Nyle DiMarco: Citizen Sociolinguist of the Deaf Community—and Communication in General

Let’s be honest:  Most hearing people could not be bothered with sign language.

As kids, we may have thought about how amazing it would be to know it: Maybe weScreen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.23.28 PMhappened on the card with the alphabet and learned how to spell our name, or to sign a few top secret words to friends. But after a first enthusiastic burst, the card gets lost, the signing seems like too much effort.

Speaking for my own childhood self, it’s hard to stay motivated when you and all your friends are not deaf.  Learning all the letters, then spelling every word out gets to seem incredibly laborious.

Even if one musters will to know more sign language, typing in “How to use sign language” on google doesn’t help much.  The tutorials that pop up generally feature a very silent video with minimal effects.   Like this one:

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But even this no-nonsense video has over two million views.  The comments underneath give some sense of what motivates people to come to this site, and it is not to learn a secret language. Most comments mention encounters with deaf people—real or fictional—and the desire to make a visible effort to communicate like them: They have fallen in love with a deaf person, or they have a regular customer who is deaf.  They’ve tried a little sign, and witnessed how gratifying it is to connect through this medium.

Many mention Koe No Katachi (“A Silent Voice”), an anime film about a deaf girl. Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.27.44 PM.png

And others say that Switched at Birth, a TV show about twins, one of whom is deaf, brought them to this instructional site.

And here arrives our Citizen Sociolinguist star:  Nyle DiMarco, who plays the deaf heart-throb “Garrett” on that show.

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Nyle DiMarco as “Garrett” in Switched at Birth

Poking around on the web more, Nyle DiMarco emerges as a gorgeous, young, creative, confident, brilliant, and deaf man.  He also appeared on America’s Next Top Model—and won.  He competed in Dancing with the Stars—and won.

He’s obviously an extraordinarily gifted human.  But what makes him a Citizen Sociolinguist?  In addition to modeling, dancing, and acting, he is continuously explaining, largely through YouTube videos, Twitter, and other social media, how sign language works for him and why.  He shows the world the role signing plays in his life—the same way other Citizen Sociolinguists I’ve discussed in this blog site talk about and act out the everyday role of Singlish, Konglish, Emoji, or other language varieties

Nyle talks about and shows us explicitly how signing works for him—with his family, with his friends, while flirting, at the movies.

He embodies what communication can look like in the hands of a socially gifted, smart and confident young man. Who, oh yeah, is also deaf.

One of his YouTube videos posts answers to questions people have asked him through Twitter, and his response to one question in particular, “Were you ever bullied?” caught my attention.  He replies, “No.  Maybe I was made fun of, but I never listened.  Because I have always loved being deaf.”  He importantly points out that being deaf has never been an issue for him—his entire family was deaf, he says, and “they knew what to do.”

Educators often talk a lot about how damaging a “deficit perspective” can be for learners. In the case of deafness and signing, if you consider it a deficit, you may never focus on a deaf individual’s strengths.  Nyle DiMarco embodies the opposite perspective—as he describes himself, he has never seen his deafness as a deficit.  He LOVES being deaf. And, in the best way, he loves being HIM.  He exudes self-respect—and respect for others.

In this way, Nyle DiMarco’s Citizen Sociolinguistics is illuminating not only for the Deaf Community, but for all of us—because he is talking about communication and modeling what it looks like in ordinary situations.

Nyle’s experiences surrounding the movie Black Panther illustrate this attitude in action.  When he went to the movie theater, full of excited anticipation for the show, the captioning machine the theater provided for him was a disaster, running behind the dialogue and awkwardly blocking sub-titles for the fictional Wakandan language spoken by characters in the movie.  He tweeted about his experience, vividly illustrating his position:

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And he wrote about his experience in Teen Vogue, describing in candid detail how awful his trip to the movie theater was (he left after ten minutes). He also made a larger point about the importance of sub-titling movies, and the biased views against it:

“I’ve heard the standard counterargument. Onscreen captions degrade the viewing experience. They’re annoying and distracting. I call BS. People don’t mind subtitles when they don’t understand the language being spoken.”

Nyle goes on to point out that many popular mainstream shows (Narcos on Netflix, for example) include subtitles for those viewers who don’t know languages other than English.  And, even Black Panther included sub-titles in English for Wakandan. His clarity and his humble description of his own viewing experiences on Twitter rallied thousands of Twitter followers in support of his point:  Subtitles of all types often improve the movie experience for everyone—why exclude those that are for deaf people?

But if you look up “Nyle DiMarco’s Black Panther Controversy” on line, you will probably find another Citizen Sociolinguistic controversy—this one with Nyle on the receiving end of the criticism.   Nyle attracted ire from members of the black/deaf community when he posted a video announcing the new American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “Black Panther”.

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He was criticized for, as a white celebrity, overstepping his role as a spokesman for the deaf community, and soon other signs were proposed for “Black Panther”:

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The Moth News story excerpted above, for example, elicited this comment praising the slamming of Nyle (and two thumbs up):

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 12.06.50 PMHow did Nyle respond?  This seems like an important test of not only Deaf communication, but communication in general.  According to a sign language interpreter friend of mine: “Nyle did apologize, saying he did not mean to take over and use his fame to overstep boundaries, and I don’t think this tainted his overall reception in any way.”

I looked around on line a bit then and found that, not only did he apologize, he also fully embraced alternatives.  Immediately after his Twitter post, a black deaf man posted a different version of an ASL Black Panther sign.  Nyle responded with “Thanks @jaceyhill” and unmitigated enthusiasm:

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The Twitter feed continued to take up @jaceyhill’s SUPERHEROIC version of the sign.  While a few haters remained, most responses piled on to say thank you to Nyle for his contributions, and, even, as this post illustrates, to promote greater unity:

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So, I don’t see “sign language” as just a potential secret code any more—thanks, in part, to my new favorite Citizen Sociolinguist, Nyle DiMarco.  Every day, he puts his voice out there, talks about being deaf, about using sign and other modalities (like subtitles), and respecting whatever comes back.  His points about his own communication are not meant to stand as immutable truths, but to begin a dialogue about communication and human dignity.  Along the way, more citizen sociolinguists—like @jaceyhill, above, who coined the ASL Black Panther sign that stuck—join in to contribute the expertise that can only come from their unique perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

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Acquisition versus Learning and Citizen Sociolinguistics

Did you LEARN how to speak English or ACQUIRE that ability?  What about Spanish?  Or Arabic? This is a distinction that many in the language teaching world like to think about.

Some tend to think that first languages (“mother tongues”) are acquired through participation in family and society, while additional languages require explicit instruction, and are thus learned.  Nobody taught us how to conjugate verbs as we acquired our first language—but this seems to be a big focus of learning additional languages in high school.

But even granting that you acquired a lot as a baby, don’t you consciously continue to learn a lot about your own “mother tongue” as you get older?  Consider all the subtle forms of language we continue to learn/acquire long after we seem to have mastered at least one “mother tongue.” Some of that later-in-life language we acquire without much thought, but other language, we probably spend some conscious effort learning.

Take, for example, ordering a hoagie (sandwich) at Wawa.  If you are not from greater Philadelphia, you may not even know what I’m talking about.  For many, this type of language knowledge has been acquired through such subtle cumulative processes of socialization that people don’t know how to articulate it.   And, it may feel awkward to ask someone directly how to order a hoagie at Wawa.  So, it seems better to just muddle along in the hopes that finally you’ll get it (acquire it).

But sometimes we just don’t have the time, the connections, or the guts to acquire certain types of language knowledge through incremental interactional trial-and-error.

That’s where Citizen Sociolinguists come in.

This act of articulating subtle, socioculturally acquired knowledge—so that outsiders can learn it— is PRECISELY what Citizen Sociolinguists do.  You want to know how to order a sandwich at Wawa? Citizen Sociolinguists have produced You Tube videos on it:

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Not even sure what “Wawa” means? You don’t have to wait through years of socialization to acquire that knowledge, you can simply google it.  If you look on Urban Dictionary, you can get a relatively straight definition:

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Etc…

And, if you browse through other definitions, you  will also get a taste for the ironic reverence many Philadelphian’s feel for the convenience store:

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You can also browse a bit and find some good stories of people who did not follow protocol at Wawa, like this Twitter post featuring a gaffe by Sean Hannity (woe is he):

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Citizen Sociolinguists then, are the language teachers you always wish you had—the ones who teach you what is NOT in the book, but what is crucial to learn to get along.  The ones who answer the questions you were afraid to ask—because it seems like you are supposed to already “just know.”

This explicit learning provides a good starting point—by directing language learners (all of us) what to look for.  Once I get some explicit instruction on, say, “how to order a sandwich at Wawa” or, for that matter, “how to greet someone on the street in Philadelphia,” I don’t need to follow those explicit steps, but I may begin to notice how true-to-life this depiction is—or how people vary from it—and how my own individual variation may fit in.

Citizen Sociolinguists provide us the secrets all good teachers do—combatting a fear of total ignorance that might otherwise paralyze a learner—so that we can forge ahead on our own learning path.

By the way, many contemporary applied linguists and language teachers avoid both the terms “learning” and “acquisition” in favor of “language development”—a combination of these processes.  This also seems to apply to the type of growth that happens when we engage with Citizen Sociolinguists.

How have you used the Internet and the knowledge of Citizen Sociolinguists to learn a new language, or to learn new aspects of a language you’ve been struggling to understand?  Has this explicit training opened new forms of participation for you? Please leave your comments below!

Retweet! and Other I-Agree Signals

“Retweet!”

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This week, listening in on a heated high school discussion, I heard someone shout out “Retweet” from across the room. I wasn’t sure what was going on. Was our conversation being tweeted about?

Later, in another class, while gathering lists of words (using pencil and paper) for our semester-by-semester slang tracking, the word “retweet” appeared on someone’s list.

I had to ask, “Do people actually say that?”

Sure.  It means “I agree with you,” or “I feel the same way,” or “I TOTALLY AGREE!”

These kids had some pin-pointed expertise:  I couldn’t even find this definition of “retweet” on Urban Dictionary, where the only definitions offered are the literally literal

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and the facetious (?)

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Yuck!

So… here’s the scoop:  Certain teenagers say “retweet!” out loud—in the same place other people might say, “thumbs up!” “here-here!” “right on!” or even “I concur.”

Why so many expressions for “I agree”?

Slang expressions tend to proliferate around taboo topics like sex and drugs, or insulting remarks about men, women, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality.  We as a species seem to have an unlimited capacity to make new words for the skeezy, forbidden, or embarrassing. And it makes sense that we would want to be more creative (or secretive) about how we talk about them.

Less obvious:  Our species-wide love of agreement and new ways to do it!

Just as ways to talk about being “wasted/lit/turnt/smashed/etc” proliferate like crazy, so do ways of expressing the fact that “I feel the same way.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 9.32.51 AM Look around you and you will see all kinds of evidence that people like to agree!

Many of these, just like many other new words, are boring and sheep-like (think thumbs ups, viral videos, proliferations of exclamation points!!!). But others tip toward the profound, or at least show that how we agree may be a powerful glue holding us together.

Call and Response is one of the most moving forms of “retweet!” Listen to all the buzzing agreement, for example, during Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have been to the Mountaintop” speech:

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MLK: “Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech”

Audience: “YEAH!”

MLK: Somewhere I read of the freedom of press”

Audience: YEAH!

MLK:  Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest FOR right.

Audience:  YEAH! ((Clapping and screaming in agreement))

Enthusiastic agreement happens when reading too. Look through a book that someone appreciated:  Underlining!  Highlighting!  Post it notes!lovingpostits

I happily notice when students show up with books like this in class.  So many post-it notes can’t simply be superficial display.  This student found a connection with Mr. Bakhtin.

Teachers also recognize when there is a buzz of agreement in a class.  When faces light up, I’ll sometimes stop and ask, “You’re smiling.  Do you agree?” Yes—and the discussion gets better.

Some teachers even use silent hand-signs for agreement.  At this website about “talk moves,” one teacher illustrates how she embeds this agreement sign in her discussions, apparently with some success:

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Comments on this video also enthusiastically agree that the “I agree” sign improves classroom discussions:

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Piling on, readers of the comments that agree with the “I agree” sign also receive “I found this helpful” agreement award symbols.Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 10.32.01 AM

People seem driven to express agreement and we keep finding new ways to do it.

As the “talk moves” teacher explains, the “I agree” sign is a way to “encourage discourse in the classroom.”  Agreement signals involvement. Humans learn and develop through interaction. But we also want to keep it real and display our unique identities: Different groups, different media, different attitudes, different styles require different agreement expressions.  I may agree with much of class discussion—but  I doubt I’ll ever say “retweet!” to express that agreement. I have my ways.  You probably have yours.  And the conversation continues…

How do you express agreement?  When, where and why? What are the effects?  Please comment here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks: Ce n’est pas grave, mon cherri

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“Hacking,” as a liberating activity (see previous post on Google Translate Hacks) coordinates well with “Citizen Sociolinguistics.” Both take the tools of a highly standardized and hierarchically controlled world, and try to put them to work in new, even quirky, ways.

Combining the two yields endless possibilities for quick ‘n’ easy Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks. As a Sociolinguistic Persona Hacker, one can draw on easily accessible Internet based sociolinguistic portraits of speakers and combine those with one’s own specific language needs.

This week, I attempted such hacking with my 8-year-old daughter. She came home from Performing Arts day camp gushing: “I am going to be a Frenchman and all my lines are in French!”

Trouble.

“Cherchez la femme” being the only French phrase I know, I wasn’t sure how I was going to be a helpful mom with practicing these lines.

Fortunately, if you want to learn a few words in French to be in a play, you don’t need to absorb the three-year curriculum of French I, II, and III.

Using tools of the Internet, specifically YouTube and other helpful video sources, my daughter and I took a few shortcuts in language learning. We didn’t care about everything French speakers do with language. We just wanted to get the gist of how “The Frenchman” in the play Slick Macarons would say this:

“Ce n’est pas grave, mon cherri” ((while lying down))

We started by taking a look at YouTube-based French speakers and what they have to tell us about using language.

First, the basics: What does it mean and how do you say it? Drawing on my dormant French repertoire, I remembered “mon cherri” as “my darling” (maybe from cartoons? Sacre Bleu!). Here’s our first video hit for the rest of that line: “Ce n’est pas grave”:

Ce n’est pas grave (it’s no problem)

This was enough to get started rehearsing. But, I wondered, what other sorts of performances are out there that could enrich this role? As my daughter went off to practice, out of curiosity, I couldn’t help going through a few more helpful French videos.

“Allons-y” (Let’s go!) by the same performer caught my eye:

Allons-y

This seemed like a useful phrase. I thought I might suggest it to my daughter as something The Frenchman could throw in during an improvisational moment in Slick Macarons. Or maybe even use it myself with my French speaking friends!

Apparently others thought the same. It turns out “Allons-y” is all over the Internet. A very socially productive phrase. One viral pathway follows Doctor Who, using it in very silly ways, “Allons-y, Alonso!” being one of his favorite things to say, according to Urban Dictionary.

And here is a nearly 3 minute compilation of “Allons-y” tokens in Dr. Who:

Allons-y by Dr. Who

Allons-y has also been immortalized in memes like these:

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So, using “Allons-y” might not have much purchase if one is going for “French authenticity.” It might even convey something more like “Big (Anglo)Phony.”

But. It still might add something fun to the Philadelphia performance of Slick Macarons.

Moving on, I thought I would try to zero in on the more paralinguistic aspects of being “The Frenchman” and found this video on “Ten Ways to be Parisian with (“Chanel Muse”) Caroline De Maigret.”

10 ways to be Parisian

On viewing her lovingly hilarious portrait of the Parisian Woman, I thought tip #2, “Look at your phone when it rings but don’t pick it up,” might give my daughter some sense of the physical performance she could enact as The Frenchman in Slick Macarons.

In all, these few minutes of Sociolinguistic Persona Hacking gave us a lot to work with.

Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks may also  suggest a broader lesson about language. Creating a Sociolinguistic Persona ultimately has less to do with “accuracy” or “mastery” of a named language (like French) and more to do with combining languages, attitudes and one’s own personal flair. Learning a language (or to act out a language) is necessarily about learning about languages and their many ways of acting.

Ce n’est pas grave, mon Cheri!

Allons-y!

Have you ever tried your own Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks using languages you are not familiar with? Or, if you are a language teacher, with the languages you teach? Share your secrets—er, stories—below!

WAVE! White American Vernacular English

What if we analyzed everyday speech of White Americans as a legitimate, internally consistent system?

Try googling “White American Vernacular English” and guess what you get:

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The Wikipedia entry for “African American Vernacular English.”

Does this mean WAVE does not exist as a legitimate systematic variant of the English language?

WAVE might easily be characterized by a quick internet search for “Grammar Pet Peeves.” Using this definition, my search reveals many possible tokens of WAVE, probably recognizable to most readers. This is a typical Internet circulated list:

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This list (and the countless other similar lists on the Internet) probably contains some words or usages that most white people use frequently.

Sometimes, we have less conscious awareness of WAVE tokens. For example, a few months ago, news surfaced about an individual who had, over several years, changed thousands of instances of a certain “grammar error” on Wikipedia. When I asked people to guess what it might be, many came up with common pet peeves like those on the list above. But the culprit was the phrase “comprised of,” used where the Wikipedia editing maven considered “composed of” the correct choice. “Comprised of” he asserted, simply has no place in the English language.

Many white people, however, use “comprised of” all the time. Even I, a college professor, but a native speaker of WAVE, grew up using “comprised of” in place of “composed of”! Many of my peers don’t think of it as “wrong.” Swiftly, people began to speculate that this Wikipedia correction maven had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Many other people who point out “errors” white people make also, frequently, are taken to task. The errors they are pointing out inevitably are recognized as common (even systematic!) but easy to overlook. The people who have these Pet Peeves sometimes even apologize for being so picky.

And white people generally don’t officially get penalized for saying “literally” in a figurative way, or using “comprised of” instead of “composed of.” In classrooms, teachers say things on these Pet Peeve lists all the time and, unless that teacher has an arch enemy in the class, nobody corrects them.

And nobody collects these words together and calls them WAVE and then says they are appropriate in some situations, but not in others: “Okay, you can say “literally” for emphasis when you are drinking with friends, but never in a job interview.”

Let’s face it: WAVE is not a thing people talk about. AAVE is. And because AAVE is named, sometimes people say it is appropriate here and there, but not over there.   Originally, the christening of a variety of speech with the name AAVE was meant to provide legitimacy. But over time, this good intention has stumbled all over itself by suggesting on the one hand that it is “legitimate” but on the other hand, only in certain (non-white) situations.   WAVE on the other hand, does not need to be labeled because white people speak it. And even though some people have a few mild “pet peeves” about it, WAVE is legitimate in white public spaces (like schools).

Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa, in their brilliant article in Harvard Educational Review this month, call this a raciolinguistic ideology. They carefully illustrate how the language of white people is not subject to the same “appropriate” or “not appropriate” critique that the language of Black or Brown students is subjected to in classrooms. Flores and Rosa do not talk about WAVE—because it does not exist as a named entity. And this illustrates their point. White people, by virtue of being white, get to count as using language appropriately.

As long as I am a white person, I can speak the way I grew up speaking. Aside from the occasional article about linguistic Pet Peeves or the (OCD?) programmer who corrected thousands of instances of “Comprised of” on Wikipedia, nobody will correct me. They will understand that I’m just speaking after all, I’m not writing the f***ing Declaration of Independence!

And literally nobody will sympathetically identify me as a native speaker of WAVE, but kindly advise that my speech is not appropriate in school.

Are you a speaker of WAVE? Do people sometimes tell you it is not appropriate for certain situations? Do you repeatedly get critiqued for speaking the way you grew up speaking in your home? Do you see other evidence of raciolinguistic ideologies around you?

Making a Scene: Get thee to YouTube

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 9.44.39 PMI just saw Shakespeare’s Hamlet off Broadway at the Classic Stage Company. The production features Peter Sarsgaard as a hipster Hamlet, drinking, sniffing coke (meth?) and lackadaisically moping around, while delivering his lines in a way that uncannily grabbed my attention. His perfectly laid-back, but pained delivery turned the super-familiar, “To be or not to be…”, “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt…”, “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him…” into brand-new-seeming phrases.

Hearing these lines again also made me think of the modern Internet meme-like quality of much of Shakespeare. How different is “To be or not to be” from President Obama’s “Yes we can!” or Sweet Brown’s “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”? Why do we keep watching and performing these phrases again and again? One reason might be that each time we hear these recognizable words in new contexts, we experience something different (See also, modern day poetics post). How would this work with Shakespeare?

I decided to choose one meme-like phrase of the play and focus on that, and Sarsgaard’s performance struck me most during the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. I had remembered this scene as one of an angry Hamlet ranting at Ophelia (his girlfriend) telling her, “Get thee to  a nunnery!”, shoving her around crazily. But in Sarsgaard’s version, Hamlet and Ophelia (played by Lisa Joyce) seemed not really to be talking to each other at all. Hamlet wasn’t ever yelling and rarely even directing his speech at Ophelia, but musing to himself about the pointlessness of marriage, the fickle nature of all women. He closed the scene in angst, leaving the stage without looking at Ophelia:

I say, we will have no more marriages:

Those that are married already, all but one, shall live;

The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.

Throughout the scene, Hamlet came off as depressed and disillusioned with all womanhood and humanity. Ophelia seemed heartbroken, for losing Hamlet, and for Hamlet losing his mind. Each seemed not to be talking to, or even addressing each other. The scene, as played by Skarsgaard and Joyce seemed about painful and isolating misunderstanding. It seemed deeper and sadder than I had ever remembered.

I turned to YouTube: How do others make meaning out of these words?

First, I found the Mel Gibson (1990) movie version:

GibsonNunnery

Though this scene takes a long time, Gibson cuts nearly half of the text. He never even says “get thee to a nunnery,” “make thy way to a nunnery” or even, the final, “to a nunnery go!” Instead, he yells a lot and pushes Ophelia around.

Next, I looked to the more elegant Kenneth Branagh & Kate Winslet (1996) movie version. Here Branagh includes all of Shakespeare’s text, including “Get thee to a nunnery.” And he delivers it directly to Ophelia’s face.

BrannaghNunnery

Branagh, like Gibson, but not to such a degree, yells a lot while storming around a huge castle atrium.

Ethan Hawke (2000) takes a different approach. He is a modern guy, involved in business dealings in New York, up in a high rise, holding a beer (Carlsberg). But, like Gibson & Branagh, in the nunnery scene, he emotes directly to Ophelia. He is massaging her shoulders as he delivers his “Get thee to a Nunnery” line, and oddly pleading with her when he tells her why she should go, “We are errant knaves all; believe none of us”:

HawkeNunnery

One YouTube commenter (the only one) suggests a possible problem with this performance:

HawkeComment

As Georgian Wolf’s comment hints, Hawke’s engaged stance toward Ophelia seems strange considering the harsh, yet almost stream-of-consciousness content of his lines.

Big Stars are not the only ones performing Shakespeare on YouTube. So, I started looking at non-professional versions performed by students in English classes. My favorite was an unlikely performance by “Hong Kong students”:

HongKongStudentsNunnery

This version came closest to the painful sense of detachment and loneliness I got from Sarsgaard’s performance. Hamlet is staring off into space for the “get thee to a nunnery” line. And, many of the other lines cut to imagined, dreamlike spaces (and distinctly non-Denmark like settings):

MarryaFool

This HK Students’ version might speak more to other high school age students (especially in Hong Kong) than any of the professional productions do. And, collectively, this small set of YouTube scenes (and there are many more) illuminate the potential range of interpretations of a single scene, even a single line, of Shakespeare—including the potential to mock Mao Zedong!

Still, many High School English students seek out the “Spark Notes” website rather than YouTube to try to figure out what is going on in Shakespeare. How does Spark Notes represent the Nunnery scene?

Hamlet is very nasty to Ophelia and tells her to become a nun.

After seeing a YouTube repository of Shakespeare scenes, performed in dozens of new ways, this bare bones description disappoints. Unlike a Spark Notes synopsis, YouTube performances of classics don’t attempt to generically summarize THE meaning of a scene. They collectively communicate the huge range of potential meanings behind not only Shakespeare, but all our language. Also, inevitably, some performances work, some don’t. Why? What comes together to make a scene? How could centuries-old drama make sense in our world? Why do some performances speak more to certain people than others? To explore these kinds of questions, get thee to YouTube!

Have you encountered YouTube versions of “classics”? Have you any favorite versions? Can YouTube help students connect to literature and understand language in this way? Please comment below!