News reaches us from the nicer side of town of parents forking out for elocution lessons for pre-schoolers as young as two.
Nathaniel McCullagh, the director of Simply Learning Tuition, told The Times that his services were particularly in demand among wealthy immigrants. “Their nannies have travelled from their home, or they are UK hires, often Filipina or Polish… so children aren’t picking up the correct speech patterns.” In this, they are trailing behind some Essex primary schools, where elocution lessons were introduced more than a year ago, in response to ridicule related to The Only Way is Essex.
The thinking is clear. A posh English accent (otherwise known as “correct speech patterns”) can smooth your child’s ascent through British society. They will be welcomed into the best universities, benefit from unconscious preference in job interviews and get to the front of the queue at Boujis. Sound enough logic, as far as it goes, although word to the nouveau riche: sack the tutor. If you’re paying £20,000+ a year in school fees and your child doesn’t come back after two terms sounding like Brian Sewell with adenoids, consider yourself mugged.
The real folly of elocution training is premised on the myth of the “non-accent”. This is a delusion that some people entertain which suggests that while Scouse/Cockney/French accents are cuddly/aggressive/sexy (delete according to your prejudice), one’s own RP English does not count as an accent all. I’ve got bad news: it does. And it’s equally likely to be the subject of snap judgements – just ask poor old, posh old Benedict Cumberbatch. So your child may emerge from elocution lessons talking proper, but they will still have an accent – the accent of someone whose parents were silly enough to pay for elocution lessons.
And there’s more bad news. If you believe that a few properly rounded vowels can save us from snobbery, you underestimate not only snobbery, but also the finely tuned British ear. It is as alive to minute vocal modulations as a bloodhound is to the scent of murder. I remember being told off for dropping “t”s as a child, on the grounds that I sounded like I was “from Hoxton”. A devastating insult, given we were all of two miles away in Homerton where, obviously, the native burr is far superior.
That’s the downside of a national obsession with accents. The upside is that they’re fun and they make Americans incredibly jealous. What a shame it would be if we responded to accent snobbery by ironing out speech differences in early childhood. Not only would this country be a less interesting place to live, but that educational effort could be so much better spent. We could, for instance, teach children to listen not only to how other people speak, but to the actual words they’re saying.