Cosby backs school's ban on street slang
By Julie Henry, Education Correspondent: education.telegraph
(Filed: 04/07/2004)

Aiming High - DfES 
What Bill Cosby should be talking about - Time

Bill Cosby, the leading black American comedian, is backing a campaign banning British schoolchildren from speaking patois in the classroom in an attempt to improve their poor academic performance.

Fears have been raised that the constant use of street slang, based on the Creole spoken in the West Indies, and the rejection of traditional English speech patterns and vocabulary is contributing to the educational failure of black pupils, particularly boys from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds.

As part of a government pilot programme, students at Lilian Baylis School, in south London, are being taught that patois is only appropriate in certain circumstances and that they must master standard English.

Inspectors found that students often used local speech, colloquial phrases and Creole in their work. Gary Phillips, the head teacher, said: "All the children, not just our Caribbean-heritage pupils, drop into south London slang, which is based on patois. For the pupils, it is about a sense of identity or a way to be a cool south London person. Sometimes it is used as an act of defiance.

"However, exams require standard English - full stop - and if you don't say it, you can't write it. It is not about leaving patois at the school gate but we do have a big push on using appropriate language at appropriate times. We will pull pupils up constantly when it does not have a place."

If a pupil uses slang in class, the teacher will write it on the board and tell the class what the proper English phrase for it is. He or she will then put a tick next to the slang each time it is repeated to show how often pupils slip into the habit.

A debating society and a chess club, which staff have found encourages the use of formal language, have also been set up at the school, which was praised in a recent Ofsted report.

Bill Cosby, the hugely successful US comedian who has been an outspoken critic of black people's use of slang has praised the campaign.

Mr Cosby, 66, told The Telegraph that black people in Britain were doing themselves a disservice. "People need to hear this. In London, in places like Brixton, you need to hear this. In these neighbourhoods, people are taking the English language and making it their own language.

"But it isn't a language that has anything to do with the credentials of higher education."

In some London boroughs the proportion of pupils who come from homes where Creole is spoken is as high as 30 per cent.

The language was developed in the slave colonies of the West Indies and is derived from a mixture of Elizabethan English and various African languages. The word "the" becomes "de", while "them" becomes "dem". Also, "that" is pronounced "dat" and "ask" "arks". Verbs are often omitted so "I have got to go out" becomes "I got to go out".

Young people have further developed patois, adding their own slang, much of it inspired by American rappers.

Other common techniques include substituting "th" at the end of a word with "f", for example "strengf", while "s" is added to the ends of words inappropriately, such as "mouses". Also, "ed" is added to verbs, so "I saw" becomes "Mi sawed".

This style of speech has been adopted by children of all races in multi-ethnic cities such as London, Birmingham and Manchester, according to a four-year study of British children by researchers from Bergen University, in Norway.

Concerns have been raised that this "playground patois" has become the only means of communication for some children and is hampering their educational achievement.

Earlier this year in America Bill Cosby launched a vituperative attack on the use of slang and bad English by black children. "Civil rights campaigners marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education and now we've got these knuckleheads who can't speak English," he said.

"I can't even talk like these people talk: 'Why you ain't' and 'Where you is'. Everybody knows it's important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You can't be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth."

In Britain, the educational underachievement of black children, particularly boys, has become a serious concern. Just 36 per cent of black pupils gained five A* to C GCSEs compared with the national average of 53 per cent. Only a quarter of black Caribbean boys reached the standard compared with 40 per cent of girls.

Last year, ministers launched the Aiming High scheme in an attempt to address the problem. Thirty schools, including Lilian Baylis, are working with consultants from the Department for Education and Skills on measures to improve achievement by ethnic minority pupils.

Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, supported the initiative. He said: "If children want to get through exams and succeed, they are going to have to speak and write standard English - there is no substitute for it."

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