I’ve come to the conclusion that there need to be high school and college classes in conversational English. Forget, conversational Spanish, or French or any other second, elective language. Many of today’s graduates cannot carry on a proper conversation. By “proper,” I mean correct English speech with sufficiently correct grammar to converse with a supervisor or manager, or respond to an interviewer in a job interview.
I often sit in the lunch room of the corporation where I work, and while eating my lunch, I overhear bits and pieces of conversations throughout the room. Some employees speak Spanish, and some Tagalog and I understand that they feel more comfortable with their native tongue. But those speaking English are barely able to be understood, at least by me. One side of a conversation might go something like this:
So, I’m like, ya know, all chill, and….
And then, like, he be all mad and in my face…..
And then I go….
And then he go…..
And then, OMG I be like…..and I be tellin’ him…..
And then he be sayin’…..
And so I be thinkin’…..and I just can’t hang……
Like, you git what I’m sayin’?
OK, so maybe the peer across the table gits what she’s sayin’ but I’m just shaking my head (mentally of course). And it is not a matter of Ebonics, or certain ethnicities; I hear this from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds related to work situations:
“So, I’m like pressin’ F7 and the system like gives me an edit and I’m thinkin I don’t want no audit error so I ask my supervisor….and she says…. and then I go……and then I’m thinkin I won’t be gettin’ no raise no how….and it really make me mad, ya know? You wit me?”
If this works for talking with your peers and homies, well great. But some supervisors and managers still speak standard English, for the most part, and to be prepared for the workplace you have to have speaking skills. And it doesn’t seem to come naturally to many of today’s workers, so that’s where some conversational English classes would come in. So when the person alights in the workplace, he/she can be understood and make a good impression in a job interview, get hired and maybe get a couple of promotions. So a person can approach a supervisor, ask a question, be understood, and neither one looks flummoxed or like an idiot. And the supervisor doesn’t need to ask the worker to repeat it or explain.
Where are we headed, like, I ask you? Imagine turning on the morning news and hearing the newscaster say:
Breakin’ news! Like, ya needta know, there’s a wray-ek on the 101 East at Topanga, and like a dude got shot, and he be dade, and the po-leece be comin’ and they be blockin’ off the roadway, so you be needin’ to leave early else you be late.
Say what? I know reporters have to go to a special broadcasting school to learn to speak correctly and learn diction, pronunciation, vocal inflection, etc. And then there is an additional special internship for NPR journalists, where they learn to overlay that quiet, cultured tone onto their speech, in a lower register somewhere between “zombie-undead-speak” and boarding school pretentiousness. So my example probably won’t come to pass – whew!
I’m not saying we all need to speak like Dan Rather and Diane Sawyer, but isn’t there some better way, before we regress to grunts and gestures? If it weren’t serious, it might be funny, and there was a time when I used to laugh. But it isn’t so funny anymore. These are voters and consumers and customer service employees and retail clerks and grocery checkers and cashiers at McDonalds and Starbucks. Shoppers have to deal with employees in all sorts of settings daily, ask questions and be able to understand the answers given. Gasp, might this have something to do with the fact that there are jobs available, even in this miserable economy, yet many unemployed are still unable to find work? Hmmmmm.
Several years ago, the TV journalist Edwin Newman (now deceased) went on a crusade over this very topic, the survival of the English language, writing such books as Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English? (1974) and A Civil Tongue (1976). In these books he warned that our language was, in the words of one reviewer “falling prey to windiness, witlessness, ungrammaticality, obfuscation and other depredations.” Not to mention – I have no idea what my co-workers around me are saying. Ironically, the use of “y’know” was one of Mr. Newman’s pet peeves. The overuse of “like” as a filler of pauses is becoming my pet peeve.
So I’m wondering what erudite, well-spoken public figure has taken up the standard now that Mr. Newman is no longer with us. I’ve known a few English teachers and college professors who gave up teaching literature courses, even though that was their first love, to teach basic English grammar courses instead. They felt there was a greater need for the basics and they could do more good in that setting. Noble and lamentable, both at the same time.
I’ve been accused of sounding too much like a librarian or a teacher because I don’t dumb down my speech enough and I use big vocabulary words. But, y’know, after all that college education, I think I needta be usin’ it for somethin’, so I don’t sound as dumb as a dirt clod. Y’know? Y’wit me?