By Dan J Broadley
Old people complain about the way young people talk. They ‘butcher’ the English language according to our elders. But this, according to Dr Rob Drummond, is nothing new. The older generation have slated the way youngsters use language for centuries, as far back as the Victorians’ use of English and, even further, early first millennia use of Latin.
Monday evening saw Humanities in Public (HiP) bring us Dr Drummond’s presentation at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) on youth’s current use of language as part of the HiP Multi-Lingual Life strand events.
Rob received his PhD from the University of Manchester for researching the acquisition of local dialect by Polish people living in Manchester. He is now co-director of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies based at MMU.
Speaking to Humanity Hallows at the pop-up Bilingual Cafe which will be a feature of the whole HiP Languages strand, Dr Drummond shared his thoughts on the current state of language and the role of education. He told us,
“I think schools have a duty to ensure children use language appropriately. I don’t subscribe to the idea that there’s a ‘proper English’ children should use, there’s just different English that should be used in different situations.”
“Language is neither deteriorating nor getting better, it is simply changing as it always has done.”
Rob opened the lecture by explaining that people complaining about the way young people use language is nothing new. He pointed out that age, ethnicity, identity, gender, sexuality, class, region and context all play a part in how we use language. For example, I certainly don’t speak to my grandparents at a family get together the same way that I talk to my mates at pre-drinks …
The lecture moved on to criticise Lindsay Johns, a writer and mentor who teaches young people in Peckham to speak ‘proper English’. Prejudice lies at the very heart of this – just because somebody speaks in a particular way it does not mean they are a particular way, which puts people at a disadvantage.
He went on to discuss prescriptivism and descriptivism, which are the beliefs that language should have strict rules to be followed (prescriptivism) versus the idea we that we should be able to use language freely without being heckled by the Apostrophe Protection Society every time we use a possession apostrophe in place of a plural one (descriptivism).
However, the main subject of the lecture was Rob’s current research project, which is funded by The Leverhulme Trust, at two Manchester pupil referral units and one mainstream Manchester high school. It involves Rob and Dr Susan Dray and very much focuses on the use of language by young people in the Manchester area, particularly in relation to being stigmatised or disadvantaged due to the way they speak.
Rob took us through the process of the research of observations and collecting vast notes and data of the children’s language use, such as creating a list of words they use and asking them to define them and if they consider it English or not.
The research is ongoing and, despite the challenges, has already thrown up some interesting findings. Rob concluded by saying ethnicity likely has an effect on our language use, but asked whether it is we who link features of language to ethnicity?
The bilingual cafe which preceded the talk was, this week, based on the theme of Catalan culture and dialect as well as wider issues around perceptions about accent and dialect and the loss/preservation of European minority dialects. Humanities in Public Project Assistant, Jim Moore, told us,
“The bilingual café provided a space (and free tea & coffee!) for students, staff and members of the public to have an informal discussion about aspects of ‘multilingual living’. It was a great warm-up for Rob’s talk as it got everybody engaging with some of the themes that will be coming up in the Multi-lingual Life events over the next few weeks.”
This was yet another interesting event from MMU’s Humanities in Public team who have more Multi-Lingual Life events coming up with a panel presentation on Monday 16th March at MMU’s Geoffrey Manton and a one day multi-lingual film festival on Saturday 14th at the Manchester Conference Centre. For more information please visit hssr.mmu.ac.uk/hip/
Anarcho-libertarian Dan J Broadley is a creative writing student at MMU and has hopes to become a novelist.