Monday, June 19, 2017

A level Paper 2: revision tips final part

I'll cut the boring intro this time and just say that in this post we'll have a look at what to think about when you're actually analysing texts for Section B. What should you be doing with the texts and what kinds of approaches work? As with everything posted for revision this year, I'm not suggesting there's only one right way to do this, but here are a few things that I've found useful and that you might like to think about. Again, I'm only referring to sample material here and what has previously been set by AQA on their old A and B specs.

Basically, what you're doing here is a form of what is called Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and in a post in 2014 for the old AQA A spec (which this part of the paper is very similar to), I outlined a few approaches to analysis which I thought might help.

... you're using language analysis to work out the ideological position a text producer is taking in discussing a language issue. So, this could mean you're using language analysis to work out how a writer is using the following:
  • pronouns to address the reader and position him/herself in relation to the ideal reader (direct 2nd person address, inclusive 1st person plural, maybe some synthetic personalisation)
  • lexical formality to suggest closeness to the ideal reader/distance and expertise
  • modality to suggest elements of certainty or doubt, sometimes in the form of modal verbs, but also modal adverbs
For example - and I've shamelessly nicked this from an article I did for emagazine last year - with last January's question on the supposed Americanisation of English, Matthew Engel positioned himself in particular ways: an article for The Daily Mail on Americanisms entering English, the columnist Matthew Engel, seems to humbly and self-mockingly position himself as out of touch by saying “Old buffers like me have always complained about the process, and we have always been defeated”. Should we take such a move at face value? Perhaps not. Engel goes on in the article to stridently berate the UK for adopting what he calls “ugly Americanisms”: “Nowadays, people have no idea where American ends and English begins. And that's a disaster for our national self-esteem. We are in danger of subordinating our language to someone else's - and with it large aspects of British life”. That doesn’t sound too much like the stance of a man who’s labelled himself an “old buffer”, but the words of a man who feels he’s still got battles to fight and wars to win (if not, home-runs to hit). His self-effacing positioning earlier on helps him appeal to his reader as a gentle, even rather defeated and pessimistic, sort of character, which his subsequent warnings and call to arms belie.

So, back to the new specification and Paper 2. In many ways, I don't think what you are doing here is much different to what you will have done on Paper 1 analysing language and representations, but the focus on Paper 2 is always language itself - views, opinions, debates, arguments about language - rather than cycling, the Olympics, goths or school proms...

AO1 is still about applying different language frameworks/methods/levels to pull apart the nuts and bolts of language and as with Paper 1 the more range and depth you offer, the more marks you can get and the more interesting your analysis can become. One thing to remember is that while grammar can be a very important aspect of what you analyse (word classes, phrases, sentences and clauses, etc.) you shouldn't ignore the other areas - semantics, graphology, pragmatics and discourse structure, for example.

If you look at the top level of AO1, patterns are important and I think that one of the things you can do here to show that you understand a text is to describe not just individual appearances of certain kinds of word, semantic field, sentence, image or hyperlink - but patterns you notice in how they are used. Are patterns established? Why? Are patterns broken? Why? Is there an overall discourse structure to the texts? How has this been used to convey a viewpoint?

AO3 is about meanings and representations again, so think about how language is represented but also how the writers of the texts represent and position themselves to present their views. To hit the top level (5) you need to evaluate all of this, so think about how successfully (or not) these ideas are presented. The other thing to be aware of is that AO3 is about contextualised meanings, as well. What do language choices mean in the texts themselves, in specific places? What ideas, values and beliefs about language are being presented in these articles/book extracts/online pieces? Does the context - a regular newspaper column, an online response to another article, a self-help guide (all previously featuring in old AQA papers) - help influence the meaning?

Of course, the other aspect to all of this is the new AO, AO4 and this is one to really think about before putting pen to paper, because it could be a factor in how you structure your answer. AO4 is all about connections between texts and is worth 15 marks on this question (same as AO3), so think carefully about how to use the connections (similarities and differences) to organise your answer. Remember to consider not just superficial connections (topic, audience, mode etc.) but aspects of language use, the discourses used and the wider discussions about these issues.

That's the lot for Paper 2 and all the new A levels for this year. All I can say now is best of luck and hope that the paper is kind to you so you can show your knowledge and bare skillz.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A level Paper 2: revision tips part 3

Here's the third in a short (and predictably-titled) series of ... yadda yadda get the drift.

Still on the subject of Language Discourses, what have different people - linguists, writers and media commentators - had to say about the big debates around change and diversity? Who could you go to for some ideas about different approaches to these arguments?

A really good starting point is the linguist Jean Aitchison, whose BBC Reith Lectures in 1996 were all about language: what it is, how we acquire it, how it changes and how people feel about it. Her book, Language Change: Progress or Decay? (now in its fourth edition and a great text for the whole second year of this course) looks at some of the patterns of change we see in English over time and some of the perennial complaints about such change.

One of her best known metaphors is the the idea that prescriptivists (those who resist change and want to tell everyone else what constitutes 'proper English') fall into what she terms a 'crumbling castle' view of language. As a linguist and descriptivist, Aitchison herself is not a fan of the crumbling castle view and explains in her lectures (and her books) that the whole presumption that English was ever a perfectly-formed and gloriously complete language is completely false and that change is natural.

This treats the English language as a beautiful old building with gargoyles and pinnacles which need to be preserved intact, as implied in statements by the writer John Simon: Language, he argues, should be treated like "parks, national forests, monuments, and public utilities ... available for properly respectful use but not for defacement or destruction".
This view itself crumbles when examined carefully. It implies that the castle of English was gradually and lovingly assembled until it reached a point of maximum splendour at some unspecified time in the past. Yet no year can be found when language achieved some peak of perfection, like a vintage wine. The "beautiful building" notion presupposes that rigid systems, once assembled, are better than changing ones. This is untrue. In the animal world, flexibility is a great advantage, and animals that adhere to fixed systems often lose out.                         (from this Independent article)

Her other metaphors - the damp spoon and infectious disease - are explained in more detail in her own words here. And it's worth a listen.

Back in 2014 I did this post about attitudes to language change and you can find some useful points and links here about the ways in which more recent (prescriptive) media commentators such as Lynne Truss and Simon Heffer have argued a similar case to those that Aitchison outlines and how more progressive and descriptive writers and thinkers - Steven Pinker,  David Marsh, Michael Rosen and Erin Brenner - have argued their case.

Another interesting person to look at is Lane Greene. His book You Are What You Speak is another really good read and offers some really astute points about the reasons for people's concerns about change. In the two chapters you can find here and here, he looks at complaints about language and places them in what he terms declinist and sticklerist traditions.

Again, there's plenty on this blog about discourses and if you look here, here and here you'll find some useful material.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A level Paper 2: revision tips part 2

Here's the second in a short (and predictably-titled) series of posts preparing you for next week's first sitting of the new AQA A level Paper 2. The last post was on Language Discourses and what they are. This one is on some of the discourses and debates you could explore. These are just a few suggestions; there are lots of other areas you could look at and I know nothing about what might appear so don't take any of these as predictions. My advice is always to revise all the possible areas and be ready for anything.

Gender debates - remember, as with the AS paper this summer, debates about gender can be about how language is used but also how gender is represented in language.

American English and World Englishes - have a look at some of the arguments here and here about the supposed Americanisation of English.

Attitudes to accents and dialects - this cropped up on the AS paper this summer and is worth thinking about from an A level perspective.

New words and arguments about lexical change - have a look here and here for some debates about how people feel about new words and their place in the dictionary.

Political Correctness and language reform - always a heated debate on this one and this link might help.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A level Paper 2: revision tips part 1

This is the first of a short (and tediously-titled) series of posts on revision for AQA A level English Language Paper 2. With Paper 1 out of the way and Twitter awash with exam-based memes and 'bananagate' stories, you can now turn your attention to Language Change, Diversity and Discourses.

You've still got just under a week to go, so there's time for some reading and thinking as well as practising the skills you need to use across the three very different questions you'll need to answer. Today, let's have a look at Language Discourses and what you can do to work on these before the exam. One thing to say is that while Section B is the main Language Discourses bit of the paper (it's even called that), arguments and debates about language can crop up in Section A as well, so don't narrow your thinking down too much.

The first thing to ask is "What the hell is a language discourse?".

The answer - for this paper, at least - is that it's a way of discussing and arguing about language. Language discourses are the ways in which people describe language change and diversity and argue about the language around us. Given that what's being discussed is language itself, it's probably no surprise to see writers using metaphors and analogies to describe change and diversity.

If every writer simply said "Language is a system of communication" it would generally be accurate and not very contentious, and not very interesting either. But when writers describe change as a process of decay, collapse or evolution, diversity as a disease, a kind of pollution, a beautiful cross-pollination of varieties of English, language use of young people as a war between old and young, between women and men as a battle of the sexes, or American English as a threat, an invading army or an unwelcome intruder, that's when we're looking at discourses.

Language is being described in other terms and a viewpoint or perspective established. More often than not, these discourses and ways of thinking are already there because they're ones that others have raised over the history of the language. So, when writers use a discourse, they're often contributing to an existing way of thinking - tapping into a discourse that others can relate to - because it's already out there. That's what makes them so pervasive and persuasive, because they're common sense, aren't they?

We all know that language is getting worse because of young people and foreigners... or that male and female language use is fundamentally different... or that technology (mis)spells doom for standard English... or that some accents are just worse, don't we?

Well, no. Just because claims about language are repeated and seep into the mainstream way of thinking doesn't make them right. In fact, the more 'common sense' they appear, the more we should be wary of them. Look at those claims above. There are many good linguistic (and social, moral and political) reasons for challenging each and every one of them. in fact, they're all a bunch of cobblers really*.

Many of these discourses have been around for centuries; just have a look at Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars and you'll see a great overview of what people have complained about in English and the terms they've put it in. The targets change but the song remains the same.

So, one useful thing you can do is to get together a list of the different discourses that crop up when English is discussed. Look at the stories on this blog and linked via the @EngLangBlog Twitter account for a cross-section of these. And think about all the potential areas for argument and debate in the areas of change and diversity, because these could all crop up in Section B of the paper. The sample paper has change (semantic change) as its focus but diversity and variation topics could be here as well. In fact, all the Paper 2 variation and diversity topic areas - occupation, accent & dialect, sociolect, gender, ethnicity, world Englishes and any combination of these with change - could appear. It's a lot to think about and revise but the arguments are often very similar.

And the other thing you can do is realise that after two years of English Language study, you'll probably know a lot more about how language works (and how it doesn't work) than some of the writers and journalists who feel qualified to spout off about English in the pages of the kinds of publications that you might get set for Section B.

Don't be afraid to analyse, deconstruct and challenge the views put forward in the texts that you get for Section B. If you can identify the discourses they are using and analyse the techniques they're using to construct these ideas about language, then you can pull them apart and evaluate whether they are fair ways of describing what's happening. Use your knowledge from the study of language to think about alternatives and you'll be able to do really well.

Next time round, I'll post a few more practical ideas for studying discourses, including a few links to old blog posts about particular debates.

(*Not a very academic way of putting it, so don't quote me on this.)

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Listen Up

You don't have to revise with reading and writing alone; there are loads of podcasts and downloads that cover topics and discussions relevant to AS and A level English Language. I've been collating a few of these for my students, so here are some to listen to.

This Radio 4 programme about Cockney changing and dying out is really good for language change & variation.

Lexicon Valley is a regular linguistics podcast. Have a look here for a list of recent episodes.

Lingthusiasm is a new linguistics podcast and you can find out more here.

Michael Rosen's Word of Mouth on Radio 4 has loads of good programmes about language and a few are listed here:

American English:
Language pedantry and discourses:
Child language & interaction:
Office jargon & occupational English:
Baby Talk and language development:

Saturday, April 15, 2017

From 'discuss' to 'evaluate' between AS and A level

One of the big differences between what you do at AS level and A level is in the "command word" used to give you your tasks.

At AS level, Paper 2 questions use the formulation "Discuss the idea that...", where the "idea" is something that you can then focus on and tell us about. By using "discuss" as the command word, the question ('s an imperative really, grammar-lovers, so not really a question at all) is asking you to tell us about what you know in relation to this topic. There's no real sense in the word 'discuss' that to answer the question at a reasonable level that you have to weigh it all up and come to any kind of definitive conclusion, but that's what's expected a bit more at the highest level (Level 5 of the AO2 mark scheme) where last year's main indicative content key words were: explore, assess and "make some evaluative comments".

The way I've taught my students to approach this at AS level is to assume that each level builds on the ones below and adds more:

  • Levels 1 and 2 are about basic knowledge. If you want to generalise, then you might say that Level 1 suggests very little grasp of anything to do with detailed study and Level 2 suggests that the student has been to some lessons and remembers a few names and ideas but not necessarily with much real grip. If you are a bit like this, then there is still time to get better!
  • Level 3: detailed knowledge - tell us about some examples you've looked at, some studies you've encountered and some concepts and theories that might be relevant.
  • Level 4: detailed knowledge of different ideas - tell us about different ways of approaching the topic. What are the different ideas that have been offered to explain how this kind of language works? For example, if you're talking about gender and interaction (as in the sample paper from AQA) can you explain some of the different models - difference and dominance - used to make sense of how women and men use language?
  • Level 5: overview and assessment of different ideas - make some sense of those different ideas and explain the most relevant ways to interpret that knowledge for the purposes of this question. Sticking with gender again, if Level 4 is about understanding different models, then Level 5 might be about placing those models in a historical context and explaining why one approach might have significant at one time and another more significant twenty years later. It could also involve you looking at different variables and arguing for their relative importance, while considering ideas around performance and identity. 
For A level, the bar is likely to be shifted up a little, I think. No actual A level papers have been sat or marked yet, so I'm basing this interpretation on how we approached the marking of the AS last year and my experience of teaching the A level this year. The A level is more demanding for a couple of reasons. 

  • First, there's no stimulus data, so you have nothing to give you a kick-start should you require it: you have to come with examples and ideas ready to use. 
  • Second, the scope of the question could be pretty broad (e.g. "Evaluate the idea that the English language is changing and breaking up into many different Englishes.") where you would need to set your own terms of discussion and choose the most relevant approach from what you have studied, or quite specific (.g. "Evaluate the idea that spoken interactions between men and women are characterised by miscommunication.") where you would be expected to know about miscommunication as a concept right from the start. 
  • Third, because the command word is evaluate rather than discuss, I think we are probably asking students for a higher level of engagement with different ideas right from the start. So, it probably means that to get into Levels 3,4 and 5 you'd need to do more than an AS student.
What does 'evaluate' actually mean though? defines it in three ways (but one of these is about maths, so we'll leave that one out): determine or set the value or amount of; appraise:to evaluate judge or determine the significance, worth, or quality of; assess: to evaluate the results of an experiment.
The Ofqual document from which AQA 'command words' were drawn up, defines evaluate simply as "judge from available evidence". So, what does this mean for English Language A level? My view is that it's about weighing up ideas, assessing the relative merits of different ways of discussing language and showing an understanding of how different explanations can be offered for why language works in certain ways. If we stick to the sample questions, you might weigh up the view that English is breaking up by arguing that it has never been one form in the first place (look at all the accents and dialects that exist now and have done for hundreds of years, for instance). You might weigh up the idea that English is 'breaking up' as if it's a bad thing. Maybe a better metaphor might be the language morphing and adapting, not breaking at all. 

If you are looking at the other question, then you might weigh up/appraise/determine the value of the the whole notion of 'miscommunication' and argue that we all miscommunicate and that it's got very little to do with gender at all. You might evaluate that idea more sympathetically too and argue, as Deborah Tannen did, that because boys and girls have been socialised into different types of talk that there *is* a type of gender-specific miscommunication at work.

At the very top level, this probably means doing more than weighing up alternative views, but critiquing and challenging models and even challenging the terms of the question.

Revising gender: discourses and debates

Gender as a topic area features in both the AS and A level, and can appear in either part of Paper 2. You could get an AS level "Discuss the idea that..." or an A level "Evaluate the idea that..." question in Section A or gender might feature as part of 'language discourses' in Section B.

What is meant by 'discourses'? Well, it's something that I've defined elsewhere as a debate or argument about language, but it can also be treated as a way of thinking about, talking about and describing language. If you want to get academic about it (and why wouldn't you?) here's what the linguist Paul Baker has to say about it in his excellent book about language, gender and sexuality, Sexed Texts:

Language constructs ideas about gender, represents them to us and often helps establish them as 'common sense'. When people write about gender, they often articulate many of the existing discourses - that gender interaction is like a battle of the sexes, a form of combat, or that debates about gendered pronouns are about a form of repression or policing of natural language - and part of your job at both AS and A level is to unpick those discourses and find alternative ways to express them. 

For example, at AS level, you were asked in Section B of last summer's AS Paper 2 to write an opinion piece in which you discussed claims about female and male communication and the stimulus text was an extract from a Mail Online article about how men are supposed to use one kind of filler an women another. Even the Mail article (yes, even the Mail) managed to point out that it wasn't always as simple as saying that men do x and women do y, because they pointed out that there are what they termed 'betweeners' such as David Beckham, Jessie J and Eminem who mix and match their umms and errs. The article also pointed out that age might have a bearing on the kind of filler a person uses.

Why does this matter? Here's the main reason. If the stimulus text shows that it's not quite as simple as saying that men do x and women do y, then why do they use a headline that suggests exactly the opposite and why do they think that is an appropriate way to frame the debate? Maybe because, as Deborah Cameron pointed out a few years ago, difference sells. To paraphrase Cameron, headlines such as "Newsflash: men and women use language in largely the same ways" don't really have as much appeal as ones that propose there's a difference. She talks more about these dubious claims in her (highly recommended) Myth of Mars and Venus and has this to say about such reductive headlines in an extract from that book on The Guardian's site in 2007:

Most people, of course, do not read academic journals: they get their information about scientific research findings from the reports that appear in newspapers, or from TV science documentaries. These sources often feature research on male-female differences, since media producers know that there is interest in the subject. But the criteria producers use when deciding which studies to report and how to present them introduce another layer of distortion. And sometimes headlines trumpet so-called facts that turn out, on investigation, to have no basis in evidence at all.
The other reason it matters is that if you are going to produce an opinion piece about gender and interaction, it makes sense not to parrot the simplistic, black and white discourses of the popular press, but to offer something a bit more nuanced. Not only is this good for getting marks on AO2 (concepts, knowledge about language, theory and research) but it's good for your AO5.

If you can engage your readers and inform them about language in a way that shows you understand the media discourses around gender and manipulate them for your own ends - perhaps even subverting them and challenging them in the process - you can pick up marks for style, structure and shaping of language. If you can show that you have read, tasted and perhaps even digested others' opinions, you can do a better job of expressing your own views.

And when it comes to the A level, where you might be required to pull apart the language of articles and other popular media texts about gender (or sociolect, accent and dialect, world Englishes, language change for that matter, where all these discourses recur) your ability to spot popular and prevalent discourses, and then to interrogate them, could really help you with the text analysis task in Question 3.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Gender sensitivity?

Looking for an example of how language and gender makes the news? Then go no further than these two pieces about the same story. Not only do you get a good sense of how language can be part of a wider battle about gender roles and social inequality but you also get a lesson in language discourses for free.

Just have a look at how The Guardian and Mail Online report the same story, use different sources, experts and language techniques to frame their views.