Thursday, October 05, 2017

SPaG spat

I started writing this post nearly a year ago while arguments were raging over the Key Stage 2 grammar tests. At the time, feelings were running high (yes, over grammar...) and I didn't want to stick my oar in and make matters worse, so I've come back to it and tried to look at the argument in slightly different terms, with more of a focus on how it relates to A level English Language.

The teaching of grammar is not necessarily at the top of the list for topics that will interest A-level students reading this blog; after all, you're studying it already as part of this course, so do you really want to find out the gory details of how teachers and educators argue about it?

Well, maybe... and the debate about how grammar is taught is quite closely connected to some of the big language debates covered in your course: arguments over Standard and non-Standard English, the importance of understanding how language works and who has the right to tell us what is 'right' or 'wrong'. All that stuff. So, you might want to read on, if you're a student.

Shots have been fired recently (and since it was all initially proposed) over the test taken by pupils in Year 6 at Primary Schools as part of what have been called the Key Stage 2 SPaG tests (Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar) but have more recently been named the GPS tests (Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling), perhaps to reflect the renewed focus on grammar (first, not third, in the list).

The test features some quite demanding questions about grammar, including some of the following:


source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/327332/2014_KS2_L6_English_GPS_short_answer_booklet_DIGITALHO.pdf

How would you do on these? Well, you might want to try them yourself and check the mark schemes that are available to the public.

Why is there an argument over this test and why should it matter to you? Because politics. Grammar is political.

It's not purely about politics and that is one of the first points to make about this, because much of the debate between linguists, teachers and educationalists has actually been about the grammar of the grammar tests, and more precisely the amount of grammar that a 10 year-old should be learning, why they should be learning it and what they should be doing with that grammar. Linguists disagree to some extent over how important it is to teach grammar and the meta-language of grammar (i.e. the grammatical terminology) to school students and there are good arguments from both sides of the debate about this. But grammar is also very political, because it is used by politicians to signal their attitudes to a range of other things.

Deborah Cameron, who is perhaps better known recently for her ace language blog and excellent The Myth of Mars and Venus, wrote an important book in 1995 called Verbal Hygiene. In this, she argued that much of the debate around grammar in the media back in the 1980s and early 90s - when last there was a big bust-up over it - was tied up very closely, not so much with language, but with morality and social cohesion, and the threat of imminent social collapse that was pinned by many conservatives on the permissive 1960s and their anything goes attitude to sex, drugs and err...grammar.

Grammar had been a part of English teaching for many years but had started to fall by the wayside in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the time I was at secondary school in the 1980s (ironically, at a grammar school, where very little grammar was taught outside French and German lessons), grammar was off the menu.

By restoring grammar teaching to the English curriculum, the government of the time could show a return to academic rigour and old-fashioned virtues of correctness. The certainties of grammar - where there is (supposedly) a clear right and wrong - would take the place of the limp-wristed liberalism of the 1980s classrooms where communist teachers and perfumed fops (or skanky goths, in my case) would discuss poetry and feelings with barely a mention of a clause or phrase. That was one view anyway...

According to Cameron, the desire to get grammar back on the agenda was about much more than just language:

Grammar was made to symbolise various things for its conservative proponents: a commitment to traditional values as a basis for social order, to ‘standards’ and ‘discipline’ in the classroom, to moral certainties rather than moral relativism and to cultural homogeneity rather than pluralism. Grammar was able to signify all these things because of its strong metaphorical association with order, tradition, authority, hierarchy and rules.
It was interesting that these seismic rumblings about grammar should have resonated so powerfully in the 1980s, because it was a time of turbulence in education, with the birth of the National Curriculum, but also a time of political and social upheaval brought about by a right-wing Conservative government. And that's where there's a link to what is happening with grammar today.

Another right-wing Conservative government is in power. Tests must be 'rigorous' because 'rigour' is what works. Tests are vital because how else do we judge schools and teachers? How else do we feed data into league tables that tell us which school is doing better than another? Well, it doesn't have to be like this, but that's another issue entirely.

When Michael Gove - then the Minister for Education - set about creating a new literacy test for Key Stage 2, he definitely wanted grammar at the heart of it. He hated the kind of English lessons where you would study the language of online communication or spoken conversations and longed for Victorian novels and the thwack of tough, hard, rigorous grammar on his soft... sorry, getting carried away there, but you get the picture. He wanted nouns, verbs, adjectives, noun phrases, relative clauses, the present progressive and the passive voice to feature in the tests. But most of all, he wanted the subjunctive mood: a piece of grammar that has been in decline since the Nineteenth Century.

And if these sound like the kinds of things you learn at A level, that's because they are - and I like to think we make quite good use of them in how we analyse and discuss language. But for Key Stage 2, when children are 10-11 years old?

At the same time, grammar also provided Gove with a way of assessing a slippery subject. As anyone will tell you, English can be very subjective. I might analyse a poem and see an extended metaphor for the tragic decline of a long-term relationship; you might read the same poem and see it as a few images about candles being snuffed out to prevent a fire. English has *all* the feels. But grammar... well, that's nearly like maths, or some some might argue, at least.

So, let's take this back to what it all has to do with A level English Language. You might not start the course looking at arguments about standard and non-standard uses of English, or the importance of 'correct' grammar, but you'll certainly move onto those at some point, and the debates are perennial and often very heated.

Modern linguists have generally taken a position that might be defined as descriptivist: they study language, describing its features, its functions and (sometimes) its users and what they might be doing with it.

On the other side, there's often been a position held by conservatives (sometimes conservatives with a little 'c', sometimes conservatives with a big 'C' and sometimes conservatives who are - quite frankly - just complete 'C's) that tells us language should not change too quickly, that old is best and that grammar is all about following rules and being right or wrong. This is generally called prescriptivism because it's an approach that prescribes "good English" to us in the same way a doctor might prescribe medicine to make us better.

The trouble is - as nearly every linguist will tell you - language always changes. The history of English is one of change, and grammar has changed a great deal. Just look at the pronoun system and what Old English used before Old Norse added to it (clue: the Vikings didn't just like 3rd person plural pronouns: they loved them).

And then have a look at the disappearance of thee and thou (in Standard English usage, at least, not in far-flung corners of Yorkshire or Kaiser Chiefs lyrics). Word order is another area of huge change - in the general syntax we use for most structures in modern English, but especially in how we form questions. If grammar changes more slowly than other aspects of language - and linguists are generally agreed that this is the case - it still changes and those changes stack up over time.

The other aspect of all of this is that the so-called 'rules' of English grammar are often not that at all; they are conventions, agreed upon by users of language and therefore susceptible to change. As an article a week or two back about the split-infinitive pointed out, this supposed error in English grammar was always a dubious rule to follow.

So, if grammar changes and grammar rules can be questioned, can we really place such high importance on teaching "correct" grammar? Yes and no. The debate about the grammar tests at Key Stage 2 shouldn't be about whether grammar is a good thing or a bad thing to learn and understand. I'll be clear about my own view: it's definitely a good thing. I think we need to understand the system of our own language and be able to describe its elements to explain how it works and see what we can do with it. And we also need a shared grammar to understand each other - that's why Standard English exists and one of the reasons why it's valued.

But what kind of grammar should be taught? The prescriptive kind doesn't really work when you live in a world of change. It might be attractive to a certain kind of person because it symbolises an adherence to tradition and offers the possibility that change can be stopped or at least slowed down, but I don't really buy that view. The problem with a prescriptive approach to grammar is often that it goes beyond what grammar really is (word classes, clauses, phrases and all that stuff) and into the policing of all forms of language - accents, dialects, slang and even body language and tone of voice.

It's instructive, I think, that at the same time Gove was introducing the grammar tests for 10 and 11 year-olds (even taking such an interest that he insisted his own favourite, the subjunctive mood appeared in the tests, against the advice of actual linguists on his expert panel) he was also getting rid of spoken language and electronic texts from the GCSE syllabus (and replacing them with 19th Century novels).

Why should that matter? Surely, great literature is more important to study than some "tape recordings of Eddie Izzard and the Hairy Bikers"? Well, it doesn't have to be either/or. There *has* to be a place for studying language in all its forms, not just its most respected and long-lasting ones. Other forms of language need to be studied too, you know... the actual language we use nearly all the time and from which we might gain something really useful.

But all of this is part of a bigger picture; a picture in which grammar is about rigour, correctness, tradition and hard knowledge. And that's where we come back to A level English Language study. When people argue about language, it's often not really language that they are arguing about at all. As Milroy and Milroy put it back in 1985 in their excellent Authority in Language:

Language attitudes stand proxy for a much more comprehensive set of social and political attitudes, including stances strongly tinged with authoritarianism, but often presented as ‘common sense’.

Henry Hitchings, author of The Language Wars, made a similar point in a slightly different way:

These debates quickly become heated because they involve people’s attitudes to – among other things – class, race, money and politics.
So, next time you look at a debate about accent, dialect, texting 'ruining' language, emojis dumbing us all down or how vocal fry makes women sound stupid and immature, just remember that it might appear to be a debate about 'just' language, but it's probably got deeper roots, and it often pays off to understand the wider agendas at work.

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.




Sunday, June 18, 2017

A level Paper 2: revision tips part 3

Here's the third in a short (and predictably-titled) series of ... yadda yadda yadda...you get the drift.

Still on the subject of Language Discourses, what have different people - linguists, writers and media commentators - had to say about the big debates around change and diversity? Who could you go to for some ideas about different approaches to these arguments?

A really good starting point is the linguist Jean Aitchison, whose BBC Reith Lectures in 1996 were all about language: what it is, how we acquire it, how it changes and how people feel about it. Her book, Language Change: Progress or Decay? (now in its fourth edition and a great text for the whole second year of this course) looks at some of the patterns of change we see in English over time and some of the perennial complaints about such change.

One of her best known metaphors is the the idea that prescriptivists (those who resist change and want to tell everyone else what constitutes 'proper English') fall into what she terms a 'crumbling castle' view of language. As a linguist and descriptivist, Aitchison herself is not a fan of the crumbling castle view and explains in her lectures (and her books) that the whole presumption that English was ever a perfectly-formed and gloriously complete language is completely false and that change is natural.

This treats the English language as a beautiful old building with gargoyles and pinnacles which need to be preserved intact, as implied in statements by the writer John Simon: Language, he argues, should be treated like "parks, national forests, monuments, and public utilities ... available for properly respectful use but not for defacement or destruction".
This view itself crumbles when examined carefully. It implies that the castle of English was gradually and lovingly assembled until it reached a point of maximum splendour at some unspecified time in the past. Yet no year can be found when language achieved some peak of perfection, like a vintage wine. The "beautiful building" notion presupposes that rigid systems, once assembled, are better than changing ones. This is untrue. In the animal world, flexibility is a great advantage, and animals that adhere to fixed systems often lose out.                         (from this Independent article)

Her other metaphors - the damp spoon and infectious disease - are explained in more detail in her own words here. And it's worth a listen.

Back in 2014 I did this post about attitudes to language change and you can find some useful points and links here about the ways in which more recent (prescriptive) media commentators such as Lynne Truss and Simon Heffer have argued a similar case to those that Aitchison outlines and how more progressive and descriptive writers and thinkers - Steven Pinker,  David Marsh, Michael Rosen and Erin Brenner - have argued their case.

Another interesting person to look at is Lane Greene. His book You Are What You Speak is another really good read and offers some really astute points about the reasons for people's concerns about change. In the two chapters you can find here and here, he looks at complaints about language and places them in what he terms declinist and sticklerist traditions.

Again, there's plenty on this blog about discourses and if you look here, here and here you'll find some useful material.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A level Paper 2: revision tips part 2

Here's the second in a short (and predictably-titled) series of posts preparing you for next week's first sitting of the new AQA A level Paper 2. The last post was on Language Discourses and what they are. This one is on some of the discourses and debates you could explore. These are just a few suggestions; there are lots of other areas you could look at and I know nothing about what might appear so don't take any of these as predictions. My advice is always to revise all the possible areas and be ready for anything.

Gender debates - remember, as with the AS paper this summer, debates about gender can be about how language is used but also how gender is represented in language.

American English and World Englishes - have a look at some of the arguments here and here about the supposed Americanisation of English.

Attitudes to accents and dialects - this cropped up on the AS paper this summer and is worth thinking about from an A level perspective.

New words and arguments about lexical change - have a look here and here for some debates about how people feel about new words and their place in the dictionary.

Political Correctness and language reform - always a heated debate on this one and this link might help.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

A level Paper 2: revision tips part 1

This is the first of a short (and tediously-titled) series of posts on revision for AQA A level English Language Paper 2. With Paper 1 out of the way and Twitter awash with exam-based memes and 'bananagate' stories, you can now turn your attention to Language Change, Diversity and Discourses.

You've still got just under a week to go, so there's time for some reading and thinking as well as practising the skills you need to use across the three very different questions you'll need to answer. Today, let's have a look at Language Discourses and what you can do to work on these before the exam. One thing to say is that while Section B is the main Language Discourses bit of the paper (it's even called that), arguments and debates about language can crop up in Section A as well, so don't narrow your thinking down too much.

The first thing to ask is "What the hell is a language discourse?".

The answer - for this paper, at least - is that it's a way of discussing and arguing about language. Language discourses are the ways in which people describe language change and diversity and argue about the language around us. Given that what's being discussed is language itself, it's probably no surprise to see writers using metaphors and analogies to describe change and diversity.

If every writer simply said "Language is a system of communication" it would generally be accurate and not very contentious, and not very interesting either. But when writers describe change as a process of decay, collapse or evolution, diversity as a disease, a kind of pollution, a beautiful cross-pollination of varieties of English, language use of young people as a war between old and young, between women and men as a battle of the sexes, or American English as a threat, an invading army or an unwelcome intruder, that's when we're looking at discourses.

Language is being described in other terms and a viewpoint or perspective established. More often than not, these discourses and ways of thinking are already there because they're ones that others have raised over the history of the language. So, when writers use a discourse, they're often contributing to an existing way of thinking - tapping into a discourse that others can relate to - because it's already out there. That's what makes them so pervasive and persuasive, because they're common sense, aren't they?

We all know that language is getting worse because of young people and foreigners... or that male and female language use is fundamentally different... or that technology (mis)spells doom for standard English... or that some accents are just worse, don't we?

Well, no. Just because claims about language are repeated and seep into the mainstream way of thinking doesn't make them right. In fact, the more 'common sense' they appear, the more we should be wary of them. Look at those claims above. There are many good linguistic (and social, moral and political) reasons for challenging each and every one of them. in fact, they're all a bunch of cobblers really*.

Many of these discourses have been around for centuries; just have a look at Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars and you'll see a great overview of what people have complained about in English and the terms they've put it in. The targets change but the song remains the same.

So, one useful thing you can do is to get together a list of the different discourses that crop up when English is discussed. Look at the stories on this blog and linked via the @EngLangBlog Twitter account for a cross-section of these. And think about all the potential areas for argument and debate in the areas of change and diversity, because these could all crop up in Section B of the paper. The sample paper has change (semantic change) as its focus but diversity and variation topics could be here as well. In fact, all the Paper 2 variation and diversity topic areas - occupation, accent & dialect, sociolect, gender, ethnicity, world Englishes and any combination of these with change - could appear. It's a lot to think about and revise but the arguments are often very similar.

And the other thing you can do is realise that after two years of English Language study, you'll probably know a lot more about how language works (and how it doesn't work) than some of the writers and journalists who feel qualified to spout off about English in the pages of the kinds of publications that you might get set for Section B.

Don't be afraid to analyse, deconstruct and challenge the views put forward in the texts that you get for Section B. If you can identify the discourses they are using and analyse the techniques they're using to construct these ideas about language, then you can pull them apart and evaluate whether they are fair ways of describing what's happening. Use your knowledge from the study of language to think about alternatives and you'll be able to do really well.

Next time round, I'll post a few more practical ideas for studying discourses, including a few links to old blog posts about particular debates.

(*Not a very academic way of putting it, so don't quote me on this.)

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Listen Up

You don't have to revise with reading and writing alone; there are loads of podcasts and downloads that cover topics and discussions relevant to AS and A level English Language. I've been collating a few of these for my students, so here are some to listen to.

This Radio 4 programme about Cockney changing and dying out is really good for language change & variation.

Lexicon Valley is a regular linguistics podcast. Have a look here for a list of recent episodes.

Lingthusiasm is a new linguistics podcast and you can find out more here.

Michael Rosen's Word of Mouth on Radio 4 has loads of good programmes about language and a few are listed here:

American English: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08g5533
Language pedantry and discourses: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05qgch7
Child language & interaction: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05077ks
Office jargon & occupational English: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03phrwl
Baby Talk and language development: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03mfwjz

Saturday, April 15, 2017

From 'discuss' to 'evaluate' between AS and A level

One of the big differences between what you do at AS level and A level is in the "command word" used to give you your tasks.

At AS level, Paper 2 questions use the formulation "Discuss the idea that...", where the "idea" is something that you can then focus on and tell us about. By using "discuss" as the command word, the question (well...it's an imperative really, grammar-lovers, so not really a question at all) is asking you to tell us about what you know in relation to this topic. There's no real sense in the word 'discuss' that to answer the question at a reasonable level that you have to weigh it all up and come to any kind of definitive conclusion, but that's what's expected a bit more at the highest level (Level 5 of the AO2 mark scheme) where last year's main indicative content key words were: explore, assess and "make some evaluative comments".

The way I've taught my students to approach this at AS level is to assume that each level builds on the ones below and adds more:

  • Levels 1 and 2 are about basic knowledge. If you want to generalise, then you might say that Level 1 suggests very little grasp of anything to do with detailed study and Level 2 suggests that the student has been to some lessons and remembers a few names and ideas but not necessarily with much real grip. If you are a bit like this, then there is still time to get better!
  • Level 3: detailed knowledge - tell us about some examples you've looked at, some studies you've encountered and some concepts and theories that might be relevant.
  • Level 4: detailed knowledge of different ideas - tell us about different ways of approaching the topic. What are the different ideas that have been offered to explain how this kind of language works? For example, if you're talking about gender and interaction (as in the sample paper from AQA) can you explain some of the different models - difference and dominance - used to make sense of how women and men use language?
  • Level 5: overview and assessment of different ideas - make some sense of those different ideas and explain the most relevant ways to interpret that knowledge for the purposes of this question. Sticking with gender again, if Level 4 is about understanding different models, then Level 5 might be about placing those models in a historical context and explaining why one approach might have significant at one time and another more significant twenty years later. It could also involve you looking at different variables and arguing for their relative importance, while considering ideas around performance and identity. 
For A level, the bar is likely to be shifted up a little, I think. No actual A level papers have been sat or marked yet, so I'm basing this interpretation on how we approached the marking of the AS last year and my experience of teaching the A level this year. The A level is more demanding for a couple of reasons. 

  • First, there's no stimulus data, so you have nothing to give you a kick-start should you require it: you have to come with examples and ideas ready to use. 
  • Second, the scope of the question could be pretty broad (e.g. "Evaluate the idea that the English language is changing and breaking up into many different Englishes.") where you would need to set your own terms of discussion and choose the most relevant approach from what you have studied, or quite specific (.g. "Evaluate the idea that spoken interactions between men and women are characterised by miscommunication.") where you would be expected to know about miscommunication as a concept right from the start. 
  • Third, because the command word is evaluate rather than discuss, I think we are probably asking students for a higher level of engagement with different ideas right from the start. So, it probably means that to get into Levels 3,4 and 5 you'd need to do more than an AS student.
What does 'evaluate' actually mean though? Dictionary.com defines it in three ways (but one of these is about maths, so we'll leave that one out):

1.to determine or set the value or amount of; appraise:to evaluate property.2.to judge or determine the significance, worth, or quality of; assess: to evaluate the results of an experiment.
The Ofqual document from which AQA 'command words' were drawn up, defines evaluate simply as "judge from available evidence". So, what does this mean for English Language A level? My view is that it's about weighing up ideas, assessing the relative merits of different ways of discussing language and showing an understanding of how different explanations can be offered for why language works in certain ways. If we stick to the sample questions, you might weigh up the view that English is breaking up by arguing that it has never been one form in the first place (look at all the accents and dialects that exist now and have done for hundreds of years, for instance). You might weigh up the idea that English is 'breaking up' as if it's a bad thing. Maybe a better metaphor might be the language morphing and adapting, not breaking at all. 

If you are looking at the other question, then you might weigh up/appraise/determine the value of the the whole notion of 'miscommunication' and argue that we all miscommunicate and that it's got very little to do with gender at all. You might evaluate that idea more sympathetically too and argue, as Deborah Tannen did, that because boys and girls have been socialised into different types of talk that there *is* a type of gender-specific miscommunication at work.

At the very top level, this probably means doing more than weighing up alternative views, but critiquing and challenging models and even challenging the terms of the question.


Revising gender: discourses and debates

Gender as a topic area features in both the AS and A level, and can appear in either part of Paper 2. You could get an AS level "Discuss the idea that..." or an A level "Evaluate the idea that..." question in Section A or gender might feature as part of 'language discourses' in Section B.

What is meant by 'discourses'? Well, it's something that I've defined elsewhere as a debate or argument about language, but it can also be treated as a way of thinking about, talking about and describing language. If you want to get academic about it (and why wouldn't you?) here's what the linguist Paul Baker has to say about it in his excellent book about language, gender and sexuality, Sexed Texts:


Language constructs ideas about gender, represents them to us and often helps establish them as 'common sense'. When people write about gender, they often articulate many of the existing discourses - that gender interaction is like a battle of the sexes, a form of combat, or that debates about gendered pronouns are about a form of repression or policing of natural language - and part of your job at both AS and A level is to unpick those discourses and find alternative ways to express them. 

For example, at AS level, you were asked in Section B of last summer's AS Paper 2 to write an opinion piece in which you discussed claims about female and male communication and the stimulus text was an extract from a Mail Online article about how men are supposed to use one kind of filler an women another. Even the Mail article (yes, even the Mail) managed to point out that it wasn't always as simple as saying that men do x and women do y, because they pointed out that there are what they termed 'betweeners' such as David Beckham, Jessie J and Eminem who mix and match their umms and errs. The article also pointed out that age might have a bearing on the kind of filler a person uses.

Why does this matter? Here's the main reason. If the stimulus text shows that it's not quite as simple as saying that men do x and women do y, then why do they use a headline that suggests exactly the opposite and why do they think that is an appropriate way to frame the debate? Maybe because, as Deborah Cameron pointed out a few years ago, difference sells. To paraphrase Cameron, headlines such as "Newsflash: men and women use language in largely the same ways" don't really have as much appeal as ones that propose there's a difference. She talks more about these dubious claims in her (highly recommended) Myth of Mars and Venus and has this to say about such reductive headlines in an extract from that book on The Guardian's site in 2007:

Most people, of course, do not read academic journals: they get their information about scientific research findings from the reports that appear in newspapers, or from TV science documentaries. These sources often feature research on male-female differences, since media producers know that there is interest in the subject. But the criteria producers use when deciding which studies to report and how to present them introduce another layer of distortion. And sometimes headlines trumpet so-called facts that turn out, on investigation, to have no basis in evidence at all.
The other reason it matters is that if you are going to produce an opinion piece about gender and interaction, it makes sense not to parrot the simplistic, black and white discourses of the popular press, but to offer something a bit more nuanced. Not only is this good for getting marks on AO2 (concepts, knowledge about language, theory and research) but it's good for your AO5.

If you can engage your readers and inform them about language in a way that shows you understand the media discourses around gender and manipulate them for your own ends - perhaps even subverting them and challenging them in the process - you can pick up marks for style, structure and shaping of language. If you can show that you have read, tasted and perhaps even digested others' opinions, you can do a better job of expressing your own views.

And when it comes to the A level, where you might be required to pull apart the language of articles and other popular media texts about gender (or sociolect, accent and dialect, world Englishes, language change for that matter, where all these discourses recur) your ability to spot popular and prevalent discourses, and then to interrogate them, could really help you with the text analysis task in Question 3.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Gender sensitivity?

Looking for an example of how language and gender makes the news? Then go no further than these two pieces about the same story. Not only do you get a good sense of how language can be part of a wider battle about gender roles and social inequality but you also get a lesson in language discourses for free.

Just have a look at how The Guardian and Mail Online report the same story, use different sources, experts and language techniques to frame their views.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

They're right

Still on 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.

Edited on 05.04.17 to add another article on this story (thanks to @FKRitson and @a_gadsbey).

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):