Talking Music and Singing Language: More is More

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 9.23.40 AMJane Frazee (a renowned music educator who also is my stepmother) has spent most of her life teaching and writing about music and music teachers (see her latest here).  She constantly thinks about questions of music and children.  And when I talk to her about Citizen Sociolinguistics, she keeps thinking about music and children. I’ll tell her about the “Accent Challenge” or “Language Pies” or high school students’ fascination for “slang,” and she says, “that’s a lot like what we are trying to do with music!”

What’s the connection?

One of the questions Jane has been thinking about has to do with music Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 9.29.08 AMnotation.  Why do we teach children to read music notes when their natural sense of rhythm and melody is always initially much more sophisticated than anything they can read on paper? Children who are jump-roping, hand-clapping, rapping, singing, patty-caking, Miss Mary Mack Mack Macking during recess, are looking at quarter notes and eighth notes in the music classroom and saying, in unison, “Ta Ta Tee Tee Ta.” Most children love music!  But Music Class can seem disconnected from other experiences kids have making music. And as kids get older, into their teens, they want to be playing their own instruments, in bands with friends, or socializing around music in other ways that don’t seem to connect to more formal music instruction.

So, why are we teaching “Music” when they already know it?

And, here’s the connection to Citizen Sociolinguistics: Why do we teach children—and young adults—“Language Arts” as if they don’t already know how to use language?

How can music and language teachers capture the knowledge and joy their students have for music and language without stifling it?

Many kids in music class –at least in the Ta Ta Tee Tee Ta style music class— have no idea they could make connections to what they may have been doing five minutes ago, singing with friends, before they walked into class.  In part, this is because the sophisticated musical things that kids do together without any teacher around –the moves they easily make rhythmically and melodically as they syncopate hand claps, lyrics, or jump-rope steps–take a long long time to learn formally and to put on paper.  Jane’s work explores how to give children the tools, gradually,  to represent and build on those rhythmic and melodic inclinations in notes, on a score.

From a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective we can do something similar.  We’ve got the tools to explore what students know about language.  But students need permission to “count” what they are already doing as important knowledge about how language works.   When we talk about language from a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective in English class, students reveal things that have never come up before:  “My mom sounds so formal whenever she is on the phone!”  “My mom uses a Chinese accent when ordering dim sum in English.” (Moms come up a lot.) “My teachers have no idea how emojis work!” “What would you call the store Five Below in Spanish? Cinco Abajo or still just Five Below?” “What are “salty looks”?”  Like kids playing with music and rhythm on the playground, these kids continually play with language, exploring different accents, languages, meanings, phrases, and creating new words and ways of speaking daily.

But if kids already know and love music, know and love language, what are teachers supposed to do?  Should we just give up and let them do their thing?  Is there no point to teaching music and language arts?    As music teachers and music lovers, as language teachers and language fanatics, music speakers and language singers, lifelong students and teachers, Jane and I would agree: No! We don’t stop teaching, but we don’t discount the richest foundation for what we teach: the music and language kids already make everyday.

We build connections:  That music you love on the playground? That counts as music in class too! That language you’ve noticed in that rap song that sounds amazingly cool? That counts as “Language Arts”!  Now let’s start thinking about how those daily discoveries you make about language relate to music notation, to English literature.  In music, this is called “improvisation” “song-writing,” or “composition.”  In English, “creative writing” or –hey- “composition.”   These are the most sophisticated skills musicians and language users can get –and teachers  can help them get there.

For me, Citizen Sociolinguistics provides a framework to gather everyday language knowledge and legitimize its role in the language arts classroom so that students’ language awareness and creativity grows.  For Jane, her half-century of experience with music teaching and teachers has given her a massive repertoire of music projects that build on students’ knowledge of music and connect it to the techniques of improvisation and composition.

Sure, there are musicians out there who never took music class, who never learned to read notes.  There are brilliant story-tellers who never wrote down a word of their stories.  As Jane and I agreed yesterday, “More is more–Not either/or”  (and hey! that makes a nice poem, or song!). So lets develop ways to make the connections that make the most of language and music in and out of class.

How do you make connections from language to language arts?  From music to music lessons?  From music to language and back? What do you think music notation and the written word have done to build language and music awareness? What are some of the ways we can concretely build these connections—in classrooms and out?  Please comment below!

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Language Diversity Pies

whomCBSWhat if you had to fill in a pie chart with different slices representing all the ways you speak? How many different slices would there be? Or, would you have just one whole pie called “Perfect English”? Would that be ideal?

Some news media, of late, suggest that the “Perfect English Pie” should be the goal. In this editorial today on CBS Morning, Faith Salie bemoaned the fact that many people do not follow her rules for proper “whom” usage.

Salie implies there should be only one uniform type of slice in our language pie, the one in which we are “speaking well.” This is especially true in “America,” Salie says, because according to her, most Americans only speak English:

Very few Americans, myself included, speak more than one language fluently. So, the least we can do is try and honor English by speaking it well.

Besides, she added, using “whom,” just makes you feel more special:

It’s like putting lipstick on your sentence.

The two comments posted, which don’t seem to even hint at irony, endorse Salie’s perspective:

VEGANSAM THANK YOU!

Cfc EditorTerrific vid. It’s nice to know that someone still cares.

Two days earlier, a Saturday New York Times front page story voiced another view on cleaning up language—not “who” and “whom,” but a certain way of saying “Wiscahnsin.” The headline reads:

 For 2016 run, Scott Walker washes “Wiscahnsin” out of his mouth

In this video, and the accompanying article, the author points out that Mr. Walker, now that he is running for national office, has changed how he speaks:

[Scott Walker] has left “Wiscahnsin” back home in Wisconsin. He now wants to strengthen the economy, not the “ecahnahmy.”

At the end of the essay, Jennifer Horn, Chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party remarks:

I didn’t hear it [the Wisconsin honk]. Good for him, good for him.

Both Ms. Horn and Ms. Salie voice the view that we need to avoid certain ways of speaking and use those that are proper or less local seeming. Ms. Horn admires Walker’s new Wiscahnson-free diction, suggesting this makes him more palatable as a candidate. And, Ms. Sadie tells us we need to be especially protective of English, since it is the only language most Americans speak.

But, how do “Americans” really use language? Walker may be ditching his Wisconsin “honk,” but he is not replacing it with a sublime original super-perfect “American” speech. Instead, the article suggests, he is picking and choosing different types of language, adding variety to his language pie. When addressing Republicans in South Carolina Mr. Walker told them, in a characteristically un-Wisconsin-like way, that he enjoyed “talkin’ with y’all.”

To connect with people, even as a Republican in the United States, only speaking English, Mr. Walker’s Language Pie must contain some variety. He might be using “y’all,” in South Carolina, but he probably doesn’t in New Hampshire. And he may still talk about the “ecahnomy” when he is back at the family dinner table in “Wiscahnsin.”

But let’s suppose people are not running for office. Do people in the United States still need several different slices in their Language Diversity Pie? Or should they just focus on “speaking well” as Faith Salie suggests?

Last week, exploring this angle with 11th graders and their teachers, we had them create their own language pie charts. In just a few minutes, many divided their pie up into seven or more sections, including different language for the following slices of social life:

  • Friends
  • Close friends
  • Adults
  • Parents
  • Parents’ friends
  • Home
  • Texting
  • Babysitting
  • With siblings
  • With brothers
  • With animals
  • At work
  • At school
  • With teachers
  • With sports coaches
  • Just Dad
  • Just Mom
  • Nice friends
  • Vulgar friends
  • Girlfriend
  • Professional situation
  • Writing papers for school
  • Writing sentimental texts
  • When complaining
  • When angry or snarky
  • When giddy or happy
  • When tired or depressed

Most students specified slices for “friends,” “adults,” “home,” and “school,” adding varying degrees of nuance. “With animals” was a pie slice only one student came up with at first—but after being reminded of special animal pet voices, many classmates agreed they would add this slice to their pie too. (I doubt they use “whom” with their pets.) Momentary moods were crucial to a few students—clearly different ways of speaking come out when tired or depressed, angry, or giddy.

Nobody spontaneously mentioned anything about languages other than English. But, when I asked about multiple languages in their lives, several students had more slices to add to their Language Diversity Pie:

  • Mandarin with Mom (not Dad)
  • Danish with Mom (not Dad)
  • “Asian”-accented English with Mom, or when ordering Dim Sum in Chinatown
  • Persian with parents
  • Mix of Persian and English in general when at home

A ten-minute discussion revealed a profusion of ways of speaking, languages and “accents” that fit into any one individual’s pie.

These teens easily recognize the distinctive relevance of all the slices of their pie at different moments, or with different people, or to convey different moods. Even these young 16-year-olds, in Honors English, most of whom have spent their entire lives in one suburban community, have wide-ranging communicative repertoires, and can recognize their distinctive utility.

I hope these wise 11th graders can also address those media voices, like Faith Salie, that suggest our language goals should lean toward less language diversity in our pies. Today’s teens will need to use different kinds of language to do many things: babysit, snuggle with their cat, comfort a friend, write poetry, mediate neighborhood conflict, apply for college, be President…

One unitary language pie called “Perfect English” could never do all that.

What slices make up your Language Diversity Pie?

Word Wars: Shakespeare, Hip Hop, and the Common Core

Aesop RockEvery Wednesday morning, I visit a class of very smart, insightful, and surprisingly alert (considering class starts at 7:30 am) 11th graders during their English class. This week, they were finishing up their analyses of Hamlet soliloquies, and I took this opportunity to ask a few lingering questions about Shakespeare and Hip Hop (see previous post). What are some reasonable points of comparison?

Almost immediately, vocabulary began to emerge as the common ground.

One music fan pointed out that, like Shakespeare, the Hip Hop artist Aesop Rock commands a gigantic vocabulary, a fact documented last spring when this Shakespeare/Hip Hop infographic came out in an article by Matt Daniels (“designer, coder, and data scientist”) entitled, “The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop.” Daniels conveniently located Shakespeare’s relative spot in the lineup:

rapvocabinfographic

All the way to the right, sits Aesop Rock. And just to the left of him, members of Wu-Tang Clan and the Roots. These guys far surpass Shakespeare, and fans know it. Daniels writes that he originally excluded Aesop Rock (he seemed too obscure), but Reddit Hip Hop fans were insistent he be included. They knew he would shine in this comparison. So, Daniels ran the numbers and found they were right.

Voluminous Internet feedback followed the posting of Daniels’ article. As soon as Daniels’ chart came out, people began using it as a way to compare the quality of Hip Hop artists. Commenters suggested that it would follow that since Drake and JayZ are far to the left, they are obviously inferior artists to Aesop Rock or Wu-Tang. True?

Not really. Daniels quickly argued against this interpretation. First, he pointed out, vocabulary and verbal artistry are not the same. In a follow-up article, Daniels drew on a response to his first version, by Robert Gonzalez, to support his point of view. Gonzalez wrote that “On The Black Album track ‘Moment of Clarity,’ Jay-Z contrasts his lyricism with that of Common and Talib Kweli (both of whom “rank” higher than him, when it comes to the diversity of their vocabulary).” Then, Gonzalez cited these lines from Jay-Z:

Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense

But I did 5 mil – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since

Jay-Z is claiming to step down in terms of lyricism and vocabulary, gloating over his millions, but relinquishing any real claims to artistry to the hip hop artist Common. But is he really letting go of those claims to verbal art? He cleverly plays with the name “Common” and the phrase “Common sense” and in the process he implies that, in addition to doing “5 mil,” he still has some verbal skills. This suggests there is more to Hip Hop artistry than simply knowing a lot of words.

Other responses to Daniels’ Hip Hop vocabulary post point out that an artist’s “vocabulary” includes expressive devices that extend beyond words. Nathan, on Pigeons and Planes, brings this point home, when he writes:

In hip hop, and music in general, words aren’t the only thing that makes up an artist’s vocabulary.

As I followed this chain of remarks about vocabulary and Hip Hop, from the 11th grader’s comment on Aesop Rock, to the Internet posting, to the comments on that, I noticed the marked insistence that vocabulary, alone, can’t account for someone’s artistry or the extent of their communicative resources.

Delving into language artistry—be it Hip Hop or Shakespeare or Rush (another musical group the 11th graders invoked)—seems to be a much more complicated matter than counting words. For any director adapting Shakespeare to a new stage or in a new context, choosing costumes, deciding on the pacing, delivery, voice, pitch, tone, accent, and gestures, all enter into decisions for how to make a play that communicates with its audience. These decisions seem to align with those of Hip Hop artists like Jay-Z, similarly making “Common” sense decisions about how to reach their listeners.

Recent debates about the Common Core State Standards and their requirements for “vocabulary acquisition and use” traverse the same theme. Some have been worried that the common core designates specific vocabulary to be learned, ranging from outrage that the common core designates left-wing vocabulary or overly specified “academic” vocabulary or even the teaching of “Islamic” vocabulary.

Upon closer (any) examination, the Common Core encourages reflection on vocabulary and nuances of meaning precisely along the lines of the Internet exchanges surrounding the use of Hip Hop vocabulary and its relative worth. For grades 11 and 12, standards for “vocabulary acquisition and use” include the following:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.5
Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.5.A
Interpret figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, paradox) in context and analyze their role in the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.5.B
Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.

These standards do not focus on accumulating huge quantities of vocabulary words in isolation or determining the specific words that should be learned. Instead, these standards direct teachers and students to relish the “nuances” of word meanings, to understand that nuance “in context” and to make fine distinctions between words of similar meanings. Addressing these standards might even bridge the sophisticated types of debate that surround postings about Hip Hop and other music lyrics, and the kind of talk English teachers hope to encourage around literature like Shakespeare.

What do you view as a sophisticated use of vocabulary? How do you define “vocabulary”? Is it only words? How do you judge the relative merit of different verbal artistry? Please comment!

Shakespeare or Hip Hop?

wutang  Shakespeare

Last week in an 11th Grade English class, the English teacher and I started a discussion of language in Hamlet by presenting this poetic musing from D.H. Lawrence:

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder

That such trivial people should muse and thunder

In such lovely language.     

Then we asked students about their experiences reading Shakespeare’s language so far. They shared frustrations (Too repetitive! Confusing word order!) and doubts (No way could one man have written so much!). Nobody fully embraced the idea that Shakespeare was a creative genius.

Nor did anyone take issue with Lawrence’s glib use of the phrase “trivial people” or the condescending tone he took toward them. Why shouldn’t everyone muse and thunder in lovely language?

Then, we trotted out this Shakespeare versus Hip Hop quiz (one I also shared with my Facebook friends, thus the 79 responses).

The questions and answers (quiz adapted from Ammon Shea’s book Bad English (2014)):

Quote Answer % Correct (n=79)
1.   The music, ho! 1.     Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 78%
2.   But if you don’t, I’ll unsheathe my Excalibur, like a noble knight 2.     Gangstarr, “Step in the Arena” 66%
3.   Holla, holla! 3.     Shakespeare, King Lear 62%
4.   This is the proper way man should use ink. 4.     Big Daddy Kane, “Taste of Chocolate” 45%
5.   Welcome, ass, Now let’s have a catch. 5.     Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 68%
6.   The money that you owe me for the chain. 6.     Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors 48%
7.   Pay me back when you shake it again. 7.     Nas, “You Own Me” 67%
8.   Holla, ho! Curtis! 8.     Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew 60%
9.   Sabotaged, shellshocked, rocked and ruled, Day in the life of a fool. 9.     Public Enemy, “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” 70%
10.          Every square inch of it, that he chose for himself, is the best part. 10. Wu-Tang Clan, “Wu-Revolution.” 37%
AVERAGE PERCENTAGE CORRECT:       60%

People seem to get the right answer an average of about 60% of the time. Just barely a collective D-.

As some astute 11th graders pointed out, they were able to choose the “right” answers by second-guessing the test, not by deciding whether the language represented the “essence” of Hip Hop or Shakespeare.

Number 1 (78% correct!), for example, seemed to point to Shakespeare only because it sounds obviously like Hip Hop. Typical test-designers, students speculated, would include “ho” just to trick people.

Number 9 (70% correct) includes the word “shellshocked,” which another student pointed to as a giveaway, since that word didn’t exist until after the First World War. Shakespeare didn’t have any shells of that kind!

So, unless you know the exact lyric or play, or recognize testing tricks or oversights, the average person seems to have about a 50/50 chance of correctly guessing whether these quotes come from “Shakespeare” or “Hip Hop.” What does this tell us? Perhaps Shakespeare’s forte was not in his isolated mastery of “The English Language.” Instead, he may have been capturing exactly what “trivial people” said. Their wondrous language (including “ho” and “holla holla”), gleaned from Shakespeare’s active life in the pubs (so we’ve heard), may be precisely what Shakespeare wrote down.

What does that tell us about literary language? About Hip Hop? About our collective language resources? Do you know some “trivial people” that “muse and thunder” in lovely language? How do today’s artists—musicians, screen-writers, poets, playwrights—take up the talk of everyday people and use it for effect?   Please comment!

How Citizen Sociolinguists Work: Pow!

Today I spent the morning at a local high school in conversations with teens—participants in a collaborative research project I am working on with Mr. Z, a uniquely mellow and gifted High School English Teacher. For now, Mr. Z and I are tapping into the linguistic and Internet knowhow of his 11th grade students, our crack team of Citizen Sociolinguists. As is typical, after only 10 minutes of talking they had taught me—and each other—a few new words and a few new ways of exploring language.

Let me give you a taste of our method–and share with you our discovery of the word weg. We were all just back from Winter break, having made many new language discoveries during our travels or while hosting holiday visitors. Most of us hadn’t traveled much farther than various remote corners of Philadelphia. Jack, however, had ventured south to visit family in Virginia Beach, where he noticed another 16-year-old using a word, which for now we will call “pow.” Jack couldn’t remember the actual word, but he was using “pow” as a placeholder.

What? How could he remember the word, but not what the actual word was? He remembered what it did—which was just about everything. As Jack explained, someone who is really amazing can be “pow” or something really bad can be “pow.” You can say things like, “Those shoes, man. Pow.” This could mean that your shoes are very cool. Or horrible.

By now, the other boys listening were getting really distracted by the word “pow.” One of them kept making a slow motion punching gesture. Another kept saying “pow?” quizzically.

Jack insisted the word was not “pow.” He was just using “pow” until he could remember the actual word.

Jack promised he would find it, and began searching through his phone. After a minute or less, he came up with the word: “weg”!

How did he do that? The others were quick to point out that “weg” sounds nothing like “pow.” How do you find a word you do not remember and that means both “awesome” and “lame”? How do you look that up?

You can’t look in a dictionary: What would you look up? “Pow”?

You can’t do a Google search, though I suppose you could try asking a question like:  “What word would a teenager in Virginia Beach use to say something is either great or awful?”

You can’t ask the Professor sitting there. She has no idea—and the above Google search did not work.

So, how did Jack find the word “weg”?

He used one of the crucial tools of the Citizen Sociolinguist: Social media! He looked up his Virginia Beach friend’s Instagram and scanned the comments. Weg!

Do you have other ideas about what “weg” means? What methods do you use to look up words you don’t know the spelling of, or even what they sound like, and only (sort of) how they function? Post your comments here!