The plus side to turning 40

Over the past few weeks I’ve been getting my Year 11s to analyse their idiolect for a Spoken Language controlled assessment as part of the specification for GCSE English Language . The task was to “Reflect on the way you speak including criticism made of it by adults”.

The Daily Mail (always an excellent source of vitriol and biased reportage) says in a typically pious piece headlined Innits and aints drive me insane! that “plummy” actress Emma Thompson is heartily sick of teenagers’ sloppy use of English. In it she urges young people: “Just don’t do it. Because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid”. Maybe. Emma is taken to task by Max Davidson and Belinda Webb, who both remind us that slang can be, at its heart, rich and inventive.

The Mail article refers to a piece of uncited research which claims that “some teenagers are becoming unemployable because they limit themselves to a working vocabulary of only 800 words.” With a bit of investigation I tracked down this claim to the ‘children’s communication tsar’, Jean Gross. The research was conducted by Tony McEnery, a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University sponsored by Tesco, who examined 10m words of transcribed speech and 100,000 words from teenagers’ blogs. If anyone’s interested, David Crystal demolishes the claims here.

Now, needless to say, this all got  my students’ collective goat. The ensuing discussion was full of ‘how very dare theys’ and focused on the twin beliefs that a) this wasn’t true and b) teenagers’ speech isn’t really that different from that of adults.

We then looked at another article about a school that had banned the use of slang within its walls. Was there, I asked, any point to this? Would their job prospects be enhanced by such a rule? Hokum! they cried. Balderdash and gobbledegook! They were, unanimously, of the opinion that they were well aware when and where formal language was appropriate and anyway, their speech was perfectly fine, like, innit.

To put this assertion to the test I got them to record a conversation. They recorded themselves talking about a subject of their choosing and then transcribed it to use as evidence in their controlled assessment. For some reason, they loved the process of transcription. Go figure. When the results were in they were rather shocked. They used a lot more fillers than they expected and their speech was peppered with false starts, repetition, phatic talk, contractions, abbreviations etc. Of course there was some slang but not as much as you might have expected. There wasn’t a single case of ‘innits’ or ‘aints’. In fact their speech was similar to the spoken language of most adults. The truth is that we’re all sloppy except when in quite formal situations.

For anyone, thinking of using this controlled assessment I can wholeheartedly recommend it. The students were very interested and the essays they wrote were well considered and insightful. I was chuffed with how analytical they were in discussing their own use of language.

Other articles I used were:

Don’t tell me slang’s dumb

The slang has got to go: School STAFF to be given English lessons so their bad habits don’t hamper pupils

The evolution of the English language

Slinging Slang

And here’s a piece on Michael Rosen’s blog called Pupils’ terrible English 1921-1955 which I didn’t use but could have.

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