Reform school?

Declining standards of English are still a big concern, judging by the anticipated content of a government white paper due out today.

The reforms are expected to reverse much of what the Labour government brought in; such as the modular approach to examining, where pupils take a series of shorter exams spread out over two years rather than longer, more in-depth ones at the end of their studies.

Also set to return is marking pupils down – by up to five per cent – for poor use of punctuation and grammar in exams. Labour’s decision to scrap this system in 2003 has, according to education secretary Michael Gove, directly contributed to a drop in literacy skills.

‘Thousands of children – including some of our very brightest – leave school unable to compose a proper sentence, ignorant of basic grammar,’ he said. ‘The basic building blocks of English were demolished by those who should have been giving our children a solid foundation in learning.’

The move seems particularly timely, given the recent pattern which has seen celebrities practically lining up to declare the English language is more abused than that cat that was put in a bin. Emma Thompson took against slang at her old school; while Marks and Spencer chairman Sir Stuart Rose has stated that too many school leavers are ‘not fit for work’.

Actress Penelope Keith last week lent her (rather cultivated) voice to the cause, decrying – for one – the detrimental effect of social media like Twitter on English usage. She told the Sunday Telegraph that ‘there are a lot of people you can’t actually understand’, thanks to their overuse of ‘tweets, and twits and texts’.

A renewed focus on the importance of these ‘building blocks’ of language is almost certainly worth celebrating. But before we all send a Twit of triumph to Penelope, a question: is this reform likely to be enough, or is it more of a cursory nod in the right direction?

The slang debate

When actress Emma Thompson warned teenagers against using slang on a recent visit to her former school, she probably didn’t expect to spark a debate. But spark one she did.

It was, apparently, the ‘likes’, ‘innits?’ and ‘it ain’ts’ she heard bouncing around the Camden School for Girls, Thompson’s alma mater, which drove her ‘insane’. She told the students: ‘Don’t do it because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid.’

You’re missing the point, the opposing side promptly retorted. The kids are all right. It’s the moaning adults’ attitudes that need to change. ‘Complaints about the standard of English [...] have gone on for hundreds of years,’ points out Raphael Salkie, a professor of language studies at the University of Brighton. ‘There never was a golden age when everyone used English properly.’

And, while Salkie admits Thompson and her critiquing ilk are in highly esteemed company – John Milton, Jonathan Swift and George Orwell to name a few – they are merely ‘middle-aged grumps’ who are ‘wallowing in nostalgia’. But they are, he says, pining for a time that never really existed.

Yet even taking this into account, another of Thompson’s points bears repeating – one on the importance of understanding the context in which you speak: ‘There is a necessity to have two languages – one you use with your mates and the other that you need in any official capacity.’

Well, that’s a different point entirely, isn’t it? Not just slashing a big red line through any and all slang, but knowing when to use a different language. And that’s something we all do every day. It’s unlikely you use the exact same vocabulary at home as you do in a board meeting, or when out on the town.

To many, the word ‘slang’ might have only negative connotations. But David Crystal, former professor of linguistics at the University of Reading, merely defines it as, ‘informal, non-standard vocabulary’, or ‘the jargon of a special group’. So slang is not just a way for young’uns to separate themselves from their elders; it’s also a way for them to show unity with their peers. And, of course, it can do this for any age – or even any class.

Problems could perhaps arise if the speaker couldn’t understand the line between social contexts – and the vocabularies that should accompany different situations.

Interestingly, a study by the Cambridge Assessment Group in 2005 found that GCSE pupil’s literacy was dramatically higher than it had been ten years before, despite the fact that they used more slang. Students used a wider vocabulary, more accurate punctuation and more complex sentences; but they also used more colloquialisms, text message symbols and non-standard English, like double negatives. This was the case even among those receiving the highest grades.

Of course, the perception in the world beyond the classroom is often that using non-standard English is sloppy and a sign of poor literacy. While a teacher may award a high grade in spite of the use of slang and suchlike, it is likely someone using similar language in the workplace would do less well. Potential employers probably wouldn’t read beyond the first ‘gr8’ in a CV, and the rest of the content – however impressive – would be lost.

Cambridge Assessment Group ran another study on teenagers’ ability to recognise non-standard English in 2010. It found that although GCSE pupils’ rates of identifying and correcting non-standard English were ‘quite high’, fewer than six in ten of them recognised that ‘off of’ and ‘she was stood’ were grammatically incorrect. Perhaps more worryingly, almost three in ten didn’t flag up ‘should of’.

But do we expect this to be something they’ll grow out of? Or should we bring back more rigidly taught grammar lessons in school?

The great slang debate may never go away – perhaps because it is endlessly recycled: yesterday’s teens could well be tomorrow’s curmudgeons. Or, is this in fact more than ‘middle-aged’ moaning? What do you think?