There was a single, telling moment when Michelle Obama spoke to a group of inner-city London schoolgirls the other day: she said they must work hard to be different "from other girls".
She didn't say "than other girls", the common and lazy usage into which many people have slipped. She correctly used the preposition rather than the relative conjunction, which -- for example -- the comparative adverb "better" would have attracted: hence, "different from" and "better than".
And she did that because she understood the rules of grammar. Two generations after the civil rights movement, and slightly less after the professional emancipation of women, black American women like Michelle Obama and Condoleezza Rice show how it's done.
Success is terribly simple: it comes from hard work, hard work and more hard work. There is no easy route. And the very first step is the basic step, of learning to speak properly, using grammatically correct speech, constructed from sentences that can be parsed and analysed.
You can bet that the young Michelle and young Condoleezza were taught just that from the age of 11 onwards -- argot, repressed; slang, outlawed; patois, abolished; ghetto-talk, taboo. Speak sentences that President Lincoln could understand, and you cannot go far wrong.
Gentle reader, before the summer term ends, and schools close for another entire meteorological season, ride the Dundrum Luas or the Dun Laoghaire Dart in the mid-afternoon and listen to the "I'm like" babble of today's schoolgirls, for whom 'Sex and the City' is not a faintly mordant sexual satire with gay jokes and subversive word-games, but a social template, a blueprint, an aspiration, and a language role-model.
This is like using 'Dad's Army' as the basis for a military academy, or '30 Rock' as an example of how to run a TV station.
Who in Irish schools understands grammar any more? Does any teacher correct a pupil who says "different than"? Do teachers even have the temerity to stop their pupils speaking in the gruesome American lilt that is now almost the received-dialect of the old Protestant schools of Dublin?
The largely anglicised and hateful Dort accent of 20 years ago, which followed the line of the suburban railway track from Dun Laoghaire to Howth like hogweed, and which turned all "ar" sounds into "or" has gone. It has been replaced by this ghastly transatlantic mishmash of badly-learnt phrases, which is no less absurd than South Sea Isla-nders trying to copy Elvis.
The truth is that educated Americans simply don't talk like the television representations of them. Their conversations don't consist of an endless series of declarations of, "I'm like", followed by a brief facial imitation of some sort of mood or attitude. They mostly compose their sentences grammatically and carefully, a legacy of the Germanic-style high schools which make the US so very Teutonic in culture.
But of course, television -- the inspiration for the blatherings of the "I'm like" generation -- barely touches upon that mundane reality of the quotidian. Why should it? It's merely entertainment in the US; but tragically in Ireland, it has become the great cultural inspiration.
How did the old Protestant schools of Dublin become a factory for a pseudo-American language, as spoken so gruesomely by Jedward? Listen to the real speech of Condoleezza and Michelle. It does not follow the infuriating upward intonation of the phoney-interrogative, it is always measured and correctly constructed, and it is entirely without the conversational tropes of 'Friends' and 'Sex and the City', which are meant to be little in-jokes, not syntactical language-guides.
It is now the norm for the English-speaking world to adopt American words and usages: even Australians, quite unbearably, now say "guys" instead of "blokes", which was once one of the great talismanic terms of Strine. Equally, Irish rugby players never say "lads" any more: no, it's all "guys guys guys". And though I find it all hateful, I know such word-transferences are probably both inevitable and unstoppable.
However, what's happening in middle-class Irish schools is unique. An entire social class is doing more than picking up words: it is changing its complete speech patterns -- its melody, its emphases, its grammar and its narrative style -- to conform with what it perceives to be American. But it's not authentic American, but a bad copy of what was originally a parody anyway.
Look, if you do insist on learning from America, then let it be a model from the best of the US, and not from some grisly TV fant-asy: from Harvard, MIT, Yale, Cornell, William and Mary, Michigan State, Stan-ford, UCLA, Annapolis, West Point and Quantico. That USA is really worth copying.
You can be sure of one thing -- if Condoleezza or Michelle were head teachers in the middle-class schools of Dublin, they'd put a halt to the plague of linguistic gibberish in a single morning's assembly. It's not too late, even now: all that's required to reverse these revolting trends is the cultural self-confidence to defend Irish ways of speaking, and to ridicule the utterly ridiculous -- I'm like, Omigod, no WAY, shut up! that is so toadally gross.