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. 



Thursday, September 07, 2017

Starting Language study

If you are starting English Language A level this week, you might be wondering "What the hell is this subject and why am I doing it?".

That's quite a normal reaction, to be honest, and is becoming more common as the GCSE (laughably known as "English Language") moves further and further away from what I would see as genuine language study towards something else...something (in the words of Donald Trump when describing Hurricane Irma) that "looks like it could be something that will be not good".

So, what is A level English Language? Well, what it is is the best course you could possibly do for A level. It is varied, challenging and fascinating. But I'm biased, obvs. Over the next few blog posts, I'll show you a few aspects of what I think make it an interesting course and offer a taste of some of the work you can do on the course.

First off, you'll be analysing things. You'll have done this before, but you'll be analysing all sorts of language - written, spoken and all that electronic communication like Twitter, texts and Instagram, that's somewhere in between. And what you analyse won't always look important or hugely significant to the world. It won't always be Great Literature. It might be about a slang word, an emoji, a borrowed leather jacket, or even some dog poo. Let's start with dog poo to make the point.

Have a look at these two signs stuck to a fence post along a narrow footpath in rural Essex. Try carrying out a basic linguistic analysis of how each text producer (i.e. the person who made each sign) uses language to convey their particular message to the text receiver (the person/people who might read it). What different approaches do they use? What different language frameworks - vocabulary choices (lexis and semantics), grammatical structure (syntax), layout and visual design (graphology) and implied meanings (pragmatics) - could you use to analyse them?


Welcome to Poo Alley
(it's a bit like Diagon Alley but with less magic)
On 31st January 2017 on this footpath by the fencing there were 20 piles of dog faeces. 
If your doggie does a poo
Please pick it up and take it home with you 
so I don't get it on my shoe 
thank you
If you're not bothered about my shoe (and why should you be) please think about your dog. One of the ways in which Parva Virus is transmitted is through infected dog faeces.



Seeing as the polite approach obviously doesn't work...
Pick up your dog muck, you lazy meff.

I won't analyse the for you, because that might make a good task for you to do in class this week, but I will flag up a few things that underline how this is very much about linguistic analysis.

  • Think about direct and indirect forms of language and how people address each other
  • Think about shared references and language that might be exclusive or inclusive
  • Think about slang etymology and what meff means
  • Think about the linked nature of these texts
  • Think about how effective (or not) these texts might be and what they might have been intended to achieve
I'll come back to these pictures another time, but if you have any ideas or comments, don't post them here: reply to @EngLangBlog on Twitter. 






Monday, August 07, 2017

Challenging Linguistic Determinism

I've never been a great believer in Linguistic Determinism. That said, too many philosophers - all much smarter than me - have argued their points persuasively: "Whereof one cannot speak; thereof, one must say nothing!" And as for those who say that language cannot be trusted because it allows us to describe things that don't exist, or which are untrue... Don't get me started!

But I feel like the past year (and a bit) has reinforced my view that we can, in fact, extend our knowledge and understanding independently of language and that we don't need our passions or impressions to have been previously distilled or crystallised into absolute words or phrases which nail them down for us. I propose that language is determined by us, its creators; it is not some primordial AI which has developed the capacity to control us. 

Language is running harder and faster just to keep up with us. My suspicions were first aroused last year when the OED appealed to Mumsnet to contribute some words from its online community sociolect for inclusion in future editions of the dictionary. Since when did we have to go soliciting for new words? After some quiet reflection, I considered that the rising popularity of Identity Politics might be the cause. 

In recent years, we have refused to be pigeonholed according to our social status, sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, creed, politics, and so on. For decades before, these aspects of ourselves seemed reductive when used by others to define us or our beliefs in any way. Now it feels different. As individuals we suddenly want to assert our individuality with confidence again. Who can say what has reanimated the ghost in the machine? Strength in numbers accumulated in the virtual world moving into the real? An evolutionary or biological imperative to be seen, heard and understood? Some commentators even suggest that it is a subversive, anarchic and masochistic action: "Here I am, Establishment! This is me! I dare you to offend me or to be offended by me!"

There's no doubting that identity politics seems to be developing contemporaneously against the backdrop of changing economic and political landscapes around the world, though this is, perhaps, better left to another writer! It can only be a good thing that people now feel able to show their hand. Maybe they have simply looked around and decided that there is nothing more to lose and everything to gain.

Fittingly, in this 50th year since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, we have seen the LGBT movement grow into LGBTQIAPK. (No, I'm not going to do all the work for you, dear reader! Get out and research the other letters yourself!) This is a fabulous expansion of language in the form of an initialism which seeks to be as inclusive as possible. 

And to remind us where we started, we imposed this development on language because it was necessary; the lack of adequate terminology and the absence of an a priori knowledge that such an initialism would one day be required to fight against man-made prejudices did not hamper our ability to extend our knowledge or understanding of the issue, bending language to our will. So much for linguistic determinism!

Of course, things are far more nuanced than they appear. While it is now considered a positive step for most people to identify themselves as transitioning, bi-curious, Marxist, a single parent, pro-Brexit or anything else in the free spirit of identity politics, it is much more of a challenge to find language capable of embracing more subtle differences without being too sweeping or even dismissive of the finer points of issues such as race and cultural heritage.

In a recent article on pay inequality between particular social groups, tennis superstar, Serena Williams made reference to 'women of colour'. Using '... of colour' to refer to the unspecified and diverse cross section of society who identify with an ethic group other than that termed 'White', or who identify as mixed race or mixed heritage, is nothing new; but it did remind me of the historical problems associated with finding language to embrace ethnic and cultural diversity which is neither offensive, patronising, tokenistic, nor which (by its nature) excludes. 

The traditional paradigms of Black and White never really held up in linguistic terms due to their inability to make any further distinctions. Even the great John Lennon didn't contribute anything especially helpful when he included 'the Yellow or Red ones...' in 'Happy Christmas (War is Over)'! One of the more recent attempts has been to cluster everyone together in the BME category (Black and Minority Ethnic), but even this seems like a feeble attempt to recognise and celebrate diversity. Mere lip service.

On balance, '...of colour' is far more inclusive and (I think) represents the best compromise language has delivered so far. But it's not perfect. Just as no one is Black (in terms of its denotation rather than its connotation), no one is White. As such, we are all 'of colour', QED.

So what are we to do? Settle on uneasy compromise on this one issue? No. We should not be defined by language any more than we should be defined by our colour or any other part of our internal or external selves. We have already seen that the perceived constraints of linguistic determinism have been proved to be a fiction. If we can conceive of absolute equality; if we can conceive of absolute representation; if we can conceive of identity politics as being part of the body politic, then we will harness language and find the path to resolution.



Monday, June 19, 2017

A level Paper 2: revision tips final part

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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