Should Schools Ban Slang?

UCB Radio asked me on the the Paul Hammond show to discuss slang.

The headteacher at the Harris Academy in London has banned the pupils from using slang.  This is not a new thing:  Earlier this year, a school in Sheffield did the same thing, the Manchester Academy in Moss Side introduced a similar policy in 2008… and its exam results increased the following year.

UCB Radio asked me on the the Paul Hammond show to discuss the issue.  You can listen to my contribution by following this link, or via the SoundCloud player below.

My main points was that slang language is not laziness: its is also a way of inventing words to say precsiely what you mean. The example I gave was of young people using the word ‘Feds’ to mean ‘Police. To the untrained ear, the word ‘Feds’ is an Amercianism that just seems wrong. But when the word ‘police’ is a word that has positive connotations, you can see why young people might choose a slang word that has a more malign spin. I also asked whether slang in other languages would be banned, too: Hindi, for example, is full of slang.

My dismissal of the policy is not the whole story, however.  For language and communication to exist, we need to agree words to stand for objects and concepts.  To detour away from that consensus is to invite others to misunderstand you!  David Foster Wallace’s long and rewarding essay for Harpers Magazine, ‘Tense Present‘, examines slang and the use of the language in greater depth.

1 thought on “Should Schools Ban Slang?”

  1. Got to disagree with you Rob. I’ve just gone to the Daily Mail article on your link, which seems to highlight a rather important point that seems to have been missed out in the radio debate – context. Obviously you can’t police people’s private and social conversations, and neither should one wish to, but in the classroom, in group discussions, in conversations with non-peer group members (eg teaching staff), and in written work – ie the major part of the school context, there should be a clear line drawn between slang and non-slang (as far as is possible at the time – obviously that line is vague and ever-shifting). Put simply, there are some contexts where slang is not appropriate, and children need to be taught that simple fact.

    Certainly when I mark university essays and exams, seeing slang really does look like laziness. It looks like someone who’s never read a book for a start. And it’s also (arguably) disrespectful to use slang when addressing someone who does not or may not share your language environment. It’s no better than using technical jargon when addressing a non-expert in your field. It could even be considered a form of aggression, at best, it shows a blatant disrespect.

    When I was at school, we were not allowed to swear (and they defined the term very loosely) – I wonder if you would object to such a ban? Of course, it never stopped us, but it did make us aware of what language we were using, and able to make appropriate choices about what language to use in what context. Opposing a slang ban looks to me like depriving young people of a vital part of education that will help them to communicate with the rest of society and thus increase their employability.

    Also, I’m not sure whether you have it right about the word “police”. There are plenty of other perjoratives that could be used (the scum, the filth, the rozzers, the busies, the plod etc) that would convey the connotation much more effectively than the Americanism (which I was certainly not aware had any particular negative connotation, certainly no more so than “police” does). “The feds” is surely for people who set too much store by American crime programmes/films, and who either don’t realise that they’re not called that here, or else who think that the American usage is somehow cooler or more impressive. And those people need to realise that some people (including those who might employ them) may beg to differ.

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