Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fry up

Over the summer, you might have read about vocal fry; that’s the kind of deliberately croaky voice demonstrated here by my favourite sit-com teenager, Dalia in Suburgatory.  Recent coverage of vocal fry has all the features of typical media stories on language and gender, and is a great example of why we should be sceptical when reading mainstream media coverage of linguistic issues.   Reading and analysing mainstream media coverage of linguistic issues is, of course, something  A2 students will need to do in your exam; you’ll also need to create your own piece for your intervention coursework.
First, newspapers will pick up on a recent bit of linguistic research, or maybe something they've seen mentioned on Twitter or YouTube.  Journalists are particularly keen on using headlines which express a clear and simple difference between men and women, so they will either reduce complex, nuanced findings to simplistic ‘men do this/women do that’ headlines like this, or base an article around a flawed bit of research like this.   The wonderful Deborah Cameron outlines this process at length in her snappily titled blog post (which btw would make a great style model for your intervention) ‘How to Write a Bullshit Article About Women’s Language’.

In the case of vocal fry, it seems that reporters noticed a story in the academic publication ‘Journal of Voice’.    Enterprising journalists realised they could write a story that combined celebrity click-bait with a ‘men-and-women-are-different’ story and so produced headlines like this featuring tabloid darlings like Kim Kardashian and Britney Spears.   There was even more mileage in the story when media outlets realised they could use the story to lecture women about how they need to speak more like men, and to blame their failure to do this for inequalities in education and the workplace.  Even feminist writers in respected, ‘serious’ newspapers got in on the act, presenting the story as a rallying call to young women; stop talking like a weak and feeble girl!

Never mind the fact that the original research only looked at young women, and so provided no evidence that only young women use vocal fry.   Never mind the easily demonstrable fact that men use vocal fry too, as shown in this brilliant post.   Never mind the fact that the original research only looked at young women, and so provided no evidence that only young women use vocal fry.  Never mind the fact that vocal fry is only seen as a sign of weakness when women use it.

The lesson here is not to take media coverage of women’s language (or, indeed, any linguistic issue) at face value.    Instead, do a bit of digging and reading around.  And if you want a different perspective on women’s language, you can always rely on Professor Cameron.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

For Starters (part 1)

With the new term starting and new A and AS levels being taught for the first time, I thought it might be handy to think of ways to get classes starting to think about the kinds of things they'll be doing as the course goes on.

I'm sure lots of teachers already have plenty of starters and ice-breakers up their sleeves, but it might be worth thinking about tasks that link to some of the newer areas of the specification. For example, for the first time in ages, we'll be teaching accent, dialect and sociolect to AS/1st year A level students, so why not look at a couple of things connected to that? Here are two ideas based on Language Diversity and another on Textual Variation.

Language fingerprints: ask each student to think about what characteristics make up their own unique language identity. 

  • Where were they born? 
  • Where else have they lived? 
  • Which other languages or dialects have they spoken?
  • Where were their parents from?
  • Do they work part-time or do volunteering? 
  • Do they spend a lot of time doing certain activities: football, online gaming, going to gigs/festivals, writing, looking after younger children?

If each student maps out these ideas, they'll build up a bigger picture of the influences that affect their language. You can introduce social, ethnic and gender/sexuality influences too, if that seems appropriate, or at least flag those up as aspects for students to think about themselves. Each area can then be mapped to the course they are about to start.

Proper English: use some of the links on these posts to find relevant articles about slang bans and school policy on "proper English". 

  • Ask students to have a look at the lists of banned words/expressions that feature in many of these stories. 
  • What's "wrong" with these terms?
  • Why might they be used?
  • What alternatives are there and why might the schools see these as better?
  • Is it right to ban these terms and how can that be achieved?
  • What are the problems with trying to change people's language behaviour?
  • Is there such a thing as "proper" English and how might that be defined?

This can lead into discussion of attitudes to Language Diversity (on Paper 2 of the new AS and A levels) and Language Discourses (same).

Found texts: following on from ideas like this one, you might want to ask small groups of students to spend 10 minutes gathering "texts" from around the classroom or form their own pockets and bags before selecting 6 per group to start analysing in a fairly simple way:

  • Who is it by?
  • Who's it aimed at?
  • Why is it written in that way? 
  • How can you characterise the style?
  • What do you notice about language patterns?
  • What do you notice about visual design? 

Examples of texts might be:

  • a film poster on the wall of the classroom
  • a college diary with the code of conduct
  • a letter hone about book deposits
  • a book blurb
  • the writing on a packet of Wotsits
  • the writing on a tube of hand gel/chapstick/tin of vaseline

You can decide if you want to include electronic and spoken texts. At this stage, getting phones out and starting to read texts, Tweets, Snapchat messages and the like might not be the best starter in an early lesson, but you can play it by ear.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Graphic Language

As part of an effort to broaden the pool of writers for this blog and to cover some different areas of English Language study, there will be some new blog contributors posting soon and a few guest posts. In one such guest post by Nigel Ball, course leader for the BA (Hons) Graphic Design programmes at UCS, Ipswich, the focus is on the role of language in graphic design.

If you asked someone what is graphic design?, Id put money on most people mentioning something about images. And if someone from within the discipline itself were asked, the term visual communication would likely crop up. Both are obvious, and in and of themselves, there is nothing wrong with them. While it is undoubtedly hard to think of a piece of graphic design that isnt visual, what such beliefs overlook in my opinion is the importance of English language to the subject. What follows are some reasons I believe English language is (nearly) as important as good image-making abilities for graphic designers.

The Brief
There are some obvious reasons, even before you start designing, why English is a vital tool. First and foremost, the majority of design jobs will start with a brief. This will either be supplied by the client, or written by the designer themselves after meeting with a client. It will invariably need to be agreed by all parties before proceeding with the job inhand in order that there is no confusion about what is required by both parties. If there is confusion at the initial stage, then in all likelihood, the outcome will be confused and wont communicate effectively. Within the brief, (and notes from client meetings), designers will often search for important key words that indicate a clients values. These give measurable criteria that can be returned to as the design progresses.

Such importance is placed on the brief within design circles that even if a designer is working on a personal project they will invariably write their own brief in order to clarify their initial thoughts and set the parameters within which they intend to work.

After laying out the boundaries of a job, the designer will then typically move on to a research phase. While this will be dependent on what the brief is, common research themes for most jobs will include looking closely at who the client is and what they do, the clients competition, as well as all the contexts that surround the brief. It is important to note at this point that designers rarely only work for clients who have the same interests as them, meaning research is a vital part of the design process. For example, I know next-to-nothing about opera. Were I contacted by the English National Opera tomorrow to do a job for them, Id have to find out as much as I could about the subject in order to be able to do it justice.

Some of this research will be primary, some will be visual, but much will involve a lot of reading. This is one of the exciting things about being a designer: you get the opportunity to widen your personal knowledge on a huge range of interesting, (and sometimes boring), topics. But with any research comes a lot of searching for material, analysis and notation.

Once a designer starts the actual design, language may become less important as concepts are considered and visual ideas start to fly. However, there are many decisions to be made at this stage. Regardless of the idea, the sort of imagery to use needs consideration. Questions such as whether to follow a photographic or illustrative route arise. Even within these two choices there are a myriad of associated stylistic choices which can affect the way an image is interpreted. For example, a few years ago I ran a live project with students in collaboration with Suffolk County Council who were asked to create a recipe pack for food bank users. It was important in this instance that the design didnt look like a luxury cookery book with recipes that were out of the reach to the audience. At the same time it was equally as important that way the design was styled didnt visually talk down to those that would need to use it. While such thoughts may affect the image-making process, the background analysis that is involved to question a stylistic approach involves a degree of clarityany critical rationale for choice of imagery requires a core understanding of nuances of English language in order to clearly justify visual decisions.

Working with copy
Theres no avoiding text as a graphic designer. In most cases copy is provided by the client or a copywriter. In the case of the latter, these are highly skilled professionals who have to do as much research as a designer to get the right tone of voice and ensure what they are writing is correct for the job-in-hand. Unfortunately, in the case of the former, many clients arent experts in English language, let alone understand that you cannot fit 1000 words of type into a space that is allocated for 250; unless you add more pages to a document for which clients are often unprepared to pay the extra printing costs. This means that as you type-set the words you are supplied, you inevitably have to edit, re-write and make alterations. If a designer does not have a good working knowledge of the English language and punctuation, they are going to struggle. Spelling mistakes and misplaced apostrophes could at best highlight poor attention to detail, and at worst cost you future work.

Aside from copy supplied to you, a starting point with many design ideas may be word play, and this can often drive graphic concepts. On these occasions it is vitally important to use the correct words in order that an audience interprets your design as you wish. For example, the Alan Fletcher poster above, designed as an ironic sideswipe at design rules for a Chartered Society of Designers event in Glasgow in 1993, specifically uses the word dogma. Firstly, dogma is slightly comicalit contains the word dog which conjures up thoughts of little Fido not letting go of something, which in turn perfectly complements the leaning of the word itself. Secondly, dogma has alliterative qualities when used with down’—the phrase runs off the tongue as if a chant or slogan. Thirdly, and more importantly in regard to clarifying meaning, if alternative words such as authority, rules or system had been used, these would have been too suggestive of a political stance and would overshadow the pieces intrinsic wit.

Selling your idea
Of great importance to any designer is convincing their client that their idea is the best idea. In contemporary practice this can often be through design studios pitching for a contract against each other. If you are lucky enough to be the sole company in line for a job, you will still need to communicate your ideas in a presentation or client meeting, treading the fine line between using design jargon and language a non-designer would understand. You may have a killer idea, but if the client is skeptical and you are unable to convince them otherwise, then you will either need to compromise your design integrity or the client may procure the services of someone else.

Degree study
I hope I have managed to set out what I believe is the importance of English language to graphic design. One of the ironies of the relationship between the two is that at degree level study, many of the students that come to this arts based discipline are dyslexic or have a fear of writing. It can then be a shock on starting a design degree at university to find out just how much of an equal emphasis is placed on research as on image making. As a counterpoint, those students who come to an arts-based degree with an excellent grasp (and/or love) of English languagemaybe because they chose English as one of their A level subjects alongside an arts disciplinedont always appreciate how this will benefit them as young designers. The realisation that their multiple skills can feed into a single interest can be a revelation: that their ability to think in words can be of equal use to them in the field of graphic design as it can to traditional A level progression route onto English related degree courses.

Further reading:
AsburyandAsbury.com  Website of creative team Nick Asbury, (a writer) and Sue Asbury, (a designer).
Heller S. (2012) Writing and Research for Graphic Designers: A Designers Manual to Strategic Communication and Presentation. Massachusetts : Rockport

Horberry R and Lingwood G. (2014) Read Me: 10 Lessons for Writing Great Copy. London : Laurence King

Nigel Ball is course leader for the BA (Hons) Graphic Design programmes at UCS, Ipswich, lecturing across both practical and contextual modules. Alongside teaching, Nigel takes on graphic design commissions, produces personal projects and writes a critical art and design blog under the moniker Dubdog. He has also written for the blog of respected graphic design publication Eye magazine; and peer-reviews publications for Bloomsbury art and design imprint Fairchild Books. Nigel is currently studying for his Masters in Arts Practice.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Join EngLangBlog

In September this blog will have be celebrating its 10 year anniversary, which makes me feel older than I normally do. Which is like bare old? And shown by my feeble attempts to use teen slang and MLE-style youth sociolect. And not write in full grammatical sentences?

Anyway, all of that aside, it would be good to expand the pool of people writing for the blog beyond the existing team (me and my dog). The launch of the new AQA English Language A level specification which kicks off in September 2015 seems like a good time to get new people involved, especially if you are a teacher of English Language A level or someone who is studying it/has studied it. So, if you fancy writing for the blog, just tweet me via @EngLangBlog and we can get you set up.

Monday, June 01, 2015

New AQA A level resources

If you are coming here to find new material for the September 2015 AQA English Language A level, it will be coming soon and labelled as "AQA new spec".

As the current spec is still running and students are doing exams at the moment, I don't want to post anything here that will confuse them, so will start posting new spec material later in the month.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Everybae People

The recent news stories about Scrabble are a gift to A2 students revising Language Change and Discourses, so have a look at these links for some good stuff on new words, and lots of "OMG, how can that even be called a word?!" reactions.

Here's Ben Farren of The Guardian listing lots of them.
Here's The Daily Telegraph looking at both sides: from Sue Bowman of the Association of British Scrabble Players who reckons it's "an abuse of the English language" to Gyles Brandreth, founder of the National Scrabble Competition who says "hang loose and get down on the street". Yeesh!
Meanwhile, Elaine Higgleton offers a staunchly descriptive defence of the new entries in this Radio 4 clip.

Language change hit the headlines a little while ago too in the aftermath of a thinly-disguised marketing exercise for a new Samsung phone, with several articles looking at how older generations claim to feel completely bamboozled about young people's new slang.

Here we have The Guardian explaining how language is changing faster than ever before.
Then, there's The Daily Telegraph saying the same thing in a slightly older and more baffled way.
The Daily Mail reckons it's all the fault of trades unions, gay marriage, Red Ed and immigrants (probably).
The Huffington Post keeps it fleek.

But just to prove that older people have always struggled with young people's language, here's Ben Zimmer looking at an American newspaper from 1911 saying nearly the same thing.

Thanks to various Twitter people for the links (@languagepigeon @agwilliams9 @tonythorne007 @bgzimmer)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Language Change: political correctness and technology

Recent Language Change questions on ENGA3 have featured pairs of texts (one old, one contemporary) on the same topic and offered you the chance to analyse how they use language to create different representations of whatever it is they are focusing on: rugby matches, the city of Bradford or coffee, in recent years. You are also expected to think about how the times the texts are from might have influenced their language. It's worth remembering though, that this isn't the only type of question for ENGA3, so you might want to think about some others. Remember too, that any topic that turns up in Section A of the paper can also appear on Section B as a Language Discourses question.

Political correctness (PC) is worth a look at as a language change topic. It's a movement to change language and redress some of the perceived inequalities in how language represents traditionally less powerful groups in society, but it's always controversial. A question on PC could offer you examples of words that have been changed to make them more inclusive and/or less discriminatory (like this) and perhaps extracts from a text like this one which offers a range of opinions and arguments about how homophobic language can affect people.

Even in Section A, it would be hard to avoid addressing attitudes to PC and there's no reason to steer clear of this kind of debate, because it is covered in the mark scheme. However, what you need to bear in mind is that it's Section B where you will find texts that offer opinions and discussions about language and this is where you can engage more fully with debates and discourses.

The following texts are worth a look to help you think about the arguments.
Gender-neutral language and arguments around PC
Simon Heffer gets wound up about PC (from this page)

Feminist academics upset the Daily Mail and its readers by suggesting that 'Miss' is less respectful than 'Sir'. Full story here.

The other kind of question that has cropped up before is where texts show evidence of the use of new language. Back in June 2011 the paper had an extract from a review of a digital camera. Here you would be looking at how new words are being used and how they reflect technological change (amongst other things), but as with any question on this paper, you're also looking at how language represents the topic, in this case, how the reviewer represents the digital camera. Don't forget either, that - as with the PC questions above or the ones on pairs of texts in recent years - any analysis of the text is also expected to cover how the writer represents him/herself and how s/he addresses the ideal reader. These ideas around positioning and stance are always worth mugging up on to help you secure AO3 marks, whatever kind of text you have to analyse.

It would be quite possible to get a question that had a text featuring a lot of slang and/or new words from popular culture, so you would apply the same analytical skills but perhaps focus in BP2 on a few other areas of language change. Have a look at these examples of news pieces on emojis for some ideas about this.
Emojis on the up
Emoticons are changing the language

As with PC, it's quite possible you could get a Language Discourses question on Technology and Language, so here are a few pieces to have a look at.
Is the internet destroying English?
A similar one from Steven Poole in The Guardian
Robert McCrum updates George Orwell's famous attack on poor English to cover the internet