Sunday, January 27, 2013

Vive la resistance

Not for the first time, the French Academy has taken a stand to prevent more English words entering their language. This time, the word is hashtag, which as we have seen from the posts about 2012's Word of the Year, has become a nearly ubiquitous term in lots of online discourse, and even in spoken language too. According to the Academy, the term should, wherever possible, be replaced with the French term mot-diese.

In the Daily Mail, the story is reported with a degree of relish, but look at the comments below and you get an even better sense of how, for many people, ideas about the English language are linked inextricably to a sense of national identity and history.  But among all the celebration that the old enemy, Johnny French, is losing the language battle, there's a realisation even among some of the more rabidly nationalistic Mail readers that while English is spreading around the world, it's not necessarily the same English that's been used in the UK in the past.

As we've looked at here - and as David Crystal, key speaker at next month's emagazine English Language conference, has commented upon many times before - English is changing as it spreads, but also growing differently in different parts of the world. The model is not necessarily one of English getting weaker as it spreads, but separate poles of English varieties growing and evolving in their own distinct ways.

That's probably not much comfort to the French who won't really care if it's English English, American English or Indian English "threatening" their language, but it's part of a bigger global picture of change and variation that is evolving all the time.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The phono-morph war

A report about research from Portsmouth University in the Southern Daily Echo suggests that a new approach to literacy teaching, which involves teaching about the structures and meanings of words (morphology) is more effective than the sound system based teaching of phonics that has been promoted over the last decade.

With a morphological approach, children are taught about the units that make up words (like we've been doing in Child Language recently with morphemes like -s, -ed, -ing , -er, -ist and -est):

Dr Victoria Devonshire, of the Department of Psychology, trialled a new method of teaching reading and writing with 120 children aged five to seven and found the average reading age increased by 14 months after just six months. She said: ''We were surprised at how compelling the results were.
''When children were taught to understand why English works the way it does, we saw a leap in their ability to learn to read and write.

''The written word is about conveying meaning, not the sound of speech. Expecting children to just figure out the rules of our language is worryingly common and it isn't helping them become as proficient and confident as young children in many other languages.'' 

Phonics has been promoted by successive governments as a  means of rapidly improving children's ability to decode the sounds of English, but it's come in for some stick because - as we can all see with words like plough, through and cough - the spelling system in English isn't regular or even very logical. The introduction of phonics testing at Key Stage 1, where nonsense words like wib or vog (or even our old favourite, wug) are given to children to read has provoked yet more concern among many literacy experts, because - they argue - it's articifial and pointless to give children made-up words out of context when readign is not just about individual sounds or words, but about making sense of words and sounds in their specific contexts.

The fact that some people who are quite close to government advisors are set to make a few quid out of phonics schemes is also a cause for scepticism among critics of the phonics-or-bust approach, but plenty of research suggests that phonics can help some children; the argument is not really about if it does but how and why and also in which contexts.

So, what about teaching morphology as this research suggests? It's not necessarily a new approach; back in 2006, Terezinha Nunes and Peter Bryant published Improving Literacy by Teaching Morphemes, which looked at work done in schools to promote the study of morphology as a means of improving spelling and reading. What Victoria Devonshire is doing sounds really interesting and it sounds like it will add another dimension to literacy teaching. Hopefully, there'll be more information about this approach to come out.

Are you a QUILTBAG?

Labels for different social groups are a shorthand way of defining people and we use a lot of them in our language. Recently, we've looked at terms like handicapped, the handicapped, disabled, people with disabilities and wheelchair users as part of our work on ENGA3 Language Change, but on the Johnson blog they take a look at some of the rapidly evolving acronyms and initialisms for groups defined by their sexuality.

So, we have LGB (Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual) and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual and Transgendered) but in the past the labels weren't quite so neutral. Gay has had a fascinating history as a word, and queer has been reclaimed to some extent, but read more of the piece in Johnson to see where we're going now and what a QUILTBAG is...

For a full set of LGBTQIA (and more) terms, have a look here. A term that's fairly new to me, but seems to have been knocking around for a while, is cisgender (explained, I think, here). The recent media firestorm about Julie Burchill's 'transphobic' article in the Observer (removed from the Observer site but reprinted here) brought this term to my attention and it's another example of how language and identity are closely linked, and the ways in which language can be used to hurt others.

More child language

This week's The Life Scientific on Radio 4 featured an interview with Annette Karmiloff-Smith, who is an expert in children's development. There's some good content here for anyone wanting to look at interaction and language development, as she talks about how exposure to different kinds of language - speech from parents, TV, internet language - shapes children's early development.

The podcast can be found here.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Child Language resources

As we're now well under way with the Language Development topic for ENGA1, this link from Jill on the English language List is well timed.

It's the Talking Point website which has masses of material for parents and teachers about children's language development, including a handy set of ages and stages, where you can check what is normally happening in a child's language development at various ages. There's also some useful material on language impairments and the communicative development of children with learning difficulties, which can be really useful for A2 language investigations.

This week's Word of Mouth on Radio 4 had a really good segment on autism and language, which focused not just on the language development of young people with autism but the language used by carers towards people with autism.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Skivers and strivers, workers and shirkers: why words matter

In a cracking Guardian article today, Zoe Williams takes a critical look at the new language used to split the haves and the have-nots. With this week's vote on limiting benefit increases affecting millions of people - many of them/us actually in work - it's clear that to successfully turn one part of society against the other, you need to win the language war first.

As Williams explains, the false dichotomy created by labelling one group as strivers - working hard, supporting themselves, not relying on benefits - and another group as skivers - not working, sponging benefit taxpayers' money to pay for a feckless lifestyle on a council estate - has rapidly been established and spread into our own language and thinking. But why?

Don't tell me it is because it rhymes. It will destroy my faith in humanity, and that's exactly what they want. But the point is not that politicians spout it, nor that people who haven't given it any thought believe it. The point is that it has seeped so far, so fast, into the national consciousness as a meaningful idea that the very people vilified by it – the people who know they are unemployed by circumstance and not by choice – feel their lives judged against its fictional benchmarks.

So, while Iain Duncan-Smith (a man who recently claimed that £70 a week was too much for Job Seekers' Allowance but allegedly put in a £39 bill for a single breakfast, charged to the taxpayer) is busy chipping away at what already impoverished people can get in support, he must be happy that there are massive misconceptions among the public about how much of the government's budget goes into social security payments or how much those payments actually amount to and that people are so easily convinced that they are shirkers while we are workers. Williams goes on to argue that the shift in language - especially the move from the positive connotations of social security to welfare - has coincided with a shift in attitudes:

People sometimes ascribe this adoption of "welfare" as an Americanism, designed to convey some of the US's sneering synecdoche where the name of the government support becomes shorthand for the person being supported. I think it's also an attempt to dehumanise people on state benefits – we never used to talk about welfare in terms of humans, but the word has been in everyday UK usage, for as long as I can remember, to describe animals. To be in receipt of state benefits thus tacitly becomes a passive, piteous, dumb thing to do. You don't necessarily begrudge the animals their welfare, but you wouldn't mistake yourself for one of them.

It's exactly the kind of language technique we've looked at on the AS level course, using animalistic imagery to describe young people as feral or hunting in packs. Once you demonise the group you're attacking through language, it makes it easier, not only for the dominant group to carry out more attacks, but for others to sympathise with the attacks and align themselves with the persecutors rather than the victims, even if they themselves are probably next in the government's firing line.

This is the kind of language that the linguist Norman Fairclough highlights in his Critical Discourse Analysis approach to language study. If we don't analyse and challenge language choices, we get sucked in by them and end up accepting such false dichotomies, such intrinsically unfair outlooks, and even end up recycling it ourselves. With critical language analysis, however, we can start to pull apart those choices, highlight the ideologies that lie behind them and make our own educated choices about what we think or feel.

That's how language matters and why we need to analyse it.


Sorry for taking such a long break from blogging over Christmas and New Year; this was partly down to lots of work and partly down to a bad case of man flu (not wine flu, which is one of the Australian Macquarie Dictionary's nominations for Word of the Year 2012).

Many recent language stories have picked up on the end of year new word round-ups and votes, so you can find a summary of recently fashionable English words in this Observer piece by Rafael Behr (HT to Jon Dolton for the link) which includes some from popular culture and some from wider social changes. So, we get X Factor's Nicole's shamazing (jahmazing, more likely, given it was invented for Jahmene), the song that had uncles dancing badly everywhere, Gangnam Style, Tory incompetence (rather than their usual malevolence) with Omnishambles, and the big winner this year, Hashtag, becoming not just a ubiquitous octothorpe (#) but a real, spoken expression (just like guest blogger Emma Bertouche said on this blog back in 2011). Fearne Cotton off of that there Radio 1 even slotted "Hashtag Biffy Clyro" into one of her pre-Christmas shows, as a reference to the angular-haired Scottish riff-makers. While it's clearly become accepted as a new way of making reference to something in speech, it still made me choke on my cornflakes and SCOMK (Spit Coffee on My Keyboard).

Hashtag was the winner in the American Dialect Society WOTY 2012 poll. You can read more about the nominations and winners in this pdf, but their choice of hashtag has been celebrated and discussed further here and questioned here.

Meanwhile, the Australian Macquarie Dictionary has its poll still running and there are some crackers on there, including the aforementioned wine flu, and  dramality.

What were your winning words of 2012 and which bugged you the most? Personally amazeballs tickled my fancy, but reem irritated me in ways that I can't really explain. Also, what are your predictions for 2013?

Grammar for teachers (and students)

Michael Rosen - poet, socialist, writer of the mighty Bear Hunt and all-round good guy - has been adding some new material to his blog recently, posting material aimed at Key Stage 2 teachers who are worried about their own grammar knowledge, in the run-up to the new KS2 grammar tests. This is something I'm particularly interested in , both as a father of twin boys who are going to sit the test in May this year and a sad grammar nerd, but I think it has relevance to A level students too.

Grammar teaching has had a pretty vexed history, with arguments raging for decades about its use and effects. I  won't go into all of that here, because I've tried to cover it in a previous incarnation as a language researcher at the Survey of English Usage at UCL and posted a lot about it on this other blog, but it is well worth taking a look at Michael Rosen's stuff to get a sense of the bigger picture where grammar is concerned.

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...