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12 May 2017

Alex Hems: Head's Blog May 12, 2017

Alex Hems for websiteWhy does the language we use matter so much?

I was delighted to hear last week that our student magazine, Independent Women, has reached the final round of the Shine 2017 School Media Awards for the third consecutive year. With its lively and challenging debates and range of creative writing from across the school, it is a most impressive publication, and we all wish the editorial team every success when the final results are announced later this month. I have loved literature and words all my life and marvel at the way in which language evolves to meet the needs of 21st century users, giving us words like jeggings, vlogging or clickbait that meet new needs. Some I confess to finding quite repellant but I applaud the flexibility and fertility of the language that evolves in this way.

I talked to the girls in assembly this week about some of the words that I like just for their own sake, which make me smile just because of the way they sound. Galligaskins is one of my favourites  - what a great name for what were essentially 17th century trousers. Jargogle is a verb that means ‘To confuse or jumble’. I like brabble too, a wonderfully evocative verb that means ‘To quarrel or squabble about trifling things.’

Over twenty years ago, as a trainee teacher, I argued with my PGCE tutors about whether or not it would be appropriate to tell a child, who had misused uninterested and disinterested, that they had made a mistake. They believed that it would be discouraging to say this, but I upheld then, and still believe, that children love to learn and we do them a disservice and patronize them if we do not give them a chance to grapple with difficult ideas. I maintain still that a good teacher will know the level of challenge that is appropriate for individual pupils, and should be able to correct a child gently, without being demoralizing. Our language is a subtle and rich one which enables us to express nuances of meaning with great precision, and yet of course words change in meaning and sometimes fall out of use, depending on the needs and fashions of the time. Apprise and appraise for example, are so commonly confused that it is possible that one or other may fade from view in due course. While brabble and jargogle are entertaining museum pieces now, however, words like uninterested or disinterested, apprise and appraise, give expression to wholly different concepts so if we are careless we lose that precision not only in our language but also in the discipline of our thinking. 

Care and precision are just as important in the language of our individual ‘inner monologue’, the voice that provides the commentary on our daily lives. Psychologists refer to this variously as ‘self-talk’, ‘inner speech’ or ‘internal dialogue’. However it is described, there is no doubt that it plays a significant part in shaping the way that we perceive and respond to the world. Dr Carol Dweck, in her work on growth mindsets, reminds us that we can train this inner voice to provide a positive and constructive commentary, rather than a negative, closed one. The example I gave in Lower School Assembly was about reacting to a disappointing test result. Do we think, ‘I did badly; that’s because I’m really stupid at Latin/Maths/Biology. Or do we think, ‘That’s not my best subject, but I could do better next time by asking for some help with those equations/ setting aside more time for practice…’ When someone is rather short with us do we think ‘Oh that always happens to me, because everyone hates me’ or does the inner voice say, ‘I wonder if she’s upset about something else.’ This sort of thinking builds resilience and empathy, and proponents of ‘positive psychology’ argue compellingly that it can be practised. All of us who interest ourselves in children’s development, whether as parents or teachers, have a role to play too, in the language that we use with the young people around us, so that we encourage a constructive and proportionate response to life’s ups and downs. I know that these are habits which are already embedded in the language and practice of my colleagues here at St George's.

Alex Hems
Head, St George's School for Girls  

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