Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Tackling the NEA Language Investigation

As lots of students are embarking on the Language Investigation part of the Non-Exam Assessment, I thought it might be handy to pick up a few points which I think will be important. The Language Investigation is unlike anything you have done before (unless you've done an EPQ) and it's not an essay or an analysis, but probably the closest thing to a university dissertation that you will do at this level. What does a Language Investigation involve? Read this.

Think of a manageable project... 
Your aim is to write up an investigation of around 2000 words (excluding data) so your project has to be manageable. You can't ask huge questions about language or try to prove or disprove an established theory about language use. Big ideas aren't a problem - and we'd encourage you to think big on most of this course - but in a language investigation you will need to pinpoint your questions and be really specific. You also need to be able to collect your data in a fairly short space of time. If you are planning something too ambitious and time-consuming, it will be hard to do it.

...on a topic that you are interested in
If you aren't interested in what you are investigating, it will be hard to stick to it. You will probably have the best part of 6-8 weeks to work on this project from beginning to end so it has to be something that floats your boat. If you can't think of an interesting project of your own, check the list here or the ideas here. Ideally, the topic should be something that you feel you can invest a bit of time and energy in. Is there an area of the course so far that you've found particularly interesting? Is there something you do outside college - playing/coaching a sport, online gaming, working, reading a certain genre of books/graphic novels/magazines, TV/films that you are obsessed with - that you can investigate linguistically? Some of the very best investigations come from things that students are really interested in.

Read around your topic
You should aim to find out as much as you can about the area you are investigating. Who has researched in this field before? What studies have been carried out? Are there any approaches or methodologies that you can learn from? Use the textbooks, student handbooks and emagazine archive for ideas.

Narrow down your research questions and think of realistic aims and/or hypothesis
You might start with a fairly broad question that you want to answer. It could be something like one of the ones below:

  • How do women and men use language differently in certain situations?
  • How do children of different ages show different levels of language ability?
  • How does the language of a certain kind of advertising change over time?
  • How is immigration represented in different newspapers?
  • What language devices are used by people when communicating via social media?
Each of these is fine as a starting point, but they all need refining. So, think of some of the following to help you break them down further:

  • What do you mean by language? Which frameworks/language levels will you analyse? Will your focus be on lexis & semantics, syntax & morphology, phonology, pragmatics, discourse structure, graphology, interactional features, or a mixture of these? Will it be specific features of language within these headings, such as adjective use, tag questions, hedging, narrative structures etc? Think carefully about defining what you mean by language. We will probably need to see both depth and range to award the highest marks.
  • Which people? You can't make blanket generalisations about women and men, boys and girls, young and old, so think carefully about whose language you might want to explore. If you set out to 'prove' that women do x and men do y, you'll probably come unstuck because different people behave very differently in different situations. Be aware of this and be tentative and exploratory in your approach.
  • Which texts and which times? Think very carefully about the texts that you select. Why are you choosing these texts to analyse? What's your rationale for looking at (say) advertising of hair care products for women rather than shirts for men? What do you expect to change in the language used to advertise them and why might this be happening? Which time periods are you going to select and why? Do you expect major changes to have taken place over 20 years? It's possible with some products, but a longer time frame might give you more to work with.
  • Which newspapers? Which sections of them? From which times? What kinds of immigration? Don't assume that all papers have consistent lines on these issues. Some of them will argue different positions on the same day, depending on who is writing the piece. Think about delving into older, archived articles; there are loads of really interesting ones online and they might give you some useful reference points. How will you explore the idea of representation and what it means? Will this mean that particular frameworks are more useful than others?
  • Which people and which forms of social media? Twitter is not the same as Facebook and web forums are very different to Instagram. Narrow it down and think about what it is you want to explore.
Look at the sample investigations
If you don't know what a good investigation looks like, you will have no idea what you are aiming for. Your teacher will either have provided you with some of these or have access to them. Make sure that you look at them and understand how they have been put together and what you are expected to do.

Think carefully about your data selection
Don't just collect everything and hope to analyse it all. Select the most useful data and explain that selection in your methodology. That doesn't mean that you select the data to fit a preconceived idea of what you will find, but that you consider carefully how much data you need, what type and the context of that data. Think about how you might present your data as well; can you put it in a table, chart or list to make it clearer? If you are transcribing it, how will you show things like overlap, interruption and emphatic stress? Look at this example on the AQA website for an example of what to do and how to approach the first few sections. It's not perfect (it wasn't a final draft) but it is pretty clear. The data selection, in particular, is really effective.

Analyse your data thoroughly
Close focus on both AO1 and AO3 is vital in producing a strong analysis. You need to apply relevant language frameworks (the ones you decided on when you set up your research questions) but you also need to consider meanings, representations and contexts. Don't just pluck single words or phrases from out of their contexts to analyse in isolation: show us where the language comes from and what it means in its context. Think about how it works and what it does. You should also be able to apply your understanding of AO2 language concepts and theories to the analysis you are carrying out.

If you see an example in your data of language being used in ways that fits with, or contradicts, ideas you've seen before about what people do with language, explore this. For example, if research into male language suggests that men "construct solidarity through verbal jousting" - or what we might call 'banter' (urgh!) these days - (Coates, 2003) but you see women doing this in your data, think about why that might be.

Equally, if media articles about texting tell you that young people frequently abbreviate and use non-standard English in their messages, but you find that only 5% of words are shortened in your data set, think about why this might be. Are the articles wrong? They might be. But what has happened to messaging in the last few years and how is the technology different?

If you carry out a survey into the ways in which different regional varieties are represented and find that a dialect judged as being prestigious 30 years ago is now seen (in your analysis, at least) as being less respected, why might this be? Think about the possible reasons for your findings being different? Have attitudes shifted? Is your methodology different to that which was used in the 1980s?

These are all things to think through and consider.

Evaluate throughout
You don't need to write an evaluation at the end of your project, but you are expected to evaluate what you are doing as you go along. Reflect on your methodology: is it a good way to explore your data? Can you think of other ways to do it? What does your data analysis tell you? Can you evaluate what your data reveals about the questions you have been asking?

Make sure your first draft is a substantial, serious piece of work
You do get a chance to redraft but the feedback your teachers are allowed to give is limited. We can't give you a mark for a first draft. We can't offer detailed advice about how to improve what you've done. We can give you the mark scheme and let you decide what you are doing and where you might be able to improve things, but it's vital that your first draft isn't a half-finished, will-this-do, sketchy effort. 

Get going on it quickly
Don't sit around and procrastinate, waiting for your teacher to give you an idea. Think of something you can do and get on with doing it. Once you've got some ideas, we can help you shape them and show you where you need to go. The worst investigations are inevitably the ones where students can't decide what they want to do, have no real interest in it and/or don't really know what they are doing. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Texts in Time - Analysing the Language of the Past

Although many students (and quite a few teachers!) might disagree, analysing historical texts is one of the great joys of studying A-Level English Language. Admittedly, picking your way through the archaic lexis, grammar and orthography isn't always easy - especially with texts written before the 18th century - but once you're in, you enter a different world. 

The trick to analysing such texts well is to avoid saying boring stuff about certain words not existing any more or that they don't have any grammar. Words don't vanish, they just 'fall from mainstream usage' and the only texts without grammar are ones without any words! You need to get a feel for the texts as living things. They were written by real people with real feelings about the subjects they were discussing. More significantly, the words on the page were as relevant to them at that point in history as the WhatsApp or Snapchat you sent five minutes ago. Importantly, language should not be regarded as more or less important - or superior or inferior - based on when it was produced. Simply, it is what it is.

I especially enjoy diary entries and letters from the past because they were intensely personal. They had no intended audience (at least, not a mass audience) and so they were written frankly, honestly and without affectation. They weren't trying (in most cases) to influence the reader. That said, a letter from a monarch to a politician would probably have contained some ulterior motive. 

The other things that trip students up are the attitudes expressed. It's all too easy to write an essay dismissing a text as sexist, racist, superstitious or ignorant in some way, but this can be a misrepresentation. These texts shouldn't be analysed in terms of social attitudes today or how we think today; they need to be considered as a reflection of the time at which they were composed. Back then, attitudes based on gender, sexual orientation, race, social status, religion, the supernatural and so on were different. Centuries ago, there were no such things as political correctness, equality awareness or cultural sensitivity (as we understand them today) operating in the mainstream arena. Often, people were simply writing what was generally held to be true or, at least, acceptable at the time. There are exceptions of course. Nobody could read the vile rantings of a madman like Hitler and dismiss his words as culturally uninformed just because they written almost a century ago. There are some things that common sense alone leads us to recognise plainly as being only evil and wrong. 

More often than not, you can discern much about the text you are analysing by reading the contextual information provided by the examiner and looking at the year of publication or origin. Sometimes you will see that a text was written in or around a significant year. If so, ask yourself if there are any parallels that can be drawn between the attitudes expressed and the point in history that it was written. Above all, just remember that the attitudes and ideas expressed may only seem ignorant or offensive when weighed against today's knowledge and social values. As ever, historical knowledge is important and context is everything. 

The one piece of advice I would leave you with is this: don't be scared of an old text. Trust your revision and remember that the examiner won't ever ask you to analyse something inaccessible. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Talking English

Thanks to the British Library Learning Team for putting on such a great day for English Language teachers yesterday. I'll post a few quick things about it over the weekend and a few reflections on what was said by various speakers, but if you are reading this and were there, hello!

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Analysing Graphology

Getting the most from Graphology

Whatever exam board you are studying for English Language A-Level, you need to remember that Graphology is not, in itself, one of the higher scoring key constituents / frameworks when it comes to textual analysis. Observations such as, "The text is written in red because it is about donating blood" might well be accurate, but it's also not rocket science. 

Personally, I like Graphology to be described in terms of Text-Image Cohesion. In short, how visual devices or aids are used to support the text in achieving its purpose, appealing to its audience or how it works in tandem with other key constituents / frameworks of language. Let's look at a simple example. 

An early reader book for young children may have limited text on the page, with a sketch of the scene dominating the space. Here we have text-image cohesion because the picture is replicating the actions described by the simple sentences which comprise high frequency, low register lexis. Already, we have linked graphology, syntax and lexis. Now let's add purpose. 

This meets the needs of the reader as it helps to place the actions described in a more familiar context. The young reader's limited experience of life and language is being taken into consideration and the text-image cohesion adds to their understanding of events and sequencing. 

We can extend this to older readers who may enjoy comic strips or graphic novels. Perhaps the call-outs or text use exclamative forms or incorporate non-standard orthography to create phonological effects (think about Batman's famous fight scenes where punches are accompanied with lexical coinages such as 'thwack!'; 'kaboosh'; 'schlumpf'... The list is endless. Here the text-image cohesion allows us to better engage with the text as a 'realistic' recreation of a fight, or it might create humour in terms of the hyperbolic language which accompanies such pained facial expressions. 

In this example, we have managed to squeeze in orthography and phonology. In doing this, we have elevated the status of graphology to a potentially high scoring point of observation. Why? Because we are not analysing it in isolation, but as a component of the text. Ideally, texts should always be made up of complementary techniques. The trick for candidates is to join the dots between each. 

This is not to say that we can't be simplistic in order to bag a few easy points. If a text about an aquarium is predominantly blue and turquoise, it would be foolish to ignore the observation and the reasons for it. Likewise, if a text uses a high incidence of emojis (emoticons, or whatever they're called this week), then make the observation that the text is probably targeting a younger audience familiar with the phenomenon or that it is trying to convey a sense of face to face communication by expressing, visually, ideas that brief words alone cannot convey adequately. 

Graphology can take many forms - even something as obvious as pictorial representations to support instructions on something like a diagram from IKEA. Just try to link your observations to the text as a whole or, at the very least, as something which complements or makes possible another linguistic technique present in the text. 

Friday, October 07, 2016

NEA: investigation ideas part 1

In this, the 1000th post on EngLangBlog (OMG), I'll run through a couple of quick ideas for language investigations based on recent stories in the news or language posts elsewhere.

1. Changing UK accents and dialects. 
The stories in the press and on the radio last week about the Sound of 2066 report were fascinating and worrying in equal measure. The report itself can be downloaded here and is a really good read (and very useful for anyone studying Change and Diversity for the new A level course). It looks at what English might look and sound like in 50 years and traces some patterns that have already been established - abbreviations, borrowing and simplification of sounds - to see what is likely to occur as time goes on.
Here's a nice clip of the report's authors talking about their predictions.
There are several language investigations in there, I think. One might be to consider one or two variables in your own family and the ways in which these might have changed across generations. Another might be to look at these changes in written texts over time: abbreviations cold be a good one as we have used them for a long time (e.g. etc. et al. & err... etc.) but many see them as a recent development.

Another set of investigations (which crosses over with Paper 2 Language Discourses work) would be to examine the coverage of the report. As I (no doubt, tediously) complained about on Twitter last week, the angles taken by various right wing news outlets, were worryingly xenophobic and played on anti-immigration themes. You can make your own mind up about these by looking at the headlines and main thrust of each of the following. Notice a pattern?

Mail (original headline published for this was "Is immigration killing off the Queen's English?"
The Sun
The Guardian

The local media coverage of stories like this is also good to consider. Here's what three regional publications made of it all:


2. Changing attitudes to taboo language
This one has always been a favourite  because it allows you to look at really bad swear words in an academic and mature way ("Ha, that says boobies!"). Every few years, Ofcom publishes a survey of social attitudes to swearing and their latest report can be found here. Looking back at their previous reports (check this blog), you can see some shifting social attitudes towards certain words.

Is this something you could do for your own investigation? An apparent time study (using an age-stratified sample of respondents) might allow you to test how people feel about different swear words and explore some of their reasons for finding them offensive or otherwise. There's plenty of scope for discussion about taboos around various bodily functions, sex and social behaviour, but also a lot of scope for discussion of religion, gender, race and sexuality, all of which feed into other parts of this course.

This article and this one are helpful for providing other angles.

More ideas next week, but if you have any of your own, please tweet them to @EngLangBlog.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Some more Language Change work in progress (or decay)...

Following on from the last post about how I'm approaching the topic of Language Change, here's a rough plan of the question I'm setting as a way to build up skills and knowledge for Paper 2 of the A level and a few ideas that one of my A level classes came up with this afternoon.

We're heading towards an essay question "Evaluate the idea that language change is either a process of evolution or of decay" and we're trying to build a range of different case studies and examples along the way. As well as that, I'm trying to kill two birds with one stone by looking at some examples of older texts in preparation for Paper 1.

What I'm hoping is that this allows us to do some close work on short texts, thinking about how they use language to convey ideas and represent their subject matter (all part of Paper 1's textual analysis focus) and then the same texts can be sources of examples and evidence for the bigger Paper 2 essay questions. One thing that's different between Paper 2 at AS and A level is the absence of any data prompt with the "Evaluate the idea..." cue, so I think it's important for students to have lots of examples and extracts of data that they can use to illustrate their points.

That's the plan... Any ideas/further suggestions/criticisms welcome.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Some Language Change links

We've made a start on Language Change as an A level topic at our college and been thinking about the different phases the language has been through. While 1600 is the cut-off point for texts on Paper 1, it's useful to look back further to see how the language started and the processes it went through to help with Paper 2 and a better overview of the whole topic.

These links from the OED site are really good for explaining the main changes, while the British Library timeline is great for the bigger picture.

The approach I'm taking at the moment is to look through the changes to lexis (word formation), semantics (meaning changes), grammar, phonology and orthography/graphology framework by framework, stopping to focus on a few more detailed discussions of things like semantic reclamation and political correctness along the way.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Welcome to 'NEA', the component formerly known as 'coursework'

One of the new things in the A level, as opposed to the AS level, is the appearance of coursework. Except we're not supposed to call it 'coursework' any more and that's probably got something to do with political arguments about the validity of internally-assessed work in a high-stakes testing regime...but I'll save that discussion for another day and maybe some bright spark out there could do a language investigation into the semantic pejoration of the term 'coursework' in media discourses around education.

But anyway, here's a thing I've put together for our returning AS students, now embarking on the 2nd year of the A level course. It's not a complete explanation of what's involved in the Non-Exam Assessment (NEA) but sets a few starting points and offers some ideas for what you can do before you really get started.

We're not officially starting our NEA work until nearer Christmas (and just to mention Christmas seems obscene at this time of year!) but we'd like students to think ahead a bit and get some ideas ticking over.

You can find plenty of other ideas about language investigations from the blog here.

As part of the second year of your A level course, you will have two exam components and one that is called Non-Exam Assessment (i.e. coursework).

The aim of NEA component is to allow you to explore and analyse language data independently and develop and reflect upon your own writing expertise.

It requires you to carry out two different kinds of individual research:
a language investigation (2,000 words excluding data)
a piece of original writing and commentary (750 words each)

Language Investigation 

A project that involves you researching and investigating an area of language, setting your own questions, collecting your own data and then analysing your data and writing it all up. It’s not quite like anything you will have done before for English and requires a good chunk of time, some clear understanding of how language works and - perhaps, most importantly -  your own initiative. You will get more detailed information about the investigation as the term goes on, but will find it helpful to think about potential investigation topics as you look back at work from last year and develop your understanding of new topic areas this year.

A Language Investigation might look something like one of the examples below – which are based on topics you cover on the course – but could equally be about something we do not do on the course. As long as there is a language element to it and you can convince your teacher that it is a viable project, you can do it.

Example investigations

1. A study of the language techniques used by Great British Bake-Off judges when commenting on the cakes produced in the final rounds of the competition, focusing on politeness, directness and possible gender differences.
2. An investigation into the language of female boxers during interviews to see if stereotypes about female communication are true for these women.
3. A comparison of the language used by three children of different ages when responding to the same task, focusing particularly on the stages of development they are at and their ability to use vocabulary and grammar.
4. An investigation into the ways in which different political parties and pressure groups represented the EU during the 2016 referendum across their campaign literature.
5. A study of ways in which local newspapers in 3 different areas represent their local dialect and accent in reports about varieties of English.
6. A comparison of how Maybelline adverts change over a 75-year period in their representation of female beauty.
7. An investigation into the messaging styles of 3 different age groups when using WhatsApp.
8. An investigation into the ways that the language of Twitter arguments differs from those carried out face to face.
9. An exploration of the different language techniques used by three supermarkets to represent their values to the general public on their official websites.
10. A study of the linguistic techniques used by rugby commentators in a radio commentary compared to an online commentary from the BBC website.

This is not an exhaustive list and there are endless possibilities to explore, but you should be able to see that some of these link to areas you might already have studied, while others pick up on A level-only topics.

What you can do now

Think about potential language investigation topics (and possible methodologies i.e. how you might approach the topic) as this first term goes on
Start collecting data: saving articles, bookmarking links, making a note of interesting radio, TV or online shows
Start discussing ideas with your teacher
Read the material in your A level handbook (and in the OUP or CUP course textbooks) for ideas about how to approach the NEA

Original Writing

You will need to produce one piece of original writing based on one of the following three areas:
the power of persuasion
the power of storytelling
the power of information

The topic choice is down to you (in discussion with your teacher) but you must have looked at a range of style models and chosen one to comment on in more detail as part of your commentary. Again, you will do some of this in class, but it is a good idea to think about the kind of thing you can write and might enjoy doing. Some suggestions for original writing tasks might be:

The power of persuasion
A piece of investigative journalism.
A speech delivered on a controversial topic.
A letter to an MP.

The power of storytelling
A short story.
An extract from a biography.
A dramatic monologue.

The power of information
A piece of travel journalism.
A blog focusing on social issues.
A piece of local history.

Each folder submitted should contain:
a piece of original writing
an annotated style model
a reflective commentary references (paper and web-based)

What you can do now

Read and write. Find stories, articles and speeches to read. Practise writing in different styles. Use the time in class for Directed Writing tasks as part of the exam components to experiment with form, style and voice. This is one of the few areas on any A level that allows you to write what you like.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Welcome back to English Language

Welcome back to English Language A level if you are moving into the second year of your course and hello to new AS/A level students and teachers.

This year, I'm going to try to focus primarily on the material that's new for the AQA A level, so the areas of Language Change, Child Language Acquisition and Language Diversity, including World Englishes. There's already quite a lot of material on here from the old specifications, but I'll set up some new posts linking to the most useful material and then some suggestions for new idea and activities.

As ever, I'm keen to expand the pool of writers for the blog and you will have seen some contributions from a few different writers over the last year (thanks again to them) so if you are interested, contact me via the @EngLangBlog Twitter account.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Why language is such good sport

Previously, I suggested that coffee chains and their pseudo-Italian-American lexicon provided possible evidence of the way that English was changing its attitudes when it came to borrowings. My argument was that asking for 'a triple-shot mocha with soya to go' made consumers feel part of something exclusive; that it somehow helped 20- and 30-somethings to rediscover the joys of using slang with their teenage friends. In short, coffee shops had become closed language communities of their own. This doesn't have quite the same socio-political implications of Milroy's study, but you get the idea. 

However, I'd hate to be thought of as an inverted coffee snob and so I turned my gaze elsewhere. 

Watching Chris Froome claim his third Tour de France title yesterday got me thinking about the language of sport in all its glorious vagary. It is every bit as elitist as coffee and fine dining in its choice of lexis, often seeming like a different language intended for the few, rather than the many. 

In cycling, it literally is a different a language, filled with borrowings of French origin. Why have a referee when you can have a commissaire? As a noun, it sounds so much more important and sophisticated. Then we have the collective noun for the main group of riders: peloton. And let's not forget that the peloton gets strung out into echelons in strong cross winds, aching to pass under the flame rouge as they go over the final classified climb, supported by their domestiques! It's a delightful lexicon, but what on earth does a novice make of it?

And what of tennis?

As Sue Barker rounds up the day's scores, she casually announces that Federer is through in straight sets with a triple bagel, while Djokovic battled through a five-setter, eventually triumphing three, six, six, two and six, breaking twice in the decider. What does this mean to anyone out of the loop?

Golf offers little reprieve. Spieth leads Day by a single shot at seven under after eagling the par five ninth, while a wild tee shot from Day saw him double bogey the par four eighth. From this, we are meant to know what their scores were before these shots! (Incidentally, it would've meant that Day had led on -8 with Spieth three behind on -5.) 

Of course, there are sports like football where everyone knows the terminology, even though they might not quite grasp the rules, but with the Olympics fast-approaching, viewers are sure to be treated to a whole new world of sporting jargon. The question is, why do we tolerate it?

Because we want to learn. We all want to sound like experts in any field, nodding sagely at the right moments. The commentators are our teachers, describing what we are seeing on our screens so that we can match the words (usually nouns) to the actions. If you don't listen hard, you'll loft one into the deep and find yourself caught out!

Once again, specialist, field specific lexis is a tool that helps us become a part of something from which we would otherwise be excluded. Is it so wrong to want to join the club? Language is used in a self-seeking way from the moment we are born, we just become better practitioners in the art of manipulation as we grow. The ability to feel comfortable on a shared topic in any company is incredibly beneficial, so let's not shun the language's ever-changing vocabulary...let's take in as much as we can and go for gold. Well, a podium finish at least. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Discussing language over a coffee...

Back when I was an A-Level student, I thought I had the concept of borrowings worked out. The textbook definition (as given by my teacher) was that a borrowing must either fill a gap in the borrowing language (usually an abstract concept), or it should name some kind of phenomenon that has gripped the culture of the borrowing language (a more concrete notion).

I suppose words like the German-derived abstract noun 'schadenfreude' (finding pleasure in the misfortune of others - usually a friend) and the Georgian abstract noun 'Shemomedjamo' (eating beyond the point of fullness because the food tastes so good) are fine examples of the first part of the definition because to find an English equivalent to describe such ideas would be too cumbersome. The second part of the definition is more straightforward. The borrowing of the Japanese noun 'karaoke' was beneficial as it gave a name to a new innovation on western shores. 

Where am I going with all this? Well, arguably the traditional circumstances related to borrowings no longer hold true. They appear to have become a cultural issue, designed to fit in with the British class system. Let me give you some examples. 

Two friends are having a tête-à-tête over their suburban garden fence, with one foreshadowing a juicy bit of gossip with the phrase "Strictly entre nous..." The first bit of French means 'head-to-head' (in a friendly sense) and the second means 'between us'. Can English express these ideas without recourse to the Romance languages and without ambiguity? Yes, ultimately making this a middle-class affectation. The late, great comedy writer, John Sullivan bestowed 
such character flaws(?) on Del Trotter as he described attractive women as 'fromage frais' and 

used exclamatives such as 'Chateau Neuf du Pape!' Del always had those middle-class yearnings and Sullivan captured them with warmth and incisive accuracy. 

But let's get to the real point. Return with me to my childhood...

When I was growing up in the 1970s and '80s, my family often popped into a traditional cafe for a drink. Usually, they had tea or coffee but, when feeling extravagant, they would opt for a milky coffee or, in moments of utter recklessness, a frothy coffee! Although you can still ask for such beverages in small tea shops, we know these drinks  better as lattes and cappuccinos today. That's right, I'm about to propose that coffee culture is proof of the changing nature of borrowings. 

Rewind 30 years, enter a cafe and ask for a tall, skinny macchiato with an extra shot to go. What kind of response would you receive? A look of incredulity followed by immediate arrest. Today, however, it's the norm. We speak a different language to many of our grandparents. What's wrong with requesting a small macchiato, made with skimmed milk with an extra drop of coffee thrown in that you wish to take away from the cafe? What's wrong is that, despite its clarity, it sounds like you don't understand; it isn't snappy enough; you're not part of the club - and belonging is everything in today's society. 

And who said size doesn't matter?

If we take the so-called big three coffee chains, we see huge variations in their use of Italio-American jargon to reference the size of drinks available. In Starbucks, you can have (from smallest to largest) short, tall, grande and venti. Meanwhile, Costa limits the choice to primo, medio and massimo while Caffe Nero offers just regular and grande. How do these sizes correlate? I reached the (not unreasonable) conclusion that grande, venti and massimo must all be Italian synonyms for 'large'. I put this to two friends, both fluent in Italian, who laughed at me explaining that the choice of size names were all style over substance. 

Therefore, There exists a reasonable possibility that social class and a desperation to be part of something (moderately) elite has become a factor in why the English language continues to borrow words - even though they don't necessarily mean what we think they do. Isn't it sufficient to ask for small, medium or large? Oh well, c'est la vie!

Friday, July 08, 2016

Brexit: the war of the words

By chance or design, our often fractious relationship with continental Europe has contributed significantly to our proverbial 'mongrel' language which is up there with Finnish and Welsh as one of the continent's most notoriously difficult languages to learn. As if this isn't bad enough, recent events, monolithic institutions and the pseudo-intellectuals in the media have saddled us with a whole new world of linguistic detritus.

Looking back, it was easy: David Cameron promised a straight in/out referendum that we could get our heads around. As time passed, factions emerged in the form of official (and unofficial) Remain or Leave camps. Sadly, as with Brangelina and Jedward, the media outlets needed something...sexier? They found it! After all, who could fail to be seduced after drinking the love potion that is the blended neologism (or blelologism)?

Suddenly, a reporter recalled that the Greek threat to leave the EU had been dubbed Grexit (Greek exit) and so, logically, the concept of Brexit (noun) was born. But Brexit versus Remain lacked balance and harmony. We had the Yin, but why borrow that when we had no Yang to complete the set?  Fortunately, help was forthcoming as a timid hand raised itself from beside the water cooler and suggested that Remain could be renamed Bremain. Everyone present knew it was rubbish, but the noun worked. Shrek had found his Fiona and the blended neologisms were settled upon as the official lexicon of the Breferendum.

From this point on, we saw linguistic change take place at light speed. You were either pro- or anti-Brexit. Already, the new noun had undergone affixation thanks to two tried and tested prefixes. As a consequence it had shifted semantically, evolving from noun to adjective as in the pre-modification present in, '...claimed the pro-Brexit camp.'  The same didn't happen with Bremain because, as a  
noun, it was still rubbish.

Then came the ever-so-slightly-tortured plural noun for the pro-Brexit bunch: Brexiteers. Ostensibly, this is affixation through the use of a a suffix but, however we perceive it, it is difficult to dissociate the connotation of -eers with The Musketeers. Fearless, selfless noblemen risking everything for the side of good? It makes for a compelling image. Meanwhile, The Bremain Camp continued to sound like a dodgy political remake of Carry on Camping.

In truth, it may well have been the war of semantics - not words - that decided the referendum. Brexit always had so much more potential than Bremain and, in the end, three noble horsemen from France contributed to a divorce from that same nation (amongst many others). A result that left many voters feeling a sense of Bregret or Branxiety. Really? The blended neologisms were now forming more abstract nouns. Where will it all Brend?

As for the matter of the the red tops taking the initialism EU and using it as a substitute for the second person pronoun you? We'll leave that abuse of orthography for another time. EU have probably had enough for today.

Monday, June 13, 2016

ENGA3 - Accent & Dialect revision

Accent and Dialect is one of the topics that could appear in Section A for Language Variation but also in Section B for Language Discourses. Over the last few months, I've added lots of links for this topic for the students taking the new A-level (where the topic appears in the 1st year of the course) but all of these are relevant (and some are really excellent) for your work on ENGA3. Here's a selection of useful posts and links:

Sunday, June 12, 2016

ENGA3 - Language Discourses revision

Language Discourses

  • This Word of Mouth episode featuring Oliver Kamm (who we talked about recently) is useful for debates about pedantry and 'proper' English.
  • This Salon article about online communication making us more stupid is a good read and offers some opinions about language change that could be explored (thanks to @QEEnglish for the link).
  • These articles (this one and this one) by Robert Lane Greene focus on arguments about language and offer a linguistically descriptive perspective on such changes. Ideal for exam revision.
  • Jean Aitchison's original Reith Lectures about language can be found here. If you want to hear what she really said about crumbling castles, damp spoons and infectious diseases, go no further than A Web of Worries.
  • An old blog post from here about the prescriptive - descriptive debate is worth a read, especially if you're interested in exploring arguments about views belong along a continuum.
  • Finally for today, Stan Carey has written an excellent article about why slang is not a broken down form of 'proper' English and you can find it here.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

ENGA3 - World Englishes revision

Sorry to neglect you ENGA3ers out there. I've been busy with the new AS level, so put the A2 stuff on the backburner a bit. Here are some things that I hope will help...

World Englishes

  • Have a listen to this Word of Mouth episode about English as a Lingua Franca to get a grasp of what's going on with English around the world.
  • Think about the ideas in this article which suggests native English speakers are often the problem in international conversations using English.
  • This article is also interesting about the ways English is used around the world.
  • David Crystal talks in this clip about the future of English around the world.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Paper 2 today - good luck

Hope it all goes well today. Plenty of revision tips on the blog should you want to do any more!

Monday, June 06, 2016

Paper 2: last few revision pointers

Paper 2 is on Wednesday, so good luck with it to everyone. I won't be blogging or tweeting about the AS for a while after then as I'll be marking it and will need to keep my head down and prime my red pen for lots of (I hope) ticks.

I've posted loads of stuff about Paper 2 here and via the Twitter feed, but if you're looking for a few last-minute ideas, why not have a look at the following?

Accent and dialect: Paul Kerswill and Alex Barrata were interviewed on Radio 4 last week and if you listen from 14 minutes in to this link, you'll get a nice overview of some of the attitudes to different accents.

There's been some interesting material emerge from the team behind the English Dialects app and if you want to see how some of their work has been reported have a look here and here.

The area of social groups is perhaps a bit more slippery than that of accents and dialects, so you might want to look at some ideas around social class here and about slang and young people here. Julie Coleman's The Life of Slang is a great book about slang and how it emerges, so a look at some of the reviews of it might help with your revision. Here's one.

There's already a lot about gender out there, but reading and referring to recent posts by Deborah Cameron on her fantastic blog are a great way of showing your examiner (maybe even me!) that you've gone beyond the usual reading that everyone else will be name-checking. This article is great for interaction and gender, while this takes a different tack by looking at gender representation (both of which could appear on Paper 2 for AS and/or A level).

For occupation, have a look at some of the tweets from the last month or two, including this one and this one.

Anyway, good luck; I'm looking forward to reading and marking lots of ace answers.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Revising AO1 terminology

If you're revising for Paper 1 and want to do some last-minute terminology work, these are good places to look.

The Internet Grammar of English
The Interactive Grammar of English

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Attitudes to accents

If you're revising Paper 2 of the new AS level, there have been some really helpful articles about some of the topics covered, over the last few days.

This piece from The Guardian on Friday (thanks to @ENSFCEnglish) looks at research carried out by Dr Alexander Baratta into accent prejudice in education and quotes some staggeringly ill-informed views about how trainee teachers should speak. The story is also covered in The Sun (thanks to @paulkerswill).

A couple of years ago, this story about a teacher made news when it was suggested she had been told to 'tone down' her northern accent while working in a soft, southern, shandy-drinking school (thanks to @Lisa7Pettifer for that link).

Elsewhere, Rob Drummond at MMU kindly posted the results of a short survey he had carried out into attitudes towards young people's language and you can find them here.

All of this material is useful for both sections of the new Paper 2 (AS and A level) where you might see examples of texts that represent regional and social varieties, along with debates and arguments about the same topics. The sample paper has a Directed Writing task on issues around people changing their accents and these texts give you some handy, up to date reference points for questions like that.

We've covered lots of pieces about accent prejudice on this blog in the past and you can find plenty of links through this page.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Paper 1: salience & hotspots

Revision of Paper 1 skills and approaches has been on our agenda recently, so here are a few things that we've been looking at.

Given the limited amount of time to read two substantial new texts and write three answers, I think we probably have to be quite disciplined about time on this paper, so it pays to read for meaning effectively and plan cleverly. For our students, I've been suggesting an approach to planning answers that allows for getting an overview of each text to help with the meanings and representations in Questions 1 and 2 and which also starts to focus on the compare and contrast requirements of Question 3. Underpinning it all is a focus on finding examples of language and describing them accurately.

Here's an outline of what I've given our students to work with. I've been quite pleased with the results this week, so let me know if it works for you.

In the short time you have in the exam, you need to make sure every minute counts. Your note-taking and reading of the texts needs to be smart and give you material for your answers to the text analysis (Questions 1 and 2) and the compare and contrast of Question 3.

The approach I’d suggest is to use the first few minutes to read for meaning. That is, get a decent sense of the following:

• What each text is about – the topic that they share
• What’s being said about that topic
• What different views are being offered

You can also make some initial notes to help with the other parts of the questions, such as:

• What kinds of texts they are - genre
• The mode/s they are in – spoken, written, computer-mediated communication
• Their audiences and purposes

These observations can help you sort out some useful starting points for your notes, which can then help you form the basis of your main paragraphs for each answer. Next, I’d suggest finding 5-6 ‘hotspots’ in each text. These are areas in each text that convey the clearest and most useful ideas. These hotspots could be a single phrase, a section of the text (an image, a headline, the opening or closing lines), a sentence or even a pattern of language across the whole text.

These hotspots should mean something and, in some cases at least, represent the topic or views on the topic in a way that you can pull apart. There’s no point just picking a few words because you can label them with terms that you’ve learnt (“x is a determiner and y is a pronoun”); it’s vital to get to grips with language that means something and contributes to the overall meanings in each text.

With these hotspots, you can explore what things mean and analyse the language used to create these meanings. This means thinking about your language frameworks (or methods, or levels, or whatever you’ve called them this year) and your AO1 terms, making sure you are offering a good range across each text. AO1 is not just about grammatical labels (word classes, phrases, sentences, clauses, tense etc.), but also about things like semantic fields, patterns of meaning (contrast, antithesis and juxtaposition, for example), graphology, interaction patterns (especially in spoken texts or ones using features of spoken language), discourse structure, pragmatics and perhaps phonology too.

 As you discuss the language used in these hotspots, try to cover a range of different language points but concentrate your attention on the ones that are most important in creating meanings and representations. For example, if the topic is a famous actor, perhaps think about the ways in which adjectives modify nouns to describe her performances and how metaphor might be used to describe her career. If the topic is an event like a football match or gig, look at the verb choices, the use of tense and aspect to structure events. If the topic is more of an ‘issue’, look at the patterns of abstract nouns and their meanings, and perhaps the overall discourse structure used to present conflicting ideas.

There will be many different ways to do this and if you’ve selected, meaningful parts of the texts, you’ll be able to explain them effectively. Examiners don’t really want to read about a text having “lots of long sentences to make it flow” or “lots of pronouns to make it personal” because these are meaningless generalisations. Look closely at what is actually meant in each text in its given context.

While analysing these hotspots, keep in mind the bigger picture of what each text is doing and what kind of texts they are. You will need to address these issues a bit more in your answer to Question 3, but they will also be useful in Questions 1 and 2. For example, if the text is typical of a particular genre, you know it will generally do certain things (recipes tell you what to do, stories recount events etc.).

 Another important aspect to consider is not just how the topic of each text is represented but how the text creators (writers, speakers, posters, texters etc.) represent themselves and each other. How do they position themselves in relation to the text receivers? How do they present a face or image to the audience and to each other? How does this relate to what the texts are about?

In the example text you’ve been given, spend 7-8 minutes doing what’s outlined above. Read for meaning, make notes, identify 5-6 hotspots and then get writing. Use the remaining time (25 minutes) to draft your analysis of these hotspots, linking them back to the overall meanings in the text to keep a coherent thread running through your analysis.

We've used different texts to practise on, but a good one supplied by a helpful teacher from another school (thanks Wendy!) is this blog about Alan Rickman, which we then used alongside this article about Rickman (well...more about Snape really).

Friday, April 01, 2016

Argument & counter-argument

While marking my students' recent work for the directed writing task on Paper 2 of the new spec, I've been jotting down a few ideas about how to address the main areas that need improvement. Apart from some of the stuff I've blogged about recently - making the opinion pieces accessible to non-specialist readers, including enough language knowledge to hit the higher levels of AO2 and developing effective openings and conclusions - one thing that has struck me is this part of the mark scheme for AO2:

Under the 'Performance Characteristics' heading (i.e. the general expectations of what students will be doing to be in this Level, rather than the more specific 'Indicative Content' for each paper), the key thing seems to be the notion of identifying different views, approaches and interpretations.

If we assume that students already need to have "show detailed knowledge of linguistic ideas, concepts and research" (Level 3), then what Level 4 seems to be asking for is a sense of alternative ways of looking at the issue and an awareness that other views exist. In an opinion piece, there is clearly an argument that needs to be developed and the Directed Writing Guidance document on the AQA site makes it clear that "students’ writing will necessarily have the purpose of conveying opinions and arguing a case" while "marshalling points and presenting them in a coherent form". But, perhaps most importantly for Levels 4 and 5, "Students can show that they can deconstruct others’ arguments and present their own".

My reading of this is that a single-track opinion piece which ploughs a fairly narrow furrow and doesn't look up, or around, at alternative arguments or opinions, might find it hard to go much higher than Level 3. I might be wrong... and we probably need to remember that the paper hasn't been marked (or even sat) yet.

Anyway, from looking at my own students' work, I've decided that they need to do a bit more work on addressing different opinions and showing awareness (at least), understanding (preferably) and evaluation (optimistically) of other views.

Style models are good for this and some of these are useful for showing how different opinions can be flagged up and then knocked down. David Crystal does a good job of this in his review of Simon Heffer's (awful) Strictly English:

Heffer hides his tastes behind the idea of what is logical, using variants of the word more often than Spock. "Rules in language are made by logic, not by a democratic vote," he writes. If only that were true: it would save grammarians so much bother. In fact, there is no logic behind his recommendations, other than the usual kind favoured by pedants: if I like it, it's logical; if I don't, it isn't.

By quoting Heffer, Crystal can respond directly to the argument, but perhaps remembering a quotation and then deploying it effectively is a bit of a tall order for an AS student in an exam (although, it's always nice to see it happen).

An alternative approach is a little vaguer, but quite effective in its own way. Lindsay Johns' Ghetto Grammar article, which is a favourite of mine for class analysis, takes a lighter touch:

Some educators take a position of cultural relativism. They assert the legitimacy and value of street talk, or at the very least, the importance of teaching young people to "code switch" - how to differentiate in which milieu it is socially acceptable.

I have no time for such an approach. In my experience, young people find it very hard to code switch. Text-speak, poor grammar and street patois routinely pervade the essays I set them, let alone their conversations with me.

What's interesting about this approach is that it's a bit vague about:
a) who the "educators" are (names would help);
b) how what they say can be defined as "cultural relativism";
c) why Johns' own "experience" should trump these educators' assertions.

On the plus side, it's effective in keeping his (for me, almost entirely wrong-headed) argument on track.

A quick task I'm setting my students after Easter is the one below, in which they look at an idea from one side of a debate (in this case, work we've been doing on dialect and slang bans in schools) and then try to come up with a counter-argument. I'm going to encourage the students to come up with a source, quotation or reference point for each argument too, so they can draw on what they've studied in class and support their views, where possible. I'd be interested to see if anyone else has ideas for different arguments that could be brought in or where else to take this.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Representation and regional variation

One area of Paper 2 of the new AQA English Language AS level I've been trying to address is the focus on how users of language varieties are represented. In the examples I posted in January, stimulus texts taken from stories about schools 'banning' slang and/or dialect touched on how regional varieties and youth sociolects are represented and discussed, so they make a useful starting point. 

Another area though is how fiction represents accent and dialect, often through 'eye dialect': a way of writing words to make them resemble how they are pronounced. It's less precise than using a phonemic alphabet but creates an easy to understand representation of how a regional accent might sounds. Irvine Welsh uses it in Trainspotting, which is set in Edinburgh and through the eye dialect you can hear the sound of the Leith accent coming through:

Third time lucky. It wis like Sick Boy telt us: you’ve got tae know what it’s like tae try tae come off it before ye can actually dae it. You can only learn through failure, and what ye learn is the importance ay preparation. He could be right. Anywey, this time ah’ve prepared.
Another regional variety represented in fiction is the Yorkshire dialect, which features in the work of Barry Hines, whose A Kestrel to a Knave is a classic of working class fiction. In the short extract of dialogue below, you can hear the author's attempts to capture the sounds and words of his characters' voices, capturing also something of their social and personal identity in the process, perhaps in a way that Standard English simply couldn't do:

He stayed in his own half of the bed, groaning and turning over every few minutes. Billy lay with his back to him, listening. Then he turned his cheek slightly from the pillow.
'Tha'd better get up.'
No answer.
'Alarm's gone off tha knows.'
'Think I don't know?'
He pulled the blankets tighter and drilled his head into the pillow. They both lay still.
'Tha'll be late.'
'O, shut it.'
'Clock's not fast tha knows.'
'I said SHUT IT.'
He swung his fists under the blankets and thumped Billy in the kidneys.
'Gi'o'er! That hurts!'
'Well shut it then.'
'I'll tell my mam on thi.'
Jud swung again. Billy scuffled away to the cold at the edge of the bed, sobbing. Jud got out, sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, then stood up and felt his way across the room to light the switch. Billy worked his way back to the centre and disappeared under the blankets.
As the Yorkshire poet, Ian McMillan explains in his piece about Barry Hines (who died last week),  it was something of a rarity for authors to use the voices of working class regional English speakers in a serious and considered way in fiction. For many middle and upper class authors, regional accents were easy markers of social difference to employ and non-standard English speakers were often mocked or ridiculed. McMillan explains how pleased he was to hear his own voice being represented in an authentic and sympathetic way:

I wasn’t only captivated by the characters and the plot, though. What really made me grin and bang the settee arm with my pudgy fist was the way the characters spoke: they talked just like me. Somehow Hines, who died at the weekend, managed to get that minimalist Barnsley poetry down on the page without the apostrophes flying round the paragraphs like racing pigeons.
These text extracts make quite nice examples for analysis and discussion at AS level, because they offer a representation of different characteristics of regional dialects (the use of thi and tha suggesting the Yorkshire pronouns thee and thou, for example). 

Elsewhere, less sympathetic representations still abound and a trip to a local charity shop this week (don't dare say middle-aged teachers never have any fun) meant that I stocked up on old copies of (the extremely rude) Viz comic which I spent a large part of my late teens and early twenties reading when I should have been doing something useful. 

One of the annuals features a strip called The Boy Scouse, in which a young Liverpool boy goes to Scouse Camp (as opposed to Scout Camp - dat's da joke, la) and develops Scouse skills. You can see a bit of it yourself in the extract below:

Unlike the serious examples earlier, the representation of regional variety here is all part of the mockery of a whole group of people, or perhaps the social and regional stereotype around them. 

The pronunciation (th-fronting stopping* in dat, g-dropping in avoidin and shopliftin & /t/-glottalisation /l /substitution** in gerrin), along with local expressions such as la (used like lad or mate, according to this link) and the syntax of colloquial spoken English such as the 'tail' ("Dat'll go great...dat will") are one element of the shorthand used to create the stereotype of the Scouse scally, along with the curly hair, references to unemployment, crime and anti-social behaviour.

The strip itself could be a good way into a wider essay question about how some regional dialects (and/or sociolects) are portrayed negatively in popular culture, as well as a useful wider discussion about the ways in which (often offensive) social stereotypes are easily tapped into through the representation of a particular way of speaking.

*Edited on 27.03.16 to amend th-fronting to th-stopping (cheers to @Nickking6)
** and t-glottalisation to /t/ to /l/ substitution (from Clark & Watson's work here, as suggested by Nick)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Opinion pieces: doing the knowledge with style

Over the last week or two, we've been working on the Directed Writing part of Paper 2 and thinking about ways to make the opinion pieces both rich in language knowledge - so the reader is actually informed and educated about language - and able to grasp the main ideas without being a specialist.

Having set a task on the language of social groups in which quite a few students erred on the side of catchiness and style over language content, with a few swinging the other way and writing things that were more like essays than articles, I put together the following as a worksheet for the best part of a double lesson. We're going to use it next week and see if we can get the opinion pieces a bit closer to what I think the mark scheme can reward.

Obviously, there's more to this kind of writing than just aiming to hit the different bands on the mark scheme and I'd encourage students to read as wide a range of opinion pieces - op-eds in papers, online articles like those on Comment is Free and Indie Voices and perhaps a few pieces from better blogs (eg Deborah Cameron's brilliant Language: a feminist guide) to get a real feel for the ways arguments and opinions are structured and shaped, but in the classroom we probably need a bit more scaffolding, so here it is...

Part of your job in the Directed Writing task is to explain linguistic concepts to a non-specialist audience.

This means that
a) you need linguistic ideas to explain and
b) you need to develop a way of making them clear and intelligible to your readers.

In practice, this means you will need to do the following:

  • explain who people are and why you are quoting them or referring to them 
  • give a clear explanation of a technical term (and show an example of it in use) 
  • untangle different ideas and make them more straightforward for your audience 
  • present different arguments and identify where they are coming from 
  • show an overview of issues from which you can then select relevant examples 
  • demonstrate language practices in use with examples that your readers will understand 
  • show your own line of argument and guide your readers through the topic 

In the example below (taken from here), there are some important linguistic ideas and technical terms, but it’s not very accessible.

How would you deal with it to make it more relevant and clear for your target audience?
What are the key bits to focus on?
Which bits can you ignore, summarise or just mention very briefly?
How would you make this relevant to a reader of a broadsheet newspaper in the UK in 2016?

Penelope Eckert (2000) studied the language use of American high school students who called themselves Jocks and Burnouts. These two subcultures were associated with sharply contrasting personal styles. Jocks participated enthusiastically in extra-curricular activities, played sports, served on the school council and hoped to graduate to college. They took the school as their community and hence the basis of their group identity. In the 1980s, when Eckert did her research, they wore smart designer jeans, the girls used candy coloured make-up and the boys had short hair. 

The Burnouts, in contrast, did not participate in school social activities and resisted the corporate identity of the high school and what it stood for. They wore bellbottom jeans, rock concert T-shirts, sweatshirts and auto-plant jackets, and expected to work in local industry when they were older. They were more likely to be out at an all-night party in the town than at the school dance. There were differences, too, in the language styles (pitch, pronunciation and grammar) used. Eckert sees these two subcultural groups as representing two different kinds of response to the school institution, and as involving students in alternative ways of negotiating their individual identities, their ‘meaning in the world’ (Eckert, 2000, p. 41). 

She suggests that Jocks and Burnouts are two different ‘communities of practice’, each involving students who have come together to share ways of doing things and ways of talking, beliefs and values, as a function of their shared engagement in the activity. Individual identity is constructed in collaboration with others in and around these communities of practice. 

How would you then link what’s here to some of the ideas that you covered in your own opinion piece about the language of social groups? Which areas would link to this and provide you with a paragraph before and a paragraph afterwards?

The flipside of this is that you also need to have enough language content to secure plenty of AO2 marks, so you need to do more than just recycle generalised, common sense ideas about language in your piece.

The following extracts are accessible and clear but don’t really tell the reader much that they won’t already know. How can you build on the ideas here with some relevant language studies, references to research and linguistic concepts?

For each of the sections below, think of a relevant linguistic reference and a way of integrating it effectively into the article.

Many people use language in different ways because of the different social groups that they belong to. For example, you could argue that people who are members of one social class (e.g. working class) would use language in different ways to those in a different social class (e.g. upper class). 

Class is one factor in language use, but not the only one. All of us belong to different social groups that relate to our age and activities we engage in. One such group might be young people - a group everyone belongs to at some point in their life – and young people generally use language in different ways to their parents’ generation. One style of language is slang and this is often used by young people to show their own identity and signal their membership of a particular group, as well as showing their distance from others outside their age group. 

The activities we engage in are also an influence on our language patterns. Those who work in certain professions or who engage in leisure activities with others are likely to develop a way of speaking that is different. Doctors, teachers, police officers and lawyers all develop their own ways of using precise, technical language. 

We don’t just behave in fixed ways with language though and often we might choose to alter our style of language to show that we are closer to others (or to distance ourselves from them). An example of this is when the Chancellor, George Osborne used more colloquial speech when addressing Morrisons workers at a warehouse while campaigning in the 2015 General Election. Instead of pronouncing better and got to with the usual ‘t’ sounds, he used a ‘d’ sound and elided the sounds of separate words to create gotta.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

AS Directed Writing - finding style models

Section B on Paper 2 of the new AQA AS-level sets a directed writing task which means that students will need to get used to writing in a different way about language topics. In Section A of the paper, they will be writing an essay in response to some stimulus data and a "Discuss the idea..." essay prompt.

The sample material on the AQA site has one task (you can find it here and a student response to it with examiner commentary here) asking students to "Write an opinion article in which you discuss the issues surrounding people changing their accents". The stimulus text is a short extract from the Mail Online looking at media celebrity Donna Air changing her working class Geordie accent to something closer to her posh boyfriend's accent and it's pretty clear that this is not the kind of article that students will need to write for themselves, because a) it's very light on language issues (and AO2 is worth half the marks here) and b) it's a very short extract.

We've just been looking in class at possible style models for opinion pieces and come up with a few possibilities for the kinds of articles that appear in the broadsheet press or on their websites, and which offer some solid language content as well as arguing a case effectively. Here are a few ideas:

Julia Snell in The Independent responds to the Sacred Heart School dialect row: plenty of serious language content for AO2 and some nice shaping of an argument for AO5.

Michael Rosen in The Guardian taking on grammar pedants and those who teach a "right and wrong" way of dealing with grammar: a strongly argued piece that picks up a debate from elsewhere and explains the ins and outs of it, making language ideas accessible to a non-specialist but interested reader.

Robert Lane Greene in The Economist's language blog looking at accent prejudice: a range of linguistic references integrated effectively into a clear explanation of the main issues for a non-specialist audience.

In many ways, the kinds of opinion piece that appear as potential Media Texts for the old ENGB4 and Language Interventions for ENGA4 are also worth a look. Various examples of these have been collected here and here on this blog.

If you have found any others that you think are worth a look, please let us know via @EngLangBlog.

Saturday, January 30, 2016


One of the big topic areas on the new AQA English Language AS level (and the A level) is Language Diversity, in which we look at how language varies from person to person and place to place. Much of the work done on this topic has focused on spoken language - accents and dialects, for example - but language can vary in written and electronic forms too.

Twitter has proved a really useful way of both producing and collecting this kind of data and more is explained in an article looking at the work of Brice Russ at Ohio University, who examined the language in some 400,000 tweets, looking initially for how people in different parts of the USA used either soda or pop to describe fizzy drinks.

Gabriel Doyle explains some of the ways in which Twitter can be used to chart change in language and how changes in language spread in this lecture clip.

Rachael Tatman, blogging from the Northwest Linguistics Conference in April of 2015, also noted how Twitter cold be used to identify not just lexical but phonological differences in how people used Twitter: in other words, the ways in which people used different spellings on Twitter to represent the ways they spoke with an accent:

Ok, so people will sometimes spell things differently on Twitter based on their spoken language dialect. What’s the big deal? Well, for linguists this is pretty exciting. There’s a lot of language data available on Twitter and my research suggests that we can use it to look at variation in sound patterns.

So, how is this relevant to those us doing English Language at A level? Here's the plan...

With #TwitterTwang we'll try to gather data from UK A level students using Twitter and a few helpful teachers. Over a 3-4 week period before the end of the Spring term, we'll identify a handful of ways in which data can be elicited in similar ways from students in different places and ask each group of students to hashtag their tweets with #TwitterTwang and a number to indicate where they're from (Essex as 1, Leicester as 2, Hackney as 3, Southport as 4, East Norfolk as 5 etc.). We can then make use of the data collected to see if there are patterns in regional dialect and/or accent apparent in the tweets.

I'm still thinking about different elicitation techniques and open to ideas (so please tweet me @EngLangBlog) if you have good ideas or think mine are rubbish, but here's the tentative plan:

  • a post-lunch tweet to describe what each student has had for lunch
  • a Gogglebox-style tweet/series of tweets about a programme that everyone agrees to either watch at a given time or on catch-up (e.g. Britain's Got Talent, The Voice, Take Me Out etc.)
  • a tweet about a picture/photo that we can all agree on an share
If we can agree on exactly which of these (or all?) to use, we'll have something to start with. We then need to identify a time to get this started. One of the best things about using Twitter for this is that we don't necessarily have to deal with the data as it comes in but can catalogue it using the different hashtags and save it for later. We could even use it for different things (language change, gender, individual tweeting styles) as the course goes on, or use it to compare with data in future years to see if language styles change.

Anyway, that's a start, I hope. If we could work out a plan in more detail through @EngLangBlog that would be great.