Friday, 22 February 2008

L plates

I’ve been having debates on-and-off for the last twenty years about what to call learners. Twenty years ago, trainees was going out of fashion, but people were slow to embrace learners. All sorts of other terms were mooted: students always sounded better-suited to the world of academia, and had too many other connotations. Just referring to staff or employees was a copout. Organisers of public courses would use delegates, but they might as well have just said customers or clients.

One term I still occasionally use is participants, suitably vague and devoid of any pejorative meaning. But is learners now acceptable? I’ve often been told people don’t like to be referred to as learners because it implies they’re thick. And, although we were all learner drivers ourselves once, people do tend to sneer at drivers with L plates.

I sense that learner has come of age, and is now more widely acceptable. There’s always a danger that I am too immersed in my profession and have lost touch with what people in the real world think. But I prefer to believe developments like e-learning, and the work of the learning and development profession, have contributed to the proper term becoming more acceptable. Am I right?

There I go, worrying about language again. But it is important – how we speak to each other conveys all sorts of unintentional meanings we should be more guarded about.

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