Prisoners of incomprehensible English: Susan Elkin hails the war on sloppy speech, arguing that to succeed one must be understood

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The Independent Online
GILLIAN SHEPHARD has declared war. Her enemy? Slack and sloppy use of English. Good news indeed.

The grunters, whose speech mode of speech Mrs Shephard so roundly condemns, swarm noisily past my windows between 11 and half past on Fridays and Saturdays after an evening in the nearby pub. They shout, gurgle and gobble in a largely consonantless-free stream of noisy and incomprehensible diphthongs, among which the only recognisable - and oft-repeated - word invariably begins with the letter 'f'.

I suppose that, at some basic transactional level, they understand each other. But what happens when these young people try to communicate beyond their own narrow circle? The usual greeting is 'aw-ia?' That is a corruption of that somewhat banal and inadequate greeting, 'All right?' 'Ssoi-ih' and 'nu-ih', with an upward inflection on the second syllable, are vernacular Kent- speak for 'something' and 'nothing'. And so it goes on.

Last summer I interviewed some young Liverpudlians at an outdoor education centre. One boy told me about his school, or so I thought, but I was understanding very little. I would probably have fared better with a French child, yet this lad and I were meant to be speakers of the same language.

Thank goodness for the listening youth leader. He spoke standard English (enhanced by a soft and attractive Cumbrian accent). Realising that I was getting the wrong end of the stick he tactfully interjected: 'Tell Susan where you found the sheep's skull.' It was a nice illustration of the essential value of standard English and why all children need it.

Interestingly, my young interviewee seemed to have no difficulty in following me. Our misunderstandings were all one-way. He hears my brand of neutral standard English quite often on television. Some would argue that his 'version' is as valuable as mine - and in a way they are right. His English, however, is only spoken by a smallish pocket of people in the North-west of England. Mine, like it or not, has a historical and cultural universality.

My standard English is much more than the limited fashionable or liberal view - 'just another dialect' - admits. It enables me to communicate effectively with people from all over the world. What a dreadful thing if that boy grows up trapped, locked in his own narrow background, all choice lost to him. In this shrinking cosmopolitan world, that is what will happen to those who can only communicate with their immediate neighbours. They are, and will remain, the prisoners of the cultural and linguistic insularity in which their misguided teachers strand them.

Many teachers detest the whole concept of spoken standard English. Because the mode of speech in Britain has been linked, traditionally and obsessionally, with social class, they castigate all attempts to teach it as 'elitist'. The reverse is true, of course. To deny children access to the most widely understood variety of their own language is a highly insidious form of cultural deprivation. To teach it to all is truly egalitarian.

Teachers should be extending their pupils, not limiting them.

Delaying tactics will begin any moment now. The 'professional' response to Mrs Shephard's rallying cry will undoubtedly focus on tiresome nit-picking fulminations about how 'standard' English is to be defined. English teachers have had plenty of practice at this. They will seek to prove that you cannot define it accurately. Therefore you cannot teach it. QED.

We've heard it all before. And while the ideological arguments rage, common sense will get short shrift. If the need for spoken standard English is not self-evident to - of all people - an English teacher, then is s/he really in the right job?

Of course, you cannot pin down the shifting sands of language with the precision you need to define Pythagoras's theorem, and it would be daft to try - as George Orwell demonstrated in literature and Mao Tse-tung proved in real life. No, what we need are common, sensible guidelines.

There are three key areas. First, diction. Clear enunciation can be taught and learnt. It means using the lips and tongue. Irrespective of whether you come from Dorset or Newcastle, it is the consonants which matter most. The vowel sound in the middle of or 'down' makes little difference to comprehensibility but without precise beginnings and endings the meanings of words are often lost.

Second, vocabulary. Children need 30,000 to 40,000 meanings to benefit properly from the school curriculum. Teaching in English and other lessons should consciously focus on the continuous enlargement of every pupil's personal lexicon. Standard vocabulary must lie alongside slang, local dialect or family words. 'Chewing' means stealing in Kent. Rams are 'tups' to a Yorkshireman. A bit of bilingualism ensures clarity of communication.

Third, confidence. We need to teach children to be direct and to speak incisively with eye contact. They must learn to express a point of view or to give information without, what the Just a Minute radio panel game famously demands, 'hesitation, deviation or repetition'. Currently at large among the grunts are far too many 'ers', 'sort ofs', 'yeah wells' . . .

Mrs Shephard is right. We need a national campaign against sloppy speech and it has to be rooted in schools. Children are entitled to it. More doors will be open to Standard English speakers than to their linguistically-limited counterparts. It's as simple as that.

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