Lesson 47. The People’s Princess and Us

Lesson 47 on How we learnt to be polite.

In Language Studies, everybody had recognised we could be shut out from opportunities by the way we used language.  It was important to work on improving our chances.

One morning a week pupils went into local nurseries and playgroups. Many children entered pre-school speaking only their mother tongue, so our pupils were useful to the staff in helping with language. While doing this they were to observe how the children built up their language skills, and what helped them develop.

In light of this, their next task was to study their own language skills, identify how they had learned these and work out what gaps in their knowledge needed to be filled.

This led to much discussion on how language related to culture and class.  Saying things in a certain way could be considered acceptable in one community and context, but offensive in another.  For a non-examination course, our area of study was fast becoming more like postgraduate research.

In the end we arrived at the conclusion that, to improve our life chances, we needed to be able to present ourselves effectively in a work environment in the UK.  We had to learn how to be polite.

For this we needed scenarios.  We had to work out for ourselves why one way of saying things was appropriate in a specific context, while another sounded too casual or abrupt or cheeky.  I produced worksheets of example dialogues for discussion.  We videoed ourselves acting out different situations to compare and contrast. 

I came across one of my old tapes years later and saw myself asking “Now, would Princess Diana say that?” – Princess Diana was all my pupils’ idol of perfection at the time.

While I had imagined my English as Second Language pupils would benefit most from these exercises, the indigenous pupils,who rarely ventured off the estate, found them just as useful.  Everybody gained in confidence and competence with regard to speaking and writing in formal situations.

In some other aspects of language learning, however, my pupils surpassed me.

When one of the group had an accident at break time, only our rule-defying Sondra had the initiative to run off down the road to fetch her mother.

“I knew she wouldn’t answer the telephone, Miss.  She can’t speak any English.”

“But how did you explain what had happened?”

Sondra reluctantly confessed that through her school friends (and enemies) she had picked up enough basic Punjabi to bring Mum hurrying back to school with her.