Thursday, June 30, 2011

Language investigation ideas: I am so liking "like"

Seeing as thousands of English Language students are currently being told to come up with great ideas for next year's investigation coursework, I thought I'd offer a series of occasional posts that might help kick start a few projects.

First of all, here's an interesting piece by Mark Liberman on Language Log about how he went about investigating the use of like in spoken language. He was inspired to look at like because of a post by Erin Gloria Ryan entitled My Love Affair With "Like" in which she speculated about how like is used differently depending on age and gender factors.

What could you do with like for an ENGA4/ENGB4 investigation? Well, it's worth thinking about what you'd like to achieve with an investigation like this. Liberman uses a corpus (basically, a database of language) to test out the hypothesis that young women use the discourse-particle like more than men, and he makes this clear from the outset. What he also establishes is that he's not looking at any old mention of like -  but a specific function of the word, and this is good advice for anyone about to set up an investigation. So, he's set a research question/ hypothesis and established a clear focus for his investigation.

Another key piece of advice is to approach the investigation with an open mind, and this is what he does: not trying to make his findings fit any preconceived pattern but to see if his original hypothesis was actually right. He says:

... there's no evidence that women insert non-traditional like into their conversation more often than men do. There may be specific syntactic or pragmatic contexts where this is true; there may be effects in some registers and not others. But so far, I'm inclined to think that this is one of those cases where congruence with pre-existing stereotypes (here that women are less assertive) leads to post-hoc rationalization and confirmation bias.

Interestingly, he puts forward suggestions here about why there might be a perception that women use like more, and that in turn opens up other areas of investigation. Are women generally seen as more tentative and therefore assumed to use markers of tentativeness more frequently? Are women less assertive in some conversational situations? Are women using a "double voice discourse" (as Judith Baxter suggests) and shying away from confrontational language because of how they will be perceived by men? There are loads of other questions linked to this that would be really fascinating to pursue.

But bringing this back to A level projects, what could you do with something like this?

Perhaps there's a feature of language that you've noticed being used by one group of people and not another. Maybe it's like, innit, awesome, gay, standard or mans and you want to find out more about its usage. You could go to a database of language as Liberman does, set your search terms and get looking, or you could gather your own data and see if there is a pattern.

Recording your own data creates its own issues - most of them easily addressed, if you plan ahead well enough - but it is a great way of getting hold of new material and adding to the store of language data that we can all learn from.

So, over to you: what areas would be potentially interesting to explore?

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