New York's Mayor Ed Koch, whose own English (he acknowledges) falls somewhat short of perfection, wants his city's schools to do something to improve the speaking skills of their students. He was "appalled," he said in a recent memo to public school chancellor Nathan Quinones, to hear even teachers pronounce "asked" as "axed." He asked Quinones for proposals to "raise the consciousness of students and teachers" on pronunciation.
The temptation is to do what The New York Times lost no time in doing editorially: kiss off the whole affair as a PR ploy hardly deserving of serious attention. After all, New York, like school districts around the country, is struggling with teacher shortages, discipline problems, school dropouts and adolescent pregnancy, not to mention shaky performance on the educational basics.
Viewed in this light, Koch's concern (and Quinone's talk of spending $1.5 million on an "oral proficiency" program) seems a grotesquely misplaced priority. Still, it's interesting to wonder what the result would be if some school district -- any big-city district -- embarked on an effective program to improve the spoken English of its students. Imagine students spending a period a day speaking into tape recorders and comparing their enunciation with some "standard" speech pattern. Imagine their being required to use only that "standard" speech in classroom discussions.
Would these children feel better about themselves -- even if they knew no more than their counterparts elsewhere about math and history? Would they fare noticeably better in the job market? Would they be perceived as uncommonly bright? Would they, because their improved speech increased their interest in the inner workings of language and literature, in fact be uncommonly bright?
Koch understands, no doubt from firsthand experience, how easily and automatically we make judgments about one another's competence and intelligence on the basis of English usage. "I am not asking that a child be required to speak the King's English, but rather sufficiently well to apply for a job," he explained in his memo.
When I speak to young people, I frequently make the point this way: Suppose you needed a math tutor and only two people were available for the job: Bryant Gumbel and Mr. T. Whom would you choose? The question serves to remind the youngsters that it isn't solely because of race and class prejudice that their nonstandard English puts them at a disadvantage. They themselves make the judgment that people who speak well are smarter -- even in subjects that have nothing to do with speaking -- than those who don't.
Speaking well obviously isn't enough. Gumbel may turn out to be hopeless in figuring percentages or dividing fractions, and Mr. T a mathematical genius. The point, though, is that the Mr. T's of this world have their intelligence so routinely underestimated, based solely on their use of the language, that they often don't get a chance to show their brightness.
Koch seems to understand this. "There have to be standards," he said. "New York City today is a service city, and workers must be able to not only read, write and do math, but also speak English well."
And if the schools ever got around to insisting that their students also learn to write English well . . . .
But let's take this thing one dream at a time.