Policing slang in schools
Lucy Evans explores one school’s decision to ban slang in academic work and the implications this has for working-class communities.
A London school, Ark All Saints Academy, has recently made headlines for banning certain ‘slang’ words and phrases in academic writing. While still able to be used by pupils on the playground and in conversations, the banned list of words and phrases must not show up in academic work.
According to The Independent, words like “basically” and “like” cannot be used at the beginning of sentences and the phrases “oh my God” and “oh my days” are also banned in academic writing, among others. The Guardian writes that the list of banned ‘slang’ “is intended to steer the language used in formal learning situations and exams rather than in the playground”.
The intention behind this ban seems to be promoting formality in academic work, with the school’s headteacher stating that it is important for students to express themselves “clearly and accurately” (as reported by Newsround).
To exclude ‘slang’ words could be said to exclude pupils from working-class communities who use the list of banned words and phrases to express themselves
While this reasoning for putting a ban on ‘slang’ might seem acceptable to some, if we look past the surface of such logic there are larger cultural and societal discourses at play.
On an individual level, this banning of words could be said to hinder self-expression, especially the self-expression and creative work of students just beginning to find their own voice and start experimenting with language. The words banned are not offensive or swear words but simply ‘slang’. To ban such words – that are not offensive – is to place limits on the creativity and individual voice of students.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, ‘slang’ is defined as “very informal language that is usually spoken rather than written, used especially by particular groups of people”. This definition places emphasis on slang words and phrases being used amongst certain communities. Dictionary.com includes “the jargon of a particular class, profession etc.” in their definition of ‘slang’. These definitions allow for a greater understanding of how ‘slang’ is often used in working-class communities as a form of self-expression. To exclude ‘slang’ words could be said to exclude pupils from working-class communities who use the list of banned words and phrases to express themselves.
When taking the socio-economic aspects of ‘slang’ into account, banning these words could be said not only to exclude the language of the working-class community, but also to call into question the standards and hidden politics that ‘formality’ is decided upon. The decision to ban these words and phrases in formal, academic work calls into question the whole concept of formality: what ideals it is based on and who it is made for.
banning these words could be said not only to exclude the language of the working-class community, but also to call into question the standards and hidden politics that ‘formality’ is decided upon
The Independent aptly reports on the cultural significance of one of the banned phrases: “he cut his eyes at me”, stating that “according to The Journal of American Folklore, the phrase originated in and around the African countries of Ghana and Nigeria and began as a show of anger and conflict between two people”.
The school’s headteacher said that it was important for students to express themselves “clearly and accurately”, which leads us to ask on what basis are the banned list of words “not clear and accurate” and who gets to decide this? These banned words and phrases not only have class significance but also cultural significance. To ban them could be said to disregard this importance. While this London school wants to encourage clear communication in academic writing, the social and cultural consequences of banning ‘slang’ may be deeper than first imagined.