Friday, 29 January 2010

Text speak spells disaster for good English.

January isn’t quite over yet and we’ve already seen the first contender for silly academic suggestion of the year, based as ever on ‘research’, strut into the ring and start flexing its muscles.

It takes the shape of a claim made by researchers at Coventry University that sending text messages helps children to improve their spelling because the process involved requires the same levels of ‘phonological awareness’ needed to choose the correct spelling for words in more conventional English.

All those fusty types who prefer archaic language such as ‘you are’ or even the chummy ‘you’re’ to the ugly UR (which is confusing since it could also mean ‘your ) were wrong. Text messaging and all its associated evils aren’t going to ruin the English language and send us back to the dark ages.

We know this to be true because Clare Wood, a reader in developmental psychology at Coventry University told the world this week, via the BBC, ‘If we are seeing a decline in literacy standards, it is in spite of text messaging, not because of it.’ Ms Wood is free to hold whatever opinion she likes, but I don’t plan to start feeling relieved about this issue any time soon.

Lets get one thing clear from the start, I recognise that language and technology change and that that is mostly to the good, I am, after all, writing this on a computer instead of a manual typewriter or scratching away at a bit of parchment with a quill pen. It doesn’t follow that all change is good and the changes text speak is bringing about in the English language are not good at all.

For start the whole contention that text speak requires that same skills as using conventional English is based on the whiskery old premise that in order to break the rules of English you first have to understand them. Fair enough so far as it goes, if where you start your relationship with language is in the cosy confines of a middle class, in the best sense of the term, home surrounded by books and blessed with supportive parents. You will have taken in with your mother’s milk the idea that being creative with the rules of language or anything else is ok so long as it isn’t taken too far.

Things don’t look anything like so rosy if you had the bad luck to be born into a home where books are as rare as unicorns and your parents are usually too busy, maybe they’re texting, to care what you’re doing most of the time. It is the children from backgrounds like this who most need to know that good clear English matters because they will always have to fight hardest to get their voice heard. Peppering application forms or the innumerable letters to one bureaucrat or another that take up so much of modern life with text speak, as so many do with out even knowing what they’ve done, means they are forever pushed to the back of the queue.

There is also the small matter of the way the fashion sanctioned illiteracy of text speak has seeped into everyday language. Not too long ago I came across a leaflet printed by my local council asking for young people to come forward to be youth councillors, splendid, you might think, just what we need more young people taking an active part in civic life. That’s what I thought, or would have done if the fact that in a desperate attempt to be ‘down with the kids’ the designers of the leaflet had deemed it necessary to ask for ‘uth’ councillors hadn’t made me grind my teeth down to the gums. How patronising for the young people they were seeking to recruit and how galling for their English teachers.

The English language has given the world some remarkable gifts from the plays of Shakespeare and the bleakly suburban poetry of Phillip Larkin, to the wisecracking dialogue of Raymond Chandler and the inspired lunacy of the Goon Show, to claim that text speak is anything other than an ugly, if functional, shadow compared to the real thing is enough to provoke the answer; don’t make me lol.


Sunday, 24 January 2010

Harman’s class act.

This week Harriet Harman, long since identified as the standard bearer for all things out of touch and politically correct in the demonology on modern British politics, did something that requires considerable courage; she broached the subject of social class and its influence on the life chances of individuals.

In a speech made to left leaning think tank Compass last Thursday she said, ahead of a government sponsored report due to be released next week, that while she recognised the continued presence of racial and gender related prejudice there was ‘overarching and interweaving with these a persistent inequality of social class.’

The report is expected to show that children from poorer backgrounds are less well prepared to start school and that the average lifespan in wealthy areas is thirteen years longer than in disadvantaged ones. She went on to say the government had used ‘public policy interventions to halt the rising tide of inequality,’ much of which she said had been created during the years of Conservative rule from 1979 to 1997.

Responding to the speech Ms Harman’s Tory shadow Theresa May said that ‘over the past twelve years social mobility has stalled’ and claimed that faced with this all the Labour Party could do was ‘reach for the old fashioned response of class war.’

A Tory government, she said, would ‘deal with the causes of poverty and inequality, including educational failure, family breakdown and worklessness.’

In a week when the nation recoiled in horror from the details of the brutal attack carried out by two boys, aged respectively ten and eleven, in the former mining town of Edlington the hysterical tone of the debate may come across as distasteful but its subject matter is no less pertinent.

For the past quarter of a century social class, specifically the seemingly unstoppable growth of a feral underclass has been a subject nobody has wanted to talk about. The Tories tried to distract attention from it by claiming to have abolished the class system by allowing people to buy their council housed, the small matter of social housing being needed for a reason and if it disappears the problems it provided for will only become worse doesn’t seem to have registered on their radar. New Labour, as part of its admittedly brilliant marketing strategy under Tony Blair in the mid nineties sold everybody the notion that we’re all middle class now, at least we were so long as their new friends in the city kept coming through with limitless credit. Now that credit has dried up many of the people who maxed out their cards trying to ‘live the dream’ have got a ringside seat as it turns into a nightmare.

Recently class has made it back onto the agenda with David Cameron promising in his speech to the Tory party conference that the Conservatives would be the ‘party of the poor’, to date though his prescription for mending ‘broken Britain’ seems to consist of little more than a lukewarm promise of a tax break for married couples. There are people on the right talking sensibly about tackling inequality such as former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, but, like Labour’s Frank Field in the nineties, he is likely to be relegated to the fringes of the party once it returns to government.

The real burden of tackling social inequality rests with the Labour Party because issues of class are the reason for its existence. They are also what could bring about its destruction since the areas where the greatest hardships have been felt over the past quarter century also happen to be, nominally at least, Labour strongholds.

In her awkward, right-on way Harriet Harman seems to have recognised that Labour has to start talking about class, it’s too late for doing so to save them from losing the coming election, but it might just give the party a foundation upon which to build a new identity, one based on policy rather than the dark arts of spin.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Wisdom of the ages.

Most people think the big media story of the past week was Chris Evans taking over the Radio 2 breakfast show formerly presented by national treasure Terry Wogan; most people are wrong. The big story is the return to the airwaves of Moira Stewart.

Its big news because three years ago the BBC decided that Ms Stewart, a much respected journalist well on the way to achieving national treasure status herself, was too old to read the news and dropped her in favour of a monstrous regiment of ‘auto cuties.’

As always happens when a national treasure is trashed in the name of modernity there was a public outcry, the BBC was accused of being ageist and taking another shambling step in the direction of dumbing down. Similar accusations were fired off last year when Arlene Phillips, the acid tongued judge on Strictly Come Dancing, was dropped in favour of Aleysha Dixon.

Never one to let a band wagon pass her by Women’s Minister Harriet Harman told the BBC’s The World this Weekend programme last week that the BBC’s axing of any female news reader over the age of forty was a result of the media’ finding it possible to value the older man’ but not the older woman. Ms Harman, who also coined the cringe worthy term ‘wellderly’ for anyone in possession of a free bus pass who is sprightly enough to get out and use it, is a mostly irrelevant presence in that national debate, but just this once she has hit the age related nail squarely on its greying head.

The BBC, and all the other news channels in the UK, are groaning at the seems with middle aged men but have a policy towards women of the same vintage that seems to have been inspired by seventies sci-fi flick Logan’s Run. Never shy about jumping on bandwagons itself the BBC has stepped up to the plate and brought Moira Stewart back to read the news on Radio 2 and is hiring four ‘older’ women to read the news on television. Arlene Phillips has been given her own dance programme and all is right with the world; at least so they think.

You and just about everybody else might think different and with good reason. Tagging older women as another minority group to be placated in the name of ticking the right boxes is a compliment with a backhand like Boris Becker’s. Deciding that someone’s age, or their colour, gender or sexual preference for that matter, is the most interesting thing about them is little more than prejudice with good manners.

The fact that the BBC and other broadcasters think we the viewers are more concerned with who reads the news than the details of the stories they are covering says everything about their attitude to current affairs.

The equation is ugly in its simplicity and follows these lines; age equals gravitas and serious ideas while youth stands for unthreateningly photogenic triviality. Needless to say in a television culture where the most serious thought crime of them all is thinking itself triviality is always going to win the day.

Age, of course, brings with it a sense of perspective and it might be no bad idea to have a moratorium on hiring newsreaders under the age of forty. Older journalists might have had the wit to treat the two biggest news stories of the past month, the cold snap and the Hewitt/Hoon coup against Gordon Brown as minor distractions rather than major catastrophes

I don’t advocate a return to the days when newsreaders, on the BBC at least, all wore evening dress and stood to attention before the microphone, the twenty four hour news cycle has changed our relationship with the news, increasingly people want to be participants in the process rather than passive consumers. That the viewing public also wants to be treated like adults and to see people on screen that reflect the whole spectrum of ages and races in society shouldn’t really be news to anyone.


Friday, 8 January 2010

Nothing to say for Britain’s tongue tied teens.

The grunting uncommunicative teenager is one of the classic cartoon images of modern British adolescence, if the findings of a YouGov poll released this week are correct it could hide an uncomfortable reality.

The poll, in which 1015 parents were questioned, found that 1in6 children in the UK, a quarter of them boys, had trouble learning to speak and out of these more than half had little or no access to help.

The report was carried out on the instructions of Jean Gross, England’s first ‘Communication Champion’, who told the BBC on the day its findings were announced ‘Our ability to talk is fundamental and underpins everything else. Learning to talk is one of the most important skills a child can master.’

Six out of ten of the parents questioned by YouGov agreed, saying that the ability to talk, listen and understand was the most important skill for a child to master in its early years, I shudder to think what the other four people questioned gave as an answer. Maybe they didn’t give an answer at all; maybe they just grunted.

You could be facetious about teenagers who pepper every sentence they utter with ‘like’ and ‘whatever’, isn’t that just how teenagers have always talked, meaning in a patois totally baffling to anyone over twenty five. That would be a mistake, yes teens have always used slang to separate their identity from that of their parents, doing so is a part of growing up and becoming a person in your own right, but there is huge gulf between that and being dangerously inarticulate.

Think of the slouching, hooded, binge drinking teenagers so beloved of tabloid columnists out to scare their readers and at the root of their problems is often an inability to communicate on either a written or verbal level, in fact the two are closely related. A student who finds it difficult to make his point verbally is hardly likely to ask for help with his lessons and so the cycle of exclusion gets more vicious with every turn.

I must admit to being more than a little dubious about the ability of a government appointed ‘Communication Champion’, complete with an office in central London staffed by a marching corps of civil servants to address the problems. Ms Gross could, and should, campaign for parents to be given more flexible working hours to allow them to spend more time interacting with their children, reading a picture book with mother (or father for that matter) is a splendid way for a child to learn about things like turn taking in conversation and to expand its vocabulary, but as cutting the budget deficit becomes ever more of a priority she may face a long struggle before she can produce even the most modest of results.

Perhaps we should, instead, think about the way in which personal interaction is being steadily eroded from our everyday lives. We shop, bank and, increasingly, socialise online and even supermarket checkouts have are rapidly being automated, all of which is undeniably quicker and more cost effective. At least it is if you count the cost in financial terms alone, the social cost though is quite different.

A child who experiences the interaction involved in running errands for its parents to the neighbourhood shops learns, without the addition of another burden on the already groaning national curriculum, how to interact in social situations, a skill that will be invaluable in later life. It would be a tragedy if our paranoia about child abduction and love of technology were to mean that future generations would be denied that experience.

One of the lighter notes to be found in the YouGov survey was that the most common first word spoken by babies in the UK is ‘Dadda’, experts claim this is because the ‘da’ sound is easy to reproduce. If we aren’t careful in a few years time baby’s first words might be ‘unexpected item in bagging area’ instead.


Friday, 1 January 2010

Absent without hope.

Persistent absence from school is five times higher in the poorest areas of Britain than in the leafy suburbs. An estimated 50,000 youngsters in deprived areas miss at least one day of school each week according to a survey carried out by the Conservative Party.

The government recognises the link between regular school attendance and good exam results and has spent £1.4 billion on measures designed to combat truancy. Despite this 6.1% of children in 10% of the country’s poorest areas are persistently absent from school compared to 1.2% in better off areas.

The statistical soup in which it has been expressed highlights some of the problems afflicting the education system in this country, namely that gathering and measuring data about students has to a large extent replaced turning out well rounded young people as the core mission of our schools, even so the problem of truancy amongst children from the poorest backgrounds should be cause for concern.

As shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove said earlier this week ‘Children that are missing a fifth of their schooling inevitably struggle to keep up, which leads to problems with low achievement and poor behaviour.’ David Cameron’s new model Tories have been determinedly vague when it comes to policy commitments but, under the direction of Iain Duncan Smith, they have been consistent in recognising the desperate situation the poorest people in our country.

No so the government, who, after all, have the power to address the situation and a moral obligation to do so since the Labour movement was founded by educated working people, in response to these latest truancy figures Schools Minister Vernon Coaker accused the Tories of misinterpreting the data and said that the government was working to make ‘school an exciting place and challenging children when they didn’t attend.’

That soft thud you can hear is the sound of a ministerial head being neatly buried in the sand. There is no polite way of saying it, much of the experience of being educated is deadly dull, no heart ever leapt with joy at the prospect of memorising the times tables or taking a spelling test, wise heads on young shoulders usually recognise that the dull mechanics are worth enduring in order to experience the benefits having an education can bring in later life.

If they are serious about repairing ‘broken Britain’ the Tories will have to drive this not at all popular message to a generation of young people raised on the glittering falsehoods of reality television and the instant fame and fortune offered to X Factor contestants. That may well involve dragging reluctant kids to school and prosecuting the parents who failed to send them there in the first place and remodelling the nation’s teachers as educators instead of entertainers desperately trying to ‘engage’ their bored students.

It won’t make them popular, but it might just give the next generation the benefit of a decent education rather than a sentence to a life on benefits.


No more ‘legs 11’ if the killjoys have their way.

This week I have been given good reason to fear for the health of the British sense of humour and its long term partner good old fashioned common sense.

John Sayers (75), a bingo caller in Kent has been warned off using well known phrases such as ‘two fat ladies’ (88) and ‘legs 11’ by the local council because ‘there may be two large ladies in the audience or someone might think I’m looking at their legs.’

An official for the council told the press, ‘we have to be politically correct’ and said that although the ban was ‘sad because such phrases are part of the fun of bingo, but, unfortunately, in today’s society people take it literally.’

Fun, I’m guessing, is something the humourless drones employed by Kent County Council think happens under laboratory conditions, never mind the fact that the sort of large ladies who play bingo take the supposed insult contained in phrases like ‘two fat ladies’ and worse in their stride some bureaucrat has decided to take offence for them and so another little bit of colour is pressed out of life.

I don’t usually approve of making New Year’s resolutions or suggesting ones other people should make, but this year I’ll make an exception. Lets make 2010 the year when we tell the dough faced bureaucrats of the ‘political correctness’ brigade to go take a long walk off a very short cliff.