Should we all learn to speak ‘properly’?

We hear from a young writer and a professional linguist about the implications of accent discrimination.

Current issuesFriends and relationships
By VoiceBox ·
images: deagreez/

Lucy (not her real name)

Young author

Our accents are our identity – don’t change who you are

When people tell you to speak ‘properly’, they’re asking you to be someone you’re not. Speaking properly means disregarding your ethnicity, culture and family. In the UK, asking someone to speak a certain way completely undermines our faux belief in social mobility. It highlights the racism, classism and sexism that underlies much of our society.

I’m the first generation of my family to go to university, and I’m the first one who’s headed into a world of media and white collars. My family are all nurses – they have been for generations, which I’m extremely proud of. However, it meant that at my disadvantaged state school, I was considered ‘posh’. On the contrary, entering work experience, employment, and higher education quickly confirmed to me that I was, in fact, the opposite.

Yes, I sounded like my middle-class, privately educated peers, but I quickly learned I couldn’t relate to their lives. So why did I sound like them? Well, my grandmother hated the local accent, even though she had it herself. So, after completing my education at a school which strengthened my regional accent like no other, I was told to discard it.

During my A-levels, the closest we got to mock university interviews was a teacher telling us to ‘poshen up or drop out’ of university, in fear that we’d get ostracised for our West Country accents. Interning at major media companies meant a lot of shadowing – of their work, their accents, and their dialect. I truly don’t think I’d have gained work experience if I hadn’t diluted my accent down to what we define as ‘respectable’ estuary, and banned slang from my internal thesaurus.

At the time of being shaped and pressured into adopting acceptable speech patterns, I thought it was normal; a step which had to be taken to wave goodbye to my old life and enter a professional world full of opportunity. My accent was never as bad as my peers, so I wasn’t subjected to as many scoldings as them. I’m also a white British citizen, so my condoned use of slang wasn’t whitewashing my identity. However, it was enough to make me believe I wasn’t good enough, and looking back now, that’s not acceptable. If I felt this way, I can’t even imagine how my peers, less privileged than myself, were made to feel by this policing.

Schools shouldn’t be telling children that they’ll never get anywhere in life due to their speech. This is telling them they don’t deserve the same opportunities as others, simply because they’re born and raised in a certain place. Accents and slang can strengthen relationships – and this should be celebrated. Schools should acknowledge that accents vary, and the reality is that specific regional accents are preferable among young people, on a national scale. They should encourage young people to lessen their accents in specific situations – not eradicate them, just lessen, and teach them when it’s appropriate to adopt certain language.

Working for an international organisation, I understand the value of generalised speech patterns in a professional environment. Slang, for sure, should be left outside of the workplace – with new jobs, come a glossary of business-critical words, and slang only complicates things further. A standard (ish) accent leaves less room for confusion, especially when speaking to those from another country over a static video call. However, it’s not necessary for people to completely lose their accent. Simply winding it down during work or in the classroom makes your speech more inclusive, and easier for others to understand.

My advice to young people would be to practice softening your accent, and to avoid slang in professional or educational environments. However, don’t listen to the scare mongering as you set off for university or work – regional accents don’t alienate you half as much as you might believe. Be authentic and have confidence in yourself. Times are changing, and one day society will realise it’s irrational to judge a person’s abilities on their speech. Until then, adapt as much as you feel comfortable, learn the tricks of the trade, but don’t compromise your own identity to reassure closed-minded folk. After all, when you’re older, you can encourage younger generations to speak properly. And by properly, I mean authentically, and without shame.

Tony Thorne

Tony is a British author and linguist. He is an expert in contemporary slang and the language of subcultures – particularly of young people.

We should be celebrating slang and accents – not condemning them

Slang and accents are far more widely discussed these days than they were in the past. As a linguist who has been observing both for decades, I find it fascinating to watch how slang has developed and evolved into a culture of its own – seeing communities come together and share more openly what used to be a secret or underground language. The policing of slang and accents in schools is a complex debate, and it can sometimes feel as though there is a ‘teachers versus pupils’ divide to it. It’s actually more complex than that, though – and it’s important that we understand the culture of slang in more depth.

What is ‘slang’, and why do humans use it?

Slang is a highly informal language that exists in every culture and age bracket, originating from circles of people who share the same interests and activities. Slang can be inclusive by making us feel like we belong, but it can also be exclusive and used to shut people out – sometimes in school settings. It is very important not to see slang as ‘bad’ language. Scientifically, slang is a very creative and dynamic kind of language that uses the same techniques as literature or poetry through metaphors, tricks and sounds.

Why do young people sometimes use different slang from adults?

At school or work, we are usually expected to speak in ‘standard’ English, an accent that most people understand, but which can be felt to be artificial and without a home, as it doesn’t belong to any particular place or region. Slang has a totally different rhythm from standard English that mixes a variety of sounds from different cultures – sounding exotic almost like a foreign language to some listeners. If you try to speak slang in standard English, it doesn’t quite work - and young people use different slang to adults because the cultural influences behind the words have changed over time.

Why is there pressure on young people to speak a certain way?

You may find that when teachers and other adults disapprove of slang they disapprove of it for social reasons – feeling uncomfortable when they hear something that they don’t understand. A lot of older people feel worried when they hear young people using slang, because they believe it is damaging their ability to speak standard English – but we can see that young people who use local slang, as well as the slang developed online such as ‘on fleek’ and ‘OK boomer’, are often skilled and creative users of language. There are reasons to celebrate slang and be proud of it rather than condemning it!

Is there a downside to slang?

The whole issue of language has intensified in recent years, as different social groups struggle to identify with other kinds of language and maybe even feel threatened by them. Young people should never be ashamed of the way they speak, but the key to slang is making sure you’re using it in the right place and context. Slang is appropriate for conversations with friends, appreciating song lyrics and using social media, but not for class discussions, writing assignments or talking to grandparents. It’s important that in a class setting teachers encourage their pupils to speak clearly and in an inclusive way, whatever their accents or slang preferences.

How should slang be policed?

While it’s reasonable for teachers to promote clear, inclusive speech, they should always be careful not to shame pupils for their accents and use of slang. This form of prejudice is referred to as ‘accentism’, a term first coined in 2014, referring to ‘linguistic discrimination’. There’s lots of great work being done by charities such as The Accentism Project, which is working hard to uncover and challenge such discrimination in everyday life. While there is progression, a lot of teachers still misunderstand slang. It is critical that they are sensitive to this kind of preconception and teach their pupils to be proud of their languages and accents, not ashamed.

My advice

Be proud! Never be ashamed of the way you speak and the language that you use. If you’re being criticised, talk to a teacher or peer who can help.

Go online! There’s lots of great stuff online about promoting local languages and dialects. The Manchester Centre for Youth Studies does fantastic work in advocating local languages and continuing the all-too-important study of the way languages are used.