By Rob Drummond
Last week in my final year undergraduate Linguistics class we listened to Lindsay Johns’ 2013 contribution to BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought programme, on the subject of what he calls ‘Ghetto Grammar’. I hadn’t listened to it since around this time last year, and I’d forgotten just how much I disagree with much of what he says, as well as how he says it. My feelings against his views have probably strengthened over the last year due to the fact that I am spending more and more time working with young people from very similar backgrounds to the ones Lindsay Johns himself talks about. [I should say, I’m not the first person to comment on this programme, see for example the excellent points made by Dan Clayton here and here.]
Johns’ basic argument is that language is power, and that by using slang rather than standard English, young people in Britain’s urban centres are in danger of doing themselves a disservice when it comes to participating in the world of university and jobs. So far, so good. I can’t see anybody disagreeing with these sentiments – they show a common sense attitude towards the fact that we live in a society in which there is a more or less broadly recognisable standard form of the language, and this is the form that is expected to be used in situations such as job interviews, college applications and so on. Unfortunately, Johns goes on to provide a lot more detail.
The first target for Johns’ criticism is the language itself, which he describes as ‘moronic’ and the type of speech ‘which makes you sound like you’ve just had a frontal lobotomy’. I just don’t get this. I don’t understand how anyone can spend time with young people speaking street slang [this is Johns’ term, so I’ll use it here] and not appreciate that is has its own unique sophistication and complexity. At its best, when spoken by expert users, it is no less rich and expressive than so-called standard English. I use the term ‘expert users’ deliberately to highlight the fact that just with any variety of language, there are people who are more or less proficient in its use. Many people use standard English clumsily or in an unsophisticated way, yet they generally don’t come in for the same degree of criticism. Admittedly, some regional varieties of English come in for a hard time, yet I doubt if someone would be able to appear on a serious Radio 4 programme and claim that people from Birmingham sound like they’ve been lobotomised.
Johns also takes great delight in attacking ‘left-wing academics, liberal commentators and educators’ who assert the legitimacy of street slang. He says that
Contrary to the risible notions promulgated by cultural relativists – often white, liberal, middle class ones – notions which are deeply patronising, obnoxious and offensive, not to mention viscerally racist, of accepting black kids from Peckham speaking in inchoate street slang because they deem it to be the “authentic rhythms of Africa”, I tell my mentees “We don’t live in Timbuktu, or the south Bronx; we live in England, so speak proper English.”
Again, it’s hard to know where to start. I think I can say for absolute certain that no linguist, however relativist, white, liberal, or middle class they may be, has ever used the term ‘authentic rhythms of Africa’ to describe urban youth language. Yes, most would argue for its authenticity and legitimacy as language, but I fail to see how this is in any way racist, especially given the far from straightforward role ethnicity appears to be playing in its use. Surely the statement ‘we live in England, so speak proper English’ (whatever that might be) is far more in danger of being seen in those terms.
But in many ways, these two arguments – against the language itself and against apologisers for it – are predictable and superficial. People have always complained about the deterioration of language in the younger generations, and people (especially regular contributors to the Daily Mail and the Conservative party conference such as Johns) have always had a go at lefty liberals. What is far more damaging is Johns’ complete disregard for the notion of code-switching, or the ability of young people to be able to use standard English when necessary. [I must admit, I myself have my doubts as to the value of the term ‘code-switching’ to refer to this linguistic practice, as it implies the speaker is making a complete switch from one variety to another, just as a bilingual might do between two completely different languages. More realistically, it is a process of using particular linguistic variants or patterns of linguistic features which shift the overall nature of the variety being used. However, that is a technical point of terminology.] To disregard the idea that young people can and should be able to shift their language to be more appropriate in different contexts makes no sense at all. After all, this is precisely what most of us do all the time to a greater or lesser degree as we negotiate our way through our day to day lives. For some, especially those who by accident of birth and upbringing happen to naturally use a standard variety of English and then also work in an environment where this variety is expected, this will involve only very minor adjustments; but for others, where upbringing or home life contrasts with work life, the shifting will be more substantial. But this skill is a fundamental part of successful human communication, and it is precisely this skill that we should be encouraging young people to acquire.
Johns disagrees, and sees things very differently. Rather than encourage code-switching/shifting, he simply wants to change the way the young people who he works with in Peckham speak. Instead of seeing the inherent value in being able to adjust one’s language in order to fit the context, he wants to teach the young people to abandon their natural way of speaking and use what he sees as ‘proper English’. He sees success as being achievable by young people being able to use words such as ‘ubiquitous’, ‘judicious’, and ‘ephemeral’ in everyday conversation, and he sees acceptance of street slang as ‘a wicked betrayal of young people’. Changing the way young people speak, he argues, is the only way they will be freed from ‘ghettos of the mind’.
Once again, I don’t know anybody who would argue against the value in acquiring the ability to operate in standard English. But to encourage the abandonment of one’s own natural way of speaking (and it is a natural way of speaking, see work on Multicultural London English) in the process is a spectacularly short-sighted and potentially damaging way to go about it. Language is so inextricably linked to issues of identity, community, friendship, and social practice, that to stigmatise and attack a particular way of speaking so strongly is to stigmatise and attack the very young people who use it. This seems a very strange way to go about empowering young people – to go out of your way to denigrate the very communities of which they are part. If the overall aim is to pluck a few young people from (often deprived) urban backgrounds, get them to turn their backs on where they came from and embrace a new identity and a new way of speaking, then fine. But if the aim is to improve young people’s chances in life by giving them the skills to operate linguistically successfully in different contexts, then surely the way forward is to encourage the ability and awareness to code-switch/shift.
Lindsay Johns himself speaks very eloquently, and I have no doubt that he is the model he would like his young people to emulate. But while it would undoubtedly be advantageous for a young person to speak like Johns in a job interview (perhaps with somewhat fewer flowery adjectives) it would simply not be appropriate for that same person to continue that way of speaking when he or she was back with their friends. And this is the point Johns fails to grasp again and again – there simply is not one singular ‘better’ way of speaking, there are ways of speaking that are more or less appropriate in any given context. Just as standard English is the favoured option in a job interview, street slang is by far the best option when the job interview is over and the young person is back to the day to day practice of interacting with, and negotiating their place in, their social networks. It is Johns’ failure to appreciate this that is betraying young people, and not their inability to use words like ‘ubiquitous’.
We live in a society in which prejudice against the way people speak is widespread and normal. But just as with any form of prejudice, the answer is not to simply accept it and change the way we behave just so we can fit in with that narrow-minded view. Surely the answer is to raise awareness as to the value of language diversity, while at the same time being realistic enough to equip all young people with the tools to successfully negotiate an imperfect world.