This article is in response to Harris Academy’s decision to ban the use of slang on their campus in 2013. In conjunction with this event, The Independent newspaper published an article sympathising with the decision made. The article is listed at the bottom of the page.
Imagine if your child was no longer allowed to use the words ‘lots’ and ‘of’ side by side. In 2013, Harris Academy, a London-based school, made the decision to ban slang as they aimed to make their students more employable after school. A column in The Independent lauded the decision to ban ‘ghetto grammar’ (yes, you read that right) saying ‘it isn’t to denigrate anyone’s culture or background; it is simply an acknowledgement of life’s realities’. The utter folly of driving out such a prevalent dialect in our society all seemed a bit… extra, you get me?
‘Speech that makes you sounds as if you’ve had a frontal lobotomy’ The Independent piece read. It sounded like the ramblings of a petulant bully aiming to degrade their victim, yet it appeared as if the idea of banning slang had gained a considerable amount of traction judging by its enforcement then as a school policy.
I was reminded the other day about the existence, albeit less widespread, of this idea in the 90’s, when the higher echelon of the middle-class echoed the same sentiment concerning the detrimental impact of slang on society as a whole. Well, since the introduction of Britain’s beloved GCSEs, integrated as part of the schooling system in 1988, it was apparent that there had been a noticeable rise in A, B and C grades per exam, accompanying a decrease in D’s and F’s. So… it didn’t seem like Britain’s kids were getting any dumber, did it?
What was unequivocally more worrying was the ignorance towards what slang embodied. If culture is the customs of a people typified by their behaviour, then slang, by nature, must fit under that umbrella. Too often was slang painted as the evil villain of the story — the indolent social norm that was somehow an accurate insinuation of one’s academic prowess. If you were to, by chance, wander across the streets of London, you’d have been (and still are) likely to find the differences and nuances that exist between different areas and populations. Slang did not and does not exist as a whole that can be epitomised by “alternative language” but rather a form of communication that varies depending on location and upbringing.
And yet the issue remained concerning the necessity for students to be employable after school, seemingly restricted by their excessive dependence on informal language. To be clear, I am not belittling the issue, only deciphering its roots. To distinguish between language registers is one thing. To promote one by banning the other is ridiculous, intrusive and borderline dogmatic. Students needed to learn to see differences in formality just as they needed to understand there was nothing fundamentally incorrect or unacceptable with their customary way of speaking. Harris Academy was prioritising the former and forgetting about the latter.
How about the convenience of slang? It is important to acknowledge that slang is so much more than it is a deterrent to the English language. In fact, quite the opposite. Slang facilitates communication specific to an environment; something we, as humans, have always been prone to do. It teaches an individual to recognise certain patterns within society and adapt and relate to events and people that encompass them. If a more stringent approach was required in order to familiarise students with a higher level of formality, by all means, I’d let it be. More English lessons or more emphasis on the concept of limited job opportunities. Banning slang, however, would neither have fixed the issue nor was it the right approach towards it.
‘Slang is about creating an identity’ says Tony Thorne, a linguist and lexicographer who specialises in slang and jargon. It’s true. Slang is local, it’s exclusive. The establishment of an identity is vital in the development of an adolescent and slang often helps children achieve that. In a country (England) where school-based bullying and harassment was all too pervasive, permitting a method which encompassed a more supportive and tolerable environment should have been a no-brainer. Instead, Harris Academy chose to forbid its appearance within the school parameters without offering a legitimate reason as to why the speech itself – beyond the fact that it didn’t match the elegance of the “Queen’s English” – was bad.
Having lived in London for the initial stages of my life, being in an around (and sometimes part) of the so-called ‘ghetto grammar’ every day, I must proclaim that I had and have no such issues with it. Is it all grammatically correct? Perhaps not. Is it all comprehensible to a middle-aged man who grew in Cambridge? Not quite. Do I want to outlaw its existence whenever I hear a sentence begin with a conjunction? I’ll let you guess.
The twenty-first-century had been in full swing for thirteen years at the time when Harris Academy opted to ban slang. We had come leaps and bounds since the times when the prescription of cultural traits was the method of asserting dominance and power. Harris Academy’s dangerous narrow-mindedness showed us that we needed to refrain from jumping back to a 1938 fascist-run Germany. In essence, Harris Academy needed to… take a chill pill.