Wednesday, March 29, 2017

They're right

Still in the subject of gender, one area which has long been debated and contested is that of gendered pronouns and what we do when we don't want to signal gender. For example, an expression like "Each student should bring his own lunch" begins with an indefinite determiner (each) uses a male (singular) pronoun (or determiner, more accurately here) but assumes that all students will be male. Using his/her is an alternative, but is often seen as a clunky and still puts the male first. "Each student should bring their own lunch" runs into problems with subject and pronoun agreement (singular each and plural their) but has often been seen as an acceptable way to phrase something like this.

However, many formal publications and style guides have ruled against 'singular they' and seen it as a grammatical faux-pas. But even that seems to be changing, and the Associated Press this week announced that they would accept 'singular they'.

The case for 'singular they' is made convincingly here as well, and it certainly seems to be a better idea than trying to invent new pronouns such as hesh, hen and thon which have struggled to catch on.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Revising gender: representation of gender revisited

Here are links to old posts on this blog that address language and gender from a representation perspective.

Slutwalks
Everyday Sexism
Pyramids of Egregiousness
Calm down, dear

And here are some links to more recent discussions of language and gender (thanks largely to Nicky B and her social media antennae):








Revising gender for AS & A level: legs-it and baby bumps

We've made a start on revising gender for Paper 2 of the A level this week and I've also been finishing off gender with my AS classes before we head into lots of exam revision. There's not a lot of time to teach everything on the A level part of the course after doing the AS last year, so we're relying a fair bit on the material students covered in class last year and hoping they revise the key things themselves, but I've been trying to find a way of approaching it that works.

Anyway, today's Daily Mail front page provided an absolute gift for the representation of gender. If you haven't seen it, it's this monstrosity below.


While the picture and caption make me want to bang my head repeatedly on the keyboard, shouting "This.Is.Not.The.1950s!" there's something in the whole way that this is presented that goes beyond what I've traditionally taught for this topic and made me consider another angle.

A lot of the focus on gender and language (for me, at least) has been on words and meanings: which words and which meanings and how we can raise awareness about what words might connote and how they are unequal - lexical asymmetry and semantic derogation, basically. There's also what language can do in terms of its syntax - constructing male as doer and actor and woman as receiver and patient. There's even what morphology can offer - suffixes that diminish women's roles and those that mark gender where it seems unnecessary (actress...waitress...why not just actor and waiter?).

So far so good. But when I've introduced language analysis to my students, I've always tried to conceptualise it as something that goes from tiny details of language to the much bigger picture, so am I missing something here?

We've got morphemes, words, phrases and clauses, but does any of that really explain what's so offensive and wrong about the Mail headline? It's not really the word 'legs-it' that's bad is it? We all have legs, don't we? The word legs is not really on a par with bad words like slag, sket and ho. No it's something that's working at a higher level than words, phrases and clauses that's the issue here and that's discourse. Discourse - as I've been grappling with in various articles - is a term that has multiple meanings in language study but here it's working as a couple of things: as language used at a level beyond the sentence and as a way of constructing and representing ideas.

The offensiveness comes from the wider discourse that's presented: that women - strong, powerful, political women (whatever you think of their party politics) - are not to be taken seriously and only deserve to be belittled and trivialised by talking about their legs. Their legs. On the front page of a national newspaper.

It's the same discourse that allows other national papers to discuss the human rights barrister, Amal Clooney's appearance at the United Nations in terms of her baby bump and high heels.

So, gender representation works on a level beyond the levels of words, phrases and clauses and on a wider textual and discourse level. That makes it slightly harder to pin down and analyse but it also offers some ways into it, and over the next week or two we'll have a look at different approaches to language and gender (and some other areas) to think about what AS and A level students could say about them.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Sociolect, social groups & social class

One of the areas that we've been looking at in AS classes recently is that of sociolect. I've also been mugging up on the writing and research for this area because of a project I'm working on for something else, so it's been useful to go back to some of the studies that have been carried out into the links between language, the social groups we belong to through choice (communities of practice and discourse communities around work, play and special interests) and those we belong to due to accidents of birth (social class and gender).

One of the things that's particularly interesting to look at is the overlap between what we might call social groups and the other areas on Paper 2 of the AS and A level - gender, regional dialect, occupation - and it's clear to me that you can't really talk about one of these without thinking about the others (and indeed, areas like age, ethnicity & sexuality).

I've set my AS classes the following task recently and we've been looking at ways in which it can be approached from different angles. Here's a structure that we used to look at it. Next week, I'll add some more ideas about approaching another question on the same broad area.

Question 1 
Discuss the idea that the language of some social groups is designed primarily to keep others out. In your answer you should discuss concepts and issues from language study.

You should use your own supporting examples and the data in Text A, below which is taken from an article about teenage slang from the Daily Mail. [30 marks]



Planning and structuring your answer

Start by dissecting the question and explaining its key terms.

Language: think about the different language levels. It’s more than just words (lexis), so consider phonology and grammar (and perhaps spelling, punctuation and graphology as well?)

Social groups: which social groups? Define this term and think of a variety of social groups who you could use as case studies. Think about age, class, interest groups, occupation groups etc. The more the merrier.

…designed primarily to keep others out: what does language do? Think about the functions of the language used within social groups: what is it primarily designed to do? Can you think of examples where it is the primary aim?

How can you make use of the data?


  • What examples are there in the data to use? 
  • How can you categorise the examples? 
  • Can you develop any of these? 
  • Do any of these help you address the main question? 

What to do next?


  • Draft an introduction to show you understand the question. 
  • Map out 2-3 social groups whose language you can discuss and comment on in more detail. 
  • Construct a line of argument to guide you through the whole question. 
  • Think about the research and theory that you will need to refer to: you will need to refer to work done by others and the research carried out by Trudgill, Cheshire, Moore, Kerswill, Fox, the Milroys and Labov & the ideas put forward by Coleman, Fox, Dent and others when discussing this area. 


Get writing. You have 40 minutes to complete it.

Allow yourself a few minutes at the end to check spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

NEA Commentary

As part of the Original Writing section of the NEA, students will be required to produce a commentary on their piece. This blog post will provide some guidance on completing the commentary for the NEA and useful tips.

What is the commentary? 

The commentary is designed to enable you to explain the decisions you have made in writing your piece and the language levels that you have employed and replicated following your exploration of a style model. 

Word Count

The commentary is just as important as the Original Writing piece in that it is also 750 words and the same number of marks (25). 

Assessment Objectives 

This piece will test your ability to employ all of the assessment objectives equally. Below is a screenshot from the criteria on the top band features: 

What does this mean? 

A01: You need to use a range of language levels. Note the key words ‘integrated’ and ‘connected.’
Regardless of the language levels used, aim to cover a range rather than repeating multiple times the use of a particular word class. Do not write about the language levels in a disjointed fashion. You will do better by integrating them, e.g. The attributive adjective “gold” within the noun phrase “the gold surface.” 

A02: Through your knowledge gained from the style model, you will need to demonstrate an awareness of genre. How does your original writing imitate the genre? How have you shown understanding of how individual genres work (and possibly overlap)?

A03: You need to engage in the way language is used to create meanings and representations. Think about how the language levels are used to create different effects.

A04: Within your commentary, you must make reference to the style model. An integrated comparison between the style model and original writing piece is needed.

A05: Throughout the entire piece, you will be assessed on your ability to express ideas clearly and carefully using an effective structure. Note the key word “guide.” You need to provide a clear analysis that is well organised rather than a disjointed piece of work that lacks coherence.

Getting the process started

In order to produce a successful commentary, you should complete the following:

1. As part of your planning for the Original Writing, you will have have selected a style model and looked at the linguistic strategies that it uses. In order to write a successful commentary, analyse the language levels used in your style model. Highlight them in different colours, e.g. red = syntax, green = word classes. This is a really important starting point as you need to make connections (A04) to your style model. Your commentary cannot just write about your own Original Writing piece as you need to justify how they relate to your selected style model.

2. After analysing your style model in detail, you need to then identify the language levels used within your own work. Think about why they have been used. 


  • What representation did you intend to create? 
  • What purpose does the language level that you have employed serve?
  • Ensure that you make a comments on the way the audience, writer and subjected are positioned along the way.
  • When you are analysing your work, it is important to consider a range of language levels. Avoid just focusing on the ones you feel most confident with using. A good spread of language levels that are appropriate and meaningful to justifying your ideas is better than repeating the same ones constantly. 
Beginning the Commentary 

As part of your A Level course so far, you will be familiar with the importance of context and how this shapes the meaning and production of the texts. When producing your commentary, your opening paragraph should contextualise your Original Writing piece and making a clear connection to your style model. Consider the following as part of your opening paragraph: 

  • You need to contextualise your own piece of work. Ensure that you comment on the purpose, form, topic, audience and how the subject is being represented. Do not generalise here. You need to be very specific. Generalisations will not help you reach high marks.
  • You also need to introduce your style model. Why have you selected it? How does it relate to your own original writing piece? 
Example:

"My style model is in the genre of a dramatic monologue. There are different sections in the text with scene changes indicated by 'Go to Black' or 'Fade.' The monologue explores a character who is not fully self-aware and I have reflected this in my Original Writing piece... My monologue is similar to Bennett's in many ways, whilst also having differences..."  
Main Paragraphs in the Commentary

After establishing the context of both your own original writing piece and your style model, you then need to carefully analyse the language levels employed in your own work.

  • Remember that you need to integrate linguistic description where possible, e.g. The pre-modifying attributive adjective ‘gold’ used within the noun phrase ‘the gold star’ is used to represent it as ….
  • Once you have commented on your own piece of work, you then need to make sure that you make connections to the style model. It might also be the case that there are marked differences in how you have used the language levels. This is equally acceptable but you need to explain why, as this will enable you to discuss contextual factors shaping the production.
  • Remember that you need to engage in meanings. Think about the way the linguistic strategies and language levels used create a representation.
  • Adopt an interwoven comparison throughout rather than writing about the style model and your own production piece in isolation.
  • Referring to the assessment criteria, you will note that it asks you to ‘guide’ the reader through. You will need to develop a coherent line of thought here. In order to guarantee this, you need to avoid leading with A01 features and instead developing topic sentences that enable the reader to understand the connections and points of comparisons being made. 
    • Both the style model and original writing piece employ … but to create different representations…
    • Within the style model, it utilises … which has been imitated in my original writing piece to …
    • Throughout the style model there is use of …. This is mirrored in my original writing piece … so that the subject of … is represented …
    • Whilst the style model utilises …. To represent the subject as … I have employed them in a different way so that the topic can be represented as … 
  • Ensure that you refer closely to your style model by quoting specific examples from it. Likewise, you will need to do the same with your own original writing piece. If you provide no evidence, credit for A01 features cannot be given regardless of how vast a range of features you have employed. 
Example: 

"As monologues are spoken, it is important to represent speech. Bennett employs ellipsis to make it sound spontaneous and realistic. For example, Marjory says 'Said it was Rawdon anyway." This has been imitated in my own original writing piece through..." 
Concluding the Commentary 


This does not need to be a lengthy part of the piece. A couple of sentences will do here. Your concluding paragraph should very succinctly summarise the overall representation that you have created in your original writing piece.

  • Overall, my original writing piece employs a range of language levels that are similar to my style model to represent the subject as … 
Useful Phrases: 

  • Emulate / Mirror / Employ / Reflected / Imitated / Utilised / Mimics / Aligns /
  • Represents / Portrays / Illustrates / Illuminates / Conveys
  • The audience are positioned / This positions the audience to …
  • Both / Equally / Similarly / In the same way / Using the style model, I have …
  • Whereas / In contrast / Unlike / Alternatively / On the other hand
Good luck with completing your commentary for the NEA and I hope this has helped. 

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Happy New Year Y2K+17

Let's hope it's better than 2016, which surely has to go down on record as the worst year in the recent history of the world.

Whatever happens, there will be lots of English Language resources to make use of and we will need to hone our language skills to make sense of an increasingly messed up world.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Tackling the NEA Language Investigation

As lots of students are embarking on the Language Investigation part of the Non-Exam Assessment, I thought it might be handy to pick up a few points which I think will be important. The Language Investigation is unlike anything you have done before (unless you've done an EPQ) and it's not an essay or an analysis, but probably the closest thing to a university dissertation that you will do at this level. What does a Language Investigation involve? Read this.

Think of a manageable project... 
Your aim is to write up an investigation of around 2000 words (excluding data) so your project has to be manageable. You can't ask huge questions about language or try to prove or disprove an established theory about language use. Big ideas aren't a problem - and we'd encourage you to think big on most of this course - but in a language investigation you will need to pinpoint your questions and be really specific. You also need to be able to collect your data in a fairly short space of time. If you are planning something too ambitious and time-consuming, it will be hard to do it.

...on a topic that you are interested in
If you aren't interested in what you are investigating, it will be hard to stick to it. You will probably have the best part of 6-8 weeks to work on this project from beginning to end so it has to be something that floats your boat. If you can't think of an interesting project of your own, check the list here or the ideas here. Ideally, the topic should be something that you feel you can invest a bit of time and energy in. Is there an area of the course so far that you've found particularly interesting? Is there something you do outside college - playing/coaching a sport, online gaming, working, reading a certain genre of books/graphic novels/magazines, TV/films that you are obsessed with - that you can investigate linguistically? Some of the very best investigations come from things that students are really interested in.

Read around your topic
You should aim to find out as much as you can about the area you are investigating. Who has researched in this field before? What studies have been carried out? Are there any approaches or methodologies that you can learn from? Use the textbooks, student handbooks and emagazine archive for ideas.

Narrow down your research questions and think of realistic aims and/or hypothesis
You might start with a fairly broad question that you want to answer. It could be something like one of the ones below:

  • How do women and men use language differently in certain situations?
  • How do children of different ages show different levels of language ability?
  • How does the language of a certain kind of advertising change over time?
  • How is immigration represented in different newspapers?
  • What language devices are used by people when communicating via social media?
Each of these is fine as a starting point, but they all need refining. So, think of some of the following to help you break them down further:

  • What do you mean by language? Which frameworks/language levels will you analyse? Will your focus be on lexis & semantics, syntax & morphology, phonology, pragmatics, discourse structure, graphology, interactional features, or a mixture of these? Will it be specific features of language within these headings, such as adjective use, tag questions, hedging, narrative structures etc? Think carefully about defining what you mean by language. We will probably need to see both depth and range to award the highest marks.
  • Which people? You can't make blanket generalisations about women and men, boys and girls, young and old, so think carefully about whose language you might want to explore. If you set out to 'prove' that women do x and men do y, you'll probably come unstuck because different people behave very differently in different situations. Be aware of this and be tentative and exploratory in your approach.
  • Which texts and which times? Think very carefully about the texts that you select. Why are you choosing these texts to analyse? What's your rationale for looking at (say) advertising of hair care products for women rather than shirts for men? What do you expect to change in the language used to advertise them and why might this be happening? Which time periods are you going to select and why? Do you expect major changes to have taken place over 20 years? It's possible with some products, but a longer time frame might give you more to work with.
  • Which newspapers? Which sections of them? From which times? What kinds of immigration? Don't assume that all papers have consistent lines on these issues. Some of them will argue different positions on the same day, depending on who is writing the piece. Think about delving into older, archived articles; there are loads of really interesting ones online and they might give you some useful reference points. How will you explore the idea of representation and what it means? Will this mean that particular frameworks are more useful than others?
  • Which people and which forms of social media? Twitter is not the same as Facebook and web forums are very different to Instagram. Narrow it down and think about what it is you want to explore.
Look at the sample investigations
If you don't know what a good investigation looks like, you will have no idea what you are aiming for. Your teacher will either have provided you with some of these or have access to them. Make sure that you look at them and understand how they have been put together and what you are expected to do.

Think carefully about your data selection
Don't just collect everything and hope to analyse it all. Select the most useful data and explain that selection in your methodology. That doesn't mean that you select the data to fit a preconceived idea of what you will find, but that you consider carefully how much data you need, what type and the context of that data. Think about how you might present your data as well; can you put it in a table, chart or list to make it clearer? If you are transcribing it, how will you show things like overlap, interruption and emphatic stress? Look at this example on the AQA website for an example of what to do and how to approach the first few sections. It's not perfect (it wasn't a final draft) but it is pretty clear. The data selection, in particular, is really effective.

Analyse your data thoroughly
Close focus on both AO1 and AO3 is vital in producing a strong analysis. You need to apply relevant language frameworks (the ones you decided on when you set up your research questions) but you also need to consider meanings, representations and contexts. Don't just pluck single words or phrases from out of their contexts to analyse in isolation: show us where the language comes from and what it means in its context. Think about how it works and what it does. You should also be able to apply your understanding of AO2 language concepts and theories to the analysis you are carrying out.

If you see an example in your data of language being used in ways that fits with, or contradicts, ideas you've seen before about what people do with language, explore this. For example, if research into male language suggests that men "construct solidarity through verbal jousting" - or what we might call 'banter' (urgh!) these days - (Coates, 2003) but you see women doing this in your data, think about why that might be.

Equally, if media articles about texting tell you that young people frequently abbreviate and use non-standard English in their messages, but you find that only 5% of words are shortened in your data set, think about why this might be. Are the articles wrong? They might be. But what has happened to messaging in the last few years and how is the technology different?

If you carry out a survey into the ways in which different regional varieties are represented and find that a dialect judged as being prestigious 30 years ago is now seen (in your analysis, at least) as being less respected, why might this be? Think about the possible reasons for your findings being different? Have attitudes shifted? Is your methodology different to that which was used in the 1980s?

These are all things to think through and consider.

Evaluate throughout
You don't need to write an evaluation at the end of your project, but you are expected to evaluate what you are doing as you go along. Reflect on your methodology: is it a good way to explore your data? Can you think of other ways to do it? What does your data analysis tell you? Can you evaluate what your data reveals about the questions you have been asking?

Make sure your first draft is a substantial, serious piece of work
You do get a chance to redraft but the feedback your teachers are allowed to give is limited. We can't give you a mark for a first draft. We can't offer detailed advice about how to improve what you've done. We can give you the mark scheme and let you decide what you are doing and where you might be able to improve things, but it's vital that your first draft isn't a half-finished, will-this-do, sketchy effort. 

Get going on it quickly
Don't sit around and procrastinate, waiting for your teacher to give you an idea. Think of something you can do and get on with doing it. Once you've got some ideas, we can help you shape them and show you where you need to go. The worst investigations are inevitably the ones where students can't decide what they want to do, have no real interest in it and/or don't really know what they are doing. 




Monday, November 28, 2016

Texts in Time - Analysing the Language of the Past

Although many students (and quite a few teachers!) might disagree, analysing historical texts is one of the great joys of studying A-Level English Language. Admittedly, picking your way through the archaic lexis, grammar and orthography isn't always easy - especially with texts written before the 18th century - but once you're in, you enter a different world. 

The trick to analysing such texts well is to avoid saying boring stuff about certain words not existing any more or that they don't have any grammar. Words don't vanish, they just 'fall from mainstream usage' and the only texts without grammar are ones without any words! You need to get a feel for the texts as living things. They were written by real people with real feelings about the subjects they were discussing. More significantly, the words on the page were as relevant to them at that point in history as the WhatsApp or Snapchat you sent five minutes ago. Importantly, language should not be regarded as more or less important - or superior or inferior - based on when it was produced. Simply, it is what it is.

I especially enjoy diary entries and letters from the past because they were intensely personal. They had no intended audience (at least, not a mass audience) and so they were written frankly, honestly and without affectation. They weren't trying (in most cases) to influence the reader. That said, a letter from a monarch to a politician would probably have contained some ulterior motive. 

The other things that trip students up are the attitudes expressed. It's all too easy to write an essay dismissing a text as sexist, racist, superstitious or ignorant in some way, but this can be a misrepresentation. These texts shouldn't be analysed in terms of social attitudes today or how we think today; they need to be considered as a reflection of the time at which they were composed. Back then, attitudes based on gender, sexual orientation, race, social status, religion, the supernatural and so on were different. Centuries ago, there were no such things as political correctness, equality awareness or cultural sensitivity (as we understand them today) operating in the mainstream arena. Often, people were simply writing what was generally held to be true or, at least, acceptable at the time. There are exceptions of course. Nobody could read the vile rantings of a madman like Hitler and dismiss his words as culturally uninformed just because they written almost a century ago. There are some things that common sense alone leads us to recognise plainly as being only evil and wrong. 

More often than not, you can discern much about the text you are analysing by reading the contextual information provided by the examiner and looking at the year of publication or origin. Sometimes you will see that a text was written in or around a significant year. If so, ask yourself if there are any parallels that can be drawn between the attitudes expressed and the point in history that it was written. Above all, just remember that the attitudes and ideas expressed may only seem ignorant or offensive when weighed against today's knowledge and social values. As ever, historical knowledge is important and context is everything. 

The one piece of advice I would leave you with is this: don't be scared of an old text. Trust your revision and remember that the examiner won't ever ask you to analyse something inaccessible.