Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Slang archive

Following yesterday's post about other top tips for articles about language, Tony Thorne of King's College London sent this link to a whole range of articles he has gathered on the topic of slang. There's plenty there for anyone studying Language Change and Variation at A2 and lots of good stuff to read. Thanks very much, Tony.

Monday, December 22, 2014

2014 round-up

Just in case you missed them, here are some of my favourite links to articles and stories in the world of language from this year. I've grouped them by broad topic areas linked to the AQA A specification.

If you've got other suggestions or ones that I've obviously missed, please tweet me at @EngLangBlog

Words of the year: Language Change (ENGA3) 
From well jel to mahoosive: new words added to Oxford Dictionaries
Ben Zimmer's word vortex - new words of 2014

Language Change (ENGA3)
Everything is 'awesome' (in the Daily Mail) and done much better here by Lynne Murphy
25 years of LOL
10 slang phrases that sum up their era
War of words: how WW2 shaped language
Looking a bit UKIP: how UKIP has started to become a term of abuse.

Swearing and attitudes to it: Language Discourses (ENGA3)
The sweariest place in Britain?
Coprolalia (or potty mouth syndrome) is one of many excellent (but obviously rude) posts on a new blog dedicated to swearing, Strong Language

Technology and Language: Language and Mode (ENGA1); Language Change (ENGA3)
Why fears about texting are misplaced
Texting improves young people's spelling and grammar

Accents, dialects and varieties: Language Variation (ENGA3)
Dialects from Trinidad to Hawaii shaping the English language
Um or er? Why um is growing

Attitudes to 'good' and 'bad' English: Language Discourses (ENGA3)
Why our language prejudices don't make no sense
A plea for linguistic tolerance
What are the 'correct' rules of English grammar?

Gender and language: Language Variation (ENGA3)
Who interrupts whom in the workplace?
Why young women shouldn't have to talk like young men

Language and Representation (ENGA2)
Why the language of domestic violence matters
Sir and Miss: sexist and depressing

And my least favourite article was (of course) from the Daily Fail and its pathetic coverage of the English A levels (in this terrible article) which prompted this angry blog post.

Thanks for following in 2014

Thanks very much to all of you who have used the blog this year and especially if you've also followed via the @EngLangBlog twitter account or given me top tips for articles and links.

2014 has been a very busy year with work projects, so I've not had as much time to post stuff to the blog. Some of that work will become a bit more obvious in the next year with the new A level English Language specification from AQA starting to be taught in September 2015, something that I've been involved in (along with plenty of other people who actually know what they're doing). In the run-up to the new spec being taught, I'm planning a lot of new material (and to rework older material) to help students and teachers with the new topic areas and approaches, so this should start appearing in April and May.

In the meantime, I'll put together a few round-ups of recent tweets and links before doing a few more ENGA1 and ENGA3-related posts in the Spring and Summer terms. Anyway, all the best for Christmas and the New Year. Peace etc.

Friday, November 21, 2014

emagazine English Language conference 2015

In case you haven't already noticed, emagazine is organising its annual conference for students and teachers of English Language A level and some tickets are still available. It's been such a huge success in previous years that it's now taking place over two days in London. The speakers include some of the best and most knowledgeable experts on language (and a Max from Eastenders-lookalike on the Friday who must have bribed his way onto the bill).

For more details, visit this page and to get tickets go here. See you there (on the Friday, at least).

Technology traumas: language discourses for ENGA3

Just a quick post to flag up this nice clip from the excellent Ben Zimmer talking about technology, language and fears about language change. If you're doing your ENGA4 investigation at the moment (and you blinking well should be if I teach you) this is the sort of thing we'll be spending more time on after Christmas as we start to look in more depth at Language Discourses. Meanwhile, if you're an AQA B teacher, this is the sort of debate that will feature on the new AQA English Language spec that's coming in from September 2015.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

F-Bombs for Feminism

With more f-bombs than an English teacher getting a paper cut from a late, U -grade essay, this video from FCKH8 comes with a Parental Advisory sticker as big as your mum. If we'd still been looking for an F in our A-Z of representation, this would have been there.

Fantastic stuff for representation of women, girls and little sparkly princesses in need of rescue...

Potty-Mouthed Princesses Drop F-Bombs for Feminism by FCKH8.com from FCKH8.com on Vimeo.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Representation alphabet

Are you planning your ENGA2 Investigating Representation coursework? Here's an A-Z of ideas for potential topics put together by various members of the English department at Colchester Sixth Form College.

·         Amal Alamuddin’s and George Clooney’s  wedding as an event, or Amal Alamuddin as an individual.
·         British Muslims: how are Britain’s Muslims represented in the media and how do they feel about it, especially with IS claiming to represent their faith?
·         Calypso. What the flip? You’ll be even more gobsmacked when you hear the UKIP Calypso. But have a look at the debate and responses created by this appalling song. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/mike-reads-calypso-car-crash-for-ukip-campaign-9807020.html
·         Disability: are some people with disabilities not worth the minimum wage? How are disabled people represented in the media?
·         Ebola: coverage of the spread of the disease around Africa, Europe and USA.
·         Ferguson (or #Ferguson). The shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in the US state of Missouri sparked protests and violence. It raises questions about racism, policing and social cohesion http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/michael-brown-shooting
·         Gamer Gate: sexism and misogyny in the world of gaming. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/20/gamergate-internet-toughest-game-woman-enemies
·         Hong Kong: representation of pro-democracy protests and the government’s  response
·         I   Immigration: a political hot potato but often used to whip up prejudice and resentment to gain votes. How is it viewed by those who move to Britain, those already here and why do people think there are far more immigrants than there really are?
·         J   Jennifer Lawrence: how has JenLaw been represented around the great Fappening scandal?
·         Kobane: the Syrian town defended by Kurds against IS. How has the battle been represented? What about the Kurdish women soldiers at the forefront of the fight against IS or the Turkish anarchists who have joined them?
·         Linda Bellingham: coverage of the actor’s illness and death
·         M Marriage: gay marriage and equal marriage. An institution under threat or one being redefined for a new century?
·         Nigel Farage: how did a privately-educated, millionaire, ex-banker manage to cast himself as an outsider voice to the Westminster establishment?
·         Oscar Pistorius: coverage of the athlete’s rise to fame and the trial for shooting his partner, Reeva Steenkamp.
·         P  Kevin Pietersen: cricket scandals are over the newspapers again with Pietersen’s autobiography bowling googlies at his former team-mates.
·         Q Queer politics: how are gay people responding to discrimination against them? The recent kiss-in at a Sainsbury’s in Brighton and the homophobic abuse suffered by two men on a bus in London highlight different social attitudes towards LGBT people.
·         Reeva Steenkamp: how has the woman killed by Oscar Pistorius been represented?
·         Sex education: it’s being discussed again by MPs. When should young people get sex education and will it save their lives, protect their health or turn them into leering, sex-crazed perverts?
·         Trolls: sad, lonely people in need of a hug (https://twitter.com/OwenJones84/status/523909281448755200), or dangerous criminals in need of jail?
·         UKIP: their political rise and the different perceptions of them. Unprincipled Knuckledragging Incompetent Parasites or angry voice of the silent majority?
·         Videogamers: representation of them as a social group
·         W Weather events: storms, hurricanes, climate change and natural disasters
·         Xenophobia: with the rise of UKIP and online halfwits like Britain First, why is fear of foreigners fast becoming such a political issue? Does it reflect genuine hatred of different people around the world or a time of insecurity and confusion in British identity?
·         Y  Malala Yusafzai: Nobel Peace Prize winner, girls’ education campaigner and victim of a Taliban shooting
 Z-list celebs: pick any recent vaguely famous non-entity from a reality show and see what’s happened to them in the press since their moment of glory.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What's proper?

Language debates are all over the media again and rarely seem to be too far aware, which is great news if you are an A level English Language student and looking for material to analyse, ideas to glean and references to add to your notes.

This article from Christian Rudder in The Huffington Post offers an analysis of Twitter language in response to the perception that social networking is degrading and/or destroying the English language. It's a common argument and one that has been knocking around for centuries. Ever since there has been technology to communicate - the pencil, the printing press, the mobile phone - there has been someone complaining about its disastrous effects on English.

This article challenges the declinist discourse and suggests that far from dumbing us down and forcing us to communicate very little in 140 characters, Twitter is not that different to other forms of communication:

A team at Arizona State was able to reach beyond word count and length, and into the sentiment and style of the writing, and they found several surprising things: first, Twitter does not change how a person writes. Among the many examples they tracked, if a writer uses “u” for the second person in e-mails or text messages, she will also use it on Twitter. But, likewise, if she generally spells out “you,” she does so every-where -- on Twitter, in texts, in e-mail, and so on. The decision to refer to the first-person singular as "I" or "i" follows the same pattern. That is, a person’s style doesn’t change from medium to medium; there is no “dumbing down.” You write how you write, wherever you write. The linguists also measured Twitter’s lexical density, its proportion of content-carrying words like verbs and nouns, and found it was not only higher than e-mail’s, but was comparable to the writing on Slate, the control used for magazine-level syntax. Everything points to the same conclusion: that Twitter hasn’t so much altered our writing as just gotten it to fit into a smaller place. 

Elsewhere, Ammon Shea, whose new book Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation looks well worth a read, has also written a piece for The Huffington Post, considering what's happened to the meanings of the words that were being worried about a hundred or so years ago. Shea finds that words like awful and talented rarely attract complaint these days, but were viewed by some as being totally unacceptable in the past. Meanings change: get over it, seems to be the key message here.

And if you want to help somebody who is actually researching attitudes to "proper" English for a PhD project, Carmen Ebner is collecting views through this link to her online questionnaire, so please take part and give your views. It's particularly good if you are an A2 English Language student and starting to look at language discourses and attitudes to change and variation as part of your second year work.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Welcome to EngLangBlog

With the new term underway, I thought I'd say welcome to the blog and introduce you to some of its main features.

First of all, the blog is designed to help you with your English Language A level. It's primarily aimed at the AQA A specification (as that's what I mostly teach and if you're a Colchester Sixth Form College student, that's the spec we do with you) but you'll find material here to help with AQA B, WJEC, EdExcel and OCR.

Most of the time, there will be posts on here about language in the news, so these will help you read around the subject and perhaps give you a few interesting angles and examples to get you thinking about different topics. At other times, there are longer posts which are tied to specific exam papers and questions. At exam time, I put up a lot of tips and hints about how to approach particular questions and topics for both AS and A2. There's already a big archive of these from previous years, so if you are looking for exam advice, try those. I'm an AQA examiner and moderator, but obviously I don't know what appears on the papers until you do, so none of this is inside information, just the ramblings of a sad language nerd.

If you've not used the blog before, you might find some of the following features helpful:

Labels can be found on each post and in a cloud on the right sidebar. If you are looking for all the posts on a particular exam paper, coursework topic or issue, just click on the label and you will be taken to all the posts with that label. So, if you're looking for Language Change, Child Language or Language Discourses, that's where you want to go.

The links bars take you to some good sites for English Language study. Emagazine and Babel are aimed at A level students and are both excellent reads. If you're a Colchester student, get the log-in details from your teachers.

The blog's Twitter account @EngLangBlog has lots of links and good ideas from linguists, students and other teachers, so it's a good idea to follow it. I've been posting short news items via Twitter more than the blog recently, so that's where to look for the latest news.

Finally, please contribute your own ideas, either through comments on blog posts or via Twitter. I'm always interested in hearing other points of view, finding out about language stories that I've missed or being shown links to interesting examples of language in use.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Feisty sluts being abrasive

There's been lots of good material in the papers recently about language and gender, so it's useful for anyone thinking of investigations at AS into representation of social groups & individuals.

The Telegraph looks at words which only seem to be used to label or describe women, while The Guardian has its own take on the issue. Fast Company also has a look at the ways in which language is used differently for men and women in their performance reviews, with abrasive being used to describe women much more than men.

Elsewhere, the discussion about what slut and sluttish mean - or has meant in the past - is picked up in The Guardian.

Monday, June 02, 2014

ENGA3 - making your examiner happy

It's just one day until ENGA3, so here's a quick post to wish you luck and to offer a few suggestions to make your examiner look upon you favourably.

Quote helpfully 
You should be using quotations from the texts you're analysing in your answers, but make sure they're helpful quotations. What's the difference between 1 and 2 below?

  1. The writer uses the noun phrase "the foul degradation of our language continues apace" to support his prescriptive view of language change.
  2. The writer uses the noun phrase "the foul degradation of our language continues apace" to support his prescriptive view of language change.
In short, 1 is wrong and 2 is right. That's because the quote used in 1 isn't actually a noun phrase, but a whole simple sentence/independent clause, while the quote in 2 actually specifies which bit is the noun phrase. I don't doubt that the person answering in the first one knows what they mean, but they're not making it easy for the examiner to give them marks.

Use examples
It's good to know stuff, but it's even better to show you know stuff. While that's a good bit of advice for the exam tomorrow, it might not be great life advice: no one likes a know-it-all, so forget this after tomorrow. Right? Examples are important to developing arguments and showing a grasp of a topic. If a question on language change asks you about how and why language changes, the big picture is obviously very important, but the examples can be really significant too. Think about going off the beaten track to find a few examples of neologisms (try here for starters), or here for some discussion of South African English or here for Australian English. If everyone uses the same revision guides and textbook (however brilliant the latter might be, ahem) then the examiners will get used to them. Surprise them with a few exciting and original gems.

Keep up with the times, daddio
As with the advice on examples, try to find some recent news stories about language to help you offer a bit of originality and range. This may reflect poorly on my sad and empty life, but I was excited and delighted to read an answer a couple of years ago in which the student made reference to a recent news report on the apparent demise of the Queen's English Society. This was particularly good as the question on Language Discourses that year used extracts from the QES website. So, what news stories have there been recently? Maybe you could have a look at a few of these and see if you can find some interesting angles.

Anyway, that's it for revision tips for ENGA3 for this year. Good luck in the exam.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

ENGA3 June 2014 - revision tips part 5

Today's tediously titled top tips will focus on analytical frameworks for ENGA3, in particular the Section B Language Discourses question.

As I was saying in yesterday's post about Section B, the key difference between the two sections on the paper is that Section A deals with language as it's actually used - in different times, different places and by different people - while Section B deals with language as something to be discussed, argued about and debated. So, in terms of analysis, you can apply many of the same frameworks - word, phrase, clause and discourse analysis - to texts in both sections, but Section B really lends itself to a Critical Discourse Analysis approach.

In effect, this means that you're using language analysis to work out the ideological position a text producer is taking in discussing a language issue. So, this could mean you're using language analysis to work out how a writer is using the following:
  • pronouns to address the reader and position him/herself in relation to the ideal reader (direct 2nd person address, inclusive 1st person plural, maybe some synthetic personalisation)
  • lexical formality to suggest closeness to the ideal reader/distance and expertise
  • modality to suggest elements of certainty or doubt, sometimes in the form of modal verbs, but also modal adverbs
Norman Fairclough: the daddy of Critical Discourse Analysis
For example - and I've shamelessly nicked this from an article I did for emagazine last year - with last January's question on the supposed Americanisation of English, Matthew Engel positioned himself in particular ways:
...in an article for The Daily Mail on Americanisms entering English, the columnist Matthew Engel, seems to humbly and self-mockingly position himself as out of touch by saying “Old buffers like me have always complained about the process, and we have always been defeated”. Should we take such a move at face value? Perhaps not. Engel goes on in the article to stridently berate the UK for adopting what he calls “ugly Americanisms”: “Nowadays, people have no idea where American ends and English begins. And that's a disaster for our national self-esteem. We are in danger of subordinating our language to someone else's - and with it large aspects of British life”. That doesn’t sound too much like the stance of a man who’s labelled himself an “old buffer”, but the words of a man who feels he’s still got battles to fight and wars to win (if not, home-runs to hit). His self-effacing positioning earlier on helps him appeal to his reader as a gentle, even rather defeated and pessimistic, sort of character, which his subsequent warnings and call to arms belie.
If you're still working on revision for this exam, you could do worse than look back through a few of the texts we've flagged up as being of Language Discourses interest and think about how you could analyse short chunks of them to see how the writers are positioning themselves through their language choices and how they're representing the particular language topic.

For example, this article by Lindsay Johns is fantastic for a bit of analysis, not only for the way he presents and positions himself but in the way he presents language to us as "an incredibly rich inheritance": a noun phrase that casts language as like a solid object passed unchanging from generation to generation. Is that the reality? Well, you might argue that it changes all the time and isn't something that is the gift of one person to give to another but something we should all share and contribute to.

In the simple sentence containing this phrase ("The English language is an incredibly rich inheritance.") there's no modality to suggest doubt, only certainty. This is the kind of analysis that can really help you in the first bullet point for Section B, because it links the AO1 language detail (words, phrases & sentences in this case) to the AO3 interpretation of meaning and discussion of representation.

There are plenty of good articles to practise this approach on, so have a look through the links here for a few examples.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Despicable Minecraft Minions in the Nether

And another quick link to a BBC Radio 4 Today clip about the changing language of children. Here, the OUP language expert Sam Armstrong and comedian & writer Charlie Higson discuss the influence of popular culture and video gaming on young people's language.

While the presenter is keen to get them moaning about young children using terms like minion, nether, LOL and OMG, the experts are good at seeing the benefits to young people of new forms of language and their ability to code-switch. Take that, Radio 4 curmudgeons!

Nice stuff on lexis, morphology, word formation processes and the joys of technology, too.

Beyond literally

Just a quick link to a potential Language Discourses argument about the use of literally and beyond (as in "It was beyond awful") from Radio 4's Today programme.

Warning! For listeners of a sensitive disposition and sound mind, Simon Heffer is featured.

ENGA3 June 2014 - revision tips part 4

To carry on the boring naming convention established earlier this week, this is part 4 of your ENGA3 June 2014 revision tips. So far we have looked at a bit of Section A Change and a bit of Section A variation, so now it's time for Section B Discourses.

One of the first things to remember is that Section B is different from Section A. In Section A the texts are based on language in use (language being used in different times and in different varieties) but in Section B the texts are about language. They will raise questions around how people feel about language and the way it changes and varies from time to time and person to person.

Last year's question was on Language and Gender, setting two extracts from a text which gave a very simplistic, difference model-style, interpretation of how women and men talk. It was there as a starting point for discussion, a springboard for offering a critique of such reductive models. If you 'd read Deborah Cameron's Myth of Mars and Venus, you'd have been laughing...

Back in January it was a question about American English and attitudes towards it. Again, the main text was provocative in its prescriptive outlook, giving students who knew their stuff a chance to argue against the author's anti-American views.

This time, it could be anything. All Change and Variation topics are fair game for this question, so make sure you have revised areas such as the following:
  • political correctness and language change: how "change from above" is implemented, theorised about and (sometimes) resisted
  • attitudes to different accents and dialects: the views people often have about different regional, social and national varieties
  • views about technology and language change: how people feel about social media and texting's influences upon language use
  • arguments about standard and non-standard English: what people say about slang, non-standard grammar and the social consequences of using non-standard forms
Of course, there could be plenty of others and we've covered a lot on this blog. Click here for all posts tagged as being to do with Language Discourses and you'll find plenty to mug up on.

The next post will offer a bit more focus on analytical frameworks for this question.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

ENGA3 June 2014 - revision tips part 3

So... here's a post to help you revise for ENGA3 Section A Language Variation. And if you're wondering why I'm starting this post with so, starting everything with so is apparently undergoing a boom. Just look here for something on this from 2010 and here for something even more recent.

And how is this relevant to your ENGA3 exam? Well, the questions on Language Variation don't have to be about regional or national variation - or even variation according to class, ethnicity or gender - as they have been in the last few years; they can also be about the ways in which language varies in other ways, like rising intonation (uptalk or HRT), the use of vocal fry or even something like so, or innit, or this is me. All of these are recent variations in the ways people use language to communicate and what's interesting about them is that they represent the intersection between so many different factors.

We're no longer in a world of language study where we say that x speaks y because she's z, but that x speaks y in one situation because she's sometimes like z, but often like a, b or c, but might also want to sound a bit like d, e or f. But never u, k, i  or p. So...in many ways, with Language Variation, what makes a good answer is an awareness that people don't just use language because of some accident of birth (born male/female, white/black/Asian, to poor/rich parents in Birmingham/Bermondsey/Jaywick) but that language identity is so much more fluid. Good answers to questions on Language Variation will always acknowledge this.

There'll be more on Language Variation tomorrow, including the topic as a Language Discourses question for Section B.

Monday, May 26, 2014

ENGA3 June 2014 - revision tips part 2

Today, we will have a quick look at Section A Language Change questions. The last two ENGA3 exams have used pairs of texts in this section of the paper. So, last June we had an advert from the 19th Century to look at alongside a Caffe Nero webpage*. The January paper of that year (the last time a January paper was set) had a rugby match report from The Scotsman in the 19th Century alongside a web version of The Scotsman reviewing a similar game.

While it's quite possible that such a question will turn up again, there's a chance it might be a different type of question, so be prepared. Political Correctness is an interesting topic for Language Change as it is the kind of "change from above" that we rarely see (or at least, rarely see working) in English. To revise this topic you might want to think about some of the reasons why words become viewed as offensive - how they pejorate and how changes in society lead to different meanings being viewed as offensive. A good case study of course is gay and the coverage of its changing meanings here might help. Elsewhere, there's a fair bit on the blog from years ago about words such as spastic, mad and coloured, so have a look through the old articles for some good ideas.

Another type of question might focus on how a more recent text uses language and how that reflects a changing aspect of modern language, perhaps technology, popular culture or youth fashions. Again, we've covered these areas in the past, so articles like this one on youth slang or this one on slang through through the decades might be worth a read. Remember, you're encouraged to use your own studies and knowledge on this paper, so come equipped with plenty of examples of language change in action; Kerry Maxwell's Buzzwords is a great place to look. Examiners like to see new and original examples, rather than the same ones year in year out.

Whatever happens, the chances are your second bullet point will be asking you to address ideas around how and why language changes, so you should be prepared to think about the big drivers of language change and the processes that lead to change taking place. This link from the I Love English Language blog is handy for some useful theories and concepts.

*For the benefit of any Daily Mail "journalists" reading this, that was a demanding 19th Century text alongside a modern webpage, not a question "simply asking students to analyse the language of the Caffe Nero website". Got that?

Sunday, May 25, 2014

ENGA3 June 2014 - revision tips part 1

There's just over a week to go before the ENGA3 exam, so my plan is to do a short post each day with advice about how to approach this difficult (but rather splendid) paper.

Seeing as there is still a whole week of half-term in which to revise, the first tip I'd offer is to read a couple of books. Yes, whole books.

First off, read Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars. It covers pretty much every Language Discourses question you could hope to get and it's a damn good read.

We've covered it here on the blog lots before (like here and here) and I did an interview with the author for emagazine a couple of years ago. Click here to visit the emagazine website and use your school/college log-in to find it under Language Topics: Attitudes to Language Change: At War With the Pedants.

Secondly, if you haven't already looked at it, Jean Aitchison's Language Change: Progress or Decay? is a fascinating read. It's got many of the things you'll no doubt have covered as part of your course (the crumbling castle, damp spoon and infectious disease models, for instance) but lots of other excellent stuff too, including discussion of how and why language changes, which is pretty much a staple of Question 1 on Language Change on the paper.

Tomorrow, we'll start looking at each question on the paper in turn and some ideas about how to prepare for them.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Depeche mode

Good luck to everyone doing tomorrow's ENGA1 exam*. Just a couple of quick things to remind you of for Language and Mode.

Mode can be both big and small: a tiny detail like a non-fluency feature (umm...errr) or a non-standard spelling are worth looking at and relating to mode, but don't forget the bigger picture of what each mode can offer (affordances) and how it can hold you back (constraints) .
E.g. think about why a particular mode (and technology?) might have been used: what does it offer that another mode doesn't? And how does it restrict what you can say or write?

Mode is for life, not just for Christmas: don't just talk about mode in your intro and then forget about it like that unwanted Christmas puppy. Weave mode into the rest of your answer.

Channel your thoughts: don't forget the concept of channel. You've got texts using the visual channel and/or the auditory channel.  Even fairly basic points about (say) graphology (in the visual channel) or emphatic stress (in the auditory channel) can become quite significant in a text when you relate them to mode.

Things mean things: don't forget meaning. One of your first jobs should be to work out the following:
  • What is each text about?
  • How is that topic being represented?
  • What views and perspectives are being presented to the reader/other speakers?
  • How can we tell?
Language analysis underpins everything: if you don't analyse (and give clear examples), you're not going to do very well. Remember the linguistic frameworks and think very carefully  about how you can get a few more marks by adding a touch more detail. Have you identified a noun? Is it an abstract, concrete or proper noun? Is it part of a longer noun phrase? Own those language features... err... girlfriend.

*or any other English exam

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Defending A level English Language

Anyone with an interest in English who has been following the news over the past week can't have missed the storm over the exam board OCR's plans to include the language of Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal and Caitlin Moran in their proposed Language and Literature A level specification.

The Guardian ran the story on Tuesday, claiming that a "DFE insider" had already slammed the syllabus as being "immensely patronising" and "rubbish". The Telegraph was also up in arms about it and The Daily Fail was predictably splenetic, splashing large pictures of Brand, Mr Rascal, Grayson Perry and Michael Gove all over their article to reinforce the horror of what was being proposed. After all, these figures - bar the eminent Mr Gove, of course - are enemies of mainstream British values: Russell Brand is a former heroin addict (and therefore, as a drug user, no longer a human being with a valid opinion on anything), Dizzee Rascal is young, black, working class and successful (Why is he not in prison?) and Grayson Perry is a man who dresses as a woman (What my butler and groundsman often refer to as a "tranny". I ask you!).

The articles themselves gave only a tiny taste of the rage bubbling under the surface of middle England against this crackpot left-wing conspiracy to dumb down British students and ruin their education. Comments from Mail readers included some of the following gems:

  • Finally, it has happened! The barbarians have taken over and the country is officially in the gutter.
  • This dumbing down of education began back in the late 50s and early 60s when the lefties infiltrated the whole education system where they are now in full in control - as they are in most public services.
  • The dumbing down of a nation continues.

But what was reported in all of these papers was only part of the story. In a response to the furore, OCR and The English and Media Centre (a brilliant educational charity who produce resources and run courses for English teachers - and, I've got to add, for whom I do quite a lot of work) issued a statement to explain what was actually happening. The tweets of Caitlin Moran, the speeches of Russell Brand and the interview between Dizzee Rascal and Jeremy Paxman were not being treated as "great literature" - as some stories had implied - but as forms of spoken and blended mode language for linguistic analysis, alongside a range of classic and contemporary literature:

The language of a House of Commons Select Committee, with Russell Brand, is not being put up as a challenge to Shakespeare. It is not a literary text and it is not being judged against the measure of whether it is ‘good’ literature, because it isn’t literature. That is not comparing like with like. That is muddling the literary aspect of study with the required linguistic elements of the course. It’s not even saying it is ‘good’ speaking.  That is not what linguists do. It is being offered to students for analysis, as a fascinating example of language use, in the terms used within the academic discipline of linguistics.

And that - as they point out elsewhere in their statement on the blog - is exactly what the exam boards have been tasked with producing by Ofqual for the new A levels (which start being taught next year). I'm involved in a team working on AQA's new English Language specification and I know we have worked very hard over the last two years to ensure we meet those demands, so it's immensely depressing to see others' hard work rubbished in this way and deliberately, wilfully, misinterpreted by those with a massive axe to grind.

It's not exactly surprising to see the Daily Mail up in arms about contemporary texts being taught - their standard view tends to be if it's dead and white, it's alright - but in an article in today's Mail (The A-levels in idiocy: Celebrity obsession of examiners revealed in MoS survey of test papers as Gove is told standards are being ‘fatally undermined’) they go a few steps further and start to attack the existing A levels. And if you're a student reading this, or a teacher preparing your students for the forthcoming exams, that's the set of exams you're working towards now. Normally, the press hang on until results day to tell you your qualifications ain't worth sheeit, but they're telling you this the week before your AS level exam. Nice touch, I think.

And what are they telling us about English Language A level? Well, it's very much the same angle they took with the OCR Language and Literature specification: that you are being taught dumbed down, incorrect, fashionable speech because it's trendy and accessible and that teachers and exam boards don't want to challenge you with really difficult texts because we're intellectually lazy and morally suspect. And let's remember, this is The Daily Mail telling us this: telling us A levels in English are "celebrity-obsessed". Next to a sidebar of pictures of celebrity cellulite, Katie Price's ample cleavage and a picture of Will.i.am. Irony? Not half.

They have chosen to illustrate this supposed dumbing down by quoting examples from recent exam papers. Let's have a look at a couple of these in more detail, because I think these make great case studies of spin and selective quotation. Nice practice for a bit of critical discourse analysis too, if you're revising for your ENGA3 exam!

According to the Daily Mail...

One question simply states: 'Analyse the text on this Caffè Nero website'

I checked last summer's ENGA3 paper. Here's what appeared:

Text A, below, is an advertisement for coffee published during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Text B, on page 3, is a webpage produced by the coffee company Caffè Nero in 2012.
Analyse how language is used in Text A and Text B to represent the companies’ coffee. 

With reference to Text A, Text B and your own studies, illustrate and evaluate different ways of explaining how language changes.
It doesn't take a genius to see that the Mail has reworded the question and deliberately left out the most important parts of it, namely that the Caffe Nero ad is being looked at alongside a 19th Century text as an example of language change in action. They also quote an extract from the Language Variation question on that paper:

Analyse the distinctive features of American rapper Juvenile’s language in Text C (an interview) and how he conveys his experiences and ideas, eg ‘You know when I was young a lot of cats would make a song… you know what I’m saying? Now you got it to where artists is goin’ out there makin’ money like football players… I ain’t doin’ nuthin… I ain’t causin’ no harm to nobody. She [his mother] widdit, you know what I’m saying?’

This time, the quote is a little more accurate, but not much. There's more to it, obviously, because the actual question featured a longer interview in which Juvenile switched from non-standard to a more standard form of English. It also featured a second bullet point that stated:

Referring to Text C, Figure 1 and your own studies, evaluate how far people’s social class affects their use of English.

This was alongside a diagram from Janet Holmes' An Introduction to Sociolinguistics which presented data on ethnicity, class and the use of multiple negation. So, dumbed down? Lacking rigour? Clearly, the Mail hopes to present the idea of a rapper's language being studied as part of an A level in English Language as both of these things. But it's not is it? To answer these two questions well, students need to know a large amount about grammar, phonetics, sociolinguistic theory such as code-switching, ideas of covert and overt prestige and much more besides. In fact, I wrote a fairly long article for NATE's Teaching English, using this interview as an example of much that is good in the English Language A level, some of which I've quoted below to illustrate why I think it's a demanding and useful text to explore.

...the interview offers a slice of English language at its most vital, subtle and provocative, not simply in its delivery but in the areas for discussion that it opens up. In doing these things, it offers some of the most fruitful territory for students interested in finding out more about how language works: the influences that shape our linguistic identities, from where we were born to the colour of our skin, from the work we do to the people we associate with, and maybe more importantly than all of these, the choices we make ourselves about the identities we wish to project to others. In other words, an analysis and discussion of such language can open up the external and internal factors that shape our language use as individuals, as members of groups in society and in a multiplicity of different situations, using language for different purposes with different people. And this can all be done with genuine linguistic depth and, dare I say it, rigour.

With Juvenile, the question in the ENGA3 paper tells us that he is a rapper from a working class area of New Orleans, and we might also assume from his language choices (correctly, in this case) that he is black, so we already have a number of “boxes” we could put him into based on his nationality, region, gender, ethnicity, social class and occupation – all factors that have been looked at in detail by linguists such as Peter Trudgill, Viv Edwards, Malcolm Petyt, Sue Fox, Paul Kerswill and Jenny Cheshire, who would be known to most students – but there are many other factors to consider too.

Juvenile employs a number of features of non-standard grammar in his language: the deletion of the copula verb in the utterances “We family” and “Everything the same”; the deletion of auxiliary verbs in “We still doin the same thangs”, “We paperchasin, cousin” and “We tryin to get all the money, cousin”; the multiple negation of “Ain’t nuthin changed”. In terms of phonology, he drops the –g in some –ing endings such as “livin”,“doin”, “paperchasin” and “tryin” and pronounces the i in things as thangs. Lexically and semantically, he uses colloquial terms of address such as man and cousin to relate to his interviewer, as well as the slang term for making money “paperchasin” (where dollar bills are the paper being chased).

There’s a lot to look at in terms of Juvenile’s non-standard usage here, but what’s also interesting is that it’s not a question of him being unable to use standard forms; on many occasions he chooses to use them. So, he uses a copula verb when he says “She’s down with it now”, inserts an auxiliary verb (admittedly with a non-standard agreement between subject and verb) when he tells us that “artists is goin out there makin money” and elsewhere in the interview switches between standard and non-standard English. He is making choices about his language, many of which may well be dependent on the audience he’s addressing and the persona he wishes to project. The discussion of what Juvenile is saying and how he says it is much more than just identifying “errors” in his speech and blaming them on different facets of his identity – his upbringing, his education, his class, his lifestyle - but treating what he says and how he says it as a source of wider discussion. Why does he choose to say a) here while he chooses to say b) there? Why does he choose this form when he’s addressing this topic, but that form when he addresses that topic?

There's more, if you want read it, and you can find it here, but I hope that the extract above makes the point clearly enough that what we're looking at here is not something that is dumbed down and fashionable, designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator, but genuine language in use by real people and eminently worthy of close study.

That's why the Daily Mail is so massively, colossally, knuckle-headedly wrong about everything they say in their article.

For those of you doing ENGA3 Language Discourses, you might recognise the tendency of the comments in and after the articles to dredge up notions of decline, pollution and collapse - all great staples of the prescriptivist mindset - and it's no great surprise to find that such reactions appear in right-wing  publications when spoken language and contemporary reference points are held up as valid for analysis. Because, after all, studying contemporary English - spoken language, text messaging, urban slang and twitter, for example - is just shallow, unacademic and immature, isn't it?

Well, no. And I hope I've made it clear here just how valuable I think this kind of study is and why the AS levels you are taking next week, the A levels you are taking in June and (I hope) the Language and Linguistics courses many of you will go on to do at University are valuable, useful, intellectually stimulating, rigorously academic and, above all, worth defending.

Edited on 11.05.14 to add link to NATE Teaching English article - thanks to NATE for permission to link and lots of other English Language teachers for their support :-)

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