Friday, March 11, 2011

More is more

intensive reading?
There's a really good response by Melody Dye on the Scientopia blog to the Robert Lane Greene article in the NY times (which I blogged about here) this week.

Dye, who is a cognitive science researcher at Stanford University, argues that Greene's article doesn't go far enough in its attack on prescriptivist thinking and she makes several interesting points about reading as well as writing. She argues - quoting Joshua Foer - that people's reading habits have changed from "intensive" reading of a very few texts to "extensive" reading,  valuing quantity over "quality".

Dye's argument is that as we get more choice over what we read - increasingly being able to pursue our own niche interests in music, film, literature, TV - a bottom-up model of language change is exerting its power more than ever. If standardisation is all about imposing a top-down model then, she argues, what's happening now is that more "writers" (if we're calling texting, tweeting and Facebooking "writing", and I'm happy to) are writing more stuff and it's less standardised than ever before.

extensive reading?
But that does rely on the assumption that standardisation is designed to (as Dye puts it)  "conventionalize, and even ‘crystalize,’ our language according to certain norms, and to make it more uniformly patterned ". Straight after that she adds "Education is one forcible means of (attempting to) root out non-standard ‘grammars’ (such as African American Vernacular English) and of homogenizing usage"...all of which tends to sound to me like she's arguing that education can be a big bad force for social control, a viewpoint that's problematic for me as an English teacher (who wants to see everyone get a good education in a standard form of English) and as a politically left-wing person (who values non-standard forms too and sees them as part of a wider picture of language use), but for two very different reasons.

Does education really have to be like this? Does the teaching of a standard form necessarily preclude an appreciation and study of non-standard varieties? You could argue that the very existence of  Standard English means that all other varieties - and remember, Standard English was chosen very deliberately out of existing varieties of English - are treated as inferior.

You could equally argue though, that if we don't have a standard we have no shared language, no means of communicating with each other on a level playing field and that the ones who will really suffer are not those at the top of society but those at the bottom. In this case, Standard English might be seen as a democratising force, giving linguistic power to everyone in a society.

I suppose what I'd like to see* (and what I think is partly delivered in the English Language A level, if not elsewhere in the English curriculum) is a model like this that opens up the history and development of English as a language, and lets us look at how it became what it is now and where it's going. It should be a model that allows us to interrogate the idea of a standard and see how it's become important over time, while helping students develop their own grasp of that standard, and their understanding of all the non-standard forms around us - many of which like texting and tweeting are in fact changing what might be the Standard English of years to come.

Melody Dye develops her argument by looking outside the natural homes of English - the UK and the USA - too:
In broadening our picture of the forces at work in language change, we might also consider how English is being influenced from the outside.  According to one statistic, there are now something like three times as many non-native speakers of English as there are native speakers.  English is thus being reappropriated by foreign speakers, both on our shores (in the tides of immigrants that come to this country) and off it (in English creoles and pidgins, and in widespread lexical borrowing), and these reformulations are, in turn, shifting the normative space of what is acceptable.

Where this fits in to the study of Language Change and Language Discourses at A level is interesting, I think, and should allow you plenty of scope for discussion and exploration in your work. The English Language is clearly changing - it always has - but is it now changing so quickly, thanks to technology creating so many new users of English all over the world and spreading non-standard forms  - that what we know as Standard English is rapidly disappearing?  Perhaps a new standard is being formed even now, a type of English that we can all understand but which doesn't much resemble the Standard English we've seen before. And maybe that new standard is actually being created away from the places previously considered to be the home of the English language.

Edited 11.46 11/03/11
I'd also like to see world peace and international socialism. Is that not too much to ask?

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