Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Should slang be suppressed in educational contexts?

I wrote this essay for one of my classes this semester.

Slang is a subject matter that has always been of great interest for linguists and teachers alike. While many might regard it as a distorted aberration of language, others are relatively pleased by the creativity and wit that are sparked by slang. In hindsight, it is commonly known that the younger generation will generate “a language of glitters and sparkles, of words that dazzle” (Dean 323) when they reach a particular age – which is profoundly influenced by friends, music videos and pop culture. And “like all slang, that of teenagers is language on a certain level, below both standard, formal English and colloquial speech, but above vulgarisms and illiterate usages” (Dean 323). Long have critics wondered whether slang puts adolescents at risk: can they still distinguish slang from the Standard variety? Does its ubiquitous usage prevent pupils from speaking ‘good’ English? Lastly, will their future be threatened by this tendency? (Barford bbc.co.uk) Consequently, the need for debate as to whether slang should be suppressed in educational contexts arose. Institutions like Manchester Academy were convinced that slang was indeed a damaging factor and banned the use of ‘street slang’ from their school grounds (Barford bbc.co.uk). However, we will discuss why such extreme measures are quite unnecessary and distasteful. Instead, schools must embrace the reality that slang remains “a second language within the school [that is] impossible to squelch and difficult to resist” (Heiman 249). More importantly, the usage of youth slang has quite a few advantages in other respects as well. Therefore, suppressing slang in educational contexts is clearly not an alternative that schools should opt for.

First of all, it is important to note that all distinctive groups, such as soldiers or police officers, will inevitably develop a language of their own. In other terms, it is a “natural human tendency” (qtd. in Barford bbc.co.uk) to produce slang to some extent. Needless to say again, adolescents are known to immerse in a group that tends to produce its own slang as well: they will come up with a personal set of words and sentences. Robert Beard, PhD of Linguistics and president of alphadictionary.com, assures us that slang is a “crucial part of a young person’s ‘coming of age’.” This form of language may differ from what is considered ‘proper’ English; nevertheless, youth slang should still be authorized in educational contexts because pupils should always be able to express themselves, even if that implies taking the liberty of using slang both outside and inside the classroom. As the slang expert Thorne observed, not only is this kind of language variety an inevitable phenomenon, but teachers must grasp that teenagers make use of slang in order to communicate with each other and express themselves. Dennis R. Dean, teacher at Palo Alto High School in California, states: “slang is language in which teenagers are demonstrably interested” (Dean 323).  If schools were to forbid slang, it would attack freedom of expression. Ultimately, slang is still an authentic way of expressing one’s feelings and opinions. Accordingly, institutions should never deprive teenagers of that right: banning slang from school property would mean  prohibiting students from speaking their minds.

Admittedly, some teachers fear that pupils might no longer be able to make a clear distinction between Standard English and slang. This is one of the main problems that teachers encounter with the usage of slang. In addition, they want their pupils to understand that slang is not appropriate at all times. Yet suppressing it in classrooms is not the solution that teachers should adopt in order to reach this goal. As a matter of fact, a number of educators are convinced that letting ‘slang’ enter the school premises will, on the contrary, help adolescents perfect their English. Elsa Russell, a teacher from Connecticut, wrote an article in the “The English Journal” in which she explained how she introduced a lesson on “slanguage” to her ninth-year English class. Russell instructed her pupils to submit a chart in which they would write down slang words and expressions they make use of on a daily basis. Then, they were asked to give their equivalent in ‘good’ English. Russell notes this was an exercise that caught the attention of her students immediately because “the class was obviously much more interested in the slang per se than in the equivalent King’s English expression” (741). Her goal was to make her students aware of these subtleties in language. In this regard, we can assess that, by acknowledging the nature of slang – instead of suppressing it – in educational contexts, pupils will be able to distinguish between Standard English and slang more effectively. Indeed, Heiman, coordinator of the English Department at the Monana Grove High School in Wisconsin, also says that “by recognizing [slang], analyzing it as English, and putting it to use, we might teach its users some things they may not know about the language, the way they use it, and, the way we would like them to use it. We may even discover that some of the excitement students exhibit in using a slang dialect can be transferred to their learning the standard dialect” (249). Both Heiman and Russell demonstrate that, by letting slang enter the classroom, pupils will comprehend the contrast between slang and ‘proper’ English better. It would even encourage them to improve their language skills. Hence, this is a further reason why slang should not be suppressed in educational contexts.

Another reason why slang should not be banned from school grounds is because teachers should also acknowledge the positive outcomes that this form of language engenders. Slang breathes creativity. It manifests the innovations of language. Not all slang must be thought of as a peculiarity. As a matter of fact, a large number of slang items and expressions serve a good purpose. David Crystal, who wrote “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English language”, states that “slang is a way of being witty and different as well as adding earthiness to the abstract. It can reduce the seriousness of an occasion or take the sting out of a refusal” (qtd. in Watson The English Magazine). Green, who published “Green’s Dictionary of Slang”, the largest slang dictionary in the English language, in March 2011; also attests that slang is “vibrant, creative, witty and open to seemingly infinite re-invention” (Peters cnn.com). In this regard, we can recognize why slang has its place in educational contexts. Teachers should admit that youth slang is ingenious. Whether in speaking or in writing, a slang term or expression has the potential to add color, depth or humor to language. As a consequence, we apprehend why slang should be authorized in educational contexts.

Finally, youth slang on school premises should not be suppressed because it gives the opportunity to discover new or interesting terms. Eventually, these terms could become an accepted part of Standard English. Generating slang also offers a chance to enrich one’s vocabulary.  In his article, Heiman explains that a slang term generally follows one of these patterns: some words, such as “skidoo”, become widely popularized but die as fast as they were invented. Other terms, such as “booze”, are born but remain in the slang register. Finally, a term that started off as slang, for instance “walkie-talkie”, can eventually become Standard English (250). The fact is that language is always evolving: new words and coinages emerge. Some that were once considered slang are now ‘proper’ English items. Slang in educational contexts should be allowed because many items that the younger generation introduces could be kept in the dictionary. Furthermore, slang is a fun way of finding clever or amusing synonyms for ‘proper’ Standard English words and expressions. In 2005, the Teacher Training Agency in the United Kingdom launched a campaign entitled “Linguist. Would you like to learn new words?” and compiled an E-cyclopedia of emerging new coinages and words that could benefit adults as well (bbc.co.uk).  This example shows that youth slang has its advantages. If teachers allow slang in educational contexts, they will be able to learn a few lessons from the younger generation as well. As Elsa Russell claims, slang, “if carefully selected,  is the living, breathing expression of today’s thoughts and may become accepted and classic form of tomorrow’s” (744). Therefore, slang should not be suppressed from school premises.

In light of these arguments, we can conclude that youth slang has a legitimate place in educational contexts. Generating slang is a natural human process that enables new forms of expressions to be created. Moreover, slang does not hinder pupils from speaking Standard English. On the contrary, by understanding and investigating the nature of slang, students become more aware of ‘proper’ English and are able to process in which situations it is more appropriate to use ‘formal’ English. Slang breathes creativity and what is considered youth slang today can be in tomorrow’s dictionary. For all these reasons, slang should not be suppressed in songs because it has a lot of advantages. In the end, like poet Whitman said, language is “some vast living body, or perennial body of bodies. And slang not only brings the first feeders of it, but it afterward the start of fancy, imagination and humor, breathing into its nostrils the breath of life” (435).


Sources

Barford, Vanessa. “Mind your slanguage.” BBC News. 08 December 2009. Accessed 04 November 2011.


Beard, Robert. “What is slang?” alphadictionary.com, 22 March 2006. Accessed 04 September 2011.


Dean, Dennis R. Slang is a language too.” The English Journal. Vol. 51, No. 5, pp. 323-326. National Council of Teachers of English: 1962.


Heiman, Ernest. “The Use of Slang in Teaching Linguistics.” The English Journal. Vol 56. No. 2, pp. 249-252. National Concil of Teachers of English:1967.


Peters, Mark. “New Bible of slang is published.” CNN. 03 March 2011. Accessed 04 November 2011.


Russell, Elsa. “Slang – Face to Face.” The English Journal. Vol. 23, pp. 740-744. National Council of Teachers of English: 1934.


Watson, Margaret. “Slang is it good or bad?” The English Magazine. 01 June 2010. Accessed 04 November 2011.
<http://www.english-magazine.org/index.php/english-language/1090-languagearticle.html>


Whitman, Walt. “Slang in America.” The North American Review. Vol. 141. No. 348, pp 431-435. University of Northern Iowa: 1885.


“A lexicon of teen speak.” BBC News. 10 June 2005. Accessed 04 November 2011
<http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4074004.stm>

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