As a Freelance Writer the topic of the English language is of some importance to me. This is why when I read Susanna Rustin‘s piece, Why Study English? in the Guardian (10/03/2019) that there is an lack of English teachers I was intrigued because I was also aware of the lack of literacy levels among adults in prison.
On recall to prison I was shocked to see that there levels of literacy among my peers was at its lowest level, but was pleased to see that there was help. Another prisoner, some years before me had had enough of the poor literacy levels that he mentioned in a letter to his penpal that something needed to be done. The prison community has a whole owes much to Tom Shannon and Christopher Morgan for the setting up of The Shannon Trust; a group that I am pleased to say, I was once a mentor.
As people that follow this blog will know, I am an avid fan of Creative Writing, in all its forms. I have even written and helped to produce a Creative Writing (which is now broadcast through the in-cell TV channel) course for prisoners because I want them (and others) to find both joy, and freedom of expression within our wonderful language.
I am not sure historically if there is a link, but certainly from what I read in Rustin’s piece we have cause for concern. If prior to this article there have been good numbers of English teachers, and that the decline has been slow, then with this now being highlighted, I have got to ask the question, are we going to see further declines in literacy skills among adults of future generations? If so, what are we doing to halt that decline?
Practical literacy lessons need to be concentrated around vocabulary, spelling and grammar; but they also need to be relevant. The tradition of starting with these basics, and knowing your nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs has been one that has stood the test of time, and one that we ought to get back to. It is interesting to note that prisoners that do not have English as a first language study these are part of the ESOL (English for speakers of Other Languages) courses, and end up with a better grasp than native English-speaking prisoners.
Once we have this in place the prisoners can go on to study further subjects. Our language skills are not confined to the study of the Humanities subjects, but used further afield. The sciences and Mathematics use English language to explain their theories and arguments. We also use the language in all of our workplaces, which is why I believe that there ought to be a level of education within the prison workshops and other places of employment.
I think that we have to look at language versus literature for this argument, and for me, language wins. Our language shows much of our human endeavour, it shows our achievements, and it is full of the details that we go on to use in literature and other subjects. As a writer I am always interested in the current language usage, and how that informs society around us. As an example, it always intrigues me that something that once was ‘cool’ is now ‘sick’. Recently social media even taught me the original meaning of ‘deadline’ recently, and as an ex-prisoner it is of note. Deadline was the line drawn in the earth around a prison and is the inmate stepped across it their were liable to be shot. Now think how often we use this word in our everyday tasks.
I have wandered through the use of the English language and how it changes on purpose. In answering the question posed by Rustin, Why Study English? I think the reason that we ought to enhance this subject and ensure that it is continued to be taught and studied is the English language is so rewarding, and as an ex-prisoner it was the key to my freedom.