Speak standard English!

There’s regularly talk of ‘correct’ or ‘standard’ English in the media and on Twitter. Some people apparently wear their bad grammar like a badge of honour or refuse to learn the ‘correct’ way of speaking because, the critics say, it makes them look cooler or ‘down with the kids’. And don’t even ask about glottal stops! In the second part of our discussion, Ian Cushing and I look at what ‘standard English’ is, and why we should question policies that insist upon it being spoken in full sentences, at all times. Why does grammar get people heckling each other and cause headline news?

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Let’s talk about talking!


Following on from part one of our discussion about grammar, Ian and I talk about the idea of what ‘correct’ language is in more detail. Where does this idea that a language has a standard form come from? Why do some hold it up as the only ‘proper’ way to communicate in some classrooms?

Grammar is not just a set of rules, and ‘standard English’
is not the only way to use English.

Speak proper!

If a student has their hand up to contribute to a discussion in class, do you:

A) insist they speak in full sentences with no fillers or conversational markers; or
B) welcome their intellectual contribution to the discussion?

To what extent should we ‘police’ students’ spoken language, and encourage them to use ‘better’ English when speaking? This is a really hot topic, and has sparked lots of interesting debate recently. Ian explains that YES, of course it is important that students know and can use standard English. But it is equally important that they know *about* standard English. This is because it comes with several layers of political, social and personal oppression and has a chequered history.

Teachers need to be talking to their students about the politics and the power of language.

Ian Cushing

What is ‘standard’ English?

The standard form of any language is a social construction, invented by powerful social groups who continue to perpetuate and promote it. It protects their interests to do so. The standard form of a language becomes a gatekeeper for access to education and employment, for example. It is definitely worth investigating the history of what we mean by ‘standard’ English, since it is bound up with notions of race and class. The standard language ideology gets upheld quite often in schools because we see lots of real-life effects of the ‘standard/non-standard’ ideology.

Ian explains how non-standard varieties can get constructed as ‘deviant or non-compliant’ or even ‘subordinate’. This leads to a hierarchy of ways of using language. The whole notion of stratified (‘better’ or ‘worse’) language is problematic as we explored in part 1. See also my conversation about accents with David and Ben Crystal here, and Michael Rosen’s question about who ‘owns’ language here.

Should we teach it, then?

The debate on social media quite often centres on whether linguists are encouraging teachers to shirk teaching standard English, when it is our duty to teach the curriculum. Teachers also seek to provide our students with the ‘best possible’ education to prepare them for their future work and further education. Sometimes it seems linguists are at odds with this when arguing against the blanket ‘standard English at all times’ policies. The debate can get quite heated! In this podcast we delve into this issue of ‘social justice’ in more detail. Let’s look at how linguists and teachers can work together to provide the best possible education for students. Linguists are not trying to stop teachers from teaching standard English. Far from it!

We really do need much more joined-up thinking in terms of language study from primary through to higher education.

Ian Cushing

Where next?

Ian points teachers to several useful resources including the work of Julia Snell at the University of Leeds (language and social class, and performing different identities through language); Rob Drummond at Manchester Met University (identity, youth language and non-standard grammar); and Marcello Giovanelli at Aston University (language study in schools). There is brilliant work and support available at the English and Media Centre too. And in the US, Ian mentions work on standard language and race in schools such as the work of April Baker-Bell, Nelson Flores, Mariana Souto-Manning and Jonathan Rosa. Plenty of further reading for you to enjoy!

Listen below, or click on the buttons above, and on iTunes, Google, Amazon, Spotify etc. And do join the conversation about language on Twitter. Should we encourage our students to develop diverse linguistic repertoires and discuss attitudes to language in class? Students, how do you feel about teachers correcting the way you speak in school? Find us on @langrevolution and @ian_cushing. Let’s talk about talking!

Grammar… friend or foe?

Let’s talk about the G-word: grammar. It’s a bit of a Marmite subject. People seem to love it or hate it, and for some it is a trigger word. When I mention that I like linguistics, people can get a bit defensive and ask if I’m going to correct their apostrophes. There is, it seems to me, a conflation of linguistics with the ‘naming of parts’ and subjects, verbs and objects. Grammar can be a real bone of contention in education too, and even cause ripples in politics. 

To untangle the issue of grammar teaching in school, I spoke to Dr Ian Cushing from Brunel University in London, where he is a Lecturer in Education, previously Teaching Fellow in English Linguistics at UCL  and leads the English PGCE programme. He has research interests concerning language policy in schools, grammar in schools and teachers’ knowledge about language.

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Grammar teaching – where are we now?

When I was at school in the 80s and 90s, we didn’t really learn explicitly about grammatical terms in our English lessons. I’ve heard from other people my age that they ‘discovered’ that verbs were a thing in English once they started learning French or other foreign languages at school. And yet, grammar is now a significant part of teaching in primary schools. How do teachers feel about this? Are we feeling confident and qualified?

Before we dive in too far, Ian asks us to question what we mean when we use the word ‘grammar’, since we can define it in different ways. Do we mean the study of ‘clause level’ grammar, such as identifying parts of speech? Or are we talking about ‘discourse level’ grammar, and how linguistic patterns contribute and shape meaning? And then there are the ideologies about grammar, and the differences between spoken and written codes. It is a big subject, so we begin with some contextualising of what we mean when we say ‘grammar’ and how the cycle of grammar teaching has returned to quite a prescriptive approach.

German and English are closely related. Knowledge about the history of English can shed light on some of the eccentricities of English grammar.

Teacher knowledge about grammar

Rather than discussing ‘knowledge about grammar’, Ian suggests we use the phrase ‘knowledge about language’ or language awareness. There can be quite a lot of pressure on teachers to get their pupils through the SATS at the end of primary school. Pedagogies can often (not always!) be written in response to the spelling, punctuation and grammar elements of these tests. In secondary school, teachers have a little more freedom to move beyond the prescriptive approach of clause level grammar. We can investigate ‘discourse level’ approaches to language, looking at meaning, contexts, patterns and language choices. Below A Level English Language, however, there could be more space in the curriculum for talking about attitudes, linguistic variation, accents, dialects, history of language, language change, ideologies, and standardised/non-standardised Englishes. It’s all really helpful to get pupils interested in language, and the way we use it. Teachers could be supported to develop a more critical, political and sensitive approach to language teaching. Connecting linguists and teachers could be a good way forward for this kind of collaboration.

Grammar rules

Different theories and frameworks for talking about grammar and language all come with different metalanguage (language about language). It’s not surprising that teachers can sometimes feel overwhelmed when googling a grammatical term, as different approaches explain the same things in different ways. We might clutch at the ‘rules’ because they seem solid, when in fact language is more diaphanous and vague. What we do have, however, are conventions about how we use language in different contexts and for different purposes. Thinking about grammar conventions is a bit more helpful in terms of avoiding the ‘right/wrong’ approach of talking about language.

Language is a bit messy, and doesn’t always conform to these so-called invented rules.

Ian Cushing on grammar ‘rules’

As Michael Rosen said in episode 10, language is always ‘language in use’. Talking about grammar in a very abstract way suggests that it conforms to a set of rules, but it is much messier than that. There are conventions and patterns which we apply in a context and for a purpose. To find reliable resources for teaching language in use and knowledge about language, Ian suggests looking at Deborah Myhill’s work at the University of Exeter here and to the Englicious website, which Ian worked on during his time at UCL.

Why study ‘grammar’ at all then?

Some knowledge and understanding of the metalanguage allows us to discuss language in use in a critical way, and apply ourselves to dissecting attitudes and approaches to language. Whilst knowing the names of grammatical terms does not improve pupils’ writing, if our language lessons are a rich environment for talking about talking and writing, I think this would empower pupils to think about language more critically. Language is something we do, choices we make to reach goals we want to achieve, not something that is done to us. Grammar in context is an exciting approach with a focus on the writing, and what is happening with language, rather than simple labelling and identification of grammatical features. David Crystal talked about this as well in episode 8. Linguistic possibilities, creativity and meaning and choice underpin this approach.

There’s absolutely no research that suggests that explicit knowledge of grammatical terms equates with improved writing.

Ian Cushing on whether ‘clause level’ grammar knowledge improves writing

‘Better’ English

We finish off part 1 of our discussion by thinking about some of the words we put in front of ‘English’ such as ‘better’ or ‘standard’ or ‘articulate’. Who gets to decide what is better or standard? Do teachers have a responsibility to focus on ‘correct’ notions of language when teaching? Join the discussion on Twitter by following @langrevolution and @ian_cushing. Are you a student or a teacher? What do you think about current approaches to ‘grammar’?

Listen to Ian Cushing on The Language Revolution podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon etc. or here:

Why study languages at university?

Studying languages at university might soon be a thing of the past. Over the last decade, more than ten universities in the UK have closed their modern languages departments. There is a steep decline in the uptake of languages at GCSE, A Level and at university. Are we too late to reverse this trend? How can we empower teachers to feel confident about exploring languages? Can we enthuse pupils to love learning languages from an early age? In Episode 19, I talk to Sascha Stollhans, who teaches German at the University of Lancaster. He works closely with schools through the outreach programme and the Linguistics in MFL project. Here we talk about how to join up our efforts to ‘save’ languages, and how linguistics might be the key to the sustainable future of language education.


Why study languages at university?
Studying languages at university opens up culture, politics and sociology for students.
But do they know that’s what to expect?

Beginning with some statistics about the alarming decline in the study of languages at university, Sascha issues a clear call to action. We need to join up our efforts across education, from early years to higher education. Let’s start to look at languages differently and reframe how we ‘sell’ languages to teenagers at school. As I discussed with Charlotte Ryland in Episode 14, translation is a creative puzzle and builds cultural knowledge as well as language skills. Yet at A Level it can feel more like a test of grammar and vocabulary than a creative activity. The GCSE curriculum is also very transactional, as discussed at length with MFL Transform in Episodes 15 and 16. So what does Sascha propose we do?

Look at languages differently

Language is a fascinating, complex subject with links across the curriculum, and yet we tend to see it touted as a transactional tool. The ‘usefulness’ argument belies how interesting the subject is and many students do not know what to expect from a languages degree. Sascha explains how 75% of the undergraduates in one study he carried out said they chose to continue studying languages because they love the culture, politics, history and society of the countries as much as the languages themselves. This is really at odds with the constant focus on employability and usefulness, and perhaps it is time to retire that argument and focus instead on what the students might find more intrinsically motivating.

What is being done to reverse the decline in languages at university? Well, the short answer is ‘not enough’. Whilst there is an All Party Parliamentary Group for languages, and the British Academy et al published the Towards a National Languages Strategy document in July 2020, not enough is being done at a political level to promote the importance and relevance of languages. However, there are many excellent grassroots initiatives and partnerships between universities and schools, competitions, mentoring programmes, and a lot of energy and enthusiasm from the sector.

We could also genuinely value UK multilingualism and multiculturalism more visibly. Perhaps a good start would be changing the census question on languages spoken to reflect our multilingual society accurately, rather than promoting English dominance, as Thomas Bak explained in Episode 3?

What to expect from languages at university

Another issue is that studying languages at university is quite different to studying A Level or GCSE languages. University departments are made up of specialists with a broad range of interests, and lecturers teach their speciality subject, such as 19th-century novels for example. There is a broader ‘menu’ on offer at university level, with knowledge of culture, politics and critical thinking skills valued just as highly as being able to use the language(s). First year students are often surprised, Sascha says, that essays are written in English, or that there is no prescription for the number of tenses and pronouns to use in a translation. Students have more agency, creativity and freedom to experiment because universities set their own assessments, whereas school languages departments have external exam boards to answer to.

Since the curriculum at school is unlikely to change any time soon, Sascha suggests that teachers get in touch with local universities to work together to show pupils what studying languages at university is like. Outreach really matters and universities will be keen to work with schools. Lancaster has a YouTube channel, for example, with sample lectures to help students take the first steps towards imagining themselves as language students at university.

Building bridges

Language is a cultural, political and sociological phenomenon. It is about people and it is a fascinating subject with almost infinite angles. The ‘Mount Everest of subjects’ as David Crystal calls it. Sascha and I believe that introducing concepts from linguistics into schools, from early on, could really help build conceptual bridges between language acquisition (learning French or German etc) and the humans who use those languages. The fantastic Linguistics in MFL project is working with schools to introduce linguistics topics linked to the A Level languages topics. Pupils in the pilot studies have loved learning some linguistics, finding it really motivating to understand some of the history, etymology, phonology, und so weiter of the languages they are studying. Teachers, please get in touch with Sascha and the team if you’d like to learn more, and follow @inmfl on Twitter.

Seeing languages differently is why my own Twitter handle is @lomo_linguist, as Lomo cameras have all sorts of cool lenses to give us new perspectives. I am, like Sascha, hopeful that by joining up our efforts and continuing to talk about our passion for languages, we can help the next generation fall in love with languages too. But in a way that works in the 21st century.

Listen the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and online below. You can also read the Multilingual is Normal anthology, sixty collected voices talking about talking that I published on 10th August, online on Kindle, Apple or Barnes and Noble, and in paperback here.

Trolling, trust and language education.

How are trolling, trust and language education linked? What have Shakespeare, Dickens and French classes got to do with GDPR or Trump’s tweets? In part two of our discussion, Dr Yin Yin Lu and I talk about the dark side of communicating on social media, whether we can trust current regulation processes (such as GDPR), and how language education is the key to feeling less manipulated and more in control of the way we consume and create our experience of talking to each other online.

Let’s talk about talking!

In this episode of The Language Revolution podcast, we begin by looking at the regulation of our online communications. Early social media platforms did not expect to become the place where humans create and consume the most content. They are now just catching up with the fact that the vast majority of online human communication takes place on social media.

Having taken a hands-off approach at first, platforms such as Facebook are now taking more responsibility for regulating content. However, since online communication is a socio-technical phenomenon (as we discussed in episode 17), it is fairly complex and requires a range of theoretical and technical skills. Do the regulators have those skills? Or are the most up-to-date experts actually all working for the social platforms themselves?

Should we trust online communication? Are we, and our children, in safe hands?

Trolling

It’s not pretty, but we cannot ignore the darker side of spending so much time communicating online. Trolling has become a tangible problem that has ramifications in real life as well as online. It can ruin people’s lives. Troll and bot networks, Yin explains, may have an economic incentive to behave very differently online to how they’d behave IRL. My own experience of being trolled after questioning a company on its sustainability policy is nothing compared to Lauren Batchelder, who questioned Trump’s attitude to women at a rally. She received sustained online abuse (explored in Trump in Tweets on BBC3).

Just look at Microsoft’s TayBot experiment to see how quickly an AI bot, set up as a teenage girl and targeted at 18-24 year olds on Twitter, descended into behaving like a racist, fascist, feminist-bashing troll. It had to be taken down within 24 hours of launching as it learned how to be a troll from conversations with followers. What is it that makes humans behave so differently online to how they would behave in a room full of people?

Hashtag authentic

Then there’s the question of ‘authenticity’ online. I have studied this as a business owner because I want my brand, Babel Babies, to come across as a credible and genuinely good choice for consumers interested in exploring languages with their young children. It matters to me that people know I am a real person with a human mission to improve language education and not a huge corporation incentivised by capitalism. This kind of marketing authenticity is really interesting to look at in more detail. Social networks are, after all, where real people have conversations and so if I can have real conversations with potential customers, that is the first step in digital marketing for a small business. It’s also what Trump does, by tweeting himself and being ‘authentic’.

Social media was leveraged during the Brexit campaign and in elections our data is used to inform how parties communicate their message to win our votes. Have politics and digital marketing become the same thing? Are we just pawns in a giant game of capitalism?

Education is the answer

Rather than let ourselves be victims to data brokerage and trolls, we can educate ourselves about how ‘talking’ works online. We can look at who is speaking, what their incentive is, and what they know about us. We can look at the context of when and where they are speaking to us. Sound familiar? That’s because we do a lot of this in English literature and English language classes. There’s a case for examining ‘classic’ tweets and Reddit threads alongside the classics of English literature like Shakespeare or Dickens. The sociology of language and literature is a great place to start learning the language of the internet age. Learning new languages brings new perspectives too, and through understanding language(s) we can create and consume in a more intelligent way.

We can teach ourselves and our students how to question things critically. Trolling might seem powerful but, ultimately, language is power. And we think the earlier we start this language revolution, the better!

How can we reimagine MFL education?

The MFL curriculum has not changed that much in the last thirty years. Students are voting with their feet and now under half of the GCSE cohort sits a GCSE in languages. Rather than tinkering with delivery, methodology, or pedagogy, we are discussing how to reimagine the MFL curriculum. Listen to part one of our discussion here. How can we help our students take the imaginative leap into a new culture and place? How can we get them excited about learning through the target language? What can we do to create a culturally meaningful, fairer, more purposeful, and less contrived MFL curriculum in the UK? Would these ideas also help students learn the target languages or just make teaching more difficult? In the second part of our conversation, Cate and MflTransform discuss what we could and perhaps should be including in the languages curriculum.

Let’s talk about talking

Words can help new worlds open up to our students
and MFL is uniquely placed to do this in the school curriculum.

I’ve recently had a Year 10 and a Year 13 student working with me for some work experience, and we talked about their decision to take GCSE and A Level Spanish. They both (independently, as they don’t know each other) told me that they were the only one of their respective friendship groups taking languages. Their friends had warned them not to throw a grade away because ‘languages are marked unfairly.’ So this was my first question to MflTransform: are the GCSE language exams marked unfairly, and what effect is this having on student motivation?

He does not believe that perceived unfair grading is the problem. It’s not the ‘price’ of the meal that is putting students off the ‘MFL restaurant’, it is what we are serving up in the first place that is causing the decline in take up.

Culturally meaningful MFL

One of the key points MflTransform makes in this episode is that our MFL curriculum should be situated in the culture and mindset of the target language. It would then open up new worlds to students who need help taking the imaginative leap across the Channel to France or Germany. Many of our students are not particularly culturally aware, and indeed I have taught pupils who had not even ventured into the centre of Glasgow where I taught because they couldn’t afford the bus fare into town. Why would these students want to describe their flat in another language? Why would they want to pretend they are in Germany, and write a postcard home in German about a holiday they are struggling to imagine (having never been on one)?

What if we provided a bridge for students in the form of films, excerpts from literature, and culturally meaningful experiences that were novel to ALL of the students? Would that level the playing field and allow students to avoid the pitfalls of having to describe their own (possibly uncomfortable) family circumstances for the sake of getting a mark?

Different types of linguists

Another key point is that there are many ways to be a linguist. I’ve already discussed why linguistics would be a great resource for teachers with David Crystal here, because language is an infinitely fascinating subject. Children love playing with words, taking them apart, and having fun. They are interested in how people use language too, and as Michael Rosen explains here, language is always ‘language in use’. Could we do more linguistics and sociolinguistics in the MFL classroom?

What about speaking? There has been some discussion recently about maintaining the role of speaking in the MFL curriculum. Language teachers (myself and MflTransform included) have often had a ‘golden moment’ of being mistaken for a native of the language we are learning, and this is pure joy. We take that joy and want to help our students feel it too, but it’s a really long road to learn a language well enough to get pleasure from speaking it…isn’t it? (As a side note, my work with Babel Babies has shown me that we can help children love speaking languages from a really early age.)

The future of MFL

If we do nothing, surely MFL is swiftly going the way of Classics. It will be taught by a dwindling pool of teachers, and eventually become the preserve of the elite. German has declined so worryingly, that many schools have already stopped teaching it.

Does this mean we should make the MFL curriculum easier then? Would dropping the price of a bad meal make it more palatable to more people? Perhaps. We discuss whether the GCSE to A Level jump is too much. Could it be that the GCSE curriculum is at once intellectually vacuous and difficult, since students have to come up with spontaneous opinions about what they have for breakfast? And if we want students to learn 1000 words for GCSE, should we actually be more ambitious and teaching them 2000 words, in a richer, more culturally relevant, more purposeful, and less contrived way?

Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below, or joining the conversation on Twitter. Find us as @langrevolution or @lomo_linguist, and @mfltransform.

Listen to the podcast here or on iTunes (and hopefully soon on Spotify).

MFL curriculum: time for a revolution?

The MFL curriculum is not meeting students’ needs in the 21st century and needs a complete overhaul. Discuss.

Several of the podcast episodes so far have looked at alternative approaches to teaching language and languages in school, such as creative translation, multilingual poetry, and introducing concepts from the science of linguistics more explicitly from an early age. But why do we need to reform language education? Is it the rationale? The pedagogy? The policies supporting it? In this episode, I’m talking to a Head of Modern Languages in a secondary school, a blogger and activist who is calling for fundamental curriculum reform for language education. He goes by the nom de guerre ‘MFL Transform’ on Twitter.

Let’s talk revolution!

If language lessons are a theatre, where has the audience gone?

Theatre and roller skates

If the GCSE languages course were a restaurant, and the teachers are the waiters, what exactly are we serving up to our students? How does the MFL curriculum ‘menu’ and price point (the grades) compare to other GCSE subjects? Why would students choose our restaurant over another?

Or to use another metaphor, if our subject is a theatre, and we are the exhausted performers trying to entice our ever-dwindling audience to stay and enjoy the show, have we stopped recently and looked at whether the show is still relevant to them?

MFL teachers sometimes feel like all-singing, all-dancing performers in five matinées a day. I know I felt exhausted teaching French to an audience of reluctant teens. It was also killing my own joy of a subject I love, teaching such a repetitive curriculum. I felt I was just distracting teens from the fact they were learning French with games and high-energy activities. Is the subject not intrinsically motivating already?

Has the curriculum changed much in the last thirty years? How did the GCSE MFL curriculum get designed? What are the policies behind it?

The world’s greatest thinkers have always been multilingual

@MflTransform

I had a lot of questions to put to @MflTransform about how we have ended up at this place of serious decline in MFL. Under 50% of the GCSE student cohort take a GCSE in a language now, and the figures for A Level have been in decline for decades. There is also a low conversion rate from GCSE Spanish to A Level Spanish, even though numbers are more positive for Spanish than French or German. In part one of our two-part series about transforming MFL, we address some of the issues around motivating pupils, approaches to teaching languages, and why we are even teaching languages at all in the age of Google Translate and AI.

Rationale

The key question is what is the value of a languages-rich curriculum? Is learning a language only for practical and transactional purposes? Since the GCSE was created to replace O Levels in the late 1980s, the Internet has happened. How we face up to that enormous change in the way we communicate is really important. Our current students have never known life without the internet. They don’t need to ask for directions: they can Google it. So MFL needs to address this digital native generation in a language they can understand.

It’s a very exciting time to be a languages teacher. Please join the conversation on Twitter by following @MflTransform and @LangRevolution – let’s talk about talking!