Wednesday, November 22, 2017

I'm a Celebrity - The Jack Maynard Debate

My students always like it when I'm able to bring something topical into an English Language lesson. So, when I heard about Jack Maynard getting kicked out of the Celebrity jungle, I knew I had to tackle it head-on because the controversy is central to issues of language and culture, not to mention language change and attitudes. 

If you've not read the offending tweets from Maynard that have resurfaced over the past few days, I'll fill you in. The posts go back to 2011/12 when he would've been roughly 16 or 17. In them, it appears that he uses the 'N' word to reference a group of friends who are, presumably, of colour. He also references someone as being the 'gayest' and, in a further tweet remarks that he considers the intended recipients to be 'retarded' (this was used as a pre-modifier for a more offensive noun). 

Given that Maynard's use of language raises questions about racism, homophobia and attitudes to disability, it's easy to see why he had to leave the reality show. Likely he will, in the coming days, apologise and try to add context to explain his choice of language. It was this issue that I put to my students today. 

Interestingly, opinion was massively divided. While everyone agreed he'd been an idiot, some were disgusted, while others wanted to look at the bigger picture (which, I reminded them, we don't yet have - making the whole thing a theoretical debate, not a judgement in the court of public opinion). 

The points they made were insightful. Let's start with 'gayest'. After accepting that this superlative had extended beyond its reference to sexual orientation, there was some disagreement about whether it had undergone amelioration or pejoration. Either way, the eventual consensus was that the word had been used to describe something boring or rubbish for over a decade. So, without knowing if Maynard's tweet was directed at a gay individual to whom it was intended to be an insult, it became impossible to accuse him of outright homophobia. 

The issue of disability discrimination was more easily resolved. It was generally felt that it was wrong for Maynard to have used language which is often reserved to humiliate others. Ascribing such remarks to any individual was to imply something about their physical or cognitive capabilities. However, it was also noted that the impact appears in some way mitigated when the target does not suffer from a disability. The verdict? That this was an age 'thing' and was more likely to be found offensive by the over 50s who were unfamiliar with the way modern youth often dissociates language from social taboos. 

As you might expect, the 'N' word gave us all a massive headache. Yes, it is occasionally used in a positive and bonding way between groups of friends made up of people of colour, but is it ever OK for another group to jump on the bandwagon of using a word to appear cool? Especially when that word has such an appalling history. If Maynard was referencing friends of colour, it is certainly less repugnant than if he had intended it as a racial slur, but some of my students felt that he was still guilty of cultural appropriation. I discovered that many teenagers are fiercely proud and protective of their heritage, culture and ethnicity, and objected to someone else trying to access or steal that identity for their own benefit. 

Ultimately, nobody in the room stood in judgement because we simply don't have all of the evidence. But it made for a great lesson! I hope others reading this understand the role English teachers play in getting kids to ask the difficult questions about the relationship between language and the worlds we inhabit. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Language discourses – the issue of ‘proper’ English

Some responses to ‘Modelling Good Speech. Let’s talk properly’

Thanks to Twitter I recently came across a blog post on teacherhead.com called ‘Modelling Good Speech. Let’s talk properly’. This was written in November 2015 and recently re-promoted on Twitter by Tom Sherrington, somebody with a background in education, an ex head teacher, no less. As somebody who spends most days working with students on A Level English Language issues I felt angered by what I was reading. Frustrated too. Not least because the attitudes and ideas in the blog are I think part of an ongoing blind drive to preach pedantry.

I want to have a consistent and more informed approach to the teaching of varieties of English, for my own children and all children and students of language. I want us to understand more about what language really is and how language really works.

Below are my own ‘personal bug bears’ (to quote Mr Sherrington) about the post. These comments are for my year 13 students to help them be critical of texts and evaluate attitudes.

This is me:

1. The image. ‘Innit: an invitation to agree’ This grandstands the issue in a way that showcases for ‘us’, the shocked and appalled reader and listener, an example of something we will of course have a negative attitude towards – even using the definition ‘an invitation to agree’ as a clue, in case you missed it, as to how you should be thinking about such a mangling of God’s own language.

2. Armstrong and Miller – I use these sketches in lessons sometimes because they are funny and excellent ways into exploring the real relationship between accent and dialect and attitude. They are a great learning tool, to celebrate innovation and diversity, not to be used to condemn or mock the way people speak. I think I might be right in thinking A and M were not proposing they be used as a stick to beat ‘improper’ speech. Random.

3. ‘the art of rhetoric’ being a ‘cornerstone’ of teaching and learning etc etc – building a lovely stately home of language here – remind you of anything?

4. Calling out his own negative attitudes by representing them as ‘squeamishness’ or ‘snobbery’ or ‘elitism’ – thereby defending himself from these accusations – a kind of reappropriation of the criticisms he thinks he is going to face. Damn right. Attack yourself first – a form of defence I suppose.

5. ‘without teaching them to speak correctly…’ – here we really go – this and other references to ‘proper’ speech. This piece time and again makes these judgements reinforcing the idea of a true hierarchy in language – of course based on nothing but his (by his own admission) ‘personal bug-bears’, not linguistic research. Students: do not base your exam essays on bug-bears. Or anything else you wish to argue convincingly for that matter.

6. Do schools really not try to ‘teach students to speak properly’? ignoring the properly idea for a moment I think any teacher would argue this – we develop the whole person, including teaching them about the real world, not the world seen through the eyes of somebody recently awoken from a cryogenic sleep clutching his gasmask and teddy bear, stood blinking at the world in his WW2 school uniform.

7. ‘our rich cultural mix’ – forgive me but this sounds patronising and the kind of things written from the stance of a white, middle class, educated teacher

8. ‘let’s’ – let. Us. Us? This is collectivising – positioning me – but no thanks.

9. Narrowing gaps and providing more equal opportunities – yes, we want this – this is 50% right but those gaps are being opened up by this piece condemning others

10. The emphasis on ‘family’ context is interesting – not defined – but at least it does sort of recognise that school often has no influence on the eradication of non-standard forms – evidence? Look up Stephen Levy’s work on community norms – the ‘was/were’ issue which this piece laughs at actually does have some research undertaken on it.

11. The extract from the book by Sedaris. What has this to do with the issue? Apart from, like the RAF sketch – give a comic context in which to couch and justify these dubious arguments I can see little connection between learning another language and the way I speak with my friends.

12. ‘We’, the staff, should mind our language too. After all we are not human beings, with identities, the product of diverse contexts are we? The issue here really is that teachers should be allowed to each varieties of English, contexts and appropriacy. Not be some Tippex-wielding pedant despised by students who are trying to find their way in the world. God help them.

13. Then we have the list of ‘errors’. This strikes me as simply ill-informed and frankly a poor show from somebody who has been an educator. I recognise that long list of grammatical issues. Anyone familiar with how language changes and those who have tried to stop this happening in the last few hundred years will also see that these are hackneyed, boring and prejudicial examples.

14. He then is ‘more picky’. More??!?. His ‘personal bug-bears’. Yup. But I agree, we all have them, but we shouldn’t use them to give a mandate to those seeking to divide and conquer or justify their place in society over others.

15. Radio 4. Why is this a bastion of correctness? Another throwback to a time of haloed gatekeepers when we listened with mother to the voice of authority and prestige, in black and white. Times have changed. Even on radio and television. Really, just listen, you will even here TH fronting.

16. ‘switching codes’ – credit where credit is due – yes, we must understand this – he seems to – but then he seems not to understand how it works.

17. The most offensive bit of the lot – let’s sit back and ‘laugh’, really ‘laugh’?!? at the way ‘those’ students speak. Mocking what is legitimate. The young people here using language in probably the most effective way possible given context of audience and purpose. MLE is a thing. Innit.

18. So overall, no this is not very funny and I for one am not laughing. This is a damaging piece of writing, bad enough on its own but in the hands of those in education it scares me a little. We live in an age where school inspectors are pleased when perceived ‘bad’ language use is challenged and corrected and this destabilises any more progressive work those of us in schools and college are trying to do to make students ready for the real world.

(A guest post by Nick King @nicking6)

Thursday, October 05, 2017

SPaG spat

I started writing this post nearly a year ago while arguments were raging over the Key Stage 2 grammar tests. At the time, feelings were running high (yes, over grammar...) and I didn't want to stick my oar in and make matters worse, so I've come back to it and tried to look at the argument in slightly different terms, with more of a focus on how it relates to A level English Language.

The teaching of grammar is not necessarily at the top of the list for topics that will interest A-level students reading this blog; after all, you're studying it already as part of this course, so do you really want to find out the gory details of how teachers and educators argue about it?

Well, maybe... and the debate about how grammar is taught is quite closely connected to some of the big language debates covered in your course: arguments over Standard and non-Standard English, the importance of understanding how language works and who has the right to tell us what is 'right' or 'wrong'. All that stuff. So, you might want to read on, if you're a student.

Shots have been fired recently (and since it was all initially proposed) over the test taken by pupils in Year 6 at Primary Schools as part of what have been called the Key Stage 2 SPaG tests (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) but have more recently been named the GPS tests (Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling), perhaps to reflect the renewed focus on grammar (first, not third, in the list).

The test features some quite demanding questions about grammar, including some of the following:


source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/327332/2014_KS2_L6_English_GPS_short_answer_booklet_DIGITALHO.pdf

How would you do on these? Well, you might want to try them yourself and check the mark schemes that are available to the public.

Why is there an argument over this test and why should it matter to you? Because politics. Grammar is political.

It's not purely about politics and that is one of the first points to make about this, because much of the debate between linguists, teachers and educationalists has actually been about the grammar of the grammar tests, and more precisely the amount of grammar that a 10 year-old should be learning, why they should be learning it and what they should be doing with that grammar. Linguists disagree to some extent over how important it is to teach grammar and the meta-language of grammar (i.e. the grammatical terminology) to school students and there are good arguments from both sides of the debate about this. But grammar is also very political, because it is used by politicians to signal their attitudes to a range of other things.

Deborah Cameron, who is perhaps better known recently for her ace language blog and excellent The Myth of Mars and Venus, wrote an important book in 1995 called Verbal Hygiene. In this, she argued that much of the debate around grammar in the media back in the 1980s and early 90s - when last there was a big bust-up over it - was tied up very closely, not so much with language, but with morality and social cohesion, and the threat of imminent social collapse that was pinned by many conservatives on the permissive 1960s and their anything goes attitude to sex, drugs and err...grammar.

Grammar had been a part of English teaching for many years but had started to fall by the wayside in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the time I was at secondary school in the 1980s (ironically, at a grammar school, where very little grammar was taught outside French and German lessons), grammar was off the menu.

By restoring grammar teaching to the English curriculum, the government of the time could show a return to academic rigour and old-fashioned virtues of correctness. The certainties of grammar - where there is (supposedly) a clear right and wrong - would take the place of the limp-wristed liberalism of the 1980s classrooms where communist teachers and perfumed fops (or skanky goths, in my case) would discuss poetry and feelings with barely a mention of a clause or phrase. That was one view anyway...

According to Cameron, the desire to get grammar back on the agenda was about much more than just language:

Grammar was made to symbolise various things for its conservative proponents: a commitment to traditional values as a basis for social order, to ‘standards’ and ‘discipline’ in the classroom, to moral certainties rather than moral relativism and to cultural homogeneity rather than pluralism. Grammar was able to signify all these things because of its strong metaphorical association with order, tradition, authority, hierarchy and rules.
It was interesting that these seismic rumblings about grammar should have resonated so powerfully in the 1980s, because it was a time of turbulence in education, with the birth of the National Curriculum, but also a time of political and social upheaval brought about by a right-wing Conservative government. And that's where there's a link to what is happening with grammar today.

Another right-wing Conservative government is in power. Tests must be 'rigorous' because 'rigour' is what works. Tests are vital because how else do we judge schools and teachers? How else do we feed data into league tables that tell us which school is doing better than another? Well, it doesn't have to be like this, but that's another issue entirely.

When Michael Gove - then the Minister for Education - set about creating a new literacy test for Key Stage 2, he definitely wanted grammar at the heart of it. He hated the kind of English lessons where you would study the language of online communication or spoken conversations and longed for Victorian novels and the thwack of tough, hard, rigorous grammar on his soft... sorry, getting carried away there, but you get the picture. He wanted nouns, verbs, adjectives, noun phrases, relative clauses, the present progressive and the passive voice to feature in the tests. But most of all, he wanted the subjunctive mood: a piece of grammar that has been in decline since the Nineteenth Century.

And if these sound like the kinds of things you learn at A level, that's because they are - and I like to think we make quite good use of them in how we analyse and discuss language. But for Key Stage 2, when children are 10-11 years old?

At the same time, grammar also provided Gove with a way of assessing a slippery subject. As anyone will tell you, English can be very subjective. I might analyse a poem and see an extended metaphor for the tragic decline of a long-term relationship; you might read the same poem and see it as a few images about candles being snuffed out to prevent a fire. English has *all* the feels. But grammar... well, that's nearly like maths, or some some might argue, at least.

So, let's take this back to what it all has to do with A level English Language. You might not start the course looking at arguments about standard and non-standard uses of English, or the importance of 'correct' grammar, but you'll certainly move onto those at some point, and the debates are perennial and often very heated.

Modern linguists have generally taken a position that might be defined as descriptivist: they study language, describing its features, its functions and (sometimes) its users and what they might be doing with it.

On the other side, there's often been a position held by conservatives (sometimes conservatives with a little 'c', sometimes conservatives with a big 'C' and sometimes conservatives who are - quite frankly - just complete 'C's) that tells us language should not change too quickly, that old is best and that grammar is all about following rules and being right or wrong. This is generally called prescriptivism because it's an approach that prescribes "good English" to us in the same way a doctor might prescribe medicine to make us better.

The trouble is - as nearly every linguist will tell you - language always changes. The history of English is one of change, and grammar has changed a great deal. Just look at the pronoun system and what Old English used before Old Norse added to it (clue: the Vikings didn't just like 3rd person plural pronouns: they loved them).

And then have a look at the disappearance of thee and thou (in Standard English usage, at least, not in far-flung corners of Yorkshire or Kaiser Chiefs lyrics). Word order is another area of huge change - in the general syntax we use for most structures in modern English, but especially in how we form questions. If grammar changes more slowly than other aspects of language - and linguists are generally agreed that this is the case - it still changes and those changes stack up over time.

The other aspect of all of this is that the so-called 'rules' of English grammar are often not that at all; they are conventions, agreed upon by users of language and therefore susceptible to change. As an article a week or two back about the split-infinitive pointed out, this supposed error in English grammar was always a dubious rule to follow.

So, if grammar changes and grammar rules can be questioned, can we really place such high importance on teaching "correct" grammar? Yes and no. The debate about the grammar tests at Key Stage 2 shouldn't be about whether grammar is a good thing or a bad thing to learn and understand. I'll be clear about my own view: it's definitely a good thing. I think we need to understand the system of our own language and be able to describe its elements to explain how it works and see what we can do with it. And we also need a shared grammar to understand each other - that's why Standard English exists and one of the reasons why it's valued.

But what kind of grammar should be taught? The prescriptive kind doesn't really work when you live in a world of change. It might be attractive to a certain kind of person because it symbolises an adherence to tradition and offers the possibility that change can be stopped or at least slowed down, but I don't really buy that view. The problem with a prescriptive approach to grammar is often that it goes beyond what grammar really is (word classes, clauses, phrases and all that stuff) and into the policing of all forms of language - accents, dialects, slang and even body language and tone of voice.

It's instructive, I think, that at the same time Gove was introducing the grammar tests for 10 and 11 year-olds (even taking such an interest that he insisted his own favourite, the subjunctive mood appeared in the tests, against the advice of actual linguists on his expert panel) he was also getting rid of spoken language and electronic texts from the GCSE syllabus (and replacing them with 19th Century novels).

Why should that matter? Surely, great literature is more important to study than some "tape recordings of Eddie Izzard and the Hairy Bikers"? Well, it doesn't have to be either/or. There *has* to be a place for studying language in all its forms, not just its most respected and long-lasting ones. Other forms of language need to be studied too, you know... the actual language we use nearly all the time and from which we might gain something really useful.

But all of this is part of a bigger picture; a picture in which grammar is about rigour, correctness, tradition and hard knowledge. And that's where we come back to A level English Language study. When people argue about language, it's often not really language that they are arguing about at all. As Milroy and Milroy put it back in 1985 in their excellent Authority in Language:

Language attitudes stand proxy for a much more comprehensive set of social and political attitudes, including stances strongly tinged with authoritarianism, but often presented as ‘common sense’.

Henry Hitchings, author of The Language Wars, made a similar point in a slightly different way:

These debates quickly become heated because they involve people’s attitudes to – among other things – class, race, money and politics.
So, next time you look at a debate about accent, dialect, texting 'ruining' language, emojis dumbing us all down or how vocal fry makes women sound stupid and immature, just remember that it might appear to be a debate about 'just' language, but it's probably got deeper roots, and it often pays off to understand the wider agendas at work.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Showing what you know

One of the challenges of exams is that they not only test you on what you know but they also test you on how you interpret the question to show what you know. A case in point is last summer's AS Paper 2 in which lots of students (including many of my own, I'm sure) saw a question about gender and thought "Woo hoo! We've done this one already - it was on last year's Paper 2". Or words to that effect...

Of course, a gender question was set on the 2016 paper, but with a very different focus. The problem with this is that - like all the other areas you do for Paper 2 in the AS and the A level - you have to select the most relevant knowledge to address the question that's been asked... not the question you'd have liked to be asked. And with Question 3 on Paper 2, the focus was very much supposed to be on representation of gender. That means that it's not really relevant* to talk about studies into language use and interaction. What's more, the question actually gave stimulus material based on discussion around sexist language as a way into the task.

This article, which appeared on The Guardian website a few weeks before the exam, is much more like the kind of thing that I think examiners were after: a text that looks at how language represents gender and how ideas about gender are constructed and challenged.

This is also a good one to think about; it's a blog by Deborah Cameron about the politics of pronouns and the reasons why various writers and linguists have argued about them and their significance.

The key thing to think about here is that when you look at the main areas for Paper 2 - broadly speaking, at AS it's accent & dialect and sociolect (including social groups, social class, occupation and gender) and at A level it's those plus ethnicity and world Englishes - you need to be aware that it's not just how people use language that is being assessed but how the users of language can be represented in language.

So, three things that you can do to help you avoid producing the wrong knowledge are:


  1. Think carefully about how questions might be phrased that ask you to focus on representation of some of the other areas - social groups, ethnicity, occupational language.
  2. If you are doing the AS, think carefully about the stimulus material and the steer it's giving you. 
  3. Read the question very carefully and select from the most relevant parts of your knowledge. Don't assume that the keyword 'gender' should be the cue to offload all your knowledge about everything you've ever learnt about gender.


(*There are a few cases where it might be a little bit more relevant - like how certain pop linguistics books represent men as from Mars and women from Venus, or how deficit theorists represent women as weak - but these aren't enough to sustain a good answer.)

Friday, September 15, 2017

The long view (part 2)

As a follow-up to the last blog, a couple of other things that you can do as part of a longer term approach to success in A level English Language are covered below.

Get used to different kinds of data
If you're new to the course, you'll be surprised to find that parts of it are a bit more like Psychology and Sociology A level than you might have expected. Ok, we have the textual analysis that I talked about last week and the discussions around how people feel about language use, but you'll also need to get to grips with what linguists have researched and get used to the methodologies involved in language study.

What does this mean in practice? Well, you might be given something like the data below in class and asked to interpret it. What would you do with it and what does it tell you?


Have a think about what's being measured here: "H-dropping" is on the y-axis, a phonological process that many of us use when we leave the /h/ sound off words like house, half or Harry Redknapp. What does the graph tell us about this feature? It tells us that in studies carried out in Bradford (Malcolm Petyt 1985) and Norwich (Peter Trudgill 1974), the further down the social class ladder you go (x-axis: 1 highest class and 5 lowest), the more h-dropping there is and that this feature varies in the two locations, with Yorkshire generally seeing more h-dropping across all social classes than Norfolk.
There's more you could look at here, such as why 17% of even the highest social class in Bradford drop the /h/ or why there's such a big leap between social classes 2 and 3 in both areas, and 4 to 5 in Yorkshire.

There's also a lot it doesn't tell us. How was the data collected? Were women and men interviewed and what results did they give? What about age groups? Are younger people more or less likely to h-drop? Is ethnic background a factor - Bradford being a much more multicultural city than Norwich?

And then there's the whole discussion around why this happens and what it might reveal about the links between language and society. There's plenty of other data you'll come across too, not all of it looking like this. You'll see plenty of this in work you'll do for paper 2.

Keep up to date with linguistic research
While the studies above were done well over 30-40 years ago, linguistic research is happening all the time. When we put this book together, we tried to cover some classic studies but also offer more recent developments in each field, so students and teachers could see what had been going on and how the thinking in each area had been developing. 

You can keep up to date with the very latest material from the excellent Linguistics Research Digest run from QMUL. They read through the (often heavy-going) linguistics journals and then present the research in a more student-friendly form. It's really useful and offers you some of the most up-to-date material you can find.

Lots of excellent linguists such as Deborah Cameron, Rob Drummond, Lynne Murphy, Jenny Lewin-Jones and Tim Grant are active on Twitter and write blogs and articles themselves, so these are highly recommended:
Keep a language scrapbook
There's so much going on to with English all the time that it can be hard to keep up. I'd recommend getting on Twitter and following some of the linguists, English teachers, English departments and journalists that are regularly retweeted by the EngLangBlog account, but also try to keep a record of the articles, the research and the weird language phenomena that you encounter. 

All of these can be great to feed into class discussions and exam answers or even as potential NEA investigation topics (when you get to that). Keep your eyes and ears open and you'll enjoy the course more and build up a better understanding of it all as it goes on.

Next time... some ideas about why study of the darker side of language - sexism, abuse, racism, trolling and the like - is something not to shy away from.


Sunday, September 10, 2017

The long view (part 1)

The last two posts have been about starting A level English Language and what you can think about now to get going on the course and get a flavour for what's involved. This post takes a longer view and sets out some of the things you can start to do now to set you in good stead for the whole two years of the course, including the NEA and the two exam components. If you start doing some of these things now, your knowledge, skills and wider grasp of the subject will be much greater by the end.

Start thinking (and reading) like a language student
To do well on the course you will need to start thinking about language in a different way to how you've done in your studies so far.
Marcello Giovanelli's article "Becoming an A Level Language Student - a Quick Guide" in emagazine 65, September 2014 gives you some really helpful pointers about this, as does the article by Billy Clark and Graeme Trousdale in emagazine 51, February 2011, "Looking for Clues - How to be a Language Detective".
Your English department *should* have a subscription to the English and Media Centre's emagazine as it's full of really excellent articles (OK, I'm biased as I now work at the EMC, but I recommended it well before I got the new job!). Just ask your English teacher for the log-in details.
Along with emagazine, Babel from the University of Huddersfield is a very useful publication about English Language and Linguistics an aimed at keen students. While Huddersfield Town's stay in the premiership might be mercifully short-lived, this magazine deserves a longer stay at the top.

Choose a few key books to read as the course goes on
There are two text books to accompany the course - this one and this one - and they are good for mapping out lots of the key areas and providing you with a range of texts, examples of analysis, theories and research studies - but there are also some really good books that will offer you more detail on key areas.

My top tips are:

  • Deborah Cameron, The Myth of Mars and Venus - a brilliant, dry take on how women and men use language and the myths around it.
  • Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars - a readable and comprehensive overview of some of the ways in which English has been debated about and argued over ever since it came to be.
  • Jean Aitchison, Language Change: Progress or Decay? - excellent for how language changes and what people think about it. Essential reading for Paper 2.
  • Annabelle Mooney and Betsy Evans, Language, Society and Power (4th edition) - almost as useful as a 3rd textbook for this course.
  • English & Media Centre, Language: a Student Handbook of Key Topics and Theories (aka the little red book) - put together for you to offer new angles and key ideas for most of the main areas you cover. Buy it or my puppies starve.
  • Susie Dent, Modern Tribes - a very accessible and readable book with lots of great examples for work you will do on social groups.Worth dipping in and out of.
  • Julie Coleman, The Life of Slang - while the slang material is really good in its own right, the discussion of how new language gets generated, how it spreads and why it gets picked up (or not) is very insightful.
Check the sidebar for more recommendations.

Listen to language
Obviously, it's important to listen to your teachers, your fellow students and any ace linguists who you go to see at excellent conferences, but you can listen and learn in other ways too. There are some really good radio programmes and podcasts about language, including these:

Michael Rosen's Word of Mouth
Talk the Talk
The Vocal Fries
Lexicon Valley


Stay tuned in to media stories about language
Language is being discussed all around us every day. Language is central to so many things that we do and central to how we view others and perform our own identities that it's hardly surprising we talk about it all the time. Most stories about language in the news - whether it's accent discrimination, new words entering the dictionary, concerns about disappearing local words or claims about how women and men use language - are fair game for discussion on this course and could end up as future topics for exam papers or your own NEA projects.

You can keep up to date with news stories by following @EngLangBlog but there are loads of others too and I'll tweet a few suggestions next week.

Next time, I'll post a few more suggestions about work you can do as an English Language student to help you do well and enjoy the course.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Another side of English Language study

In yesterday's post I mentioned that linguistic analysis is part of what you do on this course, but another aspect of language study is language itself: how people use it in different situations and for different reasons.

Sociolinguistics is the name given to the study of language in relation to society and in many ways that's what a lot of this course is about too. Each individual uses language in a different way and as groups of people - whether it's groups based around things we do together (football, online gaming, dog obedience courses, charity work), around the place we live in or the social class we are born into - and we all use language to do different things.

As part of your work on Paper 2, you will look at how to study these differences, but you'll also become increasingly aware of how there are many similarities too, not just in the actual language we use and are familiar with, but how we alter our language to suit particular situations (job interviews, casual chats, writing emails) and to perform different aspects of who we are.

In fact, differences in language are often overplayed by some commentators who want us to believe that women and men have totally different language styles, or that young people's language is entirely closed off to anyone over 25.

So why is language presented to us like this? That's another aspect of what you'll be doing: studying how language is discussed and debated and as part of the Language Discourses work you will do on Paper 2 you will see that there are all sorts of reasons for this. Some of them are unintentional - people fall into easy assumptions about language use because they appear to be common sense - but others are more obviously deliberate and sometimes deeply political.

Back in September of 2016, a report was published by two language researchers exploring what English might look and sound like in 50 years' time. As this post points out, their work led to a lot of media coverage, not all of it very positive. I wrote about this elsewhere, in the NATE magazine, Teaching English last year:

Having produced such an interesting report, it might have come as something of a shock for them on the morning of September 29th to find the following headlines plastered all over the nation’s breakfast tables and white van dashboards:

'Th' sound to vanish from English language by 2066 because of multiculturalism, say linguists
(Daily Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/09/28/th-sound-to-vanish-from-english-language-by-2066-because-of-mult/)

MUVVER TONGUE ‘Th’ sound vanishing from English language with Cockney and other dialects set to ‘die out by 2066 because of immigration’
(The Sun https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/1876518/th-sound-vanishing-from-english-language-with-cockney-and-other-dialects-set-to-die-out-by-2066-because-of-immigration/)

It's the end of the frog and toad for regional slang, says report.
Sounds of 2066 report says ‘talking to machines and listening to Americans’ will kill off British accents and slang in the future.
(The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/sep/29/its-the-end-of-the-frog-and-toad-for-regional-slang-says-report)

The Daily Mail initially led with the headline "Is immigration killing off the Queen's English?" before changing it to the more neutral “What do you fink of dis? The 'th' sound will disappear from speech within 50 years as urban dialects spread.”
(http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3812071/Will-regional-accents-die-Experts-predict-technology-cause-voices-change-50-years.html)

And last, but by no means least, “Queen's English to be WIPED OUT from London 'due to high levels of immigration'”.
(Daily Express http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/715623/Queen-English-wiped-London-high-levels-immigration-2066-university-york-Dominic-Watt

Among all the interesting angles they could have taken - technology, changing workplaces, new youth subcultures, more international travel -  some papers seemed obsessed with immigration and multiculturalism. Language doesn't exist in a vacuum and the arguments and discussions about it are all about the society we live in and the politics and economics of that society.

Only last week, a right-wing commentator put this tweet out about the number of children apparently not speaking English as a first language:


The responses, as well as the retweets and likes, were interesting from a number of perspectives. The headline figure was challenged, with the point being made that not speaking English as first language doesn't mean you can't speak English...




...challenging the methodology of the survey and the statistics used for the basis of the tweet...


...before moving on to talk more broadly about supposed notions of "correct" and "incorrect" English, with a few inevitable digs at people's online literacy...


And the arguments are very similar over many other language issues, whether it's "accent discrimination", the rise of multicultural urban British English (MUBE), the supposed death of British dialects (dialect levelling) or the use of "politically correct" (PC) terms to describe different sexual identities.

These are all part of what you might explore on this course, so be ready for some interesting discussions using language, around language and all about language.