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Slang bans don't make kids talk proper, basically


Policing how school children speak and write in class isn’t a great way to teach them how to use formal English.

That’s the verdict from a study just out in the journalLanguage in Society.

Banning words such as ‘basically’, ‘like’, ‘peng’, ‘bare’ and TOWIE talk – speaking like cast on reality TV show, The Only Way is Essex – can curb kids’ learning, it says.

“Banning language and non-standard grammar is a punitive practice which can make people feel stigmatised, discriminated against and that their language is worthless,” said linguistics expert, Dr Ian Cushing.

“I think some adults feel threatened by how kids speak, but kids having their own language is a big part of how they form identities and interact with different social groups. There’s nothing incorrect or wrong about non-standard language, but a lot of school policies – as well as government policy, grammar tests and guidance for teachers – seem to reproduce the problematic idea that there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways of using language.”

That doesn’t mean teachers should bin the rule books entirely, said Cushing, who lectures in education at Brunel University London: “Standard English has its place for things like job interviews or ceremonies. But kids are very good at switching between very informal speech and informal speech depending on the context. They don’t need to have their language policed, they police it themselves. I am not suggesting students shouldn’t have access to Standard English, but they need to be taught why it carries social power, and that using non-standard English is not ‘incorrect’, ‘wrong’ or ‘inappropriate’.”

Dr Cushing spoke to teachers, visited schools, analysed government policy and scoured media reports for the study. It found a growing trend over the past decade for schools to ban non-standard English, slang, double negatives or informal or sentence styles, like ones starting with ‘basically’. Others ban ‘intensifiers’ – words like ‘literally’ or shortened words like ‘emosh’ for emotional. One school banned what it dubs ‘Yorkshire verbs’ and gave Year 7 students the role of ‘grammar police’.

Banned words lists appear on classroom walls or letters to parents which get picked up by news media, who ask readers which words they want to ban.

While often well-meaning, policies are often quickly and crudely hashed together in a knee-jerk reaction to government curriculum policy, the study says. But many confuse speaking and leave pupils little room to talk about their language.

Children who get pulled up on the way they speak in class discussions are less likely to take part, and are likely to just keep quiet next time, research shows.

“There’s likely to be long-term damage,” said Cushing. “Taking a punitive stance won’t teach good standards in any meaningful way.”


Reported by:

Hayley Jarvis, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268176