Thursday, June 15, 2017

A level Paper 2: revision tips part 1

This is the first of a short (and tediously-titled) series of posts on revision for AQA A level English Language Paper 2. With Paper 1 out of the way and Twitter awash with exam-based memes and 'bananagate' stories, you can now turn your attention to Language Change, Diversity and Discourses.

You've still got just under a week to go, so there's time for some reading and thinking as well as practising the skills you need to use across the three very different questions you'll need to answer. Today, let's have a look at Language Discourses and what you can do to work on these before the exam. One thing to say is that while Section B is the main Language Discourses bit of the paper (it's even called that), arguments and debates about language can crop up in Section A as well, so don't narrow your thinking down too much.

The first thing to ask is "What the hell is a language discourse?".

The answer - for this paper, at least - is that it's a way of discussing and arguing about language. Language discourses are the ways in which people describe language change and diversity and argue about the language around us. Given that what's being discussed is language itself, it's probably no surprise to see writers using metaphors and analogies to describe change and diversity.

If every writer simply said "Language is a system of communication" it would generally be accurate and not very contentious, and not very interesting either. But when writers describe change as a process of decay, collapse or evolution, diversity as a disease, a kind of pollution, a beautiful cross-pollination of varieties of English, language use of young people as a war between old and young, between women and men as a battle of the sexes, or American English as a threat, an invading army or an unwelcome intruder, that's when we're looking at discourses.

Language is being described in other terms and a viewpoint or perspective established. More often than not, these discourses and ways of thinking are already there because they're ones that others have raised over the history of the language. So, when writers use a discourse, they're often contributing to an existing way of thinking - tapping into a discourse that others can relate to - because it's already out there. That's what makes them so pervasive and persuasive, because they're common sense, aren't they?

We all know that language is getting worse because of young people and foreigners... or that male and female language use is fundamentally different... or that technology (mis)spells doom for standard English... or that some accents are just worse, don't we?

Well, no. Just because claims about language are repeated and seep into the mainstream way of thinking doesn't make them right. In fact, the more 'common sense' they appear, the more we should be wary of them. Look at those claims above. There are many good linguistic (and social, moral and political) reasons for challenging each and every one of them. in fact, they're all a bunch of cobblers really*.

Many of these discourses have been around for centuries; just have a look at Henry Hitchings' The Language Wars and you'll see a great overview of what people have complained about in English and the terms they've put it in. The targets change but the song remains the same.

So, one useful thing you can do is to get together a list of the different discourses that crop up when English is discussed. Look at the stories on this blog and linked via the @EngLangBlog Twitter account for a cross-section of these. And think about all the potential areas for argument and debate in the areas of change and diversity, because these could all crop up in Section B of the paper. The sample paper has change (semantic change) as its focus but diversity and variation topics could be here as well. In fact, all the Paper 2 variation and diversity topic areas - occupation, accent & dialect, sociolect, gender, ethnicity, world Englishes and any combination of these with change - could appear. It's a lot to think about and revise but the arguments are often very similar.

And the other thing you can do is realise that after two years of English Language study, you'll probably know a lot more about how language works (and how it doesn't work) than some of the writers and journalists who feel qualified to spout off about English in the pages of the kinds of publications that you might get set for Section B.

Don't be afraid to analyse, deconstruct and challenge the views put forward in the texts that you get for Section B. If you can identify the discourses they are using and analyse the techniques they're using to construct these ideas about language, then you can pull them apart and evaluate whether they are fair ways of describing what's happening. Use your knowledge from the study of language to think about alternatives and you'll be able to do really well.

Next time round, I'll post a few more practical ideas for studying discourses, including a few links to old blog posts about particular debates.

(*Not a very academic way of putting it, so don't quote me on this.)

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