Sociolinguistics

Slang adds richness to language but it don't travel well, bro

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am

There has recently been more debate about the optimal type of English to be used by teachers in Hong Kong's schools. Providing English classes in our schools cannot be intended simply to enable local children to speak just like their teachers as an end in itself.

The intention is surely that they be equipped to communicate in that language internationally, such as by working in an international firm here where they may need to work alongside foreigners, or to contact people in several other countries, or perhaps to go abroad to study or work. They may need to use English as the second and only common language of both communicants.

When I was, long ago, a schoolboy in England, our French mistress had a marked Scottish accent. As a result, my own pronunciation was for years the non-standard Scottish-French she modelled for us. It was only when I later spent a lot of time in France that my French pronunciation became more standard - and thus more comprehensible outside her classroom.

Certainly, it is a good thing that there is at least one native-speaker of English in each school, to help provide English lessons. Especially at an intermediate or higher level, it is best to learn from a native speaker, chiefly so that he or she may provide an appropriate model of correct usage, particularly on pronunciation.

I remember hearing one local English teacher speak about a 'wardro-bee', for example - so illustrating the point that a non-native speaker would need to have a very high standard of English to be able to pronounce correctly many of the tricky words in English.

Let us consider what type of English these pupils should experience. While originally the NET (Native English-speaking teachers) scheme recruited mostly British teachers, these days they rightly spread the net for NETs far wider.

We now have Australian, Irish, New Zealand, Canadian and other nationalities well represented as English teachers. This adds to the multi-culturalism of our 'world city'. But this also brings along with it a few problems - including the difficulty of pupils being faced over the years by a range of different accents, slang and even different words, used by English teachers from several different countries.

On accents, perhaps it is rather old-fashioned to expect Hong Kong pupils to be able to reproduce an Oxford accent. But should a reasonably standard intonation not be the goal? The so-called Received Pronunciation.

There is a marked difference between some Australian accents and, say, one from Ireland or Canada. That is not to say one is right and the others wrong - after all, they all represent authentic native speech patterns. The problem with non-standard English is that is doesn't travel well.

Even within one country, there may be a wide range of English accents. Thus a Birmingham accent is very different from a Welsh one. Would a Hong Kong student really want to speak with a strong local accent from either place?

Non-standard pronunciation can hamper a student from being readily understood when speaking with English speakers from other parts of the world, especially if that other speaker is also using English as his second language.

At least what is modelled in our schools should represent the diction of an educated person. We have a few teachers whose diction is so poor that the superfluous 'like' appears several times in each sentence.

Similarly, careless models of English diction in terms of consonant endings can result in such phrases as 'stick it up' sounding more like 'ste ee ar'. Some teachers are so casual in their speech that they are apparently unable to identify that such phrases as 'dude', 'anyways' and 'how ya doin?' are inappropriate for any but the most casual of conversations between friends.

When such non-standard English phrases are presented by a teacher in class, it should be pointed out that they have a limited range - and often a limited shelf life too.

There's nothing wrong with a Scottish teacher using 'bairn' for 'child', or an Australian teacher using 'no sweat' for 'you're welcome' - providing that it is expressly explained that such phrases are of local use, normally only in the country of origin.

That is the key difficulty here. Slang tends to change quickly and be confined to a particular part of the world. For example, 'wicked' can mean something terrible to an Indian student, and something 'cool' to a Californian teenager.

If a pupil picks up a lot of non-standard English from teachers, in terms of slang and a strong regional accent, then that pupil is often stuck with it for life - since it has probably not been explained to the pupil that these local variants may be unknown in other parts of the world.

Once the pupil achieves a good level of ability in the target language, then he or she can investigate and use those colloquialisms from different countries, which so enrich the English language. But these colloquialisms would need to be recognised as such (including a notion of their social, geographical and historical parameters), and used in the appropriate situations.

It is a sign of a higher-level speaker of a foreign language that he or she can use colloquialisms appropriately. But, 'Gees, if a kid voices out, like, lots of stuff like this, y'know, well, I means, like, it ain't always clear, like, to them overrs - know what I means?'

Paul Surtees is a Hong Kong-based commentator