Monday, May 21, 2018

Revision round-up 4: reading that works

You've still got over 2 weeks before you sit Paper 2 so there's still time to do some reading. In the last post I mentioned how it's important to read plenty of articles about language, but there's even time to read around the subject (or listen if that's what you prefer).

I posted these suggestions earlier in the year, but there's still time to dip in and out and these are all accessible for students if you've got a bit of time and patience.

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 husky starves.
  • 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.
For listening revision (always good for those tedious bus or train journeys, or Maths lessons):

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

And finally, the Cambridge Topics in English Language series that Marcello Giovanelli and I edited are all out now. We're chuffed with how they've come out and they seem to have been going down well. You can see more about them here.

If you have any suggestions for things you've read or listened to recently that have been helpful, please add them to the discussion on Twitter here.

Revision round-up 3: being prescriptive (about being descriptive)

As you'll no doubt have studied on this course, descriptivists describe language while prescriptivists prescribe, telling us what we should (or shouldn't) be doing with language. After (nearly) two years of language study, you'll probably have got the general idea that we (your teachers) would prefer you to be descriptive rather than prescriptive about language. That's not (necessarily) because we want you in some kind of liberal-leftie lockstep in which anything goes, but because if you're studying language you really need to be able to do better than just say "I don't like X and that's why you shouldn't use it" (where X is vocal fry, 'Americanisms', rising intonation, 'like', (non-literal) 'literally' or 'bae'... Ok scrub that, no one should say 'bae').

Overall, what I think we want you to avoid is knee-jerk prescriptivism. And that doesn't mean you can't challenge language change and/or language diversity, or offer your own deeply-held views about language. I can think of plenty of cases where there's a really good argument to be had about the problems that might arise if language changes too quickly or becomes too diverse. There are arguments around intelligibility and how people are judged out there in the real world for their language use which could all be argued from a broadly prescriptive position.
There are also some compelling arguments around the top-down control of language and language engineering, with topics like political correctness and language reform that could be addressed from different positions and argued about with reference to all sorts of studies and linguistic debates.

For example, is political correctness an oppressive anti-free speech movement, or an attempt to make people more conscious and therefore more careful about language that can cause genuine upset?  Look at attempts to police and control language in the past: it's exactly the sort of debate that would have been relevant in last year's question about language change being "controlled or directed".

So, at the heart of this, I think we want you to show your knowledge about language and argue your own case, with supporting evidence. And because you have studied language, your arguments will probably be better supported than some of those you'll be asked to analyse and discuss on Paper 2. After all, many of the articles about language that are published in the media are written by people who may well love language and use it very effectively, but they probably haven't studied language change, diversity and the history of language complaints. You have, so you might come to these topics with a different insight.

While you might be able to offer a different perspective on the content of the articles/extracts you're given in Paper 2, what you can also do is learn from good writers how to put a case. You will have looked at lots of pieces of writing about language on this course - articles complaining about the modern use of 'literally' (even if it's not really that modern at all), self-help guides telling all you need to know about male-female conversation styles, online pieces about women needing to empower themselves by getting rid of vocal fry and uptalk - and hopefully you'll have picked up some of the techniques to write catchy headlines, helpful straplines and to structure your argument so it hits home, but you'll also have seen how writers make use of what's going on around them to link their arguments about language to wider points about society, and how sometimes they play the devil's advocate or use a running joke or metaphor as a way of guiding the reader.

As you're revising for Paper 2, don't forget that while content and knowledge are really important, practising writing opinion pieces that both inform and entertain is also part of your task and there's still time to get better at this by reading plenty of articles and identifying the techniques and approaches that you can make use of too.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Revision round-up 2 - metaphors about language

If you ask a linguist to describe a form of language, they'll probably focus on its features, its functions, its background and history. Ask a non-linguist and they'll probably describe it using evaluative terms such as ugly, broken, lazy or even beautiful (sometimes), or they'll reach for metaphor: language is an amazing tool; language is a beautiful building that needs to be protected; British English has to be defended against an invasion of awful Americanisms; urban slang is polluting our once proud language etc.

These metaphors are interesting because they often encode a way of seeing the world - and usefully for you, sitting the exam - a way of conceptualising language that you can analyse and discuss. What's important about these metaphors is that they will often seem quite appealing - or even perfectly natural - as an idea and you might even read them and think that it's quite neat way to describe language, but if you dig a bit deeper, you can often see that they are problematic.

In fact, one of the big challenges of this part of Paper 2 is being able to see how these metaphors construct a way of seeing language change and/or diversity that affects the way we view language and the world around us. In short, these metaphors can change that we think. Norman Fairclough, one of the most influential linguists in the field of critical discourse analysis, makes the point that “Ideologies are closely linked to language, because using language is the commonest form of social behaviour, and the form of social behaviour where we rely most on ‘common-sense’ assumptions” and I think this is an important idea to understand.

Take a few of the headlines below, for example.

Each of these presents language as something other than language - rubbish, a damaging force, a killer or a fashion - and all shape the way we might think about it. 

Some of the most common metaphors work to make us think that 'traditional' English is under threat or at risk in some way and some of the most common language discourses are presented below. It''s not an exhaustive list by any stretch, but if you've been following stories about language during your time on the course, you'll probably have seen these time and time again.

One of the skills that comes in really useful on Paper 2, especially for Questions 3 and 4 in Section B, is being able to identify these discourses and see how the writers of the texts you are analysing might be making use of them to offer a particular angle or position on language. If you can see where they are being deployed and how they are tapping into wider ideas about language, society and people, you can interrogate them and see if the views they are offering can be looked at in another way, challenged or attacked.

Having tuned into the discourses being used, you can then make use of them for yourself when you come to write your Q4 response. And, as you've probably seen from the articles you've been reading to help you with Section B, writing a piece that makes use of some of these popular discourses is one way to make your piece read more like a genuine article. But of course, you'll also have the benefit of understanding how such metaphors work and be able to manipulate them for your own (hopefully more linguistically informed) arguments.

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:

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 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)