Monday, August 31, 2020

Intersections and explorations

One of the key messages from the feedback on Language Change and Diversity on Paper 2 over the last few years has been that students who understand the interconnected nature of the language topics* often have a better chance of hitting the higher levels of the AO2 mark scheme than those who see them in separate boxes. And this makes a lot of sense when you look at the kinds of questions being set and - more broadly - the nature of language and its users.

To paraphrase and oversimplify decades of sociolinguistic thinking, the first wave of work in the 60s and 70s tended to look at the language associated with and used by different groups in society, the second wave looked at social networks and how connections and associations between people and groups impacted upon language use, before the third wave came along and looked at how language is used by people to perform different aspects of their identities by drawing on linguistic repertoires and pools of language features. You'll find many better worded and more developed explanations of these trends in sociolinguistics text books, but as a general picture of where thinking has been going, it's a start. 

What this feeds into for Paper 2 is that if you view language use in a kind of essentialist way (ie that working class people use x kind of language and middle class people use y kind of language because of the social classes they belong to) you're probably not going to appreciate the more complex nature of our identities as language users. After all, we are all more than just products of our environment and the categories we can be placed into. Aspects of our identities - gender, ethnicity, occupational and social groups, for example - all have an impact on how we use language and we perform these aspects of our identity in different ways depending on who's around us and what we want to achieve. I probably didn't think a great deal about 'performing my whiteness' when I was teaching in a largely white college, but I thought about it more - and about my students' performances of their own ethnicities in that college and later on, elsewhere - when I worked in a largely African-Caribbean college. Sometimes, we start to think about these things and realise that aspects of language we had perhaps taken for granted are part of a much bigger and more complex picture.

It's also why a lot of us teaching the course keep reminding students that while the topics* for Paper 2 - occupation, gender, world Englishes, region etc - have their own knowledge base and bodies of research, there are some key strands that link them all together. It's this overlap or intersection of different aspects of language that can be really interesting and the exploration of these overlaps can lead us into some of the higher reaches of the mark scheme when it comes to assessing work.

Let's take a couple of recent programmes about language as cases in point. Radio 4's Woman's Hour recently aired a segment about accents. You can find it here: From about 33 minutes in

In this programme, the contributors talked about how their accents had been commented upon, criticised, belittled and mocked by others. While it was sad to hear this and the emotional and professional impact it had had on these women, it wasn't new: we hear about this all the time and accent bias is something you're bound to look at on the course at some point. Where it became more interesting is where the prejudice about accent (usually - but not exclusively - seen as a feature of regional variation) started to intersect with issues such as class and gender. Were women particularly discriminated against because of their accents? There certainly seemed to be an aspect of all of this behaviour that suggested that women's voices were fair game for criticism in a way that men's voices often aren't. 

And what about social class? Is it worse for a woman to sound working class than a man? And what about working class women in certain occupations such as teaching and lecturing? This is where an understanding of wider ideas such as attitudes to standard and non-standard English, different attitudes to linguistic variants (how someone might say bottle, grass, or use different words for greetings - hi, hey, whassup, alright) across the world and a grasp of the shared patterns across different topics really comes into play.

A second programme on Radio 4, called Code-switching, also illustrates some of this. While code-switching and style-shifting are fairly common areas to study on the course, the different angles in this programme are particularly fascinating. The host, Lucrece Grehoua takes us through some of the ways in which the Black people she interviews view their use of language in relation to predominantly white and middle class workplaces, how they feel about adapting their language and the different tensions between between ethnicity, class, occupation and gender. For a lot of people of all ethnic and social backgrounds, converging and diverging are just things we do all the time, so it's really interesting to hear people dissecting their own language use in such fine detail and at such a meta-level.

Again, this is the kind of discussion that helps to illuminate a number of different areas of language study and allows you to see how so many of them link up. Have a listen and see what you make of it.

Get back to work, you lazy slackers.

With the new academic year starting, I thought it might be a good idea to post a few short blogs. Today, I've been thinking about work and the Paper 2 Language and Occupation topic*. 

The lockdown has led to a lot of talk about how we work, what work means to us, how it oils the wheels of the economy and how it generates new language. So, while we've had lots of new expressions emerge from how many of us have had to change our working practices - WFH (Working From Home), Zooming (using the Zoom app to hold meetings), Zoombombing (like photobombing but with other people's Zoom meetings) and Toxic Productivity (the pressure to work at full tilt throughout the lockdown) - we've also seen a lot of language used to discuss and represent work. 

As you probably already know, all the topics* for Paper 2 (gender, social groups, ethnicity, region etc) can be as much about how language is used to represent different groups as it can be about how people use language. So, for example, when looking at language and gender, you might look at supposed communication differences between the sexes but also look at how language constructs ideas of masculinity and femininity; for language and social class, you might focus on sociolect and education, but also how language represents different social groups through terms like chav, posh, townie or pleb.  

Up until now, I'd found language and occupation a slightly trickier proposition for a representation focus than many of the others. There's always been discussion of business jargon and arguments about plain English in the workplace, and they've been set before as part of the AS exams already, but that's about all I could come up with. 

What's been interesting in recent months is how work, as an idea, has been discussed and represented. One good source for material is in the media coverage of the government's messaging about safety in the workplace (and of course, for teachers, catering staff, classroom assistants, students and admin staff, schools and colleges are among these places of work) and how that messaging has been pitched to represent work in different ways. Of course, a major part of this messaging has been about how safe it is (supposedly) to return to work, so there has been a lot of reassuring language used, but coupled with that has been a creeping implication that if we don't get back to the office soon, sandwich retailers and coffee shops will go bust, the economy will collapse and will it all be our fault. As the reassuring messaging about schools, offices, public transport and bowling alleys (?) is rolled out, other messages are fed to us too.

In many ways this is indicative of how I think a lot of government policy during the pandemic seems to have operated: first an idea is pitched to a sympathetic media outlet who run it and see what the reaction is; then the proposed policy is re-calibrated or pulled, depending on how it has been received. 

Try this tweet from The Sun, for example: 

Elsewhere, the return to work was described in various terms in other media outlets. Try a few of these for size...

  • ...the Government tries to entice people out of their lockdown habits and reboot the economy (the Daily Express)
  • "I think there's a limit, just in human terms, to remote working. And there are things where you just need to spark off each other and get together in order to make progress." (Government Minister Grant Shapps, quoted in the Daily Express)
  • ‘The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy,’ says Dame Carolyn, who speaks for almost 200,000 firms. ‘They support thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business. (Daily Mail)
  • The UK economy could lose almost half a trillion pounds of output if workers fail to return to their offices, a study estimates. (Douglas McWilliams, a former chief economic adviser to the Confederation of British Industry as reported in The Guardian) 
  • 'Go back to work or risk losing your job': Major drive launched to get people returning to the office. Ministers warn that continuing to work from home could make staff ‘vulnerable’ to being sacked (Daily Telegraph)
  • Brits must return to offices to stop city centres becoming 'ghost towns', CBI boss warns (Evening Standard)
What's interesting about these from a language analysis point of view is that we can see a mixture of positive representation of the office environment and thinly-veiled threats that not returning to work might result in being sacked. If you were pulling a few of these extracts apart, you might think about some of the following:
  • verb choices - entice, spark, foster - offering the language of encouragement and positivity linked to the office
  • semantic fields of financial cost
  • home working being represented as having 'limits' and 'risks'
  • modality doing a quite a lot of work about what might happen: could lose, could make staff vulnerable, must return
There are all sorts of good reasons why people might want or need to return to the workplace - doing things you can't do from home, mental health, the social side of the workplace, pinching other people's mugs and biscuits, the injection of money into the office economy etc - but I think we need to look carefully at the ways in which all this is framed and represented to us, and some focused language analysis gives us the chance to unpack some of the different agendas at work. Along with this, it's also very helpful for paper 2 if you want to think a bit more about how language represents occupation and its changing nature as a result of the pandemic. Maybe you could start to find your own examples to look at as part of a mini-study of the area, or even pick it up as part of a language investigation. It's unlikely that the data will dry up any time soon - furloughing looks like it will come to an end in October and different workplaces will be featured in various government campaigns and media onslaughts - so there will be a lot to look at and a number of different viewpoints to consider.

(*Topics are not really the preferred term here as they are all linked and related, but we often teach them as topics before making the bigger connections.)

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