Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Revision round-up part 1

Apologies for the lack of posts on here this year. The new job and various other commitments (not Fortnite, honestly...) have meant that most of the A level Language stuff I've done has been via the @EngLangBlog Twitter account or for books and revision guides (coming soon!).

Anyway, I'll put a few short revision posts up in the weeks to come, focusing on areas to do with the A level. First off, some Language Discourses material and what to make of the whole idea of discussing how language is viewed and written about.

One of the first things to realise is that 'Language Discourses' can be relevant for all of Paper 2, not just Section B. Arguments about language diversity and language change apply just as much in Section A in the essay questions and if you've seen last year's paper (which you should have done by now), you'll see that arguments over the control and direction of English are central to one of the questions.

Don't be afraid to discuss attitudes to language change in the change question or even in ones about language diversity, because there are lots of reasons why they are a relevant part of the debate.

For example, articles and news items about regional accents or world varieties of English that claim some varieties are looked down upon or seen as 'ugly' are often part of the reason why people feel uncomfortable about their own accents. If Brummie or Scouse are reported as being viewed less favourably than other accents, that's bound to have some sort of impact on people with those accents, isn't it?

In some cases, it might mean that people try to lose or soften those accents. In other cases, and this tends to match what Kevin Watson found in his work on the Scouse accent, it might mean that people strengthen their accent to resist this negative representation and express a stronger sense of pride and local identity.

Attitudes to language can shape language use. The same is true for language change. Much of the debate over things like text messaging, online communication and the use of emojis is tied up with a sense on one side that language is changing too rapidly and on the other that these changes are perfectly natural and inevitable in any living language. The tension between those two positions - between the powers of innovation and conservatism - helps to keep language in the spotlight and might even affect the rate at which a language changes.

I think it's always been like this as well. When we look at the history of standardisation in English we can see a constant struggle between different forces - new words being welcomed by some and rebuffed by others, for example - and that struggle is what shapes how a language is used and how comfortable people feel with the language they are using.

The other part of Language Discourses is of course what you do in Section B, which is to analyse and discuss the ways in which people write about and view language change and diversity, so that's what I'll pick up in the next revision round-up post with some ideas about the kinds of metaphor used to describe language and some ways into the kinds of texts that are good for this sort of discussion.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Cambridge Topics in English Language

Just a quick plug for these books that have recently been published by Cambridge University Press and are suitable (more than suitable - really good, in fact) for A level English Language.


Monday, December 18, 2017

Why language is a mirror of our times

The Oxford English Dictionary recently named its (prestigious?) Word of the Year winner, along with its fellow short-listers. The words chosen always seem to be accurate indicators of the national mood (which means they are usually forgotten very quickly) and this year was no exception. As usual, I used it with my students for a healthy bit of language debating. 

In case you haven't heard, the winning word was 'youthquake'. The blended neologism has been around for a few years, but really did define the impact made by teenagers and young adults in 2017 - especially in the summer. It describes a fairly seismic shift in social attitudes brought about by a kind of sustained movement of young people who share a common goal or world view. 

"Corbynmania!" yelled the students, smiling broadly. They were right. Corbynmania is the perfect example. It was something that really enthused young voters, and the fact that the election result caught all the experts by surprise underlines how momentous a youthquake can be. Given the current climate, it was an obvious and worthy winner. But we also discussed some of the other words on the list. Here it is in full: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/shortlist-2017

One is 'antifa', a clipping of 'anti-fascist'. Once again, it resonated immediately. My students realised that (relatively) recent political events, such as Brexit and Trump entering the White House, had been complete game changers. For generations, fascist or far-right organisations were so derided that it was easy to ignore them. But not now. Our debate led us to a conclusion that perhaps the western democracies had somehow legitimised (or at least given voice to) some hateful organisations. As a result, the world has seen a youthquake which has necessarily put the antifa movement in the spotlight. See how it all ties together? That's why we love this subject!

Next was 'broflake'. Using the term 'snowflake' (a derogatory reference to the so-called millennials who 'can't take the heat' of real life) against itself was one of those great English Language moments: take the insult, tweak it, and fire it back at your accuser in an improved form. It is used to describe middle-class establishment types (mainly men) who shy away from uncomfortable truths because it would be too difficult to admit that society is not exactly how they perceive it. The go-to reference points for my students were the recent sex scandals engulfing Hollywood and the moral ambiguity of some of our own MPs' behaviour around women. Both demand that the establishment figures ask themselves some awkward questions. Only a complete broflake would shy away from such responsibility. 

Another word on the list (a compound noun, to be precise) was 'milkshake duck'. This was a new one to my students. It's best summed up as describing how fickle we have become in the age of social media. If someone posts a video of a duck drinking a milkshake, it'll probably be loved. Everyone will be talking about the milkshake duck. But days later, we learn that milkshake duck has a dark past and holds some pretty unpopular views. The world feels let down, deceived and hates the milkshake duck!

The penny dropped. My students realised it was a reference to how every aspect of a person's life is there to be consumed on social media. Nothing remains secret and so, unless you're squeaky clean, you can go from hero to villain overnight. They pointed to the recent series of I'm a Celebrity. Although it was played out on TV rather than on social media, people's opinions of Rebekah and Dennis changed overnight after seeing how they were treating Iain. Such a shame 'strawberrygate' came too late to make the shortlist. See also my previous post about Jack Maynard. 

Of course they discussed the rest of the list as well, but it only led them back to the realisation that language is a mirror of the here and now. "Will we still use these words next year?" asked one. What could I say? It depends what's around the next corner. Either way, the OED list always manages to remind us of exactly how we've been feeling that year. 



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.)