LEADING ARTICLE:Let the children sing and squawk

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The Independent Online
Anyone who has ever stopped to chat to an American or Australian tourist will agree that they are generally more articulate than their fellow English speakers, the Brits. But there is a big difference between promoting confident oral performance and suffocating regional accents with the Queen's English. Yesterday the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, announced a Campaign for the Better Use of the English Language which sadly sounded more like the latter than the former.

It will be incredibly difficult to award a grade for spoken English in a GCSE while still accommodating regional accents and variations in spoken grammar. And even if the examiners are experts in a particular local dialect, how will they cope with the Tynesider who moved to East London at the age of eight, or the Liverpudlian whose parents come from Devon? There is good reason for children learning to read and write a standard English, but that should not stop them using in conversation the beautiful and various words, phrases and grammatical structures that have persisted in different parts of the country over the centuries. Teach them to speak in a particular way, and you will inevitably undermine that rich diversity.

Quite apart from the sacrilege of trying to standardise a conversational language, there is a serious problem about which regional accent is branded as "official". As always it will be the Queen's English - a particular London variation of the English of the Middle Ages that just happened to become the dialect of the upper classes. So the children of the Home Counties' middle classes will not find it too difficult to adapt their speaking habits, while their cockney and scouse class-mates will be at an immediate disadvantage.

Mrs Shephard is absolutely right that communication "by grunt" or by fluster or stammer or mutter or any other such manifestation of the nervous Brit is just not good enough. But the British oral problem is not one of grammar, it is one of confidence and practice. The advantage the Americans have is not that they are taught a strict spoken grammar, nor that they have regional accents drummed out of them; it is that the whole of their culture teaches them to speak out and keep talking, while their British counterparts are expected to be seen and not heard. Compare the "show and tell" scenes in American school films or Snoopy cartoons with the "what I did on my holiday" essays that English children rarely even get to read aloud.

The same is true of teaching British children foreign languages. Having learnt countless rules of grammar and written vocabulary, they pass their GCSEs still too inhibited to chat in French or German. Not so their European counterparts.

The Campaign for Better Use of the English Language is being chaired by the news reader Trevor MacDonald. Surely Vanessa Felz, the daytime chat show host, would be a better role model? We should be looking to encourage people to express themselves and communicate with confidence, not to read clearly from an autocue.

Mrs Shephard should abandon any plan to test spoken English in the GCSE. It would inevitably become a test either of elocution or bravado. Making children self-conscious about the phrases or the intonation they use would only inhibit them further. Instead, they should be encouraged to talk in front of their classmates. Less Henry Higgins elocution lessons, and more Eliza Doolittle singing and squawking with confidence in her native cockney.