Hugh Reilly: Accent is on clear communication

LAST week, my girlfriend took out a super-injunction to prevent her being publicly identified as the woman who sacrificed her burgeoning career as a bath mat sales assistant to spend her life with me.

Heck, I was so upset that I refused her offer of a sympathy snog. News that the nation's sweetheart, Cheryl Cole, had been sacked from the US version of X Factor only served to heighten my suicidal ideation.

Stateside has been sheer hell for Cheryl. When she was commenting on acts, due to her impenetrable Geordie accent, many American viewers mistakenly believed she was a cute Serb lawyer outlining the defence case for Ratko Mladic. In Arkansas, indignant two-toothed talent show watchers desperately scrambled to find individuals who could write letters of complaint to the show's producers.

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In Britain, Ms Cole's fans say her Geordieland tongue is endearing, reassuring even. They claim she is solely responsible for giving back respectability to the North East dialect that the UK public had previously only associated with the telephone voices of Ralph Moat, the Yorkshire Ripper hoaxer and a drunken Paul Gascoigne.

Her mistake was to arrogantly think that she could be an American success without adopting a transatlantic accent.

It's okay to be proud of one's roots but speaking in a manner that confuses the listener is foolhardy. I taught in Drumchapel, in a school that received shoeboxes of Christmas gifts from rich kids in the Horn of Africa who had been moved by footage of the scheme's squalor and deprivation. One term, the Modern Studies department hosted a student teacher from Banff. He was a great lad, very enthusiastic and eager to do well. Unfortunately, he persisted in speaking to the children - and me - in his strong, local dialect. One day, a kid asked me: "Wit part o' the world is that guy fae? Nane o us kin underston him!" I empathised with his suffering.

In more recent times, it has been my misfortune to encounter a tiny minority of teachers who appear to believe that using slovenly speech will gain kudos with the kids in the classroom. I recall a young teacher speaking to colleagues in the staffroom about a lesson on political parties that had gone down particularly well with the cherubs.

"A kid hud drawn a great poster of Labour's rose and forns," she said.

"Forns?" queried Donald, an elderly principal teacher, genuinely unsure of what he had just heard.

His question perplexed the female teacher. "Forns, you know, jaggy fings on the stem of a rose," she said, obviously exasperated that Donald was showing early signs of dementia by forgetting a key part of an everyday flower.

"Thorns, you mean!" thundered Donald.

"That's what I said!" she replied with a sigh and a forlorn shake of the head. We, of course, remained neutral, embarrassed for the girl but not wanting to shame her in public.Perhaps as part of care in the community or a nod to social inclusion, the ability to mangle the English language has not proved to be a barrier to promotion. I know of at least two West of Scotland deputy heads whose utterances make the ramblings of Big Issue sellers sound like Richard Burton reading Under Milk Wood. Call me cranky, but I earnestly believe that teachers should be role models who, by example, offer children an alternative to gutter-speech. As a product of Easterhouse, I had to change my way of speaking at university. Initially, I was a tad thrilled to discover that my thick east end of Glasgow accent greatly amused attractive, privately educated, middle-class girls from the suburbs. However, I quickly realised that these "gels" were giggling behind my back.

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By the time I entered the teaching profession, I felt I was a clear speaker. It came as something of a shock when, after my first day in my new post as teacher of English in a Corfu language school, the owner said I had one month to lose my Scottish accent. By the end of the fourth week I sounded like a cross between Colin Firth and Kirk Douglas.

To many teenagers, elocution is what happens if an appliance is wrongly wired. Teaching young people proper patterns of speech would be a pronounced success in anyone's language.