Monday, June 27, 2005

Now it's all over...

Well done to everyone who took the ENA6 exam today. That's your last ever exam in English Language (unless you start degree courses in linguistics next year).

I'll email those of you who said you might be able to come and present your coursework to the AS students next week (and I might even stretch to buying you a crafty half of shandy at lunch).

See the rest of you at A level results day.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Doing our own thing

Still on the subject of Language Change and attitudes to it, a book by American linguist John McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care , is worth a look.

He argues that written American English is losing its power and status to spoken American English, and charts the rise of the counter-culture movement in the 1960s, the changes in lyrics of Black American music forms and the collapse of political rhetoric as key points in this switch.

In many ways, he takes a prescriptivist view on all of this. But given the criticisms of prescriptivism that you've been subjected to on the course (the "get a life, Lynne Truss" syndrome as you might call it, or the "Norman Tebbit - no!" syndrome, perhaps), it's good to get a bit of balance.

I can't say I agree completely with his findings, his political outlook or even like his style much (in places) but there are some real gems in there. If nothing else, read the introductory chapter where he sets out his stall, and the pages on "Play That Funky Music, Whiteboy".

This also gives me the chance to point you towards a new feature of this blog: a link to a real website where resources can be made available to you outside college. I know it's too late to really help A2 students, but for the currebt AS students it could be handy, and even for you lifers (like Craig, Farouk and Amma) who're about to leave, it gives you the chance to get hold of material - if you ever need it/want it/even care - once you've left college, and more importantly to stay in touch!

It's here and I've posted various reviews of the McWhorter book on it. But just in case the website isn't quite ready, here's a review of McWhorter's book from an African-American conservative:

There was a time not long ago when an elaborate command of the English language was considered part of the fabric of American culture. In 1863 orator Edward Everett kept a crowd at Gettysburg hanging onto his every word during his three-hour speech. Three hours? Yes, because he was an excellent orator in a time when American society valued excellent orators. Even during the first half of the 20th century, a command of spoken and written English on a level that would confound many of today's college students was required by the time one finished the eighth grade. Besides that, it was the social norm; ain't so anymore.

In Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, John McWhorter examines this decline in the use of high-fallutin' English in contemporary America. He shows how people were once taught from grade school (whether or not they went on for higher education) to always put the English language in its Sunday best. W.E.B. Du Bois stands out in particular. Du Bois's first assignment in a composition class at Harvard in 1890 was to write about himself. This is what he wrote:

For the usual purposes of identification I have been labeled in this life: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on the day after Washington's birthday, in 1868. I shall room during the present twelve-month at number twenty Flagg Street, Cambridge. As to who I really am, I am much in doubt, and can consequently give little reliable information from casual hints and observations. I doubt not that there are many who could supply better data than the writer. In the midst then of personal uncertainty I can only supply a few alleged facts from memory according to the usual way.

And if that's not enough, he finishes with this closing linguistic zinger:

I have something to say to the world and I have taken English twelve in order to say it well.

This example speaks volumes about the cultural currency that a high command of English possessed back then, and which no longer exists. Can you imagine anyone writing or speaking like this today and not be viewed as pretentious, arrogant or just plain uppity? What happened to cause American society to no longer value such an elevated command of our language?

In the 1960's, McWhorter argues, the Americans who scorned the American Establishment as oppressive and constricting also began to view the highly stylized English of earlier generations as old-fashioned and morally suspect - hence the linguistic shift from the formal to the informal. Americans of an earlier time went out of their way to write and speak good English, and the gap between written and spoken English was wide. McWhorter says all this changed around 1965. Now, we just talk - and we write how we talk. Using dressed-up English is just so "old school." This counter-cultural revolution is also reflected in poetry, music and journalism. Furthermore, the author points out that this phenomenon is uniquely American: we simply do not love our own language today like other countries love theirs (most notably France).

What new American dialect, then, best embodies this new linguistic counter-cultural paradigm? Why, Black English, of course. McWhorter points out how since the 1960's Americans of all stripes have incorporated Black English and its accompanying body language and vocal cadence into this counter-cultural toolkit. By no means criticizing Black English, he devotes considerable space in chapter five analyzing the cultural meaning of the 1970's funk music hit "Play That Funky Music, White Boy." For the P.C. crowd, try to tell a white guy to "Perform with spiritual dedication the bewitchingly vernacular songs familiar to us, young Caucasian male," and see how far that gets you.

Although the author points out that all world languages evolve, and thus the natural evolution of language in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, he also notes some important drawbacks to the modern-day tendency to "dress down" English. This can be seen particularly in the modern education establishment, where the emphasis on the formal language acquisition of earlier generations has been all but tossed out the window. While this does not bode well for anyone, it is particularly damaging to black and immigrant schoolchildren.

McWhorter covers a lot of ground in Doing Our Own Thing, giving the reader plenty to chew on. The result is a fascinating look into how the 1960's transformed American society from one that spoke the language and held it in high esteem to one in which people just talk. Regrettably, it looks as if this trend towards linguistic informality (some would call it pure laziness) will continue.

Review by: Dutch Martin

Good luck in tomorrow's exam and I'll see you in the ENA6 one next week.

The long decline of our once great language

With ENA5 coming up (tomorrow- yikes) I thought I'd better look at Language Change and attitudes towards it. And where better to look than the mighty Language Legend blog by Julie Blake?

In the latest posting, she draws attention to the furore over the views of linguist Kate Burridge who has argued that the possessive apostrophe (and various other rules of English she sees as confusing or nonsensical) should be dropped. Burridge has received a hostile reception from prescriptivists (with many posing her as the antithesis of Lynne Truss and her Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and some even suggesting she's pretty much the anti-christ personified).

So what's the problem? Is our once great language now in a state of permanent decline (rather like Jean Aitchison's "crumbling castle" model), where even linguists - dammit! - can tell us not to speak proper-like? Or is this just a rather hysterical over-reaction by pedants and "language mavens" (as Steven Pinker calls them in his Language Instinct) which reflects their insecurities about the challenging and ever-changing linguistic landscape? And anyway, what's a bloody Australian doing, telling us how to use our language, mate?

Well, as you might expect from a descriptivist, I'd argue that Burridge is mostly spot on with her observations. But it's not for me to decide and you're the ones who're taking the exam, so have a look at this link and see what you make of it all.

But on the other hand what would the contracted form of "who are", as used in the paragraph above, look like without an apostrophe? Oo-er...

Thursday, June 09, 2005

I should of lerned my grammer

A long article in today's Independent presents the dilemma facing English teachers today: how do you teach pupils grammar when you haven't been formally taught it yourself?

As the article explains, the English teaching of the 1970s and 1980s tended to focus on getting students to express themselves creatively rather than in accurate grammatical constructions. Now this generation of pupils has become the current generation of teachers and, with the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy, more formal grammar teaching is required from the early primary years onwards. But if the teachers don't know it themselves, how are they supposed to teach it?

It's an interesting article and one that offers some intelligent reasons as to why grammar is so important. If you're looking for ways to approach the ENA6 unit on Language Debates, you could do worse than read this article alongside some of the material you've been given on Eats, Shoots & Leaves or Jean Aitchison's Language Web.

The article follows below, as The Independent tends to charge you to look at archived articles:

Grammatically incorrect

Almost 40 per cent of 11-year-olds fail to reach the writing standards set by secondary schools. Is it any wonder, when many teachers would struggle too?

By Steve McCormack
09 June 2005

How many times have we heard people ask why teachers don't teach our children grammar and punctuation any more? The answer may be as simple as it is shocking. They don't teach it because they don't understand it themselves. Put less sensationally, a substantial chunk of school teachers have such a shaky grasp of basic grammar that, at best, they fail to notice and correct their pupils' mistakes, and at worst they pass on their misconceptions. The most frequent way this comes to the surface is when teachers write reports. Most schools have had to put in place an elaborate checking and approval system, to try to ensure that the worst howlers do not get sent home. This sucks in hours of time, and often causes upset, when well-meaning teachers have to be told their reports are littered with mistakes.

We are not here concerned with esoteric points, such as subordinate clauses, hanging participles and the misuse of the subjunctive. The level of incompetence is more fundamental.

Here are a few examples of glaring errors spotted in reports about to be put into envelopes at a big comprehensive just outside London this week:

"Sarah should of revised more thoroughly for her end of unit test."
"Your very capable of doing well in this subject."
"Try and practise the keyboard regularly."

Misunderstanding of the humble apostrophe has also taken hold within the teaching population. Among numerous errors in the same set of reports were these two familiar transgressions:
"Katys written work is generally of a good standard."
"All pupil's should make sure they revise properly for the exams."

At another school I know, there's even a prominent apostrophe offence pinned up for all to see on the staff-room wall. "Student's on Report," it announces in large characters. Sadly, though, there are scores of students' names on the attached list.

We shouldn't really be surprised by this, as many of today's teachers have been produced by an education system that still does not seem to value the ability to write grammatically particularly highly.

The former Ofsted chief inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson last year called for an urgent review into GCSE and A-level marking, saying he found it "difficult to defend" the current practice where marks are not deducted for poor spelling and grammar. This followed wails of anguish from senior markers working for the OCR exam board after sloppy grammar and punctuation cropped up on large numbers of last summer's exam papers. Common mistakes in history A-level papers, for example, included the misuse of capital letters, confusion between "where" and "were" and "would of" instead of "would have".

It is no surprise then, either, that universities are complaining at the poor writing skills exhibited by undergraduates starting out on degrees.

And, further down the system, despite apparent improvements in overall literacy among children about to finish primary school, scores for the writing element of national tests continue to disappoint. Last year 37 per cent of 11-year-olds failed to achieve the level of writing competence judged to be necessary to start the secondary school curriculum. Taking boys alone, the figure is a staggering 44 per cent.

This is the background to English 21, the ongoing consultation exercise into English teaching run by the national curriculum body, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

Steering the process is the QCA's head of English, Sue Horner, who expects to receive a big postbag dealing with the basics. "I expect, over grammar, there to be a spectrum of views on what children should know, what we should teach and how we should teach it," she explains.

But you do not sense that there are any alarm bells ringing at the QCA over the current state of affairs. Perhaps this is because, to encourage blue-skies thinking, Horner declines, at the moment, to ally herself to any absolute, non-negotiable, positions.

One of the starting points for English 21, for example, is the question: Will reading and writing still be viewed as essential basic skills in 2015? "Some people may say we don't think you should be teaching grammar and punctuation at all," she observes, while hinting, however, that this is unlikely to be an approach she favours herself.

A further strand of the debate will centre on what some see as the competing priorities of creativity and grammatical accuracy. Helping to discuss that question, at seminars and workshops that are part of the English 21 process, have been some of Britain's most celebrated and successful creative writers, including the poet laureate, Andrew Motion. In contrast to the QCA's relatively open mind, Motion believes there are some sacred, untouchable principles. "A grasp of grammar is absolutely essential," he states without qualification, while emphasising the link between this stance and his desire to help children be creative with words. He rejects absolutely the idea that insisting on grammar and punctuation stands in the way of children expressing themselves. "You can only really break the rules in an interesting way in creative writing if you know what the rules are in the first place."

While the stereotypical trendy English teacher of the 1970s and 1980s, who promoted free expression at all costs, has now become a figure of widespread ridicule inside and outside the educational establishment, Motion suspects some renegades remain. These teachers, from what he calls the "let it all hang out" school, are doing students a disservice, he insists.

Julia Strong, now the deputy director of the National Literacy Trust, an independent charity working to improve all-round literacy, taught English in schools for two decades, and remembers working alongside some colleagues who didn't seem to know much grammar. But, while conceding the damage that that attitude did, and the continued existence of older teenagers and university students handicapped by a poor grasp of basic grammar, she believes a sea-change is under way.

She is referring to the introduction, in 1998, of the national literacy strategy, designed to help teachers bring their pupils up to the standards set down in the national curriculum, brought in a few years before. "I think over the last few years, grammar has begun to be much more strictly taught," she maintains. "But I think it's still going to take some time to work through."

She points to national curriculum requirements that pupils are taught to master the nuts and bolts of writing. On leaving primary school for instance, they should know how to use full stops, commas and apostrophes. And there are now, she argues, superb materials to help people teach them. "I believe that there is a lot of good stuff out there, and that, over time, grammatical weaknesses will all but disappear."

The increased prominence accorded to punctuation and grammar in most schools is undisputed. Internet discussion-sites for English teachers frequently feature requests from individuals struggling to find successful ways of teaching these elements, and comparing notes on books and other teaching resources.

But, if there is a strong trend pointing to a generation of children who can write correctly working its way through the system, it remains difficult to pin down. One secondary English teacher, from a comprehensive in Bradford, observes that, although the national literacy strategy has definitely helped teachers, average writing skills among pupils remain poor. Even the improvements in overall literacy results among 11-year-olds are suspect, she argues.
"I know a lot of primary teachers, and the problem is their teaching is all geared to getting pupils through the national curriculum tests," she says. "But this does not transfer to writing skills. Kids can understand, but can't produce proper sentence structure and punctuation on paper."

Support for this argument comes from Dr Sue Beverton, who teaches trainee primary teachers at Durham University. Her research into how children learn concluded that formal grammar lessons in the national literacy strategy are not proven as a way to teach writing.

So the English 21 exercise is entering controversial territory. And the need for solutions is urgent. An admissions tutor at one of the country's leading teacher training colleges confirmed this week that numerous applications crossing his desk from would-be teachers are still littered with errors. And surely, any remedy for the nation's children must start with a teaching workforce that is itself literate.

Why grammar matters

Bad punctuation can sometimes be a mere irritant, offensive only to purists, but it can also often lead to confusion and miscommunication. Below are some examples. They are three pairs of sentences, differing only in one small detail of punctuation, but with radically different meanings.

"He spent all his sister's money," or "he spent all his sisters' money" (How many sisters had money spent?)

"Injured, and abandoned by his comrades, the soldier struggled back to base alone," or "injured and abandoned by his comrades, the soldier struggled back to base alone." (Did the comrades injure the soldier?)

"The teacher rewarded all the students who wore smart uniforms," or "the teacher rewarded all the students, who wore smart uniforms." (Which students, exactly, were rewarded, and who wore smart uniforms?)

Squeaky bum time

No, not the feeling you get as you watch the days roll by, nervously waiting for your A2 exams, but the expression coined by Sir Alex of Ferguson (manager of some little-known, unsuccessful, Lancashire team, I hear) to describe the run-in to the title race in the season before last.

It's that time again when writers for national newspapers catch up on the latest new words. And the reason? Collins English Dictionary send them a nice press release about their latest edition, so lazy journalists can cobble together an easy story on "chavs", "neds" and "ASBOs".

More usefully for students of English Language, we get to take a look at the attitudes of the media towards these "new" words (I mean, "chav" is soooo 2004) and how these words are seen to reflect the nature of our society.

So, here is a Daily Mirror article which views the introduction of words like those mentioned above as a reflection of Briatin's burgeoning yob culture, while here's a BBC article which includes the more positive outlook that these new words "...portray a vibrant, multicultural society finding new ways to express itself and describe the world around it".

Useful for:
ENA5 Language Change (esp. essay question on Contemporary Language Change)
ENA1 Language and Representation (esp. linguistic reflectionism)
ENA6 Language Debates (attitudes towards language change, debates about language and society)

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

If you need help

In case anyone needs help with A2 work, both Mrs Rana and I are out at exam board meetings this week. I'll be back in college Wednesday and Mrs R will be back on Thursday.

You can email me on the usual address if you want to send work.

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...