RSS
Should U.K. schools shame students who use regional slang?
One campus in Northeast England wants to zap phrases like "gizit ere" and "he was sat there"
 
Teaching formal language while tolerating informal language can be something of a tightrope walk.
Teaching formal language while tolerating informal language can be something of a tightrope walk. Thinkstock

The U.K. is in the midst of a bit of a dialect dust-up.

It started last week when The Evening Gazette in Northeast England reported that parents of students at Sacred Heart Primary School in Middlesbrough had received a letter advising them to correct certain phrases and pronunciations that the children were using in school. The letter suggested that local phrases like "gizit ere," "he was sat there," and "it's nowt" be corrected to their Standard English counterparts "please give me it," "he was sitting there," and "it's nothing." The school also suggested corrections to the local accent such as "three fifteen" instead of "free fifteen."

Writer David Almond responded in the Guardian with a tribute to the beauty and power of local dialects, acknowledging that while the standard should be learned in school, the non-standard should not be abandoned. He writes, in a representation of the Northern dialect of his childhood:

Aye, ye hav to knaa the words the world thinks is rite and ye have to knaa how to spel them rite an speek them rite. Othawize sum misgiyded folk mite think yor just a dope. But ye neva hav to put the otha words away. Yev got to yoos them and speek them and rite them and keep them in the world. [Guardian]

In The Independent, Juila Schell argued that Standard English can and should be taught without denigrating the dialect that the children and their parents use at home:

When teachers focus exclusively on the form of this talk rather than the substance, children may simply remain silent in order to avoid the shame of speaking "incorrectly", and miss the interactions crucial to learning… Silencing pupils' voices, even with the best intentions, is just not acceptable. [The Independent]

Sadly, and as is usually the case when non-standard language is the topic, commentary spun off into "what's wrong with kids these days" diatribes about texting, rap music, TV, and many other evils supposedly contributing to the downfall of language and, consequently, the world. This attitude is on full display in the more than 1,000 comments to Peter Turner's argument on Yahoo News UK that we ought to "sling slang out of the classroom."

But histrionics about the downfall of civilization aside, most everyone agrees that children need to learn Standard English to be considered educated. Many agree that this does not mean regional dialects must be stamped out. What it does entail is that children must also learn the skill of switching between dialects when it is called for. What people do not agree on is whether shaming of children or their parents is the correct way to go about teaching these skills.

Steve Keegan, an enterprising London brewer with roots in the North, found a unique way to register his displeasure with the assault on his native dialect. He's decided to come out with a beer called "Yer don't get owt fer nowt - milk stout." He expects speakers of the dialect will want to drink it — with pride.

 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week