Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Multicultural Language Hybrids

It's not just English that absorbs linguistic influences from other cultures and languages. What's happening with German seems to reflect patterns that have been noted in English over the last 20-30 years, where German teens are picking up vocabulary items from Turkish in areas where there is a significant Turkish population and mixing goes on between different ethnic groups. In this report about a study from Pottsdam University, the suggestion is that it's mostly lexical features - a few words - that are picked up by German youths.

So is this similar to Multicultural London English, with a new hybrid language emerging? Or is it more like London (and maybe Birmingham and Liverpool too) in the 1980s when it was more a case of "crossing"? I suspect it's the latter, as there doesn't seem to be quite the same range of lexical, phonological and grammatical features that we see in the research of Paul Kerswill, Sue Fox and Jenny Cheshire into MLE (as seen being explained by Paul Kerswill here in a TED lecture).

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Click here

We've recently been covering children's acquisition of the sounds of English in AS classes, and I made a passing reference to how very young children can make any sound in any language (like the clicks of Xhosa in South Africa) but gradually tune in to their mother tongue as they grow older.

This fascinating post by Julie Sedivy in Discover magazine tells us a lot more about Xhosa and its clicks but also makes a number of interesting points about how we perceive sounds. Sedivy points out that to an outsider, the clicks of Xhosa sound "a bit like highly-skilled beatboxing, mixing recognizeable speech with what sounds like the clacking of objects striking each other". Of course, to a Xhosa speaker, the sounds are as familiar as t,s, and d are to English speakers.

In terms of children's acquisition of sounds, the article raises some good points to consider. We often treat the phonological part of a child's language development as mostly to do with the production of sounds and patterns of "errors" in those sounds (deletion, consonant cluster reduction, deletion of unstressed syllables, for example), at least I know I do when I teach it. But what about how we hear sounds as children and how we process those sounds and create a mental representation of what they mean?

Sedivy tells us that "your brain cares as much about how sounds function in a language than about their actual physical properties, so the same acoustic input can be interpreted very differently by the brain depending on its role in a language", so when toddlers are listening to speech all around them, they're not just parroting or imitating it, but making sense of how sounds are used, where they appear and what they might mean. It's as much to do with fathoming out meanings as it is to do with trying to replicate the production of the sound.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mandarin, language of the future?

Well, probably not, if this BBC article is anything to go by. We're moving on to look at World Englishes soon, so this is a timely reminder of some of the reasons why English is spoken so widely around the world and how it has achieved such success.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Toddler talk

Yesterday's Telegraph featured an article about recent research by Leslie Rescorla into children's acquisition of vocabulary in the early years. Rescorla may be familiar to some A level English Language students for her work on acquisition of lexis and semantics and the different categories of over-extension that some children make.

The article takes a look at some of the recent ideas about a child's language environment and how the language used around a child might influence their vocabulary and understanding. It also includes a checklist of some simple words that most children would be using by the time they're 2 years of age.

The 15-year project followed 40 children from privileged backgrounds who were diagnosed as late talkers but were otherwise developing normally.
While most of the children had caught up and developed an average range of vocabulary by four or five they remained slightly behind peers from the same background in vocabulary, grammar and reading throughout their school years, suggesting that their late development of speech had put them at a disadvantage.
The word test devised by Prof Rescorla can be completed in ten minutes and doctors can tell at a glance whether a child's speaking ability is poor for their age.

Personally, I think it discriminates against yokels from Norfolk who would not know many of these, but would probably be able to label several types of tractor.

"Sheffieldish" and more on slang bans

Here's a link to a Sheffield Telegraph article on the recent "slang ban". I would have added it to the last post, but my access to the blog is a bit limited from college.

Friday, February 17, 2012

"This is where moral relativism leads us."

Terence Blacker of The Independent wades unhelpfully into the slang ban row, blaming negative reactions to the proposed "ban" (which didn't really seem to be a ban in the first place) on "moral relativism".

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Sun says

Last night's 10 O'Clock Live show has a really excellent Charlie Brooker poem/polemic (poemic?) about The Sun newspaper, followed by discussion about the language the paper uses. So it's tragic tot, lewd sex act, troubled songbird, trousering the cash, claimed and boasted rather than said, and many others.

They don't do any linguistic analysis on the words themselves, but that's a job for A level students rather than comedians, and there's got to be a language investigation in there somewhere.

You can see it here via 4OD and The Sun section begins at about 5 minutes into the show.

Playground prescriptivism?

A story doing the rounds yesterday suggested that a school in Sheffield was attempting to prevent its students from using slang. It was covered in the local Sheffield Star here, with a reference to one of Sheffield's most famous exports, Sean Bean (aka Boromir , Ned Stark and Sharpe) and in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Guardian.

Like many other arguments about language use, this one has become a bit muddied. In this case, the original story about the school - Sheffield Springs Academy - seemed to focus on slang (which might de defined as a type of extremely informal language used by specific groups of people) and a desire on behalf of the school to show its students that different styles of language suit different situations (what linguists often call the notion of appropriacy). However, the reporting of the story also refers to dialect being banned and regional pronunciations being frowned upon, and that's before you chuck in text speak too.

So what is actually happening here and can schools really control what their students say? The story is very similar to one we featured on this blog a few years ago about a school in Manchester which had banned street slang from its classrooms (covered here and in the Radio 4 programme Mind Your Slanguage which featured interviews with some SFX students) so it's perhaps not a big surprise to find that the head of the academy sponsors behind the Sheffield Springs Academy is the woman who was head teacher at the Manchester Academy when it introduced its ban, none other than Kathy August.

Her argument makes some sort of sense and goes something like this, according to the Telegraph report:

What we want to make sure of is that they are confident in using standard English. Slang doesn't really give the right impression of the person.

Youngsters going to interviews for their first job need to make a good impression so that employers have confidence in them. It's not difficult to get youngster out of the habit of using slang.

Mrs August said it was preferable for pupils to say "thank you" instead of the more colloquial "ta", and "goodbye" rather than "see ya".

The trust said its policy on slang was part of its "street stops at the gate" ethos.

It also asks sixth formers to dress in suits rather than school uniform to encourage professionalism.

Mrs August added: "It is about knowing what language is acceptable between friends and what is required in more formal situations.

We want to give each of our students the best start possible; understanding when it is and is not acceptable to use slang or colloquial language is just one part of this. 
So, according to August, it's all about reinforcing the students' grasp of Standard English and code-switching. The problem is - as several of the reports show - who defines what slang and regional dialect are? The references from parents in the Sheffield Star to teachers disliking regional accents and local dialect terms, and the strange notion brought up by August in the Mail's version of the story that "...when youngsters are talking together they use text speak..."(like B4,H8 and BTW? I doubt it...) suggest that there's much confusion over what actually constitutes slang.

This isn't a new confusion, and it's one that the linguist, Paul Kerswill noted in his response to a report on non-standard English in schools.The problem is that if all non-standard forms of English are lumped together there's a risk that the debate itself loses its focus. Are we talking about text speak in spoken conversations? Really? Or are we talking about the ways in which people from Sheffield might say about and right differently to those in the south? If it's slang then there might be a good argument for explaining how it is viewed or understood (or not) outside particular social groups, but there's also a decent argument put forward by Christopher Howse in today's Telegraph (albeit in his usual verbose style) that language play should be encouraged at school and that slang can be part of that.

No one is really going to argue that students don't need Standard English, but is their grasp of it so shaky that they should be encouraged not to use any other varieties of English that might interfere with the standard form? Is it really that bad? Obviously, the Daily Mail might want us to think it is, because that supports their reactionary, declinist agenda - English is in tatters thanks to immigrants, teachers who don't wear ties and Brussels bureaucrats - a classic "crumbling castle" argument. But are young people so vulnerable to the pernicious influence of non-standard forms that they should be protected from them at school?

What do you think? Comments (in Standard English, please - no text speak or ghetto grammar) are welcome.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

New approaches to child language acquisition
This probably isn't a link to follow if you're still struggling with the basics of child language on your A level course, but it's a really fascinating way of looking at how languages are acquired that offers a challenge to the Chomskyan model of a language acquisition device that's specifically designed to process the rules of grammar.

Construction grammar is a relatively new field of linguistics to me and one I can't claim to fully grasp as yet, but in this blog post, the expert grammarian and ELT specialist, Scott Thornbury takes a look at how construction grammar might be applied to language acquisition.

Instead of looking at language as words and rules (lexis and grammar) as we often do when looking at stages of acquisition and how children move from one word to two words to telegraphic talk, and the rest of it, construction grammar offers a model in which children pick up chunks of language from those they hear around them. It's not a simple parroting of input, as per Skinner's behaviourist model, but a more subtle processing of meaningful units of language that they hear around them.

As Thornbury explains here, language learners are not just picking up words from around them like leaves and sticking them back onto a pre-programmed grammar tree:

Rather than mapping individual words on to a pre-specified grammatical ‘architecture’ (as in a Chomskyan, generative grammar view), speakers construct utterances out of these routinised sequences – the operative word being construct.

It's therefore an active process, one which involves putting together chunks of meaning rather than piecing together individual units and linking them by grammar rules to other bits.  Where this differs markedly from Chomsky's model is that he sees a child's language environment as linguistically impoverished: this is the poverty of the stimulus argument in which a child can't be simply taking in language data from around them and regurgitating it because what they hear is so fragmented and often apparently ungrammatical. Construction grammar offers a different approach which seems to be arguing that a child can make much more sense of this language input and that by hearing enough language they tune in to the patterns that emerge and can start to spot the most frequent structures, using them in their own language soon after.

Thornbury points to the fact that so many of English's phrase and clause structures are repeated patterns, where if you know the first part you can have an educated guess at what the second part will consist of. He points to structures such as:

  • take the [noun] for a [noun] (e.g. take the dog for a walk, take the cure for an illness, etc.)
  • [prep] the [sing N] of the [sing N] (e.g. on the top of the mountain, in the middle of the night, on the tip of the tongue)
So, perhaps what young children acquiring language hear around them isn't quite the jumbled mess of  random noises and unfinished structures that the poverty of the stimulus argument posits, but a rather regular system that can be picked up more quickly than previously thought.

Monday, February 06, 2012

People first and PC

This link on the excellent Linguistics Research Digest blog takes a look at the "people first" movement in Politically Correct (PC) language reform, which (as Jenny Amos explains) involved a switch in the type of noun phrase being used to label social groups, from pre-modified noun phrases to post-modified noun phrases. Pre-to-the-what-now?

It's quite a simple idea. If you look at a noun phrase such as disabled people, the adjective disabled premodifies the noun people. The people first approach would be to shift the noun to the front and add the modification afterwards in the form of a prepositional phrase, so it becomes people with disabilities. The argument here was that the former version placed emphasis on the condition - and by extension defined the people by their disability - while the latter foregrounded the people themselves, with the disability coming after.Jenny Amos's blog post then looks at some interesting research by Helena Halmari into the use of such terms in news reporting.

PC is clearly about more than just rearranging words; it's primarily about rearranging ways of thinking about different groups in society, and specifically it's about removing offensive and derogatory words from the language. The arguments about PC were recently surveyed in an interesting Observer article by Miranda Sawyer, where she looked at some of the background to the PC movement and its more modern manifestations: Twitter spats, rape "jokes" and the bandying around of terms like mong and sket "for a laugh". If you're looking for material to bolster your ENGA3 Language Discourses understanding, go no further.

Last few tickets...

There are a few more tickets available today for the excellent emagazine English Language conference in March. If you haven't already booked , then phone (020 7359 8080) or email the EMC today to get some reserved.

Click here for more details of the conference.

Child Language research updates and summaries

We've started Language Development in my AS classes and - snow permitting - will carry on with it this week and up to Easter.

Here are some useful links to clips of TV programmes, You Tube presentations and research  papers that should complement your class work on the topic.

One of the most handy links is this You Tube presentation (powerpoint plus handy voiceover) outlining the key arguments about child language.

Then you'll find the impressively-mustachioed Robert Winston presenting this short extract from his series, The Human Body a good intro to the main developmental stages of child language acquisition. 

The Horizon documentary Why Do We Talk which we watched in class a week or two back is split into five separate You Tube clips which can be found here.

Did you shed a little tear at the plight of the lickle baby Zebra Finches? I did, but I weep when I hear Black Eyed Peas lyrics, so ignore me. If you want to find out more about the impressively-consonanted OferTchernichovski and his work on the fluffy birds, have a look here. Or here.

If you're ready for some hard stuff, then go to these clips from the big daddy of language acquisition, the living man-god that is Noam Chomsky. In this clip he talks about his theories of language acqusition (Universal Grammar and the Language Acquisition Device) while in this one (only for the hardcore ravers, it has to be said) he talks in more detail about how his ideas on UG have changed.

I've just found this Patricia Kuhl lecture about the critical period hypothesis on TED, which is a very clear explanation about what goes on in the first year of a child's language development.

If all of that is too much for you (or you are from Ipswich and struggle with anything beyond grunts) then check out this clip of cute twins talking to each other.

Edited to add Kuhl lecture link on 09.02.12

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Not loving "love"

There's a piece in The Sun from last week taking a look at Brighton and Hove Council's decision to "ban" sexist terms of address on public transport. Given that Brighton has a Green Party-led council whose politics are progressive and anti-sexist, I'd be a bit sceptical of The Sun's position on this - its track record for inventing tales of "loony left" attacks on free speech  in the 1980s was pretty disgraceful - so I'd advise a bit of research into this before assuming it's all true.

The Daily Mail covers it here in a slightly different, PC Gone Mad, way here.

Whatever the whys and wherefores of this though, it at least gives The Sun a chance to look at regional dialect and how terms of endearment vary from place to place, which has got to be of use to A2 AQA A spec students looking at Language Variation.

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...