Banning Slang? Just Bare Crazy, Innit?

A few years ago whilst still teaching in London I was one of a group of teachers that took a coach load of teenagers to the south of France to live by a river for a week. The trip involved students canoeing, mountain biking, raft buiding and swinging from ropes too high for me. I remember one evening camping by the side of the Ardeche River listening to the students as they chatted, gossiped and mickey took around the camp fire. Their conversation was littered with the often alien lexicon of the teenager. Words such as “bare”, “nang”, “butters” “peng” and “wasteman” darted between them like some secret code. Interested in the orgin, use and meaning of this slang we began to talk with the students about how teenage slang can change depending on region. I tried to remember the the slang terms that I relied on growing up in Swansea I got no further than “stonking” (today’s ‘fit’) and “minging” (still popular today, apparently?) Sat under the stars that evening we decided that upon our return to school we would try to introduce a new slang term. After much discussion we decided on the word “tender”. On their return to school the students would start using the word “tender” to decribe anything positive, such as “those trainers is tender, where’d you get them from?” or “Did you see Bergkamp’s goal on Saturday? It was tender, man”. My intention was to prove to the students that language is in constant change often depending on fashion, location, usage and context. Needless to say, as an English teacher I was pretty excited by this little sociolinguistic experiment. I was reminded of this episode this week when reading about how the Harris Academy Upper Norwood has banned the use of slang by its students. Even going so far as to have a banned list displayed around the school.

Surely, the people (let’s call them language Nazis)  who have decided and created this are missing the point. The use of slang is not new and, I believe, it enriches and colours our language use. So it comes down to where and when it is used. The Language Nazis of Upper Norwood (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d write!) seem fearful that such language will find it’s way into students’ essay writing and more formal learning. So teach them about context, about audience and about purpose. Don’t outlaw something. That’s the easy optiom.

Historically, banning things has often resulted in a black market or under-the-counter trade. The prohibition of alcohol in 1920s America perhaps the most obvious example that springs to mind. Perhaps Norwood will see, just like the US did, a Prohibition King Pin like Al Capone (Let’s call him Slang Capone?) seize the black market. Only this time they’ll be dealing in slanguage as opposed to beverage. I can see the students now, nipping around the back of the science block to get their fix of “ain’ts, cozs, wozs and yeahs”  A quick drag on an “innit” and then back inisde to have your langauge cleansed by the dullard that introduced this idea. It’s just soooo extra.

Language lives, language breathes and language evolves. Let students play with it, let them mess it up, fix it and break it again. Give them the chance to learn about context and the whens, wheres, when nots and where nots of the use of slang.

As for tender? It kind of died out after a week. But for a short time we showed how  language meaning is not fixed it, the rules are not always hard and fast. Now that was exciting, Bare exciting.

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