Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Tackling the NEA Language Investigation

As lots of students are embarking on the Language Investigation part of the Non-Exam Assessment, I thought it might be handy to pick up a few points which I think will be important. The Language Investigation is unlike anything you have done before (unless you've done an EPQ) and it's not an essay or an analysis, but probably the closest thing to a university dissertation that you will do at this level. What does a Language Investigation involve? Read this.

Think of a manageable project... 
Your aim is to write up an investigation of around 2000 words (excluding data) so your project has to be manageable. You can't ask huge questions about language or try to prove or disprove an established theory about language use. Big ideas aren't a problem - and we'd encourage you to think big on most of this course - but in a language investigation you will need to pinpoint your questions and be really specific. You also need to be able to collect your data in a fairly short space of time. If you are planning something too ambitious and time-consuming, it will be hard to do it.

...on a topic that you are interested in
If you aren't interested in what you are investigating, it will be hard to stick to it. You will probably have the best part of 6-8 weeks to work on this project from beginning to end so it has to be something that floats your boat. If you can't think of an interesting project of your own, check the list here or the ideas here. Ideally, the topic should be something that you feel you can invest a bit of time and energy in. Is there an area of the course so far that you've found particularly interesting? Is there something you do outside college - playing/coaching a sport, online gaming, working, reading a certain genre of books/graphic novels/magazines, TV/films that you are obsessed with - that you can investigate linguistically? Some of the very best investigations come from things that students are really interested in.

Read around your topic
You should aim to find out as much as you can about the area you are investigating. Who has researched in this field before? What studies have been carried out? Are there any approaches or methodologies that you can learn from? Use the textbooks, student handbooks and emagazine archive for ideas.

Narrow down your research questions and think of realistic aims and/or hypothesis
You might start with a fairly broad question that you want to answer. It could be something like one of the ones below:

  • How do women and men use language differently in certain situations?
  • How do children of different ages show different levels of language ability?
  • How does the language of a certain kind of advertising change over time?
  • How is immigration represented in different newspapers?
  • What language devices are used by people when communicating via social media?
Each of these is fine as a starting point, but they all need refining. So, think of some of the following to help you break them down further:

  • What do you mean by language? Which frameworks/language levels will you analyse? Will your focus be on lexis & semantics, syntax & morphology, phonology, pragmatics, discourse structure, graphology, interactional features, or a mixture of these? Will it be specific features of language within these headings, such as adjective use, tag questions, hedging, narrative structures etc? Think carefully about defining what you mean by language. We will probably need to see both depth and range to award the highest marks.
  • Which people? You can't make blanket generalisations about women and men, boys and girls, young and old, so think carefully about whose language you might want to explore. If you set out to 'prove' that women do x and men do y, you'll probably come unstuck because different people behave very differently in different situations. Be aware of this and be tentative and exploratory in your approach.
  • Which texts and which times? Think very carefully about the texts that you select. Why are you choosing these texts to analyse? What's your rationale for looking at (say) advertising of hair care products for women rather than shirts for men? What do you expect to change in the language used to advertise them and why might this be happening? Which time periods are you going to select and why? Do you expect major changes to have taken place over 20 years? It's possible with some products, but a longer time frame might give you more to work with.
  • Which newspapers? Which sections of them? From which times? What kinds of immigration? Don't assume that all papers have consistent lines on these issues. Some of them will argue different positions on the same day, depending on who is writing the piece. Think about delving into older, archived articles; there are loads of really interesting ones online and they might give you some useful reference points. How will you explore the idea of representation and what it means? Will this mean that particular frameworks are more useful than others?
  • Which people and which forms of social media? Twitter is not the same as Facebook and web forums are very different to Instagram. Narrow it down and think about what it is you want to explore.
Look at the sample investigations
If you don't know what a good investigation looks like, you will have no idea what you are aiming for. Your teacher will either have provided you with some of these or have access to them. Make sure that you look at them and understand how they have been put together and what you are expected to do.

Think carefully about your data selection
Don't just collect everything and hope to analyse it all. Select the most useful data and explain that selection in your methodology. That doesn't mean that you select the data to fit a preconceived idea of what you will find, but that you consider carefully how much data you need, what type and the context of that data. Think about how you might present your data as well; can you put it in a table, chart or list to make it clearer? If you are transcribing it, how will you show things like overlap, interruption and emphatic stress? Look at this example on the AQA website for an example of what to do and how to approach the first few sections. It's not perfect (it wasn't a final draft) but it is pretty clear. The data selection, in particular, is really effective.

Analyse your data thoroughly
Close focus on both AO1 and AO3 is vital in producing a strong analysis. You need to apply relevant language frameworks (the ones you decided on when you set up your research questions) but you also need to consider meanings, representations and contexts. Don't just pluck single words or phrases from out of their contexts to analyse in isolation: show us where the language comes from and what it means in its context. Think about how it works and what it does. You should also be able to apply your understanding of AO2 language concepts and theories to the analysis you are carrying out.

If you see an example in your data of language being used in ways that fits with, or contradicts, ideas you've seen before about what people do with language, explore this. For example, if research into male language suggests that men "construct solidarity through verbal jousting" - or what we might call 'banter' (urgh!) these days - (Coates, 2003) but you see women doing this in your data, think about why that might be.

Equally, if media articles about texting tell you that young people frequently abbreviate and use non-standard English in their messages, but you find that only 5% of words are shortened in your data set, think about why this might be. Are the articles wrong? They might be. But what has happened to messaging in the last few years and how is the technology different?

If you carry out a survey into the ways in which different regional varieties are represented and find that a dialect judged as being prestigious 30 years ago is now seen (in your analysis, at least) as being less respected, why might this be? Think about the possible reasons for your findings being different? Have attitudes shifted? Is your methodology different to that which was used in the 1980s?

These are all things to think through and consider.

Evaluate throughout
You don't need to write an evaluation at the end of your project, but you are expected to evaluate what you are doing as you go along. Reflect on your methodology: is it a good way to explore your data? Can you think of other ways to do it? What does your data analysis tell you? Can you evaluate what your data reveals about the questions you have been asking?

Make sure your first draft is a substantial, serious piece of work
You do get a chance to redraft but the feedback your teachers are allowed to give is limited. We can't give you a mark for a first draft. We can't offer detailed advice about how to improve what you've done. We can give you the mark scheme and let you decide what you are doing and where you might be able to improve things, but it's vital that your first draft isn't a half-finished, will-this-do, sketchy effort. 

Get going on it quickly
Don't sit around and procrastinate, waiting for your teacher to give you an idea. Think of something you can do and get on with doing it. Once you've got some ideas, we can help you shape them and show you where you need to go. The worst investigations are inevitably the ones where students can't decide what they want to do, have no real interest in it and/or don't really know what they are doing. 

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...