x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Why we don't need to put words into teenagers' mouths

Are the teenagers of today really a bunch of moronic, monosyllabic idlers whose inarticulacy renders them unemployable?

Are the teenagers of today really a bunch of moronic, monosyllabic idlers whose inarticulacy renders them unemployable? The answer, which may seem surprising if you pay undue attention to the results of surveys or the views of a certain kind of adult, is that they are not. It is a ludicrous generalisation and inadequate powers of expression can be found in all age groups.

This week, I came across another of those surveys, this one carried out for the Tesco supermarket chain. It suggested British teenagers were putting their career prospects at risk by limiting their everyday vocabulary to a fraction of the 40,000 words they should know by the age of 16. One report of the findings noted with undisguised dismay that the 800 favoured words included "yeah", though "no" and "but" were popular, too, and both are clearly blameless. The research also identified several terms that would sound foreign to most adults: "chenzed", for example, meaning tired or drunk, and "spong" for silly.

To make radio listeners aged between 12 and 19 feel especially worthless, one broadcaster summed up teenage language as "grunts, with a few words in between". When she then admitted that she actually knew few teenagers, I realised the whole exercise was flawed. Teenagers, I suspect, have always grunted. But among those I meet, the range of articulacy is broad. I have known teenagers, with origins outside the English-speaking world, who are bright and remarkably well-spoken; I have encountered British teenagers, equally bright and also expensively educated, who seem unable to string together more than a handful of words in recognisable shape. Yet even they could speak normally if they wished to. They are merely responding to peer pressure and a desire to communicate thoughts at speed, which explains the reliance on the shorthand language of Facebook, Twitter and text messages.

Provided "teenspeak" is restricted to social exchanges and its users know when and how to switch to conventional English, it is rather harmless. Even so, Jean Gross, who advises the British government on children's speech (some reports inevitably called her the "children's communications tsar", a charmless construction I can imagine many adult journalists, but very few teenagers, using), is worried. She wants more done to ensure language skills meet the expectations of the classroom and employers. "We need to help today's teenagers understand the difference between their textspeak and the formal language they need to succeed in life - 800 words will not get you a job," The Sunday Times quotes her as saying.

One idea is to send children into offices to film the conversations of people who have succeeded at work. The results would be discussed back at school with other pupils. This seems a novel and sensible proposal. But Ms Gross may also ask the actor, broadcaster and writer Stephen Fry to support her wider campaign to improve articulacy among children, and this could be trickier. Mr Fry is eloquent and erudite. He is also familiar with modern ways. As an enthusiastic user of Twitter, he has accumulated 1.2 million "followers'", though he recently announced a break to attend to book-writing duties.

Attentive readers of My Word will spot the snag. As noted previously, Mr Fry takes a fashionable view on what constitutes good English and has no time for those who insist on the correct use of apostrophes or on distinctions being made between fewer and less, imply and infer, and who and whom. Perhaps Ms Gross ought to cast her net a little wider for celebrity supporters of her cause. First, however, she may wish to overcome the shock caused by another piece of news: examination regulators are said to be considering the study of Facebook, Twitter and other "social media" as a possible addition to the school curriculum.

Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at crandall@thenational.ae