For decades, the education system has failed to recognise the important relation between language and cultural expression, particularly the use of slang among young, working class people. Teaching and standardisation of English in schools has rarely left room for cultural representation, which has been amplified by a recent case involving more extreme measures of linguistic cultural repression in a south London school. As a result, it is important to explore what educational and personal effects this has on students, and how schools can adapt their teaching and examination methods to better accommodate the diverse population of the UK.
Historically, the use of slang words in inner-city and working class communities has been widespread in the UK. After the second world war, London experienced mass immigration from a range of countries, promoting a multicultural society in which immigrants, particularly of Afro-Caribbean descent, introduced a bidialectal form of communication created by code-switching.
Linguist Tony Thorne comments on the effects of Caribbean sociolects on British people over the late twentieth century, emphasising especially how white children were exposed to ‘recreolised lexis’, which affected their style of communication, introducing a new wave of linguistic innovation into UK inner city communities.
Linguists fear that this overt linguistic discrimination may have dangerous consequences for young people
Multicultural London English (MLE) is the term which describes the current multiethnolect in London, stemming back to the linguistic influences of mass immigration. Coined ‘slanglish’ by the press, this dynamic and mutable form of communication has expanded from working class London, dominating the speech of young people across the country in other major cities such as Manchester and Birmingham thanks to popular grime music artists such as Stormzy. However, school administrators in the south London school Ark All Saints Academy have recently reprimanded pupils for using informal language, enforcing a ban on the use of slang in educational settings.
Although this may be seen as a necessary step to improve the standard of students’ communication, linguists fear that this overt linguistic discrimination may have dangerous consequences for young people. Teachers at Ark All Saints Academy are not allowed to permit their students to use fillers such as ‘like’, ‘basically’ and ‘you see’, in addition to colloquialisms such as ‘bare’, ‘that’s long’, ‘cuss’, ‘yoot’ and ‘that’s a neck’, as well as others which descend from Caribbean influences and are used primarily by students from working class families. This is intended to promote the use of academic and formal language to raise literacy standards in the classroom and prepare students for exams.
This positions slang and working class vernacular as a barrier to educational and professional success
To corroborate the school’s change in policy, a 2019 survey found that slang was the most common reason for English GCSE failures, with 42% of tutors agreeing with this statement, compared to only 11% in 2015. Therefore, it seems feasible that the school should implement such strict measures in order to promote greater GCSE success and subsequently increase the future career prospects of their students. However, this positions slang and working class vernacular as a barrier to educational and professional success by teaching students to obey a capitalist ideal which doesn’t support cultural nonconformities.
Students who grew up with slang as a fundamental part of their everyday communication may feel alienated and unmotivated by these linguistic expectations. Thus, the school’s ban contains racist and classist undertones because they are suggesting that slang and MLE are not accepted or valid forms of English in the professional world, which may in turn decrease the aspirations of students if it means having to conceal the linguistic side of their cultural identity.
The principal of the school, Lucy Frame, tried to justify this cultural gatekeeping by asserting that the phrases listed are not ‘banned from general use…or when students are interacting socially’. This allows students to express themselves linguistically outside of the classroom, thus promoting the formation of friendship groups who have shared socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. Therefore, it could be argued that the school is encouraging the use of appropriate language for different contexts; where formal language belongs in the professional sphere and informal language belongs in the personal sphere.
However, with an increasingly diverse UK population, it is simply impossible to enforce ‘standard English’ in an unproblematic way. This is because the very notion of standard English involves classist stereotypes: that those who do not speak this form of the language are uneducated, which is wholly untrue.
It may be time to abandon expectation of standard English in the UK education system
The first standard of English was formed from the dialects, accents, and grammar of the upper classes in the 16th and 17th centuries, at a time when UK society was not racially or culturally diverse, and which does not reflect the current social or political climate. Consequently, it seems backwards to hold onto an ideal that does not work for incoming generations, especially if it means they will be limited professionally. Therefore, it may be time to abandon the expectation of standard English in the UK education system and allow more flexibility in terms of students’ linguistic choices.
Teacher of Applied Linguistics at Warwick University, Dr Natalie Sharpling, claims that teachers should celebrate diverse language use and ‘focus on the content’ of the spoken and written work, rather than the specific words used. This would create a more accommodating learning environment for students from all linguistic and socio-economic backgrounds and promote greater confidence in their ability to express themselves in professional settings. Furthermore, this move would help to close the gap between professionalism and working class vernacular, ultimately inspiring young people from these backgrounds to have higher career aspirations.
Ultimately, this is not just a problem with the new rules at Ark All Saints Academy; it is an institutional misjudgement around cultural acceptance
Consequently, it may be less discriminatory for examination boards to change their method of assessing students in English by omitting penalties for the use of slang. This would force the education system to undertake a paradigm shift by adjusting perceptions around language to reform cultural denial into a system which embraces linguistic diversity.
Ultimately, there is not just a problem with the new rules at Ark All Saints Academy; it is an institutional misjudgement around cultural acceptance. The education system disadvantages some students based on an outdated assumption that standard English is the preferable mode of communication. Therefore, there would need to be national remodelling of the examination process to accommodate linguistic diversity and inspire the current generation of students in their working lives.
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