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Archive for January, 2012

Essex school gives pupils elocution lessons to lose their accent

January 31, 2012 10 comments

An interesting experiment at an Essex primary school has been trialling elocution lessons in an attempt to help school pupils with their spelling. The idea is that speaking with an Essex accent is somehow detrimental to pupils’ ability to be able to spell correctly, primarily because how certain words are pronounced in Essex English are not reflected in Standard English spellings. A few examples are given in the article, including ‘sport’ as <sbort> and ‘well’ as <wellw>. Both of these spellings, however, aren’t necessarily indicative of slipping standards, but instead might be considered as evidence for their ear for phonetic detail.

In a word like ‘sport’, which has a voiceless plosive [p], sometimes this can be heard as the voiced variant [b]. This is partly the result of the following vowel ‘bleeding’ its voicing to the preceding consonant, and although might be more accurate to transcribe it as a devoiced [b], it’s not entirely inappropriate to transcribe ‘sport’ as [sbɔːt]. This is the difference between fortis and lenis consonants, which refers to consonants produced with greater or lesser energy (so not just a simple split between voiced/voiceless). With that in mind, it’s kind of understandable for a pupil who hears and produces [sbɔːt] to write <sbort>. Similarly, with <wellw>, what we seem to be getting is an orthographic representation of L-vocalisation with the high back vowel common in words with final <l>, like bell, sell, hell and so on.

I was also particularly taken by the following comment by one of the teachers:

‘[This programme is] about helping the children to speak properly so they can improve their reading and writing and obviously have a better education. I really wanted to get someone in because I noticed the children weren’t saying words correctly and were therefore misspelling them.’

There’s a lot going on here, but first, a caveat: I appreciate any attempts to help students improve their spelling, which seems to be the main aim of this programme. When we start bringing in language attitudes into the mix, however, I can’t help but start to be suspicious of the intent.

First off, the presupposition that people who don’t “speak properly” are somehow unable to secure a good standard of education. Countless sociolinguists have made the point that speaking non-standard English doesn’t mean that the speaker is cognitively impaired, and attitudes such as this further denigrate non-standard varieties of English and marginalises them to the side line.

The second thing that I want to bring up is the idea of the pupils “saying the words incorrectly”. Now, I’m not sure what “speaking correctly” might mean, but I’m going to assume for the purposes of my discussion here that it’s “speaking with an Essex accent”. This isn’t a massive leap of deduction to make since later on in the article the teacher mentions the pupils’ “posh voice”, a judgement which is often not levelled at Essex English. But unless the meaning here is some sort of language impairment, it’s impossible to argue that a word is pronounced ‘incorrectly’. It might not be pronounced according to the conventions of  Standard Southern British English, but that’s not the same as an incorrect pronunciation. The conflation here of ‘correctness’ and Standard English and ‘incorrectness’ with non-standard English is obvious, but the teacher treats it as unproblematic.

My last point is actually to do with the headline of the article. The term ‘accent’ refers to pronunciation, so if you speak, you have an accent. You might be able to replace your native accent with another accent (and there are numerous debates about the age at which speakers are able to do this and not have any trace of their original accent), but you can’t ‘lose’ an accent in the same way that you lose your keys or your wallet. I think the idea here is that the accent the pupils develop in these elocution lessons will prevent them from being identified as coming from Essex, in addition to facilitating their progress into world-class spellers. The wonders of elocution never cease to amaze.

The Social Linguist

NB. If you missed Paul Kerswill’s write up of Essex English in The Only Way is Essex, here’s the link.

Starting with a new class of students

January 28, 2012 2 comments

One of the things that I always get really stressed out about is starting teaching a new class. This semester, I’m teaching Varieties of English (3rd year), Language and Social Identity (2nd year) and Describing Language (1st year), and although these are modules I taught last year, my 2nd year class has a lot of students who haven’t taken a class with me before. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of a new batch of students staring at you intently, waiting for you to pass on sacred reams of knowledge into their brains. The biggest thing I feel is ‘I hope I don’t make an idiot of myself’, and thus far, I seem to have succeeded. But because education is dialogic, my main hope is that we all get on. Students seem to learn better when they’re enjoying themselves and feel relatively comfortable with the lecturer, and I try my best to facilitate this through various means (normally involving food as a bribe). I also want my students to know that they can come and speak with me about any problems they’re having with the material, and I especially discourage them from struggling through anything by themselves for too long. Students who have been with me for a while and have taken a few classes with me know this, but I’ve noticed that it can take some time for new students to get to the same place as my more established students.

All of this boils down to how you build a rapport with students. How do you go about it as a lecturer, or what worked when you were a student?

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Scottish-American Relations: A Boon Industry?

January 24, 2012 3 comments

This article on the BBC today got me thinking about the relationship between America and Scotland and how it’s being re-defined in response to commercial pressures and the potential of an independent Scotland. Scotland has always had a close relationship with America, in large part due to the vast numbers of immigrants from Scotland who settled in the States during the early period of American expansion. This means that Americans are often quick to point out that their great-great-great-great grandfather came to America on a boat from Scotland and they’ve always thought of themselves as part-Scottish. This conversation happens quite a lot when I visit America, and from Irish friends of mine, I hear very similar kinds of stories.

Part of the attraction of claiming Scottish ancestry is that it is a way of claiming a romanticised picture of ‘Scottishness’ that’s build up as haggis and tartan, hills and glens, thistle and whiskey. This has been often a strategic way of marketing Scotland to a wider audience, and the proliferation of the ‘Kailyard novels‘ (literally, cabbage-patch novels) drew quite extensively from a rather one-dimensional of Scottish life (and were subsequently criticised as being an unrealistic picture of Scotland and its people). While the Kailyard novels were soon replaced by the more sophisticated works which emerged from the Scottish Literary Renaissance, nevertheless, the ideas the Kailyard writers explored remain deeply entrenched idealisms about Scottishness, both inside and outside Scotland.

But the political and commercial landscape of Scotland is changing, and forging closer links with countries beyond the UK seems to be an important plank to the Scottish Government’s strategy of global relevance. Part of doing this properly is moving beyond quite narrow definitions of what Scotland means and what it is to be Scottish, and that’s certainly what Salmond and the SNP appear to be trying to do (although they are still very much invested in traditional ideas about Scotland).

During my Fulbright interview last year, one of the questions I was asked was how I would ‘sell’ Scotland to people that I met in America. I started off by saying that I would try to go beyond essentialist notions of Scottishness and that Scotland wasn’t just about whiskey, haggis and tartan. The follow up was ‘well then, what is Scotland all about?’, at which point I started rambling about how it was impossible to define Scotland in simplistic terms because it relied too much on essentialist definitions, but I digress. I think that much of what I said then is echoed in what’s happening now.

Scotland is certainly trying to move beyond the Kailyard, but when these ideas are some of the most widely recognised symbols of Scotland, what do you replace it with?