Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nappies, dummies, baby wipes and elocution lessons?

There's a nice, brief post on yesterday's Independent Voices pages by Ellen E.Jones about accents. In it, she responds to a news story about posh parents paying for private tutors to "correct" the speech patterns of their poor little darlings, who have picked up "incorrect" forms from their foreign nannies.

Jones makes some good points, which relate closely to what we've been looking at in recent A2 English Language lessons, about attitudes to different accents, and notes that the once-sanctified RP accent is now just as likely to provoke hostile reactions among many people as strong regional accents did among the polite classes in years gone by.

The real folly of elocution training is premised on the myth of the “non-accent”. This is a delusion that some people entertain which suggests that while Scouse/Cockney/French accents are cuddly/aggressive/sexy (delete according to your prejudice), one’s own RP English does not count as an accent all. I’ve got bad news: it does. And it’s equally likely to be the subject of snap judgements – just ask poor old, posh old Benedict Cumberbatch. So your child may emerge from elocution lessons talking proper, but they will still have an accent – the accent of someone whose parents were silly enough to pay for elocution lessons.

It's interesting that, for many people, RP is now a rather antiquated and stuffy accent to use, with estimates from linguists suggesting that as little as 3-4% of the UK population actually uses RP. Estuary English, regional varieties such as Geordie, Scouse and Brummie are still stigmatized by some, but increasingly seen as more honest and genuine.

What we don't know is if these regional varieties still attract - as Ellen Ryan put it - status or solidarity: do we like the apparent warmth and honesty of regional varieties but still only really trust the voice of power, the voice of the posh?

Today's Word of Mouth picked up the theme of accents in a really timely way, interviewing a number of people about their perceptions of their own accents and how others view them, as well as addressing the issue of accent reduction. You can listen (for a week, at least) to this episode here.

HT to Sally Flower for Daily Mail story

Monday, April 22, 2013

Some words in your ear

If revising ENGA1 using the visual channel (your eyes) is too much for you, then try something through the aural channel (your ears).

Here's a new episode of Radio 4's Digital Human which talks about how the internet has changed some of the ways we interact. It's not specifically about language throughout, but it's good background for Language and Mode.

Then this is a 15-minute lecture by acclaimed US linguist, John McWhorter on texting and language change. You can read more about it here too. It's very useful for both AS Language and Mode or A2 Language Change and Discourses.

Last Friday's The One Show had a great segment on the changing accents of London, with particular focus on MLE and Cockney, so that fits very nicely with the topic we've just started in ENGA3. You can catch it here until Friday 26th April and the bit you want is from 11 minutes in.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Revisiting hen

Back in April of last year, we reported on this blog about a move in Sweden to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun, hen. In a really excellent article here, Jenny Zhang takes a look at the issues around the decision and the longer term background.

Why do we need a gender-neutral pronoun? How long have we been using "they" to do this job? Why does it matter? All of these are looked at and in a way that's very accessible if you're revising ENGA3 Political Correctness and Language Change issues.

Pidgins and creoles

We've finished work on World Englishes, but if you'd like to see a bit more about two areas we didn't really dwell on, there's some clear and  helpful coverage on creoles and pidgins on the About World Languages website.

Bend it like Beckham

There's been a lot of recent discussion about accommodation - the way in which we shift our language style towards, or away from, that of others - particularly in the field of politics. But, an edition of this week's Newsnight also featured some discussion about how David Beckham's voice has changed from his Estuary accent in the 90s to his apparently more "posh" tones these days.

The clip above provides a good explanation of what's happening and why, but if you want a bit more detail about it, have a look here, and if you want some more on "Estuary English" itself, you can't really get much more detail than what John Wells offers here.

Texting and language discourses

Susan Boyle wants you to come to a party. But what kind of party?
In recent lessons for AS English Language we've been looking at the affordances and limitations of new communication technologies like texts, tweets and message boards as part of work on ENGA1. So, we've seen how technologies allow near-synchronous communication across huge distances, give us the chance to interact with journalists and readers in collaborative acts of communication, rant uncontrollably on the Daily Mail message board, and more worryingly we've stumbled across internet trolls, misunderstood text messages and emails and Susan Boyle's unfortunately ambiguous hashtag (#susanalbumparty).

But as well as being a topic for AS, these new technologies (Can we really call texting new, any more, by the way?) are fair game for work on ENGA3 as well, both in Section A, where we look at change, but also in Section B, where it's more to do with attitudes people have towards changes in language.

This article from the Daily Telegraph is a good example of a prescriptive language discourse around technology and change. Anne Merritt, an ESL lecturer, argues that - despite evidence to contrary from people who have studied texting and literacy - texting is bad for young people:

Call me a traditionalist, but it doesn’t look like a revolution to me. Instead, it looks like a simple decline in proper language skills, born out of a digitally literate culture that has grown too comfortable in an age of abbreviations and spellchecks.

It's worth a read, as it's exactly the kind of article that holds a language topic up for discussion and takes a side: in this case, a side you'd be perfectl;y entitled to agree or disagree with if you were putting an answer together on ENGA3.

For those of you doing ENGA1 Language and Mode (or maybe the AQA B spec's ENGB1 Language and Technology topic), it's interesting to have a look at the abbreviations mentioned at the end. Are these still widely used, or falling by the wayside as technology develops further?


If you're looking for examples of how technology shapes our language for your revision on ENGA3 or ENGB3, then you could do worse than check this article by Tom Chatfield which plugs his new book, Netymology: A Linguistic Celebration of the Digital World.

It includes hashtag, which was the American Dialect Society's Word of the Year for 2012, and geek, which is not necessarily new but has certainly shifted in meaning as time has gone on, plus plenty of others.

One of the terms Cupertino, might be new to you (and me), but the basic concept is pretty well known; it's all down to how new technologies sometimes "correct" our language, even when we don't want them to. Ben Zimmer of the excellent Visual Thesaurus website, talks about it in more detail here.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A gap to plug

Yesterday's post on 'The language deficit' picked up on Tina Rosenberg's article in The New York Times about programmes designed to bridge the gap between kids brought up in rich language environments (i.e. those getting a great deal of language used around and towards them) and those in a more impoverished (often economically, as well as well as linguistically) environment.

Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus has written a piece on it too, which can be found in The Boston Globe, and in this he looks at similar territory to Rosenberg but also brings in a bit more of a linguistic focus, quoting Deb Roy, whose Speechome Project is something we've looked at in class (and through the links here and here).

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The language deficit

If you're revising child language for ENGA1 (or ENGB3 on the AQA B spec), you might find this link a useful one to have a look at. Tina Rosenberg, writing in The New York Times, takes a detailed look at research into the amount and range of language that children hear around them, or have directed at them, and the gap between rich and poor kids that seems to exist.

Rosenberg refers to the work of Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (which we referred to here a while ago) and recent programmes designed to close this gap. But what kind of gap are we talking about?

The disparity was staggering. Children whose families were on welfare heard about 600 words per hour. Working-class children heard 1,200 words per hour, and children from professional families heard 2,100 words. By age 3, a poor child would have heard 30 million fewer words in his home environment than a child from a professional family. And the disparity mattered: the greater the number of words children heard from their parents or caregivers before they were 3, the higher their IQ and the better they did in school. TV talk not only didn’t help, it was detrimental.
The programmes to close this gap sound really impressive and are exactly the kind of thing that Sure Start was supposed to help in the UK before its funding was brutally slashed.

More recently, Dana Suskind, a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon at the University of Chicago who founded the school’s Thirty Million Words project, did a study with 17 nannies in Chicago. Each attended a workshop on the importance of talk, strategies for increasing it, and how to use the Lena recorder. Then they used it once a week for six weeks. Suskind found (pdf) that the nannies increased the number of words they used by 32 percent and the number of conversational turns by 25 percent.
We've talked in class a lot about the competing influences of nature and nurture in children's language acquisition, but here's a really interesting approach to improving the quality and range of what children hear, and subsequently it would seem, produce.

Accommodation for the world

And for fans of accommodation (which itself is a form of style-shifting), this piece - grandly titled How Code-Switching Explains the World - is an interesting look at how we all change the way we speak in terms of our accent, dialect, slang, register, you name it, depending on who we're talking to.

This clip from Comedy Central illustrates it nicely.

As the NPR blog honestly explains, their definition of code-switching is a tad looser than linguists might have it:

Linguists would probably quibble with our definition. (The term arose in linguistics specifically to refer to mixing languages and speech patterns in conversation.) But we're looking at code-switching a little more broadly: many of us subtly, reflexively change the way we express ourselves all the time. We're hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction.

When you're attuned to the phenomenon of code-switching, you start to see it everywhere, and you begin to see the way race, ethnicity and culture plays out all over the place.

You see it in the political world. In January 2009, then-President-elect Obama went to Ben's Chili Bowl, a famous eatery in a historically black D.C. neighborhood. When the (black) cashier asks him if he needs change, Obama replies, "nah, we straight."

It's clear that we all do this to some extent; I know I do when I switch between talking to other teachers in the workroom and talking on the phone to an electrician. It's a natural part of language use: adapting what we say to fit in with our perceptions of how we might be perceived. You get me?

Accommodation for the nation

In a week when one (dead) Tory is making big news, another (living) Tory managed to make a speech that slips neatly into the post-Thatcher (but, sadly, not quite post-Thatcherite) landscape.

And while making his speech, George Gideon Oliver Osborne, Second Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and heir to the Osborne Baronetcy, slipped into something more comfortable: Jamie Oliver's accent.

You can watch and listen in the clip below and also read about this particular type of accommodation in an article about it by Victoria Coren.

But it's not just Tory toffs who feel the need to switch from one accent to another. In this Daily Telegraph article from last week, Victoria Ward refers to recent by Michelle addison at Newcastle University which makes the point that many people deliberately change their natural voice to avoid prejudice. So, while Osborne shifts down (downwards convergence) to his working class Morrisons audience, according to Addison, university academics with regional accents shift up (upwards convergence) to fit in with the voices that they believe have power and status in their institutions and line of work.

A more detailed report on the study by Michelle Addison (including some critical responses) can be found here.

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...