Street Talk has no place in nurseries

In the Evening Standard on Tuesday 16th August  (Ghetto grammar robs the young of a proper voice)  Lindsay Johns touched on something I have been passionate about for a long time; the importance that  people  and especially those working with young children learn to speak using correct grammar.  While Johns focused particularly on young people, his point applies to everyone.  According to Johns

 “Young people are rendering themselves unintelligible and often unemployable by mainstream adult society”

At LEYF, we have a programme to train young people, many of whom are NEETs to become nursery staff. It is a crucial responsibility in the light of the depressing  current statistics which according to a recent report by IPPR tell us that unemployment among NEETs is the highest since 2000 with  over a million 16 to 24-year-olds languishing on benefits;  up by 18 per cent – in a single year. With this level of unemployment among young people and the battle for jobs played out on a global scale we have to apply a collective duty to empower our children and give them a fighting chance. As we know that speaking correctly is a success indicator, it is therefore incumbent on each and everyone one of us to do something collectively to challenge the current disgraceful acceptance of the existing situation. It has also huge implications for our next generation. I certainly see evidence of what Johns was commenting on, the  increase in text speak and punctuations of innit, yeah right and no I never is very evident among many young staff.  Too many staff think this is alright and fail to intervene and staff who can speak using grammar correctly often feel they cannot intervene because they may be seen as patronising. One said to me recently, I just had to say something June and explain that there was no such word as worser! 

The Early Years has already got a reputation for attracting the nice but dim and its the reason I have always insisted that we speak grammatically correctly no matter what accent we have. Even last week in the Financial Times Weekend, Rachel Johnson was commenting that she still cannot believe she ended up at Oxford without the support of her school because in truth she was just suitable to be a beautician or a nursery nurse. So the stereotype is alive and kicking. However, we will simply  reinforce the stereotype that staff working in the Early Years are unintelligent if we fail to challenge and insist on staff thinking about what they say and how they say it. Johns is quite right how you speak and  the range of vocabulary you use determines how people see you and measure your intelligence.  Language and communication is a vital indicator of success in this society, one we start measuring from the time the child is two years old; so why should it be different later on? 

When I first started insisting that we had to have a stand on this, many years ago,  I was called a crank, told it was not my business to correct staff.  I was incensed as I could see that we were disempowering young people by not setting expectations and trying to fool them into believing that street talk was acceptable.  It was compounded by lazy marking attitudes from Awarding Bodies which told us not to focus on grammar. Now  we have an epidemic with scary consequences for the next generation.

At LEYF,  I have waged an internal war for staff to speak grammatically correctly.  It grieves me to hear grown adults unable to use the verb “to be “ correctly, rely on slang and use double negatives randomly. They tell me it’s their accent or they way they learned to speak.  It’s none of those things but a combination of laziness and arrogance where people think speaking like an infant and using the rich English language in a limited way is satisfactory.

Many children are sent to nurseries to learn to speak English.  They often come from poor backgrounds where their parents have English as a second language. Therefore, for many children they have started life with a disadvantage.  Our job is to help overcome this and get them on the road to success. One way to do that is to help them achieve a competent grasp of the language and offer them the chance to develop a broad vocabulary. Language is power and the ability to communicate has a huge importance and with it comes the  perception about intelligence. James Heckman, the Nobel prize-winning economist conducted much research on the success factors for children. Unsurprisingly, their ability to communicate and the richness of the communication was critical. He found that by three years old a child from a poor background may have acquired up to 500 words while a child from a professional home will have achieved 1100. That gap was almost impossible to reduce and the impact for many was life long.

So if we continue to allow the acceptance of infantile speak as the norm among young children we simply take ten steps backwards.  Those trendy media presenters who try to do street talk to sound cool are mostly well-educated , successful people who can play the game and code switch.  This is not an option for many young people and it will certainly not be an option for children taught to speak English by adults who have a limited vocabulary and an inability and unwillingness to speak grammatically correctly.

How dare we think it’s acceptable to fail the next generation by playing the liberal game of pretend equality. We have a duty to ensure all children learn to speak English with a flair and competence that is not just possible but will excite and empower them and enable them to embrace some of the 100,000 words available within the English language. As Johns says

The better they speak the more others especially in positions of power will be inclined to take them seriously.  Embracing proper English unlocks intellectual feat  we have a duty of linguistic care.



  1. #1 by June on September 6, 2011 - 6:23 pm

    Hello and thank you for your comments. You seem to miss my point which is that all children need to be able, as indeed you can, articulate in formal English. They will have many opportunities to learn and practise their street talk but if we don’t teach them to code switch, they are lumbered and limited. While I agree language changes and evolves, actually the formal codes rarely change much and its unlikely that we will have street talk in the board room because language is contextual as much as anything. This is why children need to know how to use langauge that gives them access to every situation that opens doors for them. We have no right to let our values limit their choice and opportunities.

  2. #2 by Pete Millington on September 1, 2011 - 4:13 pm

    I think it’s June who is limiting herself here, whilst I concur with the point that none of us should limit our language and expression, her central thrust is that the vocabulary and articulation of the able bodied, higher educated, Anglo Saxon, middle class, elite is superior to all else. British teenagers in hoodies standing outside a looted Manchester shopping centre and speaking into the camera in an LA Hip Hop street vernacular may well irritate the pants off most of us (whether those pants are visible above the trouser line or not), but to then construct a whole premis that ‘difference’ therefore equals ‘dim’ is intellectual snobbery …at the very least. What comes to my mind is the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch where one of them translates “momma gotta brand new bag” as “the Harlem mother goes into the market place and purchases a brightly coloured shopping bag” in a perfect 1950s BBC accent. Actually street talk, alongside patois, local accents, even 1960s hippy vernacular, etc, etc, is often much richer, more direct, more expressive, more colourful and more intuitive than Grammar school repetition of amo, amat, amamus, and it’s all organic as opposed to being constructed by a self elected cultural elite. I thought we’d moved on from Biddy Baxter chastising Joan Noakes for his occasional bit of northern vocab years ago. As Bob Dylan said “some men will rob you with a fountain pen”, in other words, being precise, articulate and professional doesn’t equate to being good, far from it indeed, and maybe it’s that continuing hiprocisy that young people are actually kicking against by creating their sub culture in exactly the same way as they have for generations from Woody Guthrie to Little Richard to Bob Marley to Johnny Rotten to Jayzee. Language is organic, diverse and fluid, sometimes it’s not even verbal, be careful June because there’s a strong possibility that if not you then probably your children might find themselves one day in board rooms full of executives rapping or speaking a hybrid Anglo-Urdu-Punjabi-Patois-Street Talk mix and they might not thank you for all the amo, amat, amamus word cards.

  3. #3 by alun severn on September 1, 2011 - 10:52 am

    June, This needed saying. I’m always shocked at how eagerly people (and not just young people) will allow themselves to be disempowered and disadvantaged by a poor use and grasp of language. But what is even more cynical than this in many respects is the increasing use of ‘street language’ (or to be more accurate, the kind of breathy, over-excited Twitter-talk of social messaging and so forth) in the mainstream media.

    The Guardian is one of the worst offenders — no doubt all done with a knowing metropolitan irony.

    An ability to use language clearly and express one’s thoughts and views is always critical — but it’s especially so for those (young people, the unemployed, people wanting to re-enter the labour market) who will be disadvantaged and marginalised if they can’t.

    But there’s a bigger political point here, too. When we are being fed lies and evasions daily by a government that tells us one thing and promptly does another, then, as Orwell says: ‘During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.’

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