Will banning slang from schools improve students’ chances of getting jobs and university places?
A struggling London school has this month banned its students from using slang in speech. The newly opened institution, which replaces a special measures school, claims that the new rule is to improve “the soft skills [the students] will need to compete for jobs and university places”. The forbidden words include “bare”, “like”, “innit”, and phrases such as “you woz” and “we woz” are also on the list. Students can also expect to be pulled up for starting their sentences with “basically” and ending their sentences with “yeah”. While it is clear that the academy is trying to implement rules to help their students and improve the school’s reputation, is banning slang really an effective way of achieving this? Or worse, could such a policy, in fact, be detrimental by restricting the evolution of language in youth culture?
Slang, like any other variety of language, allows those using it to communicate meaning and understanding with one another. Slang differs from Standard English though, as there are numerous varieties that are not generally used and understood by everyone. In this respect, slang is an immensely important part of the identity of a given culture. We only have to think of cockney rhyming slang to realise the importance of such cultural tools. Imagine if Londoners had been banned from going down the “apples and pears”, and then using the “dog ‘n bone” to order a “ruby”. I was disproportionately happy last week when a cash machine offered me rhyming slang as a language choice. I entered my Huckleberry Finn, grabbed my sausage and mash, and left with a huge smile on my face; a smile which was caused by the language of a culture which I was never part of, from a time when I wasn’t even born.
As charming and nostalgic as this particular slang may be, it is true to say that I wouldn’t get very far if I used it in a job interview or on a university application form. Clearly this is also true of the words banned by the London academy. Be that as it may, it is also obvious that banning slang in school is not the only alternative to a lifetime of failure in any contexts where only Standard English will do. To adopt this attitude seems to imply that these children are incapable of making the distinction between contexts in which slang is appropriate, and those in which it isn’t. But surely if a school feels that its students don’t have this ability, it is part of the teacher’s role to educate them and provide them with the necessary skill to judge conversational contexts appropriately. Acknowledging that there’s a problem with something as fundamental as a child’s understanding of language use, and then simply banning it in such a small domain, seems wholly inadequate.
Banning slang in a school won’t prevent children from coming across it in the real world. Spend five minutes in any lecture theatre and you’ll hear students and lecturers alike using slang freely. Every single one of us uses it every single day! And let’s be honest, a ban it isn’t actually going to stop them using it at all. For one thing, children often use slang because it’s cool; it enables them to fit in with their friends. What could make a list of words more cool than banning them from school? It seems that allowing the use of slang, whilst also teaching its appropriate use, may be a better way at getting to the root of the problem.
As a final thought, we should ask ourselves whether we’re happy with our schools censoring the language of our young people which is in no way offensive. Whilst “bare” and “innit” may be highly annoying to some, they aren’t derogatory, oppressive or insulting. I’m not sure that banning the use of these words on student’s own time on the playground is actually an appropriate power a school should be granted. Languages are constantly evolving to become more dynamic and expressive, and slang has an influential role in this process. When so much of this slang originates from children in the playground, should we really be trying to restrict their vocabularies and stifling this source of creativity and originality?