Oracy, Labov and Linguists

There are references in my relatively recent book, ‘The Fascist Painting – What is Cultural Capital?’ to the work of linguist, William Labov. Labov’s work, of which I’ll admit to having read only one paper, ‘The Logic of Non-Standard English’, is fascinating. His detailed study of the African American slang of parts of New York in the late 1960s revealed to him that the grammar of such speech was every bit as logical as that of what we call Standard English. Labov is pleasingly satirical on academic language and the valourisation and reward of verbosity on the academic sphere: it is “easily taught and easily learnt so that words take the place of thought, and nothing can be found behind them”[1] (which reads like a pointedly apposite review of Matthew Arnold’s writing – ‘the worst that has been mangled and garbled’) and is also “turgid, redundant and empty”.[2] He points out something from that time in that place that remains true transplanted across the Atlantic half a century later: that there is (generally) no connection between skill in speech in working class forms of language and success in the classroom.

You could argue that for some young people immersion in hip hop culture and its lyricism might cross over into a love for poetry and certainly some of the more elevated users of language in that art form appear to have been listening when assonance and internal rhyme was explained. But, overall, it remains that language, an area in which the working class of whatever colour have profound achievements, is rewarded in schools only if it is used in its approved forms.

Linguists, whose expertise I bow to, as I know little about their subject, have recently been commenting on a school having created a proscribed list of phrases that are banned from lessons. While some of the banned grammatical practices are frankly absurd: banning students from starting sentence with ‘because’ either ignores or doesn't know the fact starting sentences with subordinating conjunctions is an important skill for students to have in their belt (because I taught him that he could, the child started a complex sentence with ‘because’), this strikes me as entirely well intentioned and I am marginally concerned that the linguists know not what they do here. No teacher is, I think or hope, arguing that Standard English is a superior form of language to other varieties (though it is plausible this could be an assertion one might picture coming out of the mouths of some of the least intelligent of the new brutalists), and the school has been very careful to note that they are not seeking to police students’ language in break time or at lunch.

What I do know, as a teacher of English with twenty-five years experience, is that there is a feedback loop between speaking and writing: get better at speaking, you get better at writing, and, more counter intuitively, get better at writing and you get better at speaking; so it makes sense to me to be very careful with forms of spoken expression in a classroom. As a result, much to my surprise, I think the traditionalists are nearer the truth than those arguing against them here. Whether it is right or not, and this is another debate, Standard English is the only real game in town in terms of oracy that will be likely rewarded in school environments and the school, quite innocently, I think, is merely trying to ensure that students are as fluent in this as they are able to help them to become. It is likely that linguists, no matter how serious their expertise in their chosen field, haven't had, like, to examine and find reason, like, to award some form of grade, yeh, to a student, yeh, whose speech is almost entirely made up of fillers, y’know, and I think the school had a right and maybe even a duty to do something to broach this.

If we are seeking to culturally capitalize our students then it is worth acknowledging that Pierre Bourdieu himself claimed that cultural capital is, “Language, first of all: a certain mastery of language”[3] and the school is merely working with the understanding that this “certain mastery” has to be of a certain form to meet with much reward worth having.

[1] William Labov, The Logic of Nonstandard English, P44 (1969)

[2] William Labov, The Logic of Nonstandard English, P44 (1969)

[3] Pierre Bourdieu – Sociology is a Martial Art, dir. Pierre Charles (2001).

Added Mon, 11 Oct 2021 12:44

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