When teenspeak, like, enters the office

Translate the following: "Dude, that air dog, like, hucked the half pipe."

To many English speakers over age 25, the statement may be indecipherable. Guesses about high-flying canines or plumbing equipment will be wide of the mark. It's slang for a snowboarder who likes to jump, and in this case, makes a reckless maneuver.

Teenagers have always written their own phrase books. The 1960s were groovy, the '70s ran on flower power, and in the '80s everything was totally "fer sure." And the '90s? Well, the '90s are like, I mean, whatever ... you know?

Conversing in teenspeak is almost a rite of passage.

Some say communicating in these age-specific code words is just an adolescent phenomenon and a natural part of the language's evolution. Others see the explosion of vernacular as a sign of mental laxity and decaying communication skills. But what's recently fired up the time-honored debate are reports that college graduates are carrying teenspeak into the professional world. And all it's taking are a few short sentences to both flummox and irritate their bosses.

"Kids will use their own language that, by itself, there's nothing wrong with," says Paul Ciborowski, author of "Working with Tomorrow's Teens: A 21st Century Challenge" and a professor at Long Island University in New York. "It's the crossover from the personal world to the professional. This is where a number of young people are handicapped."

As a result, a number of schools are dusting off dictionaries and reacquainting students with that Victorian-sounding notion called elocution:

*In response to reports from their alumnae network that students' presentation skills were lacking, Smith College in Northampton, Mass., stepped up speaking instruction. First-year students are evaluated and classes across the curriculum incorporate more speaking.

*Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., has established a new center that provides students with speaking and presentation help.

*A contest in Nebraska had students from kindergarten through 12th grade on the lookout for that granddaddy of all phrases: "you know." The contest, administered by the Nebraskaland Foundation, awarded the winner $1,000 for taping a 15-minute radio interview during which "you know" was said 61 times.

But is typical teen talk really a cause for national alarm?

Peter Stine has taught college English for 31 years and says he's seen young people's ability to speak articulately take a chartable nose dive in recent years.

"They've lost the keen edge of figurative political language," he says. "When they don't have the word, they're using a sound to take the place of a well-drawn adverb." Mr. Stine pins the blame for this on a culture of informality.

Some critics go even further, saying that today's youth-speak trends are indicators of more insidious issues. Fingers point most often at schools with lax standards, television, a lack of education in manners, poor self-esteem, and even the breakdown of the family.

But here's also where the debate splits: Is the use of common teenage vernacular the problem or is it that graduates are emerging unversed in etiquette and professional presentation skills?

The words and phrases unique to the teen group aren't "inferior or substandard," says Howard Giles, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "It's a way of differentiating oneself from other groups."

Current concerns about a rising generation of monosyllabic specialists are overblown, he says. "Seniors are 'liking' all over the place," Dr. Giles adds, referring to the word "like" that peppers many young people's speech. "But they can turn it off and on."

But some argue that the transition from teenspeak to adult talk isn't happening.

Judith Bowman, a consultant in Boston, coaches people in etiquette, international business, and communication skills. Many of her clients are corporations that send employees for fine-tuning.

"What I'm seeing is that the technical knowledge is in place, but it's the presentation skills that are lacking," Ms. Bowman says. "A woman called me from the Harvard Crimson [newspaper] recently saying that students are panicking because they don't have interview skills."

But a group of about 65 students from Natick (Mass.) High School are proof positive that the younger generation may not be in dire straits, after all.

Members of the school's speech club gather - voluntarily - one evening a week for two hours to learn how to speak and present themselves more effectively.

A group of seniors sat clustered around some desks this spring talking about their first experiences in the club.

"I remember in my first speech, my knees were shaking so hard, I was glad I was wearing a long skirt," Kim Duca says.

They agree that effective communication skills are essential and acknowledge that developing them takes practice.

But public speaking aside, the group also feels all the fuss isn't necessary. They're well aware that the business world expects a different set of standards.

"When the elders say we can't communicate, it's not true," says junior Ari Martyn. "We can communicate to whomever we're talking. What they hear is us communicating to our peers."

And the use of teenspeak is "something you outgrow," says senior Katie Phillips.

Katie's father, Jeff, has volunteered with the speech club for 25 years. Having observed multiple generations move through, he expresses deep faith in their abilities.

"I think it's a myth that there was this golden age when students went home after school and read all the time," he says, responding to the popular argument that pop-culture attractions (TV, music, video games) are accelerating the demise.

But if students and educators can agree on one point, it's that shaky speaking skills result from a lack of self-confidence.

"I think when people say 'I mean, you know, and whatever,' it's because they don't have confidence in what they're saying," Martyn says.

They also harmonize on another point - presentation skills should be emphasized early on in college studies. It's no good waiting until a college senior's last semester to stuff in a brief seminar on interview skills and etiquette.

But what about all, the like, you know, slang that gets tossed around? The jury is in and it says: Kids will be kids.

"People are always decrying the evolution of language," says Natick High senior Mark Kornblum. "I'm sure this is the same thing my grandparents said to my parents."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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