The language barrier

Foul language and innuendo among school children, even the youngerst ones, has risen sharply.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Chris Evans took his Radio One Road Show to East Ridings, headteacher Catriona Mangan refused to give pupils from her small village primary school the day off to attend.

She did not consider the often-controversial DJ to be suitable entertainment for the 65 pupils at her school in Garton-on-the-Wolds near Hull. "I did not want my pupils attending an event hosted by Chris Evans," she said. "I did not feel his language, use of innuendo or general tone was appropriate for primary school children .

"I have switched off his Friday night show on the television at home before now because I did not want my family exposed to the language he uses. TV is a very strong image and he is a very strong character. Children are very easily influenced."

Mrs Mangan's stand - although she insists it was a routine decision and one fully supported by parents at the school - echoes a growing concern among schools at the mushrooming use of bad language and innuendo by children at primary level.

Headteachers report an ever-increasing struggle to curb the rising tide of bad language in the playground. Child psychologists say the task faced by parents today in teaching children a code of socially acceptable vocabulary is greater than ever before.

Research at the University of Portsmouth shows that verbal abuse forms a significant proportion of reasons for exclusion from primary schools. In a study of 265 children in three local education authorities, 17.4 per cent of exclusions were due to verbal abuse.

Bad language is, of course, nothing new. Every generation discovers it, adapts it and uses it to shock, revelling in the misconception that, like sex, they invented it.

The playground has always been a forum for picking up non-curricular vocabulary. Lavatorial humour and worse has always been a part of growing up, entangled with the gradual separation process from parents and acceptance into a peer group.

What is new is the ubiquity of bad language and the dissolution of demarcation lines. Bad language is common currency on the top of the bus, in the supermarket queue, on the football pitch and in the street. Boundaries and barriers which once ensured that the word "bloody" on our television screens would cause a startled reaction ,if not a row, have been replaced by a tolerance of the hitherto taboo. The male culture in particular is supportive of bad language to the point where it has become an essential ingredient of a macho image.

John Kenward, headteacher of Bourne County Primary School in Eastbourne, represents East and West Sussex on the National Association of Headteachers. "I have been teaching for 25 years, but it is in the last few years that there has been a marked increase in the use of bad language among primary children. As teachers we are fighting an ever uphill struggle," he said.

"The media has much to answer for. Children watch adult television and then use what they see and hear in their role-playing games. They mimic the language patterns.

"More and more children hear bad language in the home too. The classic example is when you tackle a parent about their child's bad language and they say 'What the f*** are you talking about?' You begin to despair."

Michael Russell, headteacher of Malmesbury Junior School, East London, says that often children have to be taught to use a different code of language at school to that used at home. "For some children bad language is a natural way of speaking at home, and it then falls to the teachers to educate them otherwise at school."

A former president of the National Association of Headteachers, John McNicholas, cites innuendo as another direct spin-off of the 24-hour TV culture. "Middle-class children tend to have their own televisions in their rooms and watch programmes which are unsuitable for their age. The nine o'clock watershed is an absolute nonsense. By the time children reach the top two years of primary school they have what can be a quite embarrassing appreciation of double meanings and that spreads through a class. It does not contribute to good discipline."

Child psychologist Jennie Lindon believes the time has long since gone when a parent could ignore a child's use of expletives in the hope that by not reacting to provocative behaviour it would dampen its effect.

"Bad language should not be looked upon as a stage of childhood which has to be lived through. Society puts out so many confusing messages in terms of what is and is not acceptable language, that children have to be given very clear guidelines about what you expect of them," she says.

"Society has become much more relaxed in its tolerance of formerly unacceptable language. The language used on television is considerably more robust and ribald than it was a generation ago. Children learn by listening and copying and consequently need to be given a definite code to follow."

But telling a child who is swearing to go and wash their mouth out with soap is as outmoded as the Sixties child who was clipped round the ear for using the term "bugger" or "nit".

"There is no point tackling a child who has repeated some bad language by jumping at them and burdening them with your own embarrassment. A calm, measured approach in which you work with the child is far preferable. It is important to offer them alternatives and reasons why the language they have used is unacceptable," says Jennie Lindon.

Family therapist Carolyn Douglas, director of Exploring Parenthood, a London-based support programme for parents, believes that many children quickly learn to use two languages: one at home and the other in their peer groups, be it on the football pitch or in the girls' lavatories.

"There is a pattern of coarse behaviour among five-to-12-year-olds, which involves swearing and, in little boys, standing in a row and seeing how far they can pee. As long as it follows that pattern and as a parent you disapprove but are not punitive, then it is not likely to become a problem.

"Difficulties arise when this behaviour is reinforced by, for example, role models swearing on the football pitch or by the tirade of four-letter words which you can hear almost as a stutter between adjectives on the top of the bus and which often have a persecutory tone.

"It is when bad language gets out of control and becomes common currency that the parent needs to step in and try and work with the child in establishing what is acceptable language. This is when you need to adopt a constructive policy which will reinforce that just as it is not all right to kick the cat, it is not all right to swear."

Khaleghl Quinn, clinical psychologist and founder of Quindo, a system which helps people to develop self-confidence, believes that the modern approach to parenting which encourages offspring to express themselves freely has become too extreme.

"Children are running the shop. They are getting a lot of power when what they actually need are solid foundations as to what is socially acceptable behaviour.

"Children who come home using bad language are often trying to shock parents into attention. They are getting a false sense of belonging in a peer group which needs to be addressed. If a parent feels comfortable to do so, he or she could mirror the language used by the child in as dispassionate a manner as possible so that it loses its shock element.

"Use of bad language is generally a symptom of an underlying problem, and it is important that a parent works with a child to get to the bottom of it"n

The Quindo Centre 0181 455 8698: Exploring Parenthood, parents' advice line 0171 221 6681