Essay for PGCE, English and Drama, Institute of Education, 2014
In Basildon, The Mood of the Nation, social scientists Dennis Hayes and Alan Hudson (2001) describe the stereotype of the “Essex Girl” as “a sexually predatory twenty-something female with short skirts, large hoop earrings and a pronounced estuary accent.” It’s a stereotype that has crystallised in recent years as the television show The Only Way is Essex has continued to portray “Essex Girl” as a glitzy, orange-tanned, materialistic working-class woman. She is an easy target for mockery.
I was born and grew up in Basildon, often seen as the quintessential Essex town and known as “Baz Vegas” in popular culture. Yet when I grew up in the late sixties and early seventies, this stereotype did not yet exist – and the predominant accent in my home had nothing of “estuary” about it. My parents came to Basildon in 1961, from Sunderland in the North-east of England when my father was offered a job in the new Marconi factory. Fifty years on, my “Mam” still lives in Basildon and speaks with a Geordie accent. She has resolutely refused to lose her own identity: it is bound up in the voice that I recognise as hers. Yet my own accent, my “voice” seems more difficult to define and I have often wished that my language heritage had the same solid foundations as my parents’.
Basildon New Town was built in the post-war period to accommodate the London population overspill. At the time, Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning (in Hayes and Hudson 2001) said, “Basildon will become a city … where all classes of the community can meet freely together on equal terms and enjoy common cultural and recreational facilities…It will be something which the people deserve; the best possible town that modern knowledge, commerce, science and civilisation can produce.” I like to think that my parents were caught up in this spirit of idealism and as a child, I was affected by this optimism and idolised all that was “modern”. But living in a purpose-built town, I lacked a firm grounding in history.
As a child, I was aware of the differences between the way my parents and my friends spoke. My Dad said “fillum” rather than “film” and called us “ye bugger” when we were mischievous. My Mum would greet us with ‘’allo pet”. But my dialect was more influenced by that of the kids at school and my older siblings and as most of Basildon’s inhabitants came from the East End of London, my childhood accent was doubtless similar to the “Essex” accent I still slip into when I’m home: higher pitched than my everyday voice, as if to make myself less threatening, more “girly”; not pronouncing the “ts” or “ws” in the middle of words. For example, in Essex, I might say “Hi-ya, are ya comin’ dahn tan lay’er?” instead of “Hi, are you coming into town later?” One might say that this Essex accent is my own “voice”, but I don’t believe it is so simple as that. In an interview for the Poetry Archive (in O’Brien 2011), Jo Shapcott, discussing her poetic voice said,
“..what I did was not like what other people did but that was a positive, things that I might have perceived as weakness – for example not having a particular region of the country that I related to, that my work came out of – I mean a good example of someone who does have that is Seamus Heaney who connects language and landscape so strongly that he even talks of “vowel meadows”. Now I grew up in a new town where there were certainly no “vowel meadows” and no one way of speaking at all and no connection between language and landscape but what I came to discover was something I now feel is very contemporary – and that is a kind of aesthetic that demands travel, it demands, in a sense, rootlessness and even exile.”Jo Shapcott
Shapcott’s experience echoes my own. However, my sense of “rootlessness” was not something I could articulate as a child. My father discouraged me from learning history and told few stories from his past. It was only in later years that I became interested in my cultural heritage, tracing my ancestry back to the Scottish Highlands at the time of the clearances. When I was young, I thought of myself as a Basildonian. But my identity (and my accent) were challenged when I passed my 11+ exam and gained a place at the grammar school in Chelmsford. I was made to stand up in class and tell other pupils my news and was immediately branded a “snob”. Not surprisingly, at the grammar school, “standard English” was more common than “estuary” and by the time I arrived at Bristol University, my voice had morphed almost imperceptibly into one that my primary school friends would have labelled “posh”. Nonetheless, I never felt like one of the “posh” crowd at Bristol. Whilst I was capable of “blending in” with people from more privileged backgrounds than my own, I also noticed marked differences between myself and them: in clothing, in cultural references and indeed in the use of words. I might refer to “dinner-time” for example, and be corrected that it was in fact “lunch-time”; or I’d wear a home-made, red silk frilly “ra-ra” dress for a ball, whilst my new friend would find something far more sedate in Laura Ashley.
I find it difficult to separate “use of language” from other cultural signifiers of class, including dress and also “knowledge” or “book-learning”. A story illustrates this: I arrived at university with little historical education and I remember asking a very well-spoken boy if he would explain the French Revolution to me. “What do you want?” he quipped. “The Ladybird version?” His words silenced me. Even if I could not articulate it at the time, it was an early indicator to me that knowledge equals power and that power was generally held by those who spoke “the Queen’s English” and read big books. If we consider Volosinov’s (1929/1986) idea that, “every sign … is a construct between socially organized persons in the process of their interaction” we begin to understand the interrelatedness of language and culture. In this interaction, the boy’s language felt (in my experience) “superior” because his accent was “better”, his knowledge was more complete and he told me, through the “Ladybird” reference, that mine was akin to a child’s. His language and cultural references belittled me.
In any classroom, communication between individuals is constant. Unseen “signs” which relate to identity are always present and pass continually between pupils in ongoing interactive relationships. There will always be a multiplicity of such interactions in a diverse classroom and these interactions have the power to affect children emotionally and intellectually on a moment-by-moment basis. As teachers, we may not always be privy to the nuances of these interactions but we can remain aware of their existence and be alert to the responses and behavior of our pupils in a given moment.
Accent and voice are malleable traits. As human beings we are social animals and have the capacity to “blend” according to our environment. When I visit my mother in Essex, I will consciously use my “Essex voice” to speak to the taxi driver. When I talk with my sisters, the process is more sub-conscious; my voice relaxes more naturally into an Essex dialect. Often we “recognise” people like ourselves by listening to their voices: this may also be on a sub-conscious level. Recently, when I met a member of our PGCE group, I experienced a strong feeling of familiarity, but did not know why. It was only later, when I discovered that she came from Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, that I understood what had happened. I “knew” her, because she sounded like a member of my family. In a new environment, we are often judged by our voice and it has often struck me that my voice does not entirely capture “who” I am, nor do I know which voice is entirely my own. When I speak aloud in class, in my “teacherly” voice, remembering voice lessons I’ve taken in the past as part of my former career in radio, I am self-conscious about the effect of this “standard English” accent on others (perhaps I am afraid of sounding like the boy who knew about history). This is the sense of “exile” that Shapcott spoke about: one feels that one does not exactly “belong” anywhere. In recalling my own experience of accent and language, I also reflect on the nature of individual relationships in a classroom. When people “recognise” each other from their common language use or accent (which often point to a common cultural heritage), they will often feel drawn to one another. Equally, language can lead to divides which may be apparent in open hostility or may be more subtle and disguised; it is even possible to dislike someone for no apparent reason and it would be interesting to consider the role of language in our subconscious attitudes towards others.
In 2004, I was visiting Sunderland for the first time in many years. I was staying with my father’s brother, my Uncle, whose middle name was Sutherland. Names are important indicators of identity and “Sutherland” is a family name. My mother once gave me a book of algebra published in the 1920s with the name “Ursula Sutherland” inscribed on the inside cover. In claiming this Scottish heritage, and in remembering my father whose name was Jack, I called my son Jack Sutherland (the latter being his middle name). Dad passed away in 1986, so at the time of this visit, eighteen years had passed since his death. I’d been in Sunderland for a couple of days and it had felt like “coming home”. One evening, I visited a pub with my husband and a voice came over the tannoy, to make an announcement. I’d been surrounded by Geordie accents all evening, but this disembodied voice had a different effect. I immediately began to tremble and became tearful. As the voice was disembodied, it affected me more powerfully than any of the voices in the room. It could have been my father’s voice and I missed him. Though I can’t remember the exact cadence or the words used (perhaps the man said “fill-um” or “ye bugger”) I knew that the intonation, the language used, the accent – these had a particular and personal effect. It was not a logical reaction, but an instinctive one. A Language for Life (‘The Bullock Report’) (1975), states,
“we symbolise, or represent to ourselves, the objects, people and events that make up our environment, and do so cumulatively, thus creating an inner representation of the world as we have encountered it … We interpret what we perceive at any given moment by relating it to our body of past experiences, and respond to it in the light of that interpretation.”A Language for Life (‘The Bullock Report’) (1975)
If I consider this in relation to my experience with the disembodied voice, I understand that the accent, the voice and possibly the words chosen, represented the concept of “Dad” to me. I related the voice to my own “body of past experiences” and responded in a personally appropriate way. This incident, unique to me, is typical of any personal response to a given stimulus. Just as the disembodied Geordie voice acted as a trigger for my emotion, so there are countless triggers for all of us in everyday life. In a diverse classroom, every child has a unique personal history. A given stimulus, which might mean nothing to other members of a class might provoke strong emotion in one individual. As teachers, it is important that we remain alert to individual responses. We might never know why a student responds in a particular way to a given stimulus, but it is important to be aware of these personal “triggers”. As Amanda Desmond, SENCO at Southfields Community School said, in relation to bad behaviour, “Don’t ask ‘why?’, ask ‘why now?’” We must be aware of the both the surface and the hidden reasons why a student may be reacting in a given circumstance.
Language can be a source of cultural pride, but it can also be a source of embarrassment and even shame. As Dr. Dina Mehmedbegović stated, “many bilingual children often experience their home languages as of little value in the education system and perceive them of value only within their communities.” Yet it is vital that we recognise the importance of language heritage in children’s lives, as well as the impact of their different experiences of learning and reading outside the classroom. Gregory and Williams (2000) describe the “demands made upon children who participate in two very different cultures” by transcribing a conversation with a Bangladeshi child who attends his Arabic class for two hours each night, five days a week. Whilst we cannot directly experience the lives lived by our pupils, we can educate ourselves about the circumstances of individual pupils in our classes, recognise their diverse needs and plan our teaching and our interactions appropriately.
My own experience of “not belonging” or “needing to blend” in certain social situations and my self-consciousness in others, helps me to understand the far more emotionally difficult challenges faced by children from other cultures and traditions and children with special educational needs for whom language in its broadest sense may be more of a barrier to social interaction in the classroom. My own “differences” are subtle and personal to me, but my knowledge of these differences serves as a reminder that all children are engaged in a continual process of interaction with others and the world, using language as a tool for communication, for belonging and defining their own identity. It may often be a difficult process but my role as an English and Drama teacher is to encourage interaction and language expression in order that each child can freely express his or her own meaning in a supportive environment.
A Language for Life (‘The Bullock Report’), (1975) DES
Gregory, E and Williams, A (2000) Living literacies in homes and communities from City Literacies: learning to read across generations and cultures, London/New York, Routledge
Hayes, Dennis and Hudson, Alan (2001), Basildon, the mood of the Nation, Demos
Sean O’Brien (2011), Jo Shapcott, Of Mutability. Poetry Review, 101:1 (Spring 2011),
Volosinov, V. N. (1929/1986) Marxism and the philosophy of language, Cambridge & London, Harvard University Press