Monday, February 28, 2011

NATE conference

We presented a workshop at this year's NATE (National Association for the Teaching of English) conference which was hosted at the British Library from last Thursday until yesterday. Thanks to anyone reading this who was there. We hope it gave you some ideas about where our project is heading and how we can integrate grammar teaching more effectively in our teaching of the subject through Key Stages 3 and 4 and into A level.

The link for the Survey Monkey feedback questionnaire is here and we will get in touch with respondents as soon as we can,along with those of you who gave us email addressses at the event.

Friday, February 11, 2011

What Rastamouse can tell us about grammar

The new Cbeebies series Rastamouse has been attracting favourable attention for its gentle pace, top soundtrack, likeable characters and, above all, its use of Jamaican English throughout. In fact, it's probably about time the Daily Mail launched a campaign to bring it off our screens for corrupting the nation's youth with its crazy creole.

As well as being fun to watch (and I was watching with my 6 year-old daughter, so it's not as tragic as it sounds) it's a mine of linguistic interest for anyone looking at non-standard grammar. One of the themes that we focused on in this previous post was that the spread of different varieties into the English language mainstream shouldn't be seen as a problem, but an opportunity to look at both the non-standard variety and the standard itself. Rastamouse and Da Easy Crew's use of non-standard grammar can therefore be a great chance to look at areas like subject verb agreement, pronouns and case, elliptical forms, tense formation and pluralisation. Of course, it's also interesting in terms of phonology and lexis, but we'll save them for now.

In episode 6, Hot Hot Hot, for example, Scratchy tells Zoomer "Ya skip a beat" using an uninflected verb skip to signify the past tense (skipped), while Rastamouse says "Mi just not feelin' it today", using the 1st person object pronoun, me, rather than the standard I. In this construction there's also ellipsis of the auxiliary verb in the present progressive construction (mi just not feeling it today, rather than I am just not feeling it today), another typical feature of Jamaican English.

And there's plenty more. Of course, the danger of looking at all of this as a comparison between a standard form and a variety is that a deficit model is applied i.e. that all variations are seen as away from a norm and that the variations are therefore somehow inferior. One way to avoid this - and I can't claim this is foolproof by any stretch - is to highlight the fact that these aren't just arbitrary deviations from a norm, but part of a pattern. The Jamaican English has a very logical system to it and the "rules" are applied consistently to the grammar.

Linguists such as Mark Sebba and Roger Hewitt have looked very closely at varieties of English such as this and charted their influence on the language of English speakers, so if you're looking at creoles for A level  English Language or just want to find some interesting resources on language variation, there's plenty to explore.

Now all I need to do is stop watching the episodes on the Cbeebies website and get to work on some resources that use clips from the show. Then all will be irie.

edited to clear up naming confusion

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fight fight fight

This article by Jamie Keddie from One Stop English is a really neat way of getting students to have fun while exploring language. It uses the Google Fight website to test out the frequency of different usages on the internet, so shows you, for example, which out of different to or different from would get more hits ("different from" wins with 27,800,000 hits, compared to 769,000 for "different to", by the way).

While the website is good clean fun, James Keddie's article puts it all in context and explains its use in the classroom, along with some of its potential pitfalls. But of course, every pitfall is just another way of asking students a few more questions about language, so they can be helpful in formulating clearer ideas about how to do research.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Language Wars

There has been some interesting media coverage of a new book by the Evening Standard journalist Henry Hitchings, Language Wars. Hitchings has previously written a fair bit about language, with his book on Johnson's dictionary and The Secret Life of Words both coming recommended.

Language Wars takes on the prescriptive mindset that change is bad and lays into the self-appointed rule-makers of English. It's not a new position, but it's one argued with a lot of passion if the trailers I've read so far are anything to go by, and I'm looking forward to reading the whole book later this week. The book has been reviewed in several places already. The Evening Standard liked it (obviously) but the reviewer seemed a little taken aback at Hitchings' vehemence. The Daily Telegraph, spiritual and actual home of arch-pedant Simon Heffer (predictably) slated Hitchings' stance on "rules".

In an Evening Standard article a week ago, Hitchings picked the changing nature of London English as a good example of how we should accept and embrace language change.

While it's language in general, rather than just specifically grammar, that Hitchings looks at in his article and in much of his book, it's difficult to separate the two. Throughout history, most people's ideas about language have been intertwined with their feelings about the "correctness" or otherwise of what they write and say, and grammar has always had a huge - often negative - role in this. Many of those who have assembled the "rules" have offered grammatical guidance that is often dubious in its nature. Many of the "rules" have been poorly explained or just designed to mark out one section of society as correct and the rest inferior in their usage, so it's no great surprise that to many people grammar is a word full of negative connotations.