‘Word jails’, ‘slang bans’ and the punitive policing of language in schools

Blog post written by Ian Cushing based on a new article published in Language in Society

The late, great linguist and educationalist Ronald Carter wrote that teachers can be forced into acting as a kind of ‘kind of linguistic dentist, polishing here and there, straightening out, removing decay, filling gaps and occasionally undertaking a necessary extraction’. In a new article published in Language in Society, I use Carter’s metaphor as a springboard to critically examine a spate of many current language education policies and pedagogies in schools which are driven by deficit discourses about linguistic variation and change. The focus of the paper is on primary and secondary schools in England who have implemented strict, prescriptive and punitive language policies which attempt to ‘ban’ young people from using particular words, phrases and non-standard grammatical constructions from classrooms and corridors. In doing so, I adopt a stance from critical linguistics in that my approach is to unpick how authoritative bodies weaponise language policies and ideologies as a mechanism to control and suppres how people use language, and as a way of maintaining institutional power. Ultimately, my argument is that a prescriptive language policy carries a threat of language discrimination and serve to bolster the stigmatisation that many speakers of non-standard language already face.

One important commitment that I make in the article is to use discursive methods to analysing language policy. In this, policy is conceived of as an ‘onion’: a series of interconnected ‘layers’ or ‘levels’, which typically carry different degrees of power and agency, from ‘macro-level’ (e.g. government; curriculum documents; national tests) through to ‘micro-level’ (e.g. teachers; students). I argue that current macro-level policy in England is particularly problematic in the ways in which it uncritically emphasises a requirement for students to use Standard English in schools, for teachers to ‘model’ Standard English, and the ways in which language is reductively framed as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ in national grammar tests and political discourse. In interviews, one reason that teachers at the micro-level gave for implementing prescriptive language policies then, is in response to these kinds of top-down policies which coerce and intimidate them in compliance. Schools are particularly crucial spaces for language policy, being controlled by the state, being key sites of socialisation and legitimisation, and the curriculum being a key vehicle through which the state can shape the attitudes and behaviours of the next generation.

Strict language policies mirror a shift (and return) towards conservatism in English education more broadly, along with a growing trend for schools to implement hostile ‘no excuses’ and ‘zero-tolerance’ behaviour policies, which are driven by retribution and punishment. Media reporting on these policies is equally problematic, often inviting readers to submit their own words they would like to see ‘banned’ and whipping up the kind of moral panic about language change, ‘falling standards’ and young people’s behaviour which has long permeated UK society. Critical discourse analysis of media stories and interviews revealed that crime metaphors often appear within prescriptive policies: language policing, word jails, crackdowns and rule breakers serve to re-enforce teachers and management as powerful language policy agents who are concerned with linguistic control, regulation and ‘standards’.

Importantly, the article draws attention to the lack of opportunities for students to study sociolinguistics in schools, as well as the low-number of linguistics graduates training to become teachers and a general lack of linguistics on many teacher education courses. These remain pressing issues for applied linguists and educationalists in working to educate teachers and policy makers about the dangers of prescriptivism and the potential for language discrimination it can bring about.

Read the full article ‘The policy and policing of language in schools‘ published in Language in Society

This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)


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