Dialect and Dialectics: Students Debating Language Change: Using the Study of Slang as a Focus, Dan Clayton Argues That Students of the English Language at A Level and GCSE Can Help Shape Debates about Language by Understanding Its Discourses and Making Interventions as Part of Their Language Investigations

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The teacher paces intently backwards and forwards at the front of the class, rattling out words with a machine gun delivery, occasionally turning towards the board to scribble something down. The students in the class listen carefully, some nodding in agreement, others just sitting back and enjoying the performance; questions directed at individuals keep them on their toes and they're all tuned in. 'History' is scrawled on the board, and underneath it 'opposites'. At one point, the teacher arm wrestles a pupil to demonstrate how opposing forces remain locked in struggle. It's all so clear: history is all about spirals of change, forces locked in conflict, brief moments of radical upheaval and longer periods of protracted struggle. But the teacher's getting twitchy; it's been over an hour since his last line of cocaine and he's already thinking about hitting the crackpipe down in the changing rooms ...

Not an extract from my PGCE journal, but a half-remembered scene from the American indie film, Half Nelson. It was while watching this film that a (rare) moment of clarity dawned on me. So, inspired by a fictional crack-addicted history teacher, and fired up on little more than strong coffee and the occasional Nurofen, I set out to introduce dialectics into my teaching of English Language.

For about ten years I'd been engaged in A Level English Language teaching pretty much every day. Most recently, at the south London Sixth Form College where I had worked until early in 2010, we'd spent a lot of time looking at accents, dialects, new words, slang and text messaging, and started to pull together some of what we'd covered in class into pieces of journalistic writing that offered different angles and opinions on the changes happening to the English language in the 21st Century. But there was something missing, something that was often missing from my classroom teaching: a bigger picture, a theoretical thread, a sense of direction. I know that's three things that were missing, but that's why I was teaching English, not maths. And the concept of dialectics--opposing forces engaged in a constant jockeying for position--seemed to offer what I was after.

The dialectics of language change

Writing in The Observer in January 2010, the comedian and broadcaster David Mitchell put it very well. He concluded a piece on the pace of language change and 'language rules' by saying 'In the end, though, the rules do matter--it's just that obeying them doesn't. They need to be there to create a tension between conservatism and innovation. If the innovation continued unchecked, unmonitored by Susie Dent, then the language would fragment into thousands of mutually incomprehensible dialects. The stickler-advocated rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation slow the speed of change and allow the language to remain united'.

Our language changes--there's no doubt about that--and generally the reasons for these changes have been fairly clear: new technologies emerge and need names (iPod, mp3 player, walkman, wi-fi, blu-ray), new social relationships need defining (co-d, bromance, frenemy, to unfriend someone on Facebook, to ping someone on a BlackBerry), immigration and intermingling of cultures and languages lead to cross-fertilisation and borrowing (sushi, bollywood, bashment, balti, and... err... battyriders) but the nature of that change and the speed of it is also dependent not just on these external forces but on the discussions and debates that take place around language. The push and pull of conservative, prescriptive views and progressive, descriptive perspectives are also part of it, regulating the pace of language change. As Mitchell says, the 'tension between conservatism and innovation' is what permits or restricts change. And therefore, I think you could argue, every intervention into a debate about language is actually a contribution to language change itself. This could range from a discussion in class about which slang terms are currently seen as fashionable and which as past their sell-by date, through to students writing coursework articles, posting their views to a public message board or blog, or even contributing (as our students had the chance to do) to a Radio 4 programme about language. …


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