Tuesday, November 08, 2022

Accent attitudes: lessons in discourses

As I posted a day or two back, accent attitudes have been back in the news. Following a report from The Sutton Trust, using research from the team behind Accent Bias Britain, various newspapers and online sources decided to cover the broad findings of the report and discuss attitudes to UK regional accents and those associated with people from working class and/or racially minoritised backgrounds.

Accent stories are pretty popular in the press and we’ve seen a lot of coverage of them in the last year or two. Whether it was the attacks on TV presenter and footballer Alex Scott for her pronunciation of -ing, BBC presenter Amol Rajan’s appeal for a wider variety of accents at the BBC or Artificial Intelligence being used to make call centre workers sound ‘whiter’, accents get you clicks. And in the (anti) social media hellscape (thanks Elon) that we’re heading into in 2022, a lot of those clicks are hateclicks.

While the stories and op-eds are pretty good sources for A Level students to analyse and evaluate and even use as style models, the replies and online comments are more visceral… and sometimes pretty vile. But having said that, they are useful short texts to pull apart in class, so here are a few ideas for what to do with them.

1. Assemble a cline of contempt: take each tweet/reply/comment and copy it onto a grid where you can cut them out and line them up. Rank them in order of their negativity to the linguistic position being discussed. Is this one more negative about certain accents than this one? How can we tell? Are they equally awful but just focusing on different things?

2. Group them into patterns of peevery: what are the themes behind their complaints? Are they annoyed at the absolute wokeness of a linguist even arguing that there such a thing as accent bias, or just annoyed that young people are being sensitive about accents? Group them into shared themes and discuss what these concerns might tell us about these language discourses.

3. Analyse them for discourses of doom: blow up each message onto a sheet of A4 and pull them apart linguistically, annotating them and using your three AOs for P2Q3 as a guide. AO3 for meanings and what is being represented, along with the discourses being tapped into and reproduced; AO1 for linguistic descriptions of the techniques and structures being used; AO4 for connections between these texts and the wider discourses you have identified in previous lessons, and perhaps even connections to the other texts as your analysis develops. Maybe you could even start to write comparative analytical paragraphs on two or more messages. 

4. Answer back: choose a couple of texts that you can respond to and use this as practice for your P2Q4 work (where you write an opinion piece in response to the issues raised in the texts from P2Q3). Write back to the message. Perhaps you could discipline yourself to just sticking to the length of a tweet or a couple of sentences; perhaps you could develop this into a couple of paragraphs. Think too of how you can show your AO2 knowledge to challenge uninformed and prescriptive views of language. If you see a message that you think is actually right about something but not very well-supported, think about how you can develop a more linguistically informed way of phrasing it, by referencing research, theory and examples from case studies.

5. Ask what they're on: "I'm not earth to bow to ridiculOus", I ask you....

Here are a few anonymised responses to the accent stories that you might want to use.

And of course, before social media existed, we had letters to the editor (ask your gran) and some of these were nicely crafted. You still find them in the wild occasionally, like here in The Guardian. So these could be mixed in too to spread the range and offer some more rhyme and reason.   

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