It is estimated that approximately one in five adults have low literacy skills. Low levels of literacy have been linked to poor acquisition of language skills at an early age and this in turn has been directly linked to social exclusion. This study will start by looking at the context in which we use language and how this shapes what we say and how we say it. It will also look at dialect and accent and examine their relationship with society. This raises questions about ‘Standard English’ and how attitudes to this have developed over time.
The study will conclude by examining the direct link between poor literacy/language skills and social exclusion and how this impacts on society both in terms of the individual and the economy as a whole. The importance of context in language use The situation in which we find ourselves, who we are with, where we are, what we have to say and how we have to say it are all massive influences on our spoken and written language. This will differ enormously in any given situation. For example we are likely to adopt a far more relaxed informal use of language when chatting with friends as opposed to a more formal tone when attending an interview.
Similarly when writing a note or email to a family member we are likely to use a chatty, informal style but when writing a letter of complaint we would use a formal tone. In my own practice I have noticed in a family learning group learners using colloquial speech when chatting to each other but they modify this when talking to the Head Teacher. Often these decisions are made sub-consciously but by thinking about the audience, the context and the purpose of the situation decisions are made about the appropriateness of the situation.
This appropriateness encourages a “recognition of the variety and flexibility of language and recognises that there are different linguistic expectations for different situations” (Thorne,1997). Dialect and accent reveal something about social, regional and personal identity and speakers need to make choices about the most appropriate type of English for each speech situation. Thorne also argues that the ability to use regional, social and personal varieties alongside Standard English ensures that people will be active and effective participants in the language community.
Personal, regional and social accents are of interest to linguists because by focusing on the relevant features they come to conclusions about the kind of pronunciations an individual or a group uses. Whereas a regional accent refers to features of pronunciation which reveal a geographical location, social accent is linked to cultural and educational background. Personal accent refers to the way a person pronounces words depending on mood or context and this can alter significantly depending on the relationship of the speaking participants.
When people with different regional backgrounds meet the tendency is for their speech patterns to converge (Crystal, 1997). On the other hand if two speakers take part in a hostile encounter both may exaggerate their different accents and dialects in order to emphasise their differences. The relationship between language and society (Standard English) The term ‘Standard English’ is sometimes described as the ‘Queen’s English’ or ‘BBC English’. In ‘The English Language, What is Standard English?
‘, David Crystal concludes it is a variety of English that in its grammar, syntax, vocabulary and spelling system is the accepted form in speaking and writing. Trudgill (1999) states that it is just as important to say what Standard English isn’t – it is not, he argues, an accent, a language, a style or a register. Both writers agree, however, that it is important because it is the form most appropriately recognized in formal situations and is widely used in public and professional life. It is used in both speech and writing.
In spoken form it is used in formal situations such as business negotiations, public announcements and news broadcasts. In written form it is used in such formal documents as essays, business letters, notices, reports and memos. In Britain, the prestige accent associated with Standard English is Received Pronunciation and all forms of slang, dialect and grammatical deviation have historically been regarded as non-standard. The notion of Received Pronunciation sometimes still persists as though there is some kind of standard we should aspire to and that any variations from this standard are in some way inferior.
Whilst most educated writers use Standard English in all texts, more liberal attitudes have evolved with regard to spoken language. In a multi-cultural society, non-standard accents and word forms are increasingly acceptable and the concepts of Standard English and Received Pronunciation as standards of correctness have become less important. Standard English itself is now considered to be a dialect of English equal with regional accents. For example, it is fairly common for a speaker to use Standard English and deliver it with a regional accent.
Crystal (1995) notes that although we have no problem enjoying dialect literature and laughing at dialect jokes, at the same time we still make harshly critical judgements about ways of speaking that are not the same as our own. He points out that because we may not like a certain variety of the English language, if we are to have a breakthrough demanded by a “genuinely democratic dialectology” it has as much right to be there as any other. How limited literacy and/or language attainment can disadvantage individuals How we are brought up has a huge bearing on our speaking and writing skills.
Children who have parents who cannot support their learning are at far greater risk of having poor communication skills themselves. This is apparent in deprived areas but also in also in households where English is not the main language. Research supports the importance of oral language development in the early years and the impact this has on learning more widely (National Literacy Trust website). Class, educational and employment experience and gender continue to influence the gap between the well and poorly educated.
In 1997 Helena Kennedy provided a landmark report which looked at what needed to be done in Britain to close this learning divide and made recommendations on how learner participation might be increased and improved. The report argued that education and training should reach out to excluded groups, ie, those that do not normally participate. These socially excluded groups are characterised by a lack of education, employment and community involvement and failure to acquire basic skills.
The report highlighted the fact that further education needed to play a vital role in order to bring about change. The cost of failing to deal with the problem is significant – to the individual, the economy and employers. People with poor literacy, numeracy and language skills tend to be on lower incomes or are unemployed, are more prone to ill health and at far more risk of social exclusion. The Moser Report, ‘A Fresh Start’ (1999) identified that approximately 7 million adults in Britain have inadequate levels of literacy and/or numeracy.
The Basic Skills Agency define these basic skills as “the ability to read, write and speak English/ Welsh and use mathematics at a level necessary to function and progress at work and in society in general”. The effect of this lack of ‘basic skills’ is two-fold. Firstly there is the knock-on effect on the economy; in order to compete internationally we need a well-educated, flexible workforce. Secondly, on an individual level, if someone is struggling with basic skills then their range of employment and personal options is reduced drastically.
The needs of the individual and society in general are linked and it is recognised that the’7 million’ problem needs to be addressed if we are to thrive as an economy and at the same time live in a fair, egalitarian society. Conclusion There are many influences on an individual’s language. The social situation and the ‘appropriateness’ of language determine not only what we have to say but, just as importantly, how we say it. Accent and dialect reveal something about an individual and can be linked to regional, social or personal circumstances.
Although historically ‘Standard English’ and ‘Received Pronunciation’ have been regarded as socially superior, this is now becoming less so. ‘Standard English’ is still important, however, as it is the written form most appropriately accepted in formal documents. Research has been done to support the notion that the primary carer/child relationship has a crucial influence on the language attainment of a child and that this attainment will have a huge impact on the learning of the individual more widely.
People at risk of social exclusion and its associated problems of low income, ill health and unemployment are far more likely to have low language/literacy skills. Moreover, lack of basic skills is a major barrier to employment, training or progression at work and if we are to compete on a global level, we need to have a highly skilled, adaptable workforce. The cost of failing to deal with the problem is significant – not just to the individual, but also to employers and the economy as a whole.
Crystal, D (1995) The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of The English Language, Cambridge University Press Kennedy, H (1997) Learning Works, Widening Participation in Further Education.
FEFC Moser, C, et al (1999) A Fresh Start, DfEE Publications, Nottingham National Literacy Trust: http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/training-and-conferences/talk-to-your-baby, (date accessed 14/02/06)
Thorne, S (1997) Mastering Advanced English Language, Palgrave Trudgill, P (1999) Standard English: the widening debate, London: Routledge