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

MUVVER TONGUE ‘Th’ sound vanishing from English language with Cockney and other dialects set to ‘die out by 2066 because of immigration’
(The Sun

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

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.”

And last, but by no means least, “Queen's English to be WIPED OUT from London 'due to high levels of immigration'”.
(Daily Express

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.