Saturday, January 30, 2016

#TwitterTwang

One of the big topic areas on the new AQA English Language AS level (and the A level) is Language Diversity, in which we look at how language varies from person to person and place to place. Much of the work done on this topic has focused on spoken language - accents and dialects, for example - but language can vary in written and electronic forms too.

Twitter has proved a really useful way of both producing and collecting this kind of data and more is explained in an article looking at the work of Brice Russ at Ohio University, who examined the language in some 400,000 tweets, looking initially for how people in different parts of the USA used either soda or pop to describe fizzy drinks.

Gabriel Doyle explains some of the ways in which Twitter can be used to chart change in language and how changes in language spread in this lecture clip.


Rachael Tatman, blogging from the Northwest Linguistics Conference in April of 2015, also noted how Twitter cold be used to identify not just lexical but phonological differences in how people used Twitter: in other words, the ways in which people used different spellings on Twitter to represent the ways they spoke with an accent:

Ok, so people will sometimes spell things differently on Twitter based on their spoken language dialect. What’s the big deal? Well, for linguists this is pretty exciting. There’s a lot of language data available on Twitter and my research suggests that we can use it to look at variation in sound patterns.

So, how is this relevant to those us doing English Language at A level? Here's the plan...

With #TwitterTwang we'll try to gather data from UK A level students using Twitter and a few helpful teachers. Over a 3-4 week period before the end of the Spring term, we'll identify a handful of ways in which data can be elicited in similar ways from students in different places and ask each group of students to hashtag their tweets with #TwitterTwang and a number to indicate where they're from (Essex as 1, Leicester as 2, Hackney as 3, Southport as 4, East Norfolk as 5 etc.). We can then make use of the data collected to see if there are patterns in regional dialect and/or accent apparent in the tweets.

I'm still thinking about different elicitation techniques and open to ideas (so please tweet me @EngLangBlog) if you have good ideas or think mine are rubbish, but here's the tentative plan:


  • a post-lunch tweet to describe what each student has had for lunch
  • a Gogglebox-style tweet/series of tweets about a programme that everyone agrees to either watch at a given time or on catch-up (e.g. Britain's Got Talent, The Voice, Take Me Out etc.)
  • a tweet about a picture/photo that we can all agree on an share
If we can agree on exactly which of these (or all?) to use, we'll have something to start with. We then need to identify a time to get this started. One of the best things about using Twitter for this is that we don't necessarily have to deal with the data as it comes in but can catalogue it using the different hashtags and save it for later. We could even use it for different things (language change, gender, individual tweeting styles) as the course goes on, or use it to compare with data in future years to see if language styles change.

Anyway, that's a start, I hope. If we could work out a plan in more detail through @EngLangBlog that would be great.

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