing remarks.*

It’s almost like being there, except you have to make your own tea.

*

Other British Council seminars and videos are available here.

* Or there are, if you’re twitchy about it.


Slang bans and aphaeresis

November 22, 2013

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, ’Scuse me, squire – ’tis just aphaeresis gives a brief account of the linguistic phenomenon known as aphaeresis or apheresis, which involves:

the dropping of an initial sound or sounds of a word. Despite its uncommon name, the process is familiar. It’s what lies behind the shortening of especially to ’specially, because to ’cause (also spelt cos), espy to spy, esquire to squire, and alone to lone. As you can see, what’s lost is often an unstressed initial vowel – this is a particular type of aphaeresis known also as aphesis.

Though it’s essentially a phonetic shortcut, what happens in speech tends to manifest in writing. Poets are fond of aphaeresis because it lets them manipulate prosody better. This is why in many poems you’ll see upon appear as aphaeretic ’pon, amid as ’mid and it was as ’twas.

Aphaeresis also explains the silent ‘k’ in knife and knee, and why drawing rooms aren’t for drawing in, and it lies behind pairs of now-semantically-distinct words such as amend and mend, and etiquette and ticket. Read the rest for more.

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Is banning slang counterproductive? follows up on a recent news story in the UK where secondary school students were given a list of words and phrases to avoid. I am of course sceptical (and skeptical) about this measure:

That those responsible have implemented the ban only in certain ‘formal language zones’ – not the canteen, for instance – suggests they know how futile a whole-school ban would be. It also suggests they trust that their students know how to switch from formal to informal registers – so why introduce the ban at all? Couldn’t awareness be raised through classroom discussion?

Complaining about young people’s slang is a popular pastime among older generations. Even celebrities get stuck in. Actor Emma Thompson lambasted what she deemed improper language: ‘It makes you sound stupid, and you’re not stupid.’ Compare her criticism with linguist William Dwight Whitney’s remark that slang combines ‘exuberance of mental activity’ with the ‘natural delight of language-making’.

The post also considers what the students themselves think of the ban, and shows how it might backfire on them socially.

Comments on either post are welcome here or at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, and my archive is here if you want to browse older articles.


Link love: language (54)

June 5, 2013

Another month means another selection of language and book links, the latest batch including tiny libraries and great secrets, badgers and Moo Fields, jive and wiki. Something for everyone, I hope.

Slim Gaillard’s jive dictionary.

Preserving the Texas German dialect.

Favourite sentences.

The world’s tiniest library.

(Not counting Marc Giai-Miniet’s.)

On slipping a phrase into the language.

Throwing cold water on “ultraconserved words”.

Phonetic analysis of Marge Simpson’s disapproval-sound.

Watching badgers, not inhaling: 10 scandalous euphemisms.

Explaining the Latin jokes in Asterix (h/t LanguageHat).

Indian languages as a primer on historical linguistics.

The Pig Latins of 11 other languages.

Wiki: a word’s journey.

Vegetarian-fed.”

What can we learn from children’s writing?

The role of editors in codifying Standard English.

“Because I say so!” The trouble with Gwynne’s grammar.

Cunning Geo, Moo Field: amazing place names of Orkney and Shetland.

How learning a foreign language reignites the imagination.

N.K.Y.S.A. (Nobody knows your stupid acronym.)

On descriptivism and grammaticality.

Why do we say Yeah, no?

All the headlines from The Simpsons.

“Herein lies the great secret: Thought is made in the mouth.” (A Dada manifesto by Tristan Tzara.)

[language link archives]

New language blog: Caxton

May 10, 2013

Caxton is a new blog about language from Barrie England, an Oxford graduate who has studied English literature, foreign languages, and older varieties of English. It is named after printing pioneer William Caxton, who, as Barrie writes, “by using technology to reach a wider public . . . can be seen as the progenitor of the digital age”.

Barrie wrote Real Grammar before its host pulled the plug; I’ve linked to it here in the past, most recently to his post on the rise of Swiss German dialect. Some of you may also know him from his insightful comments at Sentence first.

Since setting up Caxton and importing his old posts, Barrie has been blogging regularly, offering astute and balanced observations on such subjects as the value of linguistics, the early shapers of English, education, reflexive pronouns, dialects, grammar, and Jacques Brel. Rummage around and you’ll find all sorts of good material.

If you’re interested in the usage, history, politics, and beauty of English – or language generally – I recommend visiting and bookmarking Caxton. I’ve also added it to the links in the sidebar of this blog.

Updates: More thoughts on Caxton: Language Hat wishes it a “long and prosperous career”, while You Don’t Say celebrates “a new voice of sense and informed judgment”.


There’s nowt wrong with children’s dialects

February 14, 2013

A minor linguistic storm arose in the UK last week after a Teesside school principal asked parents to ‘correct’ their children’s informal speech – phrases such as it’s nowt (it’s nothing), I seen (I saw, I have seen), and gizit ere (give us it here = give it to me). Dan Clayton alerted me to this story, and provides additional insights and links on the unfolding debate.

As Dan points out, the extent and passion of the responses – in online comments, follow-up articles and discussion elsewhere – ‘[show] what a live issue’ it is. People have very strong feelings about correctness in language, but unfortunately this strength of feeling isn’t always matched by tolerance and understanding.

Read the rest of this entry »


Who cares about English?

January 8, 2013

I’ve been meaning to share this for months, and a tweet today by @OxfordWords has prodded me into action. Late last year the British Council and the OED sponsored an expert panel discussion on the state of the English language, titled ‘Who cares about English?

The talk is chaired by John Knagg, head of English research at the British Council. He takes questions from the audience and puts them to panel members John Simpson, chief editor of the OED; Prudence Raper, former honorary secretary of the Queen’s English Society; novelist Romesh Gunesekera; and author and critic Henry Hitchings.

Among the topics covered are language regulation and correctness, change and innovation, history, social media, favourite words, and regional and global varieties of English. The speakers offer insight, learning, and humour, and there is some inevitable (and extreme) peeving from the floor.

You can watch part 1 below, or go here for the full video, which lasts a little over an hour. Enjoy!

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