It’s a beautiful day to be in Houston, Texas. On days such as this, particularly when large swathes of the country are yet again digging themselves out of snowdrifts, I like to wander under the gracious Moorish arches and corridors and along the avenues of Live Oaks at Rice University. Not quite as bucolic as the meandering Cam on summer’s day, or as inspiring as the spires and steeples of Oxford but the campus is nonetheless imbued with an of elegant sense of peace and learning.
Bicycles churn along the paths, squirrels scuttle from tree to tree guarding their nuts, and students of every hue and denomination scurry, or slouch, from class to class. Some are weighted down with rucksacks, shoulders curved to the task, others stride with careless purpose perhaps intent on becoming the next Nobel winner. Others still straggle in untidy clusters, as if not quite comfortable in their current milieu.
The students have one thing in common, they are all very bright young, and sometimes not-so-young, men and women (82% of freshmen were in the top 5% of their graduating high school class), and Rice is a university whose mascot is the owl after all. But many of the students have another thing in common, and not just with other young people within the confines of their campus, but with the young everywhere it seems, and that is their speech.
I have no issue with words that come and go in popularity – dude, cool, far out, chill, cheers, and even boom as a way of expressing congratulations or thanks. Whether discussing physics or football, Descartes or design, the majority of young people at the moment seem unable to string a sentence together without adding the word ‘like’ at the beginning, in the middle and at the end. “Sets my teeth on edge like a thumbnail to a chalkboard” is fine used as a simile. “Like it set my teeth on edge”, is not.
Ambling along behind a gaggle of girls as I wound my way to the pleasant cafeteria in the midst of the campus, I could not help but hear their giggled conversation, “Like I told him, like if you wanna call me, like, that’d be okay. But I guess, like I could text him too.”
I mean really, is that how we are teaching our young to speak? And then as I become attuned to the different languages swirling around me I wonder if the Cantonese, or the Urdu, or the Arabic or German, is being besieged by interloper words that make a perfectly sensible sentence garbled. My question is answered a short time later as I settle into my chair with a coffee. A study group is conducted at an adjacent table and I listen as the tutor, an older man, leads the discussion, his speech patterns similar to his students. Is he trying to be one of the group I wonder? To be seen to be on the same wavelength? Or is the word ‘like’ used in a manner so insidious none of us realise we are beginning to sound like automatons?
Internships are a way for many students to experience ‘real life’ in the professional world – let’s hope their mentors express deep scepticism at the intern’s acuity if they are unable to utter a sentence without ‘like’. These students, our children, are the future moves and shakers of the world, please can we teach them to speak intelligently, or if not that, at least properly.
Perhaps I should have ordered wine instead of coffee. It might have mellowed me.
Like, I mean to say, whatever next?