Archive for September, 2011

Hello you’re speaking to Samia/Sandra, how can I help you?

September 27, 2011 2 comments

One thing that I’ve noticed, especially over the past five years or so, has been the shift among UK businesses to move their call centre support from India-based centres to UK-based centres. I think the first one I noticed was RBS (on a poster saying that all their call-centres were based in the UK. Incidentally, they never moved their call centre operations outside of the UK), and now it seems to be a major selling point on the customer-facing point for businesses and actively talked up in all sorts of advertisements (especially banks).

I’m not entirely why there has been such a paradigm shift, but various reports suggest that customer issues with ‘language frustrations’ played a key role in motivating businesses to move their operations back to the UK. In spite of the number of strategies adopted by overseas call centre staff and training centres, including using British first names, learning about television shows and discussing local weather (some of which were famously parodied in the opening sequence of Slumdog Millionaire), customers seem to have associated Indian-English with incompetence, unprofessionalism and frustration (probably quite unfairly I would say, and a paper by Kingsley Bolton explores the issue of proficiency in more detail). The result has been to relocate call-centres back in the UK in an effort to win back customer support and reverse the declining standards of customer satisfaction, consequently stalling the growth of Indian-based call-centres and its associated infrastructure.

What’s especially surprising is that within the Indian call-centre industry, there has been a drive towards developing a ‘neutral-sounding accent’, something which might be labelled as a ‘regionless international variety’ (Claire Cowie has written an interesting paper based on ethnographic research in a Bangalore training centre for call-centre workers about the idea of ‘neutrality’ and how it’s defined by new and experienced call-centre staff). While I would imagine that developing such an accent would likely involve reducing or omitting some of the salient features of IE (including [v] for /w/ and less retroflexed approximants and plosives), I’d question how far a ‘regionless international accent’ is could actually be a real accent.

One thing which is often down-played by these companies, however, is that these relocations (which are dressed up as a way of offering a higher level of customer service), are often motivated by the fact that they are not making the kinds of savings they thought they would through relocating services outside of the UK. In fact, it’s actually costing businesses more to have their call-centres based in India, as the quote from the Independent report mentions:

There are also pressing financial factors. Companies wowed by the potential cost reductions of moving offshore soon found the expense of managing far-flung operations eating into their savings. Costs are also rising as India’s economy continues to rocket, with attrition rates of up to 35 per cent amongst call centre staff and wages set to balloon by 12 per cent this year. New Call Telecom was explicit last week that its decision to re-locate to Burnley came down to price, and it is by no means the only company feeling the squeeze.

So although it’s financial pressures which are forcing the relocation, it’s being repackaged up as an issue of ‘linguistic competence’ which in many ways furthers the kinds of deeply ingrained sociolinguistic stereotypes which surround speakers of Indian-English (and by extension, non-standard speakers of English).

I wonder whether businesses would have made the switch had the savings made from overseas call-centres been at a high enough level, or whether they would have responded to customer feedback and made the switch based on that?

The Social Linguist

John Locke (redux): Duels and Duets

September 24, 2011 3 comments

Male conversation?

A few days ago, the furor on the interweb surrounding John Locke’s new book Duels and Duets became too much for me to (professionally) ignore, so I dutifully trundled over to Amazon and put my order in. For those of you unfamiliar with the book, the premise of it is that men and women “talk differently”. Now although this is something which has been trundled out in language and gender research for a while now (in various guises, but usually concerning conversational strategies), it’s generally accepted that we’re more similar in our speech behaviour than we are different.

To give you a flavour of the book, here’s an excerpt from the dust cover:

When men talk to men, they frequently engage in a type of “dueling”, locking verbal horns with their rivals in a way that enables them to compete for the things they need, mainly status and sex. By contrast, much of women’s talk sounds more like a verbal “duet”, a harmonious way of achieving their goals by sharing intimate thoughts and feelings in private. And because a third, “uni-sex” way of talking never evolved, men and women have to rely on the strategies at their disposal.

Well now, I’m really not sure what to make of all of this… Although Locke is a Professor of Linguistics at Lehman College, CUNY, it seems as though he’s far more of a evolutionary behaviourist-linguist rather than a straight up anthropological linguist or sociolinguist (especially going by his publication record in places like Evolution and Human Behaviour and Behavioural and Brain Sciences), which probably explains his predilection towards a essentialist view of gendered behaviour. What’s really concerning, though, is that he seems almost entirely ignorant of every single development in the field of language and gender research within sociolinguistics. For example, in the bibliography, there is no mention (and I mean no mention) of people like Penny Eckert, Scott Kiesling, Mary Bucholtz, or Kira Hall (edit: there are a few mentions of Jenny Coates, Deborah Cameron and Deborah Tannen’s work, but nothing substantial). There are honourable mentions for both Robin Lakoff (1975) and Labov (1972, 1973), but these are not exactly cutting edge developments any more…

It arrived yesterday, and I’ve had a quick flip through it to get a general idea of the content, but I’m genuinely worried that it’s too far encamped in the ‘evolutionary perspective’ for me to get much out of it, and the fact it doesn’t appear to engage with prevailing theoretical developments in the field of language and gender is just incredible to me. I’ll post a more comprehensive review once I finished it, but in the meantime, you can read the Times Higher Education review if you’re so inclined.

If you’ve already read it, what were your impressions?

P.S. And today is the three-month anniversary of the blog. Huzzah! And I’ve only missed a couple of days posting…

The Social Linguist

Induction Week

September 20, 2011 1 comment

This week saw the start of the School of English induction week at the university, and we’re half-way through with minimal amount of hardship or stress (huzzah!), with what seem quite contented and motivated students. This is especially noteworthy because this year’s induction week was organised by yours truly, and generally, my organisational skills are nothing to write home about (at least if I could find the address). But I managed to put together a good programme of events for them, yesterday a few of our current 2nd and 3rd year students gave the new 1st years their own perspective on being a student in the department, and today we had a reasonably well attended ‘social event’ with fantastic crisps, pretzels and o.j. (of the juice variety, not the Simpson variety).

What I’ve been struck by, though, is the amount of stuff that we have to get through in induction week just to get new students up to speed with all the technical demands of being a student; CICT training, moodle, printing, logging in to the computers, finding out where things are, learning about referencing, academic writing, where the cash points are, how to use the library, JSTOR, LION, where lectures are, how the seminars work, assessments, etc etc etc. It seems almost never-ending and today when I was talking about academic writing, I couldn’t help but think that their poor brains must be on melt-down trying to take in this over-load of information…

And it’s not as though we don’t have a choice in not going over this stuff since it’s so important for students just being able to function effectively. Of course, a lot of them will learn as they go, but we still have to at least flag up the kinds of things that I mention above. Since 1st year students tend not to be particularly inquisitive, if we don’t make them aware that resources like the library exist, I’m sure it would take them the better part of their 1st year to figure out where the library is, and another six months to figure out how to use it.

But just how realistic is it to expect that all of what we cover in induction week will actually stick? What kinds of things to other people cover at their inductions? Are they compulsory or optional? How much detail do you go in about academic writing (I nearly wrote ‘anemic writing’ there… Freudian slip or getting tired?), for example? Are the kinds of things we (i.e. academic staff) think are useful actually useful? What do students think is useful and what would they like to see (we do try and make our induction weeks iterative and build on feedback from previous years)?

Anyway, it would be good to hear people’s thoughts on induction week, either ones you’ve been involved in, ones you’ve attended, or ones that you’re in the middle of. Only 3 days left of mine to go…

The Social Linguist


September 17, 2011 Leave a comment

One thing I struggle with, two years post-PhD, is being able to sort out a proper balance in my work. Generally, the things I do as an academic fall under three categories: research, teaching and administration. Under each of these, I have various things I have to do (and probably more I’ve missed):


  • Journal articles
  • Conference presentations (and abstracts)
  • Books (edited and monograph)
  • Developing ideas
  • Reading up in the field
  • Reviewing articles/chapters
  • Teaching preparation
  • Marking
  • Actual teaching
  • Professional development
  • Meetings
  • Departmental responsibilities (1st year tutor)
  • Office hours
  • Emails
  • Phone calls

What normally happens is that I’m able to work on one general category like a demon, but I find it really difficult to be able to shift and swap out in one week or one day between the different things I have to do. So, during the summer, I was able to do a manic amount of writing (edited book proposal, rewrote and submitted an article, wrote up a research bid, did a book abstract, did a conference abstract), but did very little in terms of attending conferences or presenting at conferences (it’s been nearly 2 years since I’ve presented at a sociolinguistics conference, although not two years since I’ve presented at a conference…). This week, I’ve done loads of teaching preparation (in the process becoming very intimate with Moodle), but my research has suffered and I’ve done zero writing. This is likely to continue to be the case since teaching starts next week which will take me up to December, and I’ve got a few deadlines after Christmas I have to meet, so it’s going to be interesting to see if I actually get some writing done during the semester.

Part of the difficulty is that I only feel like I’m actually making progress when I’m able to properly get stuck in to a task. So when I’m only able to write for an hour, I don’t think I get a great deal of productive work done, and when I’m doing teaching preparation, I have to work on it for a couple of hours to feel like I’m making any progress with it. I worry about how effective and efficient it is that in order to make head way in my work, I have to throw myself completely into it.

Now, I’m not sure how far I’m supposed to be a super-star, all-singing, all-dancing, do-everything-and-never-sleep kind of chap, and I think that in general, I’m doing well to meet the various demands required of me as an academic, but sometimes I can’t help but think ‘should I be doing more?’. The fact that it often comes during those times where I have a number of conflicting demands pulling me in various directions which prevent me from getting my teeth stuck in to a task can’t be coincidental, so I suppose I have to try and find ways of dealing with this.

Oh, and right now I’m not able to type as freely as I’d like due to a sore right hand (and those with smutty minds will make of that what they will…). I think I bashed a nerve during my krav maga class a couple of weeks ago and my pinkie and ring finger on my right hand feel really stiff and sore, so typing is more difficult than normal. If anything, this has forced me to stop cracking my knuckles, but I hope that things return to normal sooner rather than later so this semester doesn’t become any more difficult.

The Social Linguist

Categories: Research, Writing Tags: ,

Do Businesses Actually Care about Grammar?

September 10, 2011 9 comments

A bit of a late one today, I’ll admit! Having written a little bit about whether grammar matters, I’d been thinking more the standards business hold themselves to in their promotional/advertising materials, since if ever grammar mattered, then surely it would be in the business realm? But the more I walk around Birmingham (and further afield), the more I realise that businesses don’t actually seem to care that much about how poor grammar and punctuation impact on their public image. In fact, I’ve been almost stunned to silence by the laziness of sign-writers, proof-readers and advertising gurus who don’t check the printed materials that end up in the public domain.

In only a couple of days of actively looking for the kinds of mistakes I would only expect in a poorly written undergraduate essay, I’ve managed to collate a few examples from across Birmingham. If you come across any other examples, it would be great if you could share them.

The first one is from the Jongleurs comedy club in central Birmingham. It’s a bit blurry, but right at the bottom there’s the line Check out the show photo’s. Placing an apostrophe in plural nouns seems to be a common error (the other examples are of the same error), and I see it ALL THE TIME in Birmingham market (e.g. organic potato’s, 5lb for £1), but for it to be in a professional flyer is just poor effort…

The next one is from outside PC World about 10 minutes away from my flat. We had gone to buy a new hoover and it was actually Rebecca who pointed this one out to *me*, not the other way around.

I’m not sure exactly what belongs to the TV (the now?), but in any event, this just doesn’t make sense…

As I said, Birmingham market is chock full of these kinds of errors, but one which leapt out at me was one for the tattooist, and if there’s one place where you don’t want to see punctuation or grammar errors, it’s probably at a tattoo place.

The last one isn’t a grammar error per se, but one that made me laugh nonetheless. In the same shop as the one above, there’s a hairdresser who does eyebrow threading, hair extensions, and most notably, eyelash extensions. The problem was that the sign writer has obviously thought that eyelash (singular) should be pluralised as eyeslash rather than eyelashes

Eyeslashes: the next big thing in cosmetic enhancement?

– The Social Linguist

Categories: Uncategorized

Does grammar matter?

September 6, 2011 3 comments

So Michael Gove, Education Secretary and champion of academies, is arguing that the current crop of school exams are too easy and wants us to go back to ‘proper’ education, including a more rigorous focus on grammar. An excerpt from the Conservative Blog perhaps gives some insight into the level of zeal with which his proposals are being greeted among the Conservative faithful, but here’s a quote from the man himself on why school pupils need more grammar instruction:

Thousands of children – including some of our very brightest – leave school unable to compose a proper sentence, ignorant of basic grammar, incapable of writing a clear and accurate letter. And it’s not surprising when the last government explicitly removed the requirement to award a set number of marks for correct spelling, punctuation and grammar in examinations.

The basic building blocks of English were demolished by those who should have been giving our children a solid foundation in learning. Under this Government we will insist that our exams, once more, take proper account of the need to spell, punctuate and write a grammatical sentence.

I have a number of concerns with the proposals, the main one being that grammar instruction is somehow seen as a ‘magic bullet’ to curing poor argumentation, expression, and clarity. The idea is that ‘knowing grammar’ will make a pupil be able to write at a far higher standard than they would be able to without grammar instruction. While I admire the sentiment, I question the rhetoric. Pupils are not all of a sudden going to become the next generation of Shakespeare simply because they’re able to distinguish between proper usage of ‘less than’ and ‘fewer than’, nor are their arguments going to be more persuasive because they don’t split their infinitives. Pupils’ insights won’t necessarily be better since skills of interpretation, analysis and synthesis are (in my opinion) independent of knowing when to use ‘less’ as opposed to ‘fewer’.

The other issue I have with the proposal is that it will continue to blur the lines between ‘non-standard’ grammar and ‘incorrect’ grammar. In such rarified prescriptive circles, no distinction is made between an ‘error’ which is different from the standard form, and an error which impedes mutual communication and meaning. In the world of the prescriptivist, ‘I done it’ is just as wrong/bad/abominable/hang-worthy as ‘I it done’. Such crude lack of distinction will further erode any confidence non-standard speakers of English will have in their respective varieties because they’ll have been brain-washed into thinking their speech is ‘wrong’.

Lastly, what is ‘wrong’ is often simply a matter of opinion (backed up by various political, cultural and economic prestige associated with the ‘right’ way of saying something). To give an example of this, The Times included a grammar quiz in one of their columns today. One of the questions was whether the following sentence was correct or incorrect:

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

I said it was correct. I was wrong. My error derived from the fact that this statement is an incorrect rendering of the original “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”. Apparently, biblical scripture is immune from alteration. Problem is that grammatically, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THE ORIGINAL SENTENCE… What is going to end up happening is that teachers with a bee in their bonnet about their own ‘pet grammar likes/dislikes’ will not be prepared to countenance anything that goes against their views.

As I said, I fully support the intention to make pupils write better, to be more critical about their own usage and be able to talk about language in a sensible and structured way, but we also need to have the appropriate level of ‘grammatical flexibility’ in teaching these ‘standards’.

P.S. I’d love to link to the quiz, but since The Times sits behind a paywall, you’re going to have to either 1) pay for it yourself (£1 for 30 days access) or 2) wait and see if it comes off pay-per-view.

– The Social Linguist

Categories: Research Tags: , ,

Linguistic variation among urban adolescent males in Glasgow: Some results

I’ve been blogging for about two months now, and although I’ve touched a little bit on my research here, I’ve not really said much about what dominated my life between 2004 – 2009. During this time, I was fortunate enough to be awarded an ESRC post-graduate scholarship which put me through my M.A. and my PhD at the University of Glasgow (under the careful supervision of Dr Jane Stuart-Smith). Throughout my undergraduate, I was quite good at two subjects: history of Scots, and sociolinguistics. The first one I loved because it was great learning more about where Scots came from and how it got to where it is today, particularly all the social, historical and economic factors that led to this. The second one I loved was because it was the first time I had really seen just how key language was to us as humans, and how variable and rich it was. When I was thinking about potential topic areas for my post-graduate work (partially motivated by other factors which I’ll talk about another day), I decided to stick with these two areas, but to focus more on contemporary Scots rather than historical Scots.

One day, I was in my supervisor’s office talking about different topics that I could pursue as a dissertation, and we started talking about teenagers in Glasgow, and specifically about how ‘neds‘ in Glasgow were assumed to have a particular way of talking (as demonstrated herehere and here). What was also interesting to me was that when people performed this kind of ‘ned speak’, they weren’t just using a specific constellation of linguistic features (like high pitch and nasality), they were also drawing on ideologies of anti-social behaviour, criminality and physical aggression. While all of these ideas were bound up in specific performances of this group, we had no idea if young people in Glasgow who might identify (or be identified) as a ‘ned’ actually spoke in the way people assumed they did. Moreover, we had no idea if other adolescent males in Glasgow who might not identify as a ‘ned’ might have other kinds of ways of constructing their social identity. And lastly, we had no idea exactly what kinds of social practices urban adolescent males (‘ned’ or ‘non-ned’) might orientate towards. What we needed (inspired in large part by the work of Penny Eckert and Norma Mendoza-Denton in the US and Emma Moore in the UK), was some sort of locally-grounded, ‘bottom-up’ research which gave us a better understanding of the lived experiences of urban adolescent males from their own perspective, rather than from a ‘top-down’ researcher-inspired perspective. As so, a research project was born.

In early 2005 (I think!), I started fieldwork in a high school in the south side of Glasgow using a qualitative research method known as ethnography. Although widely established in anthropological linguistics and US sociolinguistics, it hadn’t really taken off in the UK at this point, primarily because the UK had been dominated by work which saw linguistic variation as reflective of social differences rather than as a constituent part of social difference (so, I speak like a middle-class lecturer because I am a middle-class lecturer, rather than, I speak in the way I do so as to perform ‘middle-class lecturer’). The kind of work pioneered by Eckert and her colleagues set a new paradigm for variationist studies and broke tradition with more established quantitative sociolinguistic approaches, but this approach hadn’t really settled down in the UK, and definitely not in Scotland. I’m pretty sure I was the first person to bring both together in Scottish sociolinguistic research (of course, my supervisor had nothing to do with this decision…).

Over the next three years in Banister Academy (the name I gave to the high school), I was able to learn more about how the participants in my study constructed their social identities and this provided me with a more nuanced perspective of urban adolescent identities more generally. One significant advantage of my approach was that I was able to see the speakers as heterogenous rather than as one big group of ‘working-class male speakers’, and this afforded a level of analytical insight that would have otherwise been missed had I adopted more traditional sociolinguistic approaches. For example, instead of there just being one category of ‘male speakers’, what I actually had were four distinct groups (the Alternatives, the Sports, the Schoolies and the ‘Neds’) which differentiated themselves from one another along all sorts of axes, including dress, behaviour, speech, attitudes, beliefs and so on (these are generally known as ‘social practices’). What was massively interesting was that when their linguistic variation was analysed (I was particularly interested in the vowel sound of words like cat, man, and grab), the speakers showed quite different patterns.

The first graph shows the results of the analysis in Year 2 (so, the second year of fieldwork) for three groups (Alternative, Sports and ‘Neds’). For those unfamiliar with reading these kinds of graphs, x-axis is the horizontal axis of inside of the vowel space and the y-axis is the vertical axis of inside the vowel space. Essentially, the graph is meant to (roughly) represent where the vowel sounds would be produced (the scores are averages).

As you can see, the three ‘ned’ members (Danny, Max and Noah) are more fronted and lowered than the other six speakers in the Alternative and Sports groups (and this was statistically significant), which shows that this vowel is somehow involved in marking speakers out as ‘different’ from other speakers. And this kind of pattern more or less repeats itself when we look at the data from Year 3 (which also includes the Schoolie group).

The ‘ned’ speakers are still quite lowered and fronted, but this time, the Schoolies are raised quite a bit from the ‘ned’ speakers (again, a statistically significant difference). So not only are speakers differentiating themselves through what they do (their non-linguistic social practices), but they’re also differentiating themselves through how they speak.

The fact that the ‘neds’ and the Schoolies are at the extremes of social behaviour in the school (e.g. they both have radically different orientations towards the school) seems to also show up in their linguistic variation, and this was something I hadn’t expected to find. This kind of work gives us a lot more information on how speakers are able to make such fine-grained sociolinguistic alterations which align with particular social identities, and how variation maps on to social group membership.

There’s a lot more I could say about all of this, and I’ve not even began to cover my interest in the relationship between language and violence (which made up a significant part of my research), but hopefully this gives you an idea of how I’ve spent the last six years of my (research) life!

– The Social Linguist