George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, which later was adapted into the award winning musical My Fair Lady, highlights the correlation between proper speech and societal status – speech being perhaps the most important clue in determining class.
Without sounding too much like a linguistic snob, I hope to convey the importance of recognizing when it is appropriate to use colloquial expressions and when to use proper English. In the academic world, this is referred to as formal and informal registers.
The register of a language is the choice of words used in particular situations, much like determining when to wear your Sunday best, or a t-shirts and jeans. Like organizing a wardrobe, language acquisition takes time, instruction and management. For example, in a classroom, a formal register is used and the words spoken should be carefully constructed. When e-mailing, texting, or twittering, an informal register is acceptable. These novel types of social media have made informal language use the predominant form of communication. However, access to proper forms of communication is needed in order to take tests, write properly, and, perhaps most importantly, make a presentable impression.
Most children understand that language in the classroom is different than on the playground. However, the use of formal register may wane over the summer months, when proper speech often takes a back seat. It is to your children’s advantage to keep that formal register within reach.
Insisting on “please” and “thank you” are the first steps. Correcting grammatical errors helps too. Clarify the proper use of “may I” versus “can I,” and coax kids into saying “Mom and I,” instead of “me and Mom” for instance.
Point out when you are speaking formally with a client on a business call, and when you transition to informal conversation with friends.
During dinner, make a game of translating jargon into proper speech. For instance, tell your kids that back in the day their “foxy” father could really “tear up the floor.” See if they can decipher the meaning. Ask them to share some of today’s vernacular. You may learn more than you bargained for! Surprise them with your own erudition of modern lingo. Ask them to “stop trippin” about unfair teachers, or to “chill” when they argue over doing the dishes. For some on-line ammunition, go to www.teenchatdecoder.com.
Try a formal speech dinner night once a month, week, or more often, depending on the age of your children, and your own flexibility. Go crazy! Get dressed up, keep elbows off the table, address each other as “sir” and “madam,” whatever makes it fun, and gets the desired result of acquired proper speech. You may become the politest family on the block.
My constant classroom mantra is, “Adults are nicer to kids who are polite.” I also let my students know that kids who have an influential grown up on their side have a huge advantage in almost every aspect of academic life. Then I warn them to speak and write correctly, or risk failing my class. That works too.
I think the key lies in compassion. If we remember the ‘golden rule’ and habitually set a good example of respect and kindness, it will be reciprocated. It is especially powerful with young, vulnerable adolescents. As Eliza points out to Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, “…the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated.”
Contact Margaret Lavin at email@example.com.