We’re building momentum in our drive to make the art of rhetoric a cornerstone of our approach to teaching and learning. One aspect of that is a strategy to address common issues with student speech. I think we need to be very explicit about the quality of speech we’re aiming for and not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of squeamishness that often accompanies this issue. It’s not snobbish or elitist to assert that there is such a thing as talking properly in English. Allowing students to go through school without teaching them to speak correctly is actually where the elitism lies; students who can learn formal speech codes at home have a huge advantage over those who can’t. Of course, alternative modes of speech, different dialects and accents all add to our rich cultural mix. But let’s be clear: every child should be able to speak in standard formal English in the appropriate context if we’re serious about equal opportunities and narrowing gaps. Many of our students are highly articulate but that’s probably as much a function of their family context as a product of what we’ve done at school. We need to explore ways of getting everyone up to the same standard.
The Armstrong and Millar RAF sketches do a good job of juxtaposing incongruent accents and vocabulary, to great comic effect. This makes a good introduction to an assembly. (The video here is the only one without any swearing. I did the research!) But we’re not talking about sounding posh; we’re talking about talking properly in any accent. Similarly, we’re not necessarily talking about the developmental stages of speaking English as an additional language. That’s a different challenge. This excerpt from the hilarious David Sedaris book ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ shows how silly we can sound speaking badly in a different language, using translations from his experience of learning French at a language school in Paris.
Here I am focusing on native speakers of English and the way they talk. Actually, I should say – the way ‘we’ talk, because this applies to staff as well as students. I think all members of staff in a school should think about their use of speech and take steps to make sure they are modelling good formal speech as often as possible. That is harder for some than for others but it needs to be done. The ubiquity of poor speech as used by X Factor judges or Match of the Day pundits is problematic; we need to make a big effort to raise students’ awareness of correct speech patterns and give them opportunities to practise.
Here are some of the common speech errors that I think we need to focus on:
I done it; we done lots of great activities in Year 7: I did it; we did lots of great activities in Year 7.
You was; we was; where was you yesterday?: You were; we were; where were you yesterday?
I ain’t done nothing; there isn’t nothing: I haven’t done anything; there isn’t anything
I could of, we shouldn’t of. I could have; we shouldn’t have.
We done brilliant; you done excellent; We did brilliantly; you did very well. ( I just heard ‘the boys done exceptional second half‘ on MOTD! Not ‘the boys played exceptionally well in the second half’.
He ran quick; she ate slow; she played superb; he didn’t speak correct: he ran quickly; she ate slowly; she played superbly; he should speak correctly.
I ate too much crisps; how much people is there in London? I ate too many crisps; how many people are there in London?
There are less people in the queue; there are less chairs in the back row: there are fewer people in the queue; there are fewer chairs in the back row.
Michael and me went cinema; me and Iman got picked. Michael and I went to the cinema; Iman and I got picked. (Simple check: I went to the cinema – never ‘me went to the cinema’)
Please give it to Jim and I: Please give it to Jim and me. (Check. Please give it to I?? No!)
Want to go shops? We’re going library. Do you want to go to the shops? We’re going to the library.
We need to write a report, isn’t it; We need to write a report, don’t we – or simply: we need to write a report.
I could go on but if we tackle this list, we’ll be onto something. I do have a few more picky concerns: These are personal bug-bears of mine where it seems that the correct versions are being lost; the incorrect versions almost dominate, as far as I can tell. They are pronunciation issues that they can sometimes even get wrong on Radio 4 – if you can believe that!
controversial/controversy: These should be pronounced differently: controVERsial and conTROVersy – not controVERsial and controVERsy.
dissect/bisect. Dissect is linked to disperse, disappear and dispute. It means ‘cut apart’ and should be pronounced DISSect. However, all too often, dissect is made to rhyme with bisect. Bisect is linked to binary, biped, bicycle; it means ‘cut in two’. But Dissect is not DIE-sect. It is DISSect.
We’re not going to succeed by trying to push on all of these issues at once. We’re going to focus on three or four common errors and, when students give answers in class, make speeches or presentations, we’ll ensure that they’re corrected if they make mistakes. It’s important to emphasise the idea of switching codes; that the way we talk to our family and friends may not be the way we talk in a professional context. That way, it can be less judgemental or personal to correct someone’s speech. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be for members of staff whose speech routinely contains some of the incorrect features. The students might well challenge staff if they make the same mistakes we’re trying to tackle. We’ll need to see how that goes.
We can all have a bit of a laugh decoding the banter. Here are some examples from my time at Holland Park:
- That’s liberties Sir man; innit I’ve done my work..What are you lying for man..look at all my writing. (Two sentences…)
- That’s Deep…allow it man…I swear down man, that’s a liberty. Libs! (On being given a detention)
- IS it! Is it that I did that? Am I talking? No. No, I am not talking. Teacher’s a fool man. Swear down. Get me. (On being asked to stop talking in class)
- You got bare chips man. Allow me some….
- Leave him man; He’s safe; allow it. ….(A noble act of protection )
- That is Deep. That is Sick. That is Bad. That is Dark. He is Salt/Beef/Butterz. (Various!)
- I told him blatant. Dis me: Don’t come to me; don’t even try that. Get me. Dis him: Safe man, safe. I’m joking you. Dis me: Safe,safe, Allow that. (Reported speech)
But, unless those students can also express themselves fluently using proper English when they need to, it’s not actually very funny at all!