Sunday, May 11, 2014

Defending A level English Language

Anyone with an interest in English who has been following the news over the past week can't have missed the storm over the exam board OCR's plans to include the language of Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal and Caitlin Moran in their proposed Language and Literature A level specification.

The Guardian ran the story on Tuesday, claiming that a "DFE insider" had already slammed the syllabus as being "immensely patronising" and "rubbish". The Telegraph was also up in arms about it and The Daily Fail was predictably splenetic, splashing large pictures of Brand, Mr Rascal, Grayson Perry and Michael Gove all over their article to reinforce the horror of what was being proposed. After all, these figures - bar the eminent Mr Gove, of course - are enemies of mainstream British values: Russell Brand is a former heroin addict (and therefore, as a drug user, no longer a human being with a valid opinion on anything), Dizzee Rascal is young, black, working class and successful (Why is he not in prison?) and Grayson Perry is a man who dresses as a woman (What my butler and groundsman often refer to as a "tranny". I ask you!).

The articles themselves gave only a tiny taste of the rage bubbling under the surface of middle England against this crackpot left-wing conspiracy to dumb down British students and ruin their education. Comments from Mail readers included some of the following gems:

  • Finally, it has happened! The barbarians have taken over and the country is officially in the gutter.
  • This dumbing down of education began back in the late 50s and early 60s when the lefties infiltrated the whole education system where they are now in full in control - as they are in most public services.
  • The dumbing down of a nation continues.

But what was reported in all of these papers was only part of the story. In a response to the furore, OCR and The English and Media Centre (a brilliant educational charity who produce resources and run courses for English teachers - and, I've got to add, for whom I do quite a lot of work) issued a statement to explain what was actually happening. The tweets of Caitlin Moran, the speeches of Russell Brand and the interview between Dizzee Rascal and Jeremy Paxman were not being treated as "great literature" - as some stories had implied - but as forms of spoken and blended mode language for linguistic analysis, alongside a range of classic and contemporary literature:

The language of a House of Commons Select Committee, with Russell Brand, is not being put up as a challenge to Shakespeare. It is not a literary text and it is not being judged against the measure of whether it is ‘good’ literature, because it isn’t literature. That is not comparing like with like. That is muddling the literary aspect of study with the required linguistic elements of the course. It’s not even saying it is ‘good’ speaking.  That is not what linguists do. It is being offered to students for analysis, as a fascinating example of language use, in the terms used within the academic discipline of linguistics.

And that - as they point out elsewhere in their statement on the blog - is exactly what the exam boards have been tasked with producing by Ofqual for the new A levels (which start being taught next year). I'm involved in a team working on AQA's new English Language specification and I know we have worked very hard over the last two years to ensure we meet those demands, so it's immensely depressing to see others' hard work rubbished in this way and deliberately, wilfully, misinterpreted by those with a massive axe to grind.

It's not exactly surprising to see the Daily Mail up in arms about contemporary texts being taught - their standard view tends to be if it's dead and white, it's alright - but in an article in today's Mail (The A-levels in idiocy: Celebrity obsession of examiners revealed in MoS survey of test papers as Gove is told standards are being ‘fatally undermined’) they go a few steps further and start to attack the existing A levels. And if you're a student reading this, or a teacher preparing your students for the forthcoming exams, that's the set of exams you're working towards now. Normally, the press hang on until results day to tell you your qualifications ain't worth sheeit, but they're telling you this the week before your AS level exam. Nice touch, I think.

And what are they telling us about English Language A level? Well, it's very much the same angle they took with the OCR Language and Literature specification: that you are being taught dumbed down, incorrect, fashionable speech because it's trendy and accessible and that teachers and exam boards don't want to challenge you with really difficult texts because we're intellectually lazy and morally suspect. And let's remember, this is The Daily Mail telling us this: telling us A levels in English are "celebrity-obsessed". Next to a sidebar of pictures of celebrity cellulite, Katie Price's ample cleavage and a picture of Irony? Not half.

They have chosen to illustrate this supposed dumbing down by quoting examples from recent exam papers. Let's have a look at a couple of these in more detail, because I think these make great case studies of spin and selective quotation. Nice practice for a bit of critical discourse analysis too, if you're revising for your ENGA3 exam!

According to the Daily Mail...

One question simply states: 'Analyse the text on this Caffè Nero website'

I checked last summer's ENGA3 paper. Here's what appeared:

Text A, below, is an advertisement for coffee published during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Text B, on page 3, is a webpage produced by the coffee company Caffè Nero in 2012.
Analyse how language is used in Text A and Text B to represent the companies’ coffee. 

With reference to Text A, Text B and your own studies, illustrate and evaluate different ways of explaining how language changes.
It doesn't take a genius to see that the Mail has reworded the question and deliberately left out the most important parts of it, namely that the Caffe Nero ad is being looked at alongside a 19th Century text as an example of language change in action. They also quote an extract from the Language Variation question on that paper:

Analyse the distinctive features of American rapper Juvenile’s language in Text C (an interview) and how he conveys his experiences and ideas, eg ‘You know when I was young a lot of cats would make a song… you know what I’m saying? Now you got it to where artists is goin’ out there makin’ money like football players… I ain’t doin’ nuthin… I ain’t causin’ no harm to nobody. She [his mother] widdit, you know what I’m saying?’

This time, the quote is a little more accurate, but not much. There's more to it, obviously, because the actual question featured a longer interview in which Juvenile switched from non-standard to a more standard form of English. It also featured a second bullet point that stated:

Referring to Text C, Figure 1 and your own studies, evaluate how far people’s social class affects their use of English.

This was alongside a diagram from Janet Holmes' An Introduction to Sociolinguistics which presented data on ethnicity, class and the use of multiple negation. So, dumbed down? Lacking rigour? Clearly, the Mail hopes to present the idea of a rapper's language being studied as part of an A level in English Language as both of these things. But it's not is it? To answer these two questions well, students need to know a large amount about grammar, phonetics, sociolinguistic theory such as code-switching, ideas of covert and overt prestige and much more besides. In fact, I wrote a fairly long article for NATE's Teaching English, using this interview as an example of much that is good in the English Language A level, some of which I've quoted below to illustrate why I think it's a demanding and useful text to explore.

...the interview offers a slice of English language at its most vital, subtle and provocative, not simply in its delivery but in the areas for discussion that it opens up. In doing these things, it offers some of the most fruitful territory for students interested in finding out more about how language works: the influences that shape our linguistic identities, from where we were born to the colour of our skin, from the work we do to the people we associate with, and maybe more importantly than all of these, the choices we make ourselves about the identities we wish to project to others. In other words, an analysis and discussion of such language can open up the external and internal factors that shape our language use as individuals, as members of groups in society and in a multiplicity of different situations, using language for different purposes with different people. And this can all be done with genuine linguistic depth and, dare I say it, rigour.

With Juvenile, the question in the ENGA3 paper tells us that he is a rapper from a working class area of New Orleans, and we might also assume from his language choices (correctly, in this case) that he is black, so we already have a number of “boxes” we could put him into based on his nationality, region, gender, ethnicity, social class and occupation – all factors that have been looked at in detail by linguists such as Peter Trudgill, Viv Edwards, Malcolm Petyt, Sue Fox, Paul Kerswill and Jenny Cheshire, who would be known to most students – but there are many other factors to consider too.

Juvenile employs a number of features of non-standard grammar in his language: the deletion of the copula verb in the utterances “We family” and “Everything the same”; the deletion of auxiliary verbs in “We still doin the same thangs”, “We paperchasin, cousin” and “We tryin to get all the money, cousin”; the multiple negation of “Ain’t nuthin changed”. In terms of phonology, he drops the –g in some –ing endings such as “livin”,“doin”, “paperchasin” and “tryin” and pronounces the i in things as thangs. Lexically and semantically, he uses colloquial terms of address such as man and cousin to relate to his interviewer, as well as the slang term for making money “paperchasin” (where dollar bills are the paper being chased).

There’s a lot to look at in terms of Juvenile’s non-standard usage here, but what’s also interesting is that it’s not a question of him being unable to use standard forms; on many occasions he chooses to use them. So, he uses a copula verb when he says “She’s down with it now”, inserts an auxiliary verb (admittedly with a non-standard agreement between subject and verb) when he tells us that “artists is goin out there makin money” and elsewhere in the interview switches between standard and non-standard English. He is making choices about his language, many of which may well be dependent on the audience he’s addressing and the persona he wishes to project. The discussion of what Juvenile is saying and how he says it is much more than just identifying “errors” in his speech and blaming them on different facets of his identity – his upbringing, his education, his class, his lifestyle - but treating what he says and how he says it as a source of wider discussion. Why does he choose to say a) here while he chooses to say b) there? Why does he choose this form when he’s addressing this topic, but that form when he addresses that topic?

There's more, if you want read it, and you can find it here, but I hope that the extract above makes the point clearly enough that what we're looking at here is not something that is dumbed down and fashionable, designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but genuine language in use by real people and eminently worthy of close study.

That's why the Daily Mail is so massively, colossally, knuckle-headedly wrong about everything they say in their article.

For those of you doing ENGA3 Language Discourses, you might recognise the tendency of the comments in and after the articles to dredge up notions of decline, pollution and collapse - all great staples of the prescriptivist mindset - and it's no great surprise to find that such reactions appear in right-wing  publications when spoken language and contemporary reference points are held up as valid for analysis. Because, after all, studying contemporary English - spoken language, text messaging, urban slang and twitter, for example - is just shallow, unacademic and immature, isn't it?

Well, no. And I hope I've made it clear here just how valuable I think this kind of study is and why the AS levels you are taking next week, the A levels you are taking in June and (I hope) the Language and Linguistics courses many of you will go on to do at University are valuable, useful, intellectually stimulating, rigorously academic and, above all, worth defending.

Edited on 11.05.14 to add link to NATE Teaching English article - thanks to NATE for permission to link and lots of other English Language teachers for their support :-)

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