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.


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