Mind Your Language by Trevor Plumbly
My schooldays are long past, but I still expect there to be some sort of censure when people make poor use of the English language. Sadly this deterioration is happening at such a rate these days that an army of pedants couldn’t correct or punish the culprits. Newly minted words, phrases and abbreviations are inflicted on us, totally unchallenged, by the Education System or the Media.
Like most kids from lower socio-economic backgrounds in the 1940s, elocution wasn’t high on my education list, but that didn’t stop the English teachers of the day. Referring to a door as a ‘doorwer’ was cured by writing, ‘The word door does not have two syllables’ fifty times, with the penalty doubled for a repeat offence. In those days, it seems, words were too highly valued to allow mangled pronunciation or misspelling to go unpunished, and as a result, slang, together with lazy English became a sort of second language only used outside the school gates. Within the media it was the golden age of BBC English; well modulated voices using totally correct pronunciation and phraseology lent a credibility that the half cultivated cockney accent with its matey approach and slightly off-colour content failed to achieve. English education wasn’t perfect but it was certainly thorough. The theory of ‘learning can be fun’ didn’t exist; fun was what you had outside the classroom. Though the possibility existed that a subject could become fun much later once you had mastered the basics and progressed to the higher levels.
Leapfrogging the years it seems incredible that something as vital to human contact as language has been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent. The teaching profession seems indifferent to say the least and the Media, who, I believe, should have a vested interest in good communication, are just as guilty.
The modern theory that learning should be fun isn’t producing the results; a huge number of children emerge from the system with communication problems. Poor verbal skills stem from a lack of familiarity with language. Phonetic spelling for example takes a child away from a path that needs to be trodden at some stage; learning by rote might be boring but it does give young children a control of words, essential to all forms of communication. The poor writing skills of today’s teenagers must largely be blamed on the abandonment of the master/pupil system for the virtual equal partners/buddy attitude currently in vogue. The second problem is that the practice of penalising lazy or disruptive students has all but disappeared in a cloud of P.C. psychobabble, bullying has increased, possibly because those with limited verbal skills resort to intimidation to communicate. Meanwhile, youngsters who could shine prefer the relative safety of anonymity. Where education is concerned, it appears that the basic skills are being swapped for the convenience of technology.
The media fares little better in this regard, especially sports commentators, they too have developed a separate language. Americanisms abound, offence has replaced attack and defence has gained an extra ‘e’ in the first syllable. There are lots of references to the ‘get go’ and a ‘big ask’ has replaced the word challenge. Commentators refer to each other using vintage schoolboy-annual nicknames; Smitty, Doully, Marty and co. burble merrily along like paid assassins of the English language. The ball becomes the ‘pill’ or the ‘cherry’, the bat is the ‘blade’ or the ‘willow’, stumps are ‘sticks’, the pitch ‘the deck’ and so on. Those that identify or approve of this twaddle must feel part of some sort of gang, with sadly, far too many members. I don’t believe for one moment that language should remain static, but additions should be weighed a lot more carefully than they have been in recent years. New words should serve to enrich or improve the current vocabulary.
Texting has just about put the final nail in the coffin as far as good English and polite communication are concerned. It encourages laziness by bastardising words to the point of abbreviated gibberish. It’s become ‘the’ language, and young people are being compelled to adopt it, but at what cost? Will it become the preferred option simply because it’s easier and of course, immediate? The simple act of putting pen to paper, once an essential ability, is now reduced to eccentricity. What’s next? Study itself? Why bother to work for knowledge when you can ‘Google’ it in seconds?
With computer skills becoming an increasingly important facet of the education system, some sort of balance should be sought, especially where younger students are concerned. One solution would be the introduction of technology free days, denying students access to computers, calculators and cell-phones. This would serve to reduce reliance, as well as promoting independent thought and research. A portion of that day could be allocated for verbal exercise by dividing the class into negative and positive teams with a pre-arranged topic and each student required to speak for three minutes. Imagine the benefits: team research and support for those less confident; verbal exchanges in a neutral arena to promote language skills, increased confidence and the ability to use speech to address problems. Another period could be devoted to mental arithmetic, yet another to improving handwriting and spelling. I don’t suggest that this would change things overnight, but it would slow the increasing tendency towards push-button education. Learning by rote may involve more effort from teachers and students, and is therefore seen as less exciting, but I do believe it has a lasting depth and legacy that the current system is failing to produce. Perhaps we should consider taking the best from both past and present systems and combining them in order to preserve the written and spoken standards of our language while still equipping students with the technological skills they need in the modern world.