07 November 2011

Language Acquisition and "Delving Spirit"

On this week's episode of On Being, an NPR program, host Krista Tippet interviews Jean Berko Gleason, a a psycholinguist and one of the pioneers of the field and of children's language acquisition. The interview reflects the program's theme 'on being' and how both language and working with children unfold our own 'being' and also how language reflects who we are and how we think. You might be familiar with at least one concept the Berko Gleason is known for: wug. I am particularly fascinated by two ideas raised in the interview and essay. The first is that we adults emerge and unfold as more human as we engage with children. Tippet borrows a phrase from psychologist Robert Coles, "delving spirit," to characterize this interaction. And the second is that language is fundamental to this delving and emergence of self. I'm curious what you think about these ideas and to others raised in the essay and/or interview. The link above is to an essay by Tippet based on the interview, includes the wug test, and links to an MP3 download and podcast of the interview.

21 October 2011

History and the Power of Words

I'm reposting from Rosina Lippi-Green's webpage, English With and Accent. Her October 19th post discusses the n-word and a recent article by Janet Fuller (Southern Illinois University) in Popular Linguistics. Both Fuller and Lippi-Green help me to better understand how important our understanding of power relationships and history are in our choice of words, particularly how significant social history is when it comes to the meanings and uses of words, like the n-word. Both also remind me of Jane Hill's book, The Everyday Language of White Racism, which also explains how social history has reinforced prejudice, not just in terms of linguistic prejudice and pejorative terms, but also in terms of economic prejudice. For example, Hill explains that one reason that there are such economic disparities between Blacks and Whites today is because Blacks, as a whole, were denied the opportunity to take part in the growth of national wealth from the inception of our country into the mid-20th century. On the other hand, for 300+ years Whites, as a whole, were not only able to participate in the wealth-making, but also to share the wealth. Today's disparities are grounded in a 300-year jump start for Whites. I highly recommend Hill's The Everyday Language of White Racism and Lippi-Green's English with an Accent  if you want to understand how language plays a central role in racism.

At Popular Linguistics there’s an invited column with the title The Mysteries of the N-word which was written by Janet M. Fuller,  Director of Women’s Studies at Southern Illinois University/Carbondale. Fuller looks at the relative social value and impact of words which can be both utterly offensive and a signal of affection or approval, depending on context. She is writing about nigger, for the most part, but she also brings in other examples.
We can’t leave history out of it. Power relationships matter, and we can’t escape the history of white people having more power than black people in the United States. Even if particular white speakers are themselves not more powerful than the black people they are addressing, their use of ‘nigger’ would reference a power relationship with white people in a superior position – unless, of course, a close personal relationship trumps that dynamic. To make another parallel to gender, it’s quite different if adult women refer to their female friends as ‘girls’ and if a male boss refers to female employees as ‘girls’. The first is about solidarity — and, probably, wanting to tap into the positive associations of youth — and the second is about depicting the female employees as powerless and inconsequential, part of a faceless, gendered group.
This is the kind of essay you could hand to somebody who is having real trouble understanding the importance of context.  Or you could pass on a different story, which a friend told me some years ago and which has stuck with me whenever this subject comes up.
This friend has two teenagers, and she also has two elderly parents who live in rural (let’s say, Nebraska, but fill in the state of your choice here). Visiting with the kids, her parents were shocked and upset to hear their grandchildren use the f-word, and of course, they let my friend know how inappropriate and offensive they found this.
She said to them, “You know the way you feel when you hear them say fuck? That’s the way they feel when they hear you say nigger.”
And with that, they dropped the subject and never raised it again. I’ve never come across a better example of the potential shock value of context, which once in a while hits you over the head by letting you hear yourself with all filters stripped away.

28 September 2011

Learning from Spontaneity

I tried something new this semester in order to create a more open, trusting, collaborative classroom. Dave, a math prof and friend, gave me the idea. When he first described it, I thought, "well, maybe..." I didn't want to 'waste' precious class time on game-like activities. You know, there are only 16 weeks and so much material to cover...and this was just the first week of classes! I let go of that--that control that has in the past kept me and students from being spontaneous, from seeing teaching/learning moments in events, conversations, activities that aren't directly tied to the material at hand.

So this is what I did:

On the first day of class I had students get to know each other and the course material a bit by having them do different activities based on the course material (I'll describe those activities in another blog post.) Then after they'd introduced each other to the class as a whole, I told them it was time for them to "Question Me," to ask me questions in order to get to know me, my background, interests, and the course a little bit. In the past I've given a short spiel of my professional and academic background, a little about where I grew up, but nothing more personal than that--those things I let out during the semester through examples related to course material.

I had several objectives in mind with this activity: 1) Students could get to know me on their own terms--what they thought was important to know; 2) It reversed the classroom dynamic so that students were in control of the topics--to a degree anyway--I still had the right to refuse to answer; 3) It allowed me to be spontaneous, to appear genuine, and human--vulnerable; 4) The activity would allow for more connection between teaching and learning, among the course, my interests, and my academic and personal backgrounds; 5) It could alleviate some fears and myths about the course and me; and 6) We would laugh a lot--something that I think is important in creating a happy, connected class.

I told students that they could ask anything, but that I had the right to refuse to answer, knowing that I probably wouldn't have do do this. (We have a campus culture "of nice.") First,  students individually wrote two or three questions based on the following topics:
  • My personal life
  • My professional life
  • The course
Then, I asked them to form groups of three or four with people they didn't know, hadn't had previous classes with, and with whom they hadn't spoken yet that day. In their groups they were to share their questions, collaborating to revise their questions or to write new ones that emerged from their discussion.

Each group was to pick a scribe--someone to write the final questions, a speaker--someone to pose the questions, and a task mistress or master--someone to keep the group on task.

They were to write two or three questions for each category--that way they would have an inventory to draw from if one of their questions was asked by another group before they had a chance to question me. Each group then was to ask me one question from each category.

As the groups questioned me, a discussion about the course emerged--grading, rigor, assignments, rumors from other students about the course; about my interests--books I've read, movies I've liked, and colors I don't like, as well as about my family, tattoos (I have none), pets, travels, languages studied; and my professional experiences--research, schools attended, conferences I present at, publications, my favorite courses to teach...

In one class, sociolinguistics, the questions were particularly well developed. And in that class I'd given them more instruction: the course is more research-based than the others I teach and I suggested to students that in writing their questions they ask how and why, that these kinds of questions go deeper than descriptive what questions. And sure enough, their questions required more developed answers and they asked more questions about research and professional interests. I recognized how I could integrate how to ask "good" research questions early on in the course, and how it would be valuable in all my courses.

In short, this exercise was about demonstrating my ability to let go of control, to be spontaneous, to trust. It helped dispel students' fears about grades, about the perceived difficulty of the course and my teaching. I think too that showed students that I value and respect them, that I appreciate the various facets that make up our lives and our selves because my life is like that too. I think it also reflected that I like to play hard as much as I like to work hard--that I appreciate a balanced life.

How do I know that this activity has worked--that it wasn't a "waste of time"?

On entering my classrooms every day this his semester students are laughing and talking--so much that I have to ask them to quiet and come together  so we can focus on the day's material. I see how we've created a collaborative community--they easily and readily form groups for break-out discussions and eagerly ask questions during whole-class lecture/discussions. There's a sense of belonging and community that I haven't felt quite like this before. I know that there are many variables that could be affecting the class atmospheres, but my sense is that taking the time to allow students the floor, to take time to get to know each other and me, and for students to have a say in what they think is important to know has empowered and enlivened them. I know it's done those things for me.

25 September 2011

Feeling So Fly Like a Cheesehead...

I found Feeling So Fly Like a Cheesehead while searching for mediatized examples of Wisconsin Englishes. In addition to the use of media, here YouTube, to create and reinforce the idea of dialect, there's some interesting dialect stuff in the clip--listen for the devoiced /s/ in cheesehead and the stress on the second syllable of Wisconsin. And of course, there are slang examples: so as an intensifier, fly... I'm wondering how pervasive the use of fly to mean 'cool' is?

23 September 2011

Everyone thinks they're a language expert

From the American Anthropology Association's Anthropology News:

"If the topic is physics, most people are happy to defer to physicists; if the topic is digestion, even though most people can digest food, they still defer to the gastroenterologists. But if the topic is language, everyone thinks they’re a linguist."  Ron Kephart, rkephart (at) unf.edu

Read Kephart's entire article, For Ebonics, the New Milennium Is Pretty Much Like the Old One.

21 September 2011

Pauly D and the Gendering of Dialect-Making

The following is an excerpt from a chapter that I'm working on about the relationship between the media and ideas about dialects. 

Media representations are key in shaping perceptions of regional dialects and speakers, and these perceptions are significant in reinforcing and maintaining language attitudes. Language attitudes typically include the belief that the best speakers are the most authentic locals, working class or rural males, and that standard speakers are middle class females and males who do not fit traditional notions of masculinity. Thus authenticity depends on meanings related to class, gender, and sexuality, specifically a kind of working class masculinity. Perceptions of gendered language use help to maintain these stereotypes. Sociolinguist Natalie Schilling-Estes explains that language attitudes and gender identity are linked by the notion that the authentic local is 'authentic' because he is the 'best' speaker of the local variety. The best speaker is identified by his use of recognizable linguistic features and their use in particular discursive contexts. Because these contexts and features are typically linked with heterosexual, working class masculinity and ‘masculine’ language, they not only carry meanings such as ruggedness, toughness, strength, and bravado, which are associated with meanings tied to being an authentic local, but also to heterosexual, male, and working class. For example, Pauly D of Jersey Shore fame describes himself as a “guido” as he’s riding a tricked-out motorcycle through a working class neighborhood, which combined, reflect meanings tied to Italian American ethnicity, heterosexual masculinity, working class, and a Jersey shore dialect. Used within specific contexts and juxtaposed with stereotypical images that evoke authenticity, dialect is discursively constructed as gender-, sexuality-, race-, and class-based. Social meanings are as much a part of the semiotic mediation of ‘dialect’ as are pronunciation and word use: speaker authenticity relies on recognizable discursive practices, where language use is the determining factor and where the best speakers of a regional variety are recognized as the most authentic locals[i]. In these ways, the practice of masculinity and heteronormativity—what it means to be heterosexual male, specifically, is tied to the practice of dialect—dialect-making.

[i] Similarly, the most authentic products are the best representations of localness through the use of enregistered features and intertextual links with a historic event.

20 September 2011

Completion Done

Another example from the Office of Redundancy Office: At a local gas station, the pump posts the message "Completion Done" once the gas has been pumped, yet before the receipt is printed. What does this mean, especially since the transaction isn't yet completely done?