Many people use slang in order to fit in with their friends and wider peers. Common teenage slang includes words such as ‘bare’, ‘like’, ‘innit’ and ‘coz’. Headteachers at a school in London, The Harris Academy’, have decided that these words are not appropriate and have banned the use of them in school buildings. Their aim is for students to be prepared for the wider working world and feel that a secure grasp of Standard English is important for this.
To some extent, I do agree. Standard English is the accepted dialect of professional workplaces and academic institutions up and down the country. Most adults believe that there is a ‘proper’ way to speak and they look down upon slang – but are they missing out? Youth slang is an important part of youth identity. Teenagers adopt slang words for a variety of reasons, but perhaps the most important is the building of personal identity.
Let’s take a closer look at the word ‘bare’. It is a word that means ‘lots of’ or ‘many’ and has it’s origins in MLE (Multi-ethnic London English). When listening in on a friends conversation, I noticed that they used the phrase ‘I’ve got bare homework, man. It’s long’ The use of the word bare, as opposed to ‘lots of’ strengthens their opinion about the homework. It is a defiant statement and invites a friendly and informal moaning session about their homework. While adopting the phrase may be sub-conscious, the implication is that they are young and up to date with ‘street slang’. Had that student said ‘Goodness gracious, I have a gargantuan mountain of homework to complete’ their friend might not have been so open to joining in the conversation. In fact, it could even isolate that friend, who may find the tone too formal.
This brings me to the point of code-switching. Instead of trying to suggest that there is only one way to speak, I feel that it is more important to know how to code-switch. Varying talk according to context and audience is a skill that all of us possess – we understand that we should simplify for younger children or be respectful to authority. Additionally, code-switching register is a skill which proves that far from sounding like they’ve had a ‘frontal-lobotomy’ (Lindsay Johns), students are actually far more skilled linguistically than most adults might believe.
I listened to that same student speak in an English class at school and they were able to execute perfect Standard English in a formal presentation towards the class. Their register switched to a confident and sophisticated tone when they spoke about an historical figure who was’ knighted for gallantry’. This successful speech showed that the student was fully capable of speaking formally for over 3 minutes. Listeners, including the teacher, were very impressed and the student revealed themselves to be far from uneducated. The vocabulary is advanced and impressive leading listeners to trust their informed opinions.
However, when I surveyed staff about their opinions on students ability to code-switch, the results weren’t entirely optimistic. 55% of teachers at my school believe that only ‘some’ students have the ability to switch between using slang and Standard English. Many of them are worried about how this could impact the future with one teacher saying that it ‘limits your ability to communicate with the widest range of people’. This suggests that it might be a big problem which schools need to face.