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.