Monday, January 11, 2010

800 words won't get job done

A generation of teenagers risks making itself unemployable because its members are using a vocabulary of only about 800 words a day, according to the British government's first children's communication tsar.

The teenagers are avoiding using a broad vocabulary and complex words in favour of the abbreviated "teenspeak" of text messages, social networking sites and internet chat rooms.

Jean Gross, the government's adviser on childhood language development, is planning a national campaign to prevent children failing in the classroom and the workplace because they cannot express themselves. "Teenagers are spending more time communicating through electronic media and text messaging, which is short and brief," she said. "We need to help today's teenagers understand the difference between their textspeak and the language they need to succeed -- 800 words will not get you a job."

By the age of 16, most teenagers have developed a vocabulary of 40,000 words. Language consultant John Bald said: "When kids are in social situations, the instinct is to simplify. That's partly prompted by the habit of shortening language when texting but it's seen as uncool to use complex vocabulary."

Ms Gross said her concerns were supported by research by Tony McEnery, a professor of linguistics at Lancaster University, who found in a study that the top 20 words used by teenagers, including "yeah", "no" and "but", account for about one-third of the words used. Professor McEnery's research was sponsored by supermarket chain Tesco, whose chief executive, Terry Leahy, recently raised concerns about the "woefully low standards" in schools that cause employers problems. Ms Gross's campaign will target primary and secondary schools.

Linguistics professor David Crystal, at Bangor University in Wales, disagreed. "The issue here is that people object to kids having a vocabulary for hip-hop and not for politics. "They have an articulate vocabulary for the kind of things they want to talk about," he said.


Chaotic Australian schools mean that some kids have to turn to the courts for protection

KIDS as young as 10 are turning to the courts to protect them from fellow students, with 613 taking out apprehended violence orders against other children last year. But these figures are only the tip of the iceberg, according to the Daily Telegraph, with thousands more being protected by bail conditions ordering juvenile offenders to stay away from their victims while their cases are pursued through the Children's Court. Even the education department took out AVOs against two students in 2008 to protect teachers and other classmates.

Teachers complain that the increasing number of court orders is making the school system almost unworkable as they try to minimise the contact between the disputing parties, placing them in different classes, having allocated areas in the playground or staggering their lessons and lunch breaks.

Psychologists also attacked the trend and said adults are failing children by letting the situation deteriorate to such a point the courts have to become involved.

According to latest figures from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research there were 3062 children across New South Wales protected by personal AVOs, 20 per cent of them from other children. Personal AVOs are court orders to protect individuals from others in society, as opposed to domestic AVOs which offer protection from family members.

The surge of AVOs taken out against bullies is coming from the state's west. One country school teacher said that dealing with AVOs when the students attended the same school was "almost farcical". "They come in and this kid's got an AVO against this one, this one and this one and another's got AVOs against these kids," he said. "But in a small town like this there is only really one high school they can go to and legally they still have to attend school."

Wagga Wagga's Senior Constable Steven Johnson said some students were taking out AVOs against fellow classmates in a sort of arms race or "one upmanship". Armed with an AVO, he said they wielded it as a threat when they came into further conflict with their rival.

University of NSW National Children's and Youth Law Centre director James McDougall said: "It's adults failing children." He said it meant bullies would be excluded from mixing with other children and never learn how to change their behaviour. [i.e. much less effective than a good thrashing]


Culturally adrift without classical moorings

A return to Latin and ancient Greek would make for a real education revolution, writes Dan Ryan from Australia

MY grandfather, who spent most of his life on a sheep station in western Queensland, could quote tracts of Virgil and Homer from memory. My mother topped Latin in year 10 in her school in Brisbane in the 1960s, but things were on the slide; her prize was a copy of the Iliad not in Greek but in English, and in an abridged form, with all the poetry stripped away.

By the time I went to school there was apparently no need to teach the classics any more. They were dead languages and, besides, there was not enough time in the school day to fit them in between classes in home economics, woodwork, typing and the like. How sure are we that the effective elimination of the classics from our education system has been without consequence?

Educators once believed in the classical education very strongly. Little more than a generation ago you could not get into Oxford or Cambridge without demonstrating competency in Latin, and practically every Western historical figure and writer until the 1950s was taught the classics from an early age. The line of thinking that we don't need to learn Latin and Greek because they are too hard, irrelevant, not useful or not the languages of the future would have been regarded as the argument of philistines.

The rationale was not always stated explicitly; it was simply understood. A classical education was needed first of all to impart content -- to maintain basic Western cultural literacy. Your understanding of the West would be necessarily incomplete and superficial without a good acquaintance of the Aeneid, the works of Ovid and Aeschylus, the speeches of Pericles and Cicero, and the Homeric epics. The second reason, as classicist Tracy Lee Simmons emphasises in his excellent book Climbing Parnassus, was that learning these hard ancient languages had a point in itself -- it required students to focus on the precise meaning of words, making them less patient with sloppy language and thinking. For Westerners, only the languages of Latin and Greek can perform this role.

The high-minded hope was that the combination of the content and the process would make us better able to govern ourselves, both individually and as a society. To know a liberty fit for men, notanimals. What does it say that we are now fixated about becoming Asia-literate, but that there is no concern about the obvious decline in Western cultural literacy levels?

I am not saying that one should not learn Asian languages or have a deep interest in the cultures of Asia. I speak and read Mandarin and have been learning since university days. I ended up marrying a Brit who speaks Punjabi, Hindi and Urdu. Whether spending $11 billion on compulsory mass Asian language education training from year 3 onwards would result in a net economic gain or otherwise make sense is something others can duke out. From what I've seen so far of the plans, colour me highly sceptical.

What I do strongly believe is that one's understanding of the East will, in the long run, be hindered unless you have a proper understanding of the West. Lawrence of Arabia would have thought the lack of Latin and Greek a terrible obstacle to the understanding of Arabic. William Jones, the famed Sanskrit scholar, would have thought likewise with regard to understanding the languages and cultures of the subcontinent. The same holds true for the languages of East Asia. Australia's pre-eminent Sinologist, Pierre Ryckmans, was educated in Europe. I bet my bottom dollar he was taught Latin during his formative years. It shows in his writing style and liberal mind.

Without a decent acquaintance with the Western classical heritage we are dooming ourselves to a glib relativism born of ignorance, to being forever trapped in the parochialism of the present, to being a nation adrift without a cultural anchor.

What is needed is not a new state education plan. The renewal is unlikely to come via our sclerotic state-directed command-and-control education system that governs both fee-paying and non-fee-paying schools. Carthago delenda est.

If there is a renewal, I suspect it will be through less mainstream institutions like Sydney's Campion College, through teachers with a deep love of Western culture, and through some of the classically educating home schooling families I have been honoured to know.

It will come when we realise that it has been a terrible dereliction of duty not to pass on "the best that has been thought and said" to the next generation and we are not going to let it continue. Now that truly would be an education revolution.


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