Language “Rules” and the Common Core State Standards

CCSSImageWhat do the controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have to say about language? I’ve heard teachers and students, colleagues and friends, talking about the Common Core, hinting at worries about yet more standardization and inevitable high-stakes testing. I can agree that more standardization, especially regarding language in a massively multilingual and rapidly changing educational context is worrisome. But, what do the CCSS actually say?

Anyone with Internet access can take a look and navigate through all the standards on the website (www.corestandards.org). So, I did. I had one guiding question: What are the CCSS telling teachers to teach our kids about language? I found some happy surprises.

First, I found this statement in the introduction to the “Language” standards:

Language: Conventions, effective use, and vocabulary

The Language standards include the essential “rules” of standard written and spoken English, but they also approach language as a matter of craft and informed choice among alternatives.

Those quotation marks around “rules” were my first hint of potential CCSS flexibility. Perhaps the crafters of these standards take the concept of language “rules” with a grain of salt. If “rules” are in quotes and craft and informed choice considered important, teachers could be liberated, rather than constrained by the Common Core.

Could this stance be consistently maintained from Kindergarten through Senior Year? I continued through the Language standards to see.

The word nuance in one of the Kindergarten standards (#5) caught my attention and supported my first impression that strict definitions and rigid “rule”-learning wouldn’t be the focus. So, I began there:

K5: With guidance and support from adults, explore word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

K5C:Identify real-life connections between words and their use (e.g., note places at school that are colorful).

K5D: Distinguish shades of meaning among verbs describing the same general action (e.g.,walk, march, strut, prance) by acting out the meanings.

This sounds like a nice way to learn about language and meaning in context: Walking through a school, noting places that are “colorful”–or, marching, strutting and prancing, accentuating the nuance in each gait (and word)!

But, Kindergarten is supposed to be fun. Even standards writers might think so. What happens in first grade? They must start memorizing dictionary definitions then, right? No!

In first grade, this standard remains the same:

With guidance and support from adults, demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

Now students note “places at home that are cozy” and continue to “distinguish shades of meaning,” of verbs like look, peek, glance, stare, glare, scowl or adjectives like large, gigantic.

And in second grade, students must demonstrate their recognition of nuance without “guidance and support from adults”:

Demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

In third grade the standard adds “figurative language” but maintains the need to find nuance.

Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

This standard remains exactly like this through 12th grade. Children go from marching, strutting and prancing around school to analyzing the shades of meaning of hurl versus throw to identifying hyperbole and paradox. Students’ understanding of word nuance consistently grows along the way.

But by starting with the “nuance” standard, I may have created a biased impression.  What about other standards? Are the rest more “rule” bound, standardized and lacking in nuance?

I started over in Kindergarten, this time with the most boring looking standard I could find, 1A. No nuance there:

Print many upper- and lowercase letters.

1A progresses to first grade like this, with even less nuance, as many changes to all:

Print all upper- and lowercase letters.

To second grade:

Use collective nouns (e.g., group).

And third grade:

Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences.

And, Common Core State Standard 1A continues in the same vein from 4th to 10th grade:

4th: Use relative pronouns (who, whose, whom, which, that) and relative adverbs (where, when, why).

5th: Explain the function of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections in general and their function in particular sentences.

6th: Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive).

7th: Explain the function of phrases and clauses in general and their function in specific sentences.

8th: Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences.

9th and 10th: [in an abrupt and ironic break with previous grades] Use parallel structure.

Grammar rules seem to be piling up.

But I also noticed a healthy pattern of explanation of rules of “proper” usage (grade 6), interspersed with the slight concession to context, noting these features may function differently in “particular” (grade 5 and 8) or “specific” sentences (grade 7). But where does this all lead? What happens in 11th and 12th grade. Certainly you can’t be teaching more grammar points to 17 and 18 year olds?

Nope! In 11th and 12th grade, rules become “rules,” or, more explicitly, a “matter of convention” that “can change over time” and be “contested”:

11th and 12th: Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.

After this dip into the Common Core website, following the ripples of a couple standards through the grades and into adulthood, I began to feel reassured that the CCSS (on their own) will not doom us to decades of robotic teaching and learning.

Understanding nuance is officially Language Standard #5. Nuance also infuses these standards and their interpretation. Like so many educational tools, they can be used and abused. I’m hoping to use them to support more critical thinking about language in classrooms, among students and their teachers, the community, and beyond. I’m also hoping that when students are exploring “shades of meaning,” (CCSS language standard 5D) those who speak several languages, or varied dialects, will be invited to share those shades of meaning too. (See Nelson Flores’ post on Multilingualism and the CCSS). Ideally, up to and beyond graduation, students will engage with the nuance of language, knowing they can also be the ones who change language “rules” and contest conventions.

What have your experiences been with the CCSS? Have you been aware of them as a teacher, a professor, an administrator, policy-maker, or a parent? As a citizen who consumes media about education policy? What do the CCSS ignore or leave out? How are they constraining? How might they be liberating?

Language Diversity Laugh Tracks

Laugh tracks, those recordings of canned laughter that at one time predictably accompanied all TV comedies, are supposed to cue an audience response, anointing certain comments, actions, or dialogue as funny. The laugh track says: It’s good to laugh now.

FreshOfftheBoat     laughingpeople

Laugh tracks also suggest we are similar. We are all part of an audience that laughs at the exact same things. One reason laugh tracks were originally created was to provide that feeling of shared laughter—the pleasure you get in a movie theater or a live performance when the entire audience is laughing together.

But, usually in life, we don’t have laugh tracks to cue that laughter. And, increasingly, we don’t have that shared background with those in the theater, or even in our living room. As audiences become more diverse, who laughs (at what and why) becomes more divided.

This becomes especially apparent when comedy lampoons different ways of speaking. A lot of humor depends on stereotyped portraits of speech-types. These depictions can be hilarious at times, offensive at others—and often simultaneously so to different groups of people. So, creating one unified laugh track would be impossible.

Why can’t we all laugh together?

Sometimes, we don’t all get it. For example, a few weeks ago, a student showed me this depiction of Asian accented Englishes (including Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Cantonese, Thai, Filipino, and Indonesian):

SingaporeAccents

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OiDvo_XtV4

On watching this video with others in the class, half of us—those from China and Singapore—laughed heartily. The other half—those of us from the United States—just sat there, fascinated and puzzled. Not laughing. We weren’t trying to be tasteful or polite, expressing our offense at the crass depictions of stereotypes across East and Southeast Asia. We didn’t even know enough to make such judgments. We just didn’t get it.

In other cases, everyone “gets it” but in a slightly different way. Then laughing together may be possible–but complicated. Many comics build their routines through self-mocking depictions of their own (or their parents’ and grandparents’) ways of speaking English. When humor depends on this kind of linguistic self-mockery, laughing “with” someone might border on laughing at them, or at an entire imagined group.   In this clip, for example, Russel Peters imitates his dad, who moved to Canada from India, through easily recognizable stereotypes of Indian English:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63_lFztZ0rw

And in this performance, Margaret Cho mocks her mother’s Asian accent:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gevWOlEI5cc

In each of these live performances, the audience laughs with gusto. They clap and chuckle enthusiastically at Peters’ imitation of the many different ways his father says “Come!” in stylized Indian intonation, his eyes growing wide, head bobbling from side-to-side. Similarly, Cho’s audience enjoys her depictions of stereotyped guttural, r-less Asian speech. The YouTube comments immediately savor Cho’s portrait of her mother’s accent, attempting to represent it in their direct quotes:

fossilmusictv dis is da best mothas day. eva.

Ferd617…Oh, dere was one mudder day dat was a little bit bettuh.

But, this savoring of stereotyped accent, gestures and demeanor can also be troublesome. As the sociolinguist Elaine Chun points out, sometimes Margaret Cho’s depictions of Asians are such stark caricatures it seems okay for Asians and Asian Americans to laugh along, but disconcerting when white people join in. She writes of Cho’s performance at a show in Austin, TX, where more than half the audience appeared to be “European American”:

I had feelings of both pleasure and discomfort when hearing peals of laughter from non-Asians who seemed to profoundly enjoy her caricatures of Asians and Asian speech. (2004, p. 278, fn17)

For Chun, Asians’ enjoyment of Cho’s stereotyped versions of Asian speech seemed more straightforward then “out-group” laughter.

Cho’s TV show, All-American Girl, was canceled after one season, in 1995.

Now, depictions of Asian Accents are surfacing again as mainstream TV material. Fresh off the Boat, a new comedy about an Asian American family, premiered last month to mixed reviews. Many have critiqued the stereotypes and, specifically, the stereotyped language used in the show. Angela Tom, wrote:

Eddie’s mother played by American actress Constance Wu must fake a Chinese accent throughout the show. It hurt my ears even more when I heard Wu speaking in her normal, unbroken, smooth-as-silk English during a TV interview.

But other reviewers appreciate the negotiation between ways of speaking depicted in the show. Wu’s accent is not necessarily “fake,” but a performance. Like Tom, Shalini Shankar points out that the parents in the show perform stereotyped “Chinese” accents. But, she also stresses the importance of getting these performances out there:

As we get to know these more well-rounded accented English speakers as people, hopefully it will make it harder to see them as one-dimensional punch-lines.

Another critic’s list of “8 Reasons to Catch Fresh off the Boat” includes this observation:

 Fresh off the Boat is blessedly absent a laugh track.

Language variety and stereotypes of talk seem to be fodder for humor. But, the humor may appeal in different ways to different audiences, in ways the universalizing presuppositions of a laugh track could never capture. At least leaving the laugh track out of shows like Fresh Off the Boat lets the audience figure it out for themselves—and with each other.

How do you react to comedic depictions of language diversity like those in Fresh off the Boat? Have you found yourself wondering why certain accents are funny? Or whether you should be laughing at all? Please comment.

 

 

Language Diversity at the Oscars

The lack of racial diversity in the “Academy” (of Motion Pictures) was well publicized long before Oscar night. It even gave writers enough time to come up with Neil Patrick Harris’ quip about “the best and the whitest– oops brightest” to kick off the show. And, with #OSCARSSOWHITE cresting as a popular twitter hashtag, white homogeneity was in the spotlight.

But how did language diversity fare? There is no #OSCARSSOSTANDARDENGLISH or #OSCARSNOLANGUAGEDIVERSITY2015 to track on twitter. How inclusive is the Academy when it comes to different ways of speaking?

As Citizen Sociolinguists, we have the tools to investigate. First step, we can look at what people were saying then and there, at the Oscars, about language. Then we can ask our social networks: What memorable moments of language talk could people recall the next day?

People I’ve talked to immediately recalled two primary ultra-awkward moments of talk about language (and these seem to have been underlined in real time Twitter feeds too).

The first of these two key language awareness moments was Neil Patrick Harris’ attempt to talk about the “British Accent” with David Oyelowo, best actor nominee for his role as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. Neil Patrick Harris jokes, “Help me prove that everything sounds better in a British Accent. I’m going to do this setup for a joke and then I’ll give you the punch line.” The joke and the punch line are not worth repeating—only barely funny, clearly tasteless. Simply the expressions on the faces of the audience were enough to indicate the sourness of this routine. And on the web, Oyelowo’s gif-immortalized gesture echoed this impression. Even British English couldn’t patch things up:

Oyelowo

The second memorable language awareness moment began when Sean Penn announced the winner of Best Picture, for Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. After the usual pregnant pause and before he announced the winner, Penn’s off-the-cuff “green card” comment—alluding to Iñárritu being Mexican—met with immediate revulsion on Twitter. As exemplified here:

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 12.11.46 PM

A few glum faces, even among the best picture winners, gave hints that this humor didn’t fly with everyone in the room either. Iñárritu then brilliantly stepped on stage with the cast of Birdman and took the microphone. Self-deprecatingly, he described his own English accent:

Oh my god, they want me to talk because I am the worst English-speaking guy here.

Then he proceeded to put to shame the evening’s countless scripted and non-scripted attempts at language artistry. He spoke up for Mexico and for Mexicans’ contributions in the United States, and he implicitly punched back at Sean Penn’s joke:

Finally, I just want to take one second. I want to take the opportunity to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans. The ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build a government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country, who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country. I just pray they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and build this INCREDIBLE. IMMIGRANT. NATION. Thank you very much.

If that is the “worst English-speaking guy” in the room, what might we call some of the other English speakers present that evening? And how well does the Academy seem to recognize the verbal artistry involved in language diversity?

What moments of talk about language did you hear at the Oscars? What do your social networks have to say about language diversity that night?

Leave your comments below!

The Language Experts

Who are the Language Experts?

When you have a question about language, who (whom!) do you ask?

Sometimes it may seem the experts are those language bullies or “grammandos” who peevishly correct grammar no-nos. If you are not sure of the difference between “comprised of” and “composed of” (and care), the man who has spent years combing through Wikipedia “correcting” those phrases over 47,000 times may seem like the best person to explain it to you.

But what if you have a question about less rule-bound ways that people use language?boutaweekago

For example, who provides expertise on these questions about speaking English in Philadelphia?:

  • What does “Salty” (or “sawdy”) mean when used by Philadelphia second graders?
  • Who says “Ac-A-Me” instead of “Acme” when referring to the Acme grocery store?
  • Why do some teenagers start rapping and dancing whenever they hear the phrase “bout a week ago”?

Moving beyond Philadelphia, suppose you have a question about a phrase you’ve heard in Spanish. What if someone called you a “fresa” and you had no idea what that meant? Would you consult a dictionary? That couldn’t tell you, like my friend from El Paso could, that “fresa” is a word often used for slightly spoiled, entitled girls from Mexico.

What expert on language could you consult if you encountered this English/Chinese phrase:

Hold住

A language purist might despise it, a Chinese Dictionary might translate it, but a Chinese 20-something could probably provide a more robust explanation for this phrase, (which translates into something like “hang in there!” or “deal with it!”), how commonly it is used, and its connection to a certain TV character.

This phrase might lead you to questions about other Asian World Englishes. How do Koreans, Chinese, Thai, Taiwanese, and Japanese use English differently? Who holds the expertise on this massive variety? I would suggest you start by asking someone who immigrated to Singapore for High School. They might be able to explain the intricacies and irreverence of accent parodies like this one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OiDvo_XtV4

These are all cases where non-professional-experts, that is, average everyday people who are not linguists or English teachers—Citizen Sociolinguists—have expert knowledge. These everyday citizens have the know-how they need to navigate the daily intricacies of language and communication that make up their lives. And, usually, they are happy to share it.

Your very own friends and acquaintances can often answer your language questions with the precise type of expertise you want. Students and children can also be prime language experts in this regard. Or, Internet sources might guide you. Look up “grammando,” “bout a week ago,” or “salty” and you’ll get some approximations of the meanings of these phrases and their social value. Google “Asian Accents” or a “Mexican fresa” and you may find some video explanations, ranging across degrees of accuracy and offense. These are building blocks to understanding; Your ever-expanding circle of Citizen Sociolinguistics experts can continue to build on them.

Language has interest and connections to social life and human relationships far more wide-ranging than could be contained in one expert’s view. Fortunately, since the survival of life-as-we-know-it depends on it, the grammando will never have the last word on language. As David Weinberger has written in Too Big to Know, when it comes to language or any sort of networked knowledge,

…the measure of one’s strength as an expert is not that you have the final word on some topic, but that you have the first word (p. 68).

When words and communication confuse you, who (whom!) do you call on as your language expert? Your children? Your students? Your parents or friends? Urban Dictionary? YouTube? Google Translate? Others? A combination of all? Post your comments here!

Beoseu or Bus? How do you say it?

KoreanBusWhat’s bigger than a Croissant? A Beoseu!

Before I get on that bus (Beoseu), a brief croissant recap: The last post on “Croissant” generated a lot of commentary—including some new ideas about the reasons for the spread of the Frenchish KwuSAHN pronunciation among the moms of my friends and students. One croissant lover on Facebook posted:

I wonder if Julia Child was an influence?

Certainly Julia Child’s presence in the homes of millions must have had an influence on the spread of “kwuh sahn” as the go-to pronunciation for so many moms of my friends. They may be speaking “Julia Child” as much as they are speaking “French.”

Others, like this Reddit comment from alaricus, pulled us back to The French Language:

I’m a Canadian, and so a little biased, but I happen to think that the relationship between French and English is close enough that most French loan words should be pronounced in the French way.

And some others suggested regional difference:

inigo_montoya cruhSAHNT – from US northeast and Midwest

EDFTON Kwason – London

Another Canadian—reporting from Twitter—asked his mom about “croissant,” and she delicately raised the issue of social class:

You mean that bun thing rich people eat?

Other Facebook friends also hinted at the class-connotations of kwu SAHN and kruh SANT, bringing Pillsbury into the picture:

How about crescent rolls?

Still others mentioned, it really depends on the situation:

I use both! When I’m at Miel Patisserie, I’ll say kwu SAHN, but probably not at Trader Joes. Trader Joes is strictly a kruh SANT place.

A couple International graduate students mentioned that they have had odd experiences when they used what they thought was the authentic French pronunciation. For example,

When ordering a ‘Western kwu SAHN’ it was clear the waiter had no idea what I was saying. I immediately switched to ‘Western kruh SANT and everything cleared up

Overall, I noticed two emerging trends:

  1. Everyone is familiar with multiple pronunciations (though they may not use them all); and
  2. Many people express awareness of the varying social value of those different croissant pronunciations.

So, we are flexible users of a range of Croissant usages. Why should we care?

Because this type language awareness is much bigger than Croissant. We are talking about new ways of making meaning and using words—not capital L languages, proper pronunciations, or even simple “word borrowing.”

Croissant-like pronunciation issues surround us. Some of them seem obvious. Most of us would never say the Frenchish kwu-SAHN at Trader Joes, when asking for a cheap, yet buttery, 3-pack. But, other words with croissant-like pronunciation issues may skirt our awareness.

To illustrate, lets move on to bigger things. Like the word bus. Not controversial, right? But what if you are in Korea? Like Croissant, Bus is considered a “loanword” in Korean. So, if you like GRE analogies, Croissant is to the United States as Bus is to Korea:

Croissant:United States::Bus: Korea

But if you say “Bus” in Korea, you might say it more like this:

버스 or “beoseu”

Of course, American travelers sometimes miss this nuance. As a transnational US/Korean graduate student told me yesterday:

Many Americans in Korea see that “Bus” is an “English” word and use American pronunciation. Most people in Korea wouldn’t understand them.

So, to use the word “bus” effectively in Korea, it seems you must pronounce this word as “beoseu.” Let’s revisit that analogy! Now, KruhSANT is to kwu SAHN as beoseu is to bus.

Kruh SANT: kwu SAHN::Beoseu:Bus

Even if you are an amazing English speaker who knows Korean, to be a competent communicator, you need to use the beoseu pronunciation. So I had to ask the student, as a Fluent speaker of English and Korean, as someone born in the U.S., but whose childhood was split between the United States and Korea, how do you say “bus” in Korea?

I say Beoseu—even when speaking English. If I said “bus,” people would probably think I was showing off or being pretentious.

Sound familiar? In the United States, Croissant becomes KruhSANT (not pretentious), In Korea, Bus becomes Beoseu (not pretentious). Why, you might ask, is this not simple “borrowing” of a “loan word”?

As these examples, show, and I hope to see more, when we say a word a particular way, we enact a unique identity, imply a social background, or attempt to spark a certain type of relationship with the person we are talking to. Thank goodness there are different ways to say “croissant”! This means there are more possibilities for expression:

What if one wanted to get silly with the ironic Trader Joe’s types? Use “Kwuh-Sahn”:

Do you have any more kwu-SAHN 3-packs?

Or, what if someone wanted to enact an ironically cosmopolitan Korean? Maybe they could use “Bus”:

Where does this train/bus go? 

i bus-neun eodi-ro gamnikka?

We are not simply “borrowing” words from another language and struggling to pronounce them in some original or authentic way. Each new word expands our repertoire—the fact that it is layered with a history in another country, place, or social milieu adds to the possibilities for both communicative brilliance and breakdown. Life remains interesting.

Are you a speaker of multiple languages? A master of mixture? Please comment or add your examples below!

 

Croissant: How Do You Say It?

How do you say CROISSANT?

Do you use a special-sounding French pronunciation? Like kwu SAHN ?

Or, do you use a more American pronunciation, like kruh SANT?

Do you go with the super-American, CREscent?

Or even, CROIscent?

What is the best choice?

Given my previous posts, it might be obvious that how you say this word depends on what kind of impression you want to give, where you are, what sort of event you are participating in, and how flexibly aware of language you are. But how might one gain the awareness to use this word and its myriad possible pronunciations effectively?

In Citizen Sociolinguistic fashion, we can start by turning to the Internet:

A question to Google like, “How should I pronounce ‘Croissant’?” leads to a few possibilities. One woman from RachelsEnglish.com confidently explains that if you are speaking American English, you must say kruh SANT:

Croissant

Another YouTube video features this same pronunciation, a simple picture of the typed word, and a cold and lonely wind blowing in the background for 16 sad seconds:

But other Internet posts carefully explain the truly French way to say this word.

For example, this response, from Karma Chameleon, to the question “How is ‘Croissant’ pronounced?” (posted under the “ethnic food” category on Yahoo answers) was designated  the “Asker’s Favorite”:

Phonetically – ‘ Kwar-sor’ -spoken fast.. Haha, best way I can describe a French accent in type!

So, both the “American” kruh SANT, and the “French” kwu SAHN (or kwar-sor) have proponents (no sites seemed to condone “CREscent” or “CROIsent”).

Narrowing it down: kruh SANT or kwu SAHN?

Continuing my Citizen investigations, I talked to a few students and friends, and a common answer I got when I asked them about “croissant” was: I say “kruh SANT.” But my mom uses “kwu SAHN” no matter what the context. So, one mom from Long Island might say something like this (rough replication of her daughter’s rendition):

Greab me a cup a cawfee and a kwu SAHN

Another Mom (from Boston) would say something like this:

 I’ll take heam and cheese on a kwu SAHN. And a cup a cawfee, skim milk, two sweetnuhs.

Now why do American moms say this one way, but the YouTube teachers of “American English” insist on kruh SANT? What does this tell us about language?

Finally, I happened to ask an Ivy League French Instructor: What do you think when an American says, in the midst of a Ham and Cheese type sentence, Kwu SAHN ? She smiled:

I think it sounds cute.

This expert on The French Language did not choose to say “exquisite” or “correct.” But, smilingly, “cute”! And, when my friends discussed their mothers’ pronunciation of the word, I sensed them also glowing with sentiment for this lovable feature of their mom’s repertoire.

So, as usual, Citizen Sociolinguistics reveals the nuance of ways with a word, but no absolutes about how we must say it or what counts as “American” or “English” or even “French.” Instead, we forge on, learning new ways, and new understandings of languages in conversation with each other, with one another.

What do you think of Kwu SAHN? How does your mom say this word? What does this type of pronunciation conundrum tell us about language these days? Weigh in here and comment below!

Modern Day Poetics: Internet Memes

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Eyebrows on fleek

All your base are belong to us

I’ll get you my pretty…and your little dog too

One does not simply…walk into Mordor

Do you recognize any of these phrases? Do images come to mind when you hear them?

My guess is that most readers can identify these as common Internet memes:  Phrases that drop from seemingly nowhere and are suddenly said everywhere.  (If you don’t recognize them, google a few and you will soon discover a new world.)

Why do these exist?  You may be thinking now, “who knows?”  “who cares?” or perhaps even:

onedoesnotsimplyhavetime

I would like to humbly suggest that all these phrases build a common culture, a shared poetics, capable of spreading ideas, laughter, joy, idiocy, wisdom, and general being-together-ness, the same way adages (“A stitch in time saves nine”  “Early to bed…” “Haste makes waste”), poetry, folktales, or fables provide a medium for sharing ideas among a social group.

Why call it “Poetics”?   Isn’t this elevating the super-mundane to the arch and sublime?

Like poetry, memes lose their thrust when paraphrased or translated literally word for word. Memes get meaning not from individual words, but from the way words (and images, fonts, sound, music) are put together. As an astute student of mine pointed out, the expressive power of “Ain’t nobody got time for that” does not come through in a translation like, “Nobody has sufficient time to do that.”

And why does this matter?

Memes provide us a new way of thinking about how language works.  A way that is not homogenizing or reliant on a standardized set of rules or definitions.  To the contrary, memes often accumulate their meaning by combining ways of speaking that we don’t typically think of going together.  The arid diction of “One simply does not walk into Mordor” and the earthy “Aint nobody got time for that” combined give us joy!  The fantastical “I’ll get you my pretty” from Wizard of Oz lends an extra hint of evil when it is layered onto a more contemporary political rivalry:

I'llgetyoumyprettyevilbush

Now, take this view of memes and modern day poetics and think of everyday communication: Expressing ourselves can be more effective, creative, joyous and communicative when we combine words/languages/gestures and images so freely;  When “Aint nobody got time for that” can be used in the same sentence as “the quadradic equation”;  Or when phrases from Spanish, French, Tagalog, and English can rally one another in new, yet recognizable, combinations.So, memes, while functional as poetic chunks, also take on meaning in these creative combinations.  They provide the medium for continued snowballing of expression.

What role do Internet memes play in your life?  Do they facilitate communication?  Thinking? By analogy, do combinations of ways of speaking make communicating more facile? Do you know any multilingual memes? Add your comments, memes, examples here!

How Do People Use Language to Get Taken Seriously?

Is speaking-like-others-expect-you-to-speak the best way to get them to take you seriously?

In response to my last post (Freedom of Speech: What you Say and How you Say it) one thoughtful reader, I’ll call him Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad, took issue my rhetorical question: Why should we let others define the way we speak?

I had asserted that we shouldn’t let others define the way we speak, because when we do, we can’t express ourselves fully, and our unique perspectives may not be heard. The more we police how we say things, the more we circumscribe what gets said.

Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad asserted to the contrary, that

“…it’s in our own interest to learn how to speak as others do. We may WANT them to teach us.”

Two questions came up for me:

  1. Which “others” are you talking about? Teachers? Police? Parents? Bosses?
  2. Why wouldn’t they also want US to teach THEM? (Don’t Teachers, Police, Parents, Bosses learn new ways of speaking from Pupils, Citizens, Children, Employees?)

Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad continued…

If you wish to be taken seriously as, say, a lawyer then you had best learn how to speak as lawyers do, etc., etc.”

Yes, perhaps you must speak “as lawyers do” to be taken seriously as a lawyer. As another wise reader (I’ll call him City Kid) put it, a defense lawyer shouldn’t go before the judge and jury saying things like “Bobo here ain’t got no problems with the law.”

But aside from basic protocols for speaking in court or other professional settings, two problems immediately come to this mind:

  1. How do generic “lawyers” speak?(I suspect there are multiple nuanced versions Lawyer-Speak, just as there are multiple nuanced ways of speaking as a politician, a poet, or a preacher.)
  2. Is just speaking as some approximation of a generic lawyer really enough? (If you have something to say, something unique, that your addressees have not understood before, if you wish that unique perspective–your own–to be taken seriously, don’t you need to add something more than what “they” taught you? Might you not need to pull out some new expressive chops?)

There are more alternatives than speaking “like a lawyer” or “not like a lawyer.”

Yet, Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad went on to make a restaurant analogy:

“What would be the sociolinguistic equivalent of going into a restaurant and eating your meal with your fingers? That’s terrific if you want to offend people but if you don’t then you’ve got to learn and practice certain things.”

Again, the same two problems rankle:

  1. What is generic restaurant behavior? (Just as there are different ways of being a lawyer, politician, poet or preacher, there are many different ways of restaurant eating. Do you eat with your fingers at McDonalds? Lorenzo’s Pizza? Dunkin’ Donuts? Ben & Jerry’s? Might you grab an endive with your fingers at a Fancy French Restaurant if you had already asked the waiter for cutlery and wanted to make a point?)
  2. Is just knowing some generic approximation of restaurant behavior enough? Don’t we acquire new ways of eating when we go to new places? For example, I use spongy bread to eat my food when I’m in one of Philadelphia’s countless delicious Ethiopian restaurants. I use chopsticks when I’m in Chinatown, but, I may ask, diplomatically, for forks for my children.

How does this apply to using language to speak our minds, to command respect, to get people to take us seriously? Speaking on the bus, or as a lawyer, a mother, a politician, teacher or poet—speaking as an individual—takes awareness and finesse. As does eating with your fingers at a Fancy French Restaurant, asking for a fork in Chinatown, or learning to use spongy bread at an Ethiopian place.

Using language flexibly and to make points, but in ways that might be unfamiliar, that may require some extra reflection, or even require our addressees to ask questions, is not the same as being ignorant or uncivilized.

Not speaking exactly like others is not “the sociolinguistic equivalent of going into a restaurant and eating your meal with your fingers.” Not speaking exactly like others can be infinitely many other things, including being

  • poetic
  • creative
  • multilingual
  • flexible
  • intelligent.

Speaking differently can also be, even when a little off-putting, a way of getting people to take you and what you have to say, seriously.

Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we are celebrating today, spoke in such a way that millions of people took him seriously, though he was also off-putting for many. He did not let others define either what he said or how he spoke. Yet, he was serious. And, he was taken seriously (in one sense, very sadly so).

How do you use language to get people to take you seriously? Are the only alternatives Offending or Not Offending? Proper or Not Proper? Correct or Incorrect? English or Not English? What other resources do you draw on? Post your responses here!

 

 

 

Freedom of Speech: What you say and How you say it

Freedom of speech has been in the news quite a bit lately. In the context of the recent Charlie Hebdo attack in France, such freedom relates primarily to the content of the message. Freedom to say what you want to say—about religious figures, politicians, the State, demographic groups…

But does this sentiment also apply to How people speak? Which language they are using? How they use that language? If they choose to say “ain’t” or “y’all,” or varieties like “Konglish” (see previous post on The Konglish Accent Tag)?

Figuring this out is an important task for the Citizen Sociolinguist. So, to explore, I sourced my Twitter friends:

 Is “Freedom of Speech” only about WHAT we say? or does it include HOW we say it?

A super-smart, zesty response came back from @nelsonlflores:

 @brymes Language policing should be reframed as an assault on freedom of speech!

What does this mean? What are examples of Language Policing as an assault on Freedom of Speech?

Here are some types of open, unconstrained, language policing mentioned by twitter friends or in stories told to me over the years:

Policing Language Code, as in, “English Only”:

  • Saying “Speak English!” to someone speaking another language when, for example, riding on public transportation.
  • Calling out to school-children speaking Spanish in the halls between classes: “Hey—English here!”

 

Policing Language Expertise, as in, “That isn’t even English”- or – “That is not Standard English”:

  • Describing “double-negatives” as “illogical” and thus “ignorant.” (Ain’t nobody got time for that!)
  • “Correcting” grammar in a way that impedes communication: Useful example provided from @joannaluz:

@nelsonlflores @brymes unlikely source: an ep of Masters of Sex depicts housewife correcting nanny–“ask” vs “aks”–as deeply violating — later the nanny deliberately uses “aks” in moment of defiance

Policing Language Boundaries, implying, “That is not Appropriate,” often done by authority figures:

  • Ignoring requests from someone younger until they follow with “sir” or “ma’am”
  • Ignoring what someone says, appearing not to understand, repeatedly saying “what?” when they sound “non-native” or simply different

 

These examples are about immediate acts of face-to-face language policing—hurtful to an individual, but momentary. However, the consequences of these acts of language policing, gradually, may significantly chip away at Freedom of Speech.

What? How? How do perhaps repeated slaps on our communicative freedoms like “speak English!”, “That’s not proper!”, or even simply passively waiting for an address term like “sir” or “ma’am” affect more substantive issues of Freedom of Speech?

This is how: The more we police how we say things, the more we circumscribe what gets said.

When we are worried about how someone is mixing English and Korean and Spanish, or sounding “ignorant” or “uneducated” or “disrespectful” in their diction, we might be missing out on what these people—who speak in a different way—have to say. I suspect we may also be missing out on an unfamiliar point of view.

The how and the what of Freedom of Speech are inseparable.

What do you think counts as Freedom of Speech? Is this freedom only about content? Is it also about how we say things? Have you experienced Language Policing that threatened your own freedom of speech? Leave your comments here!

The Konglish Accent Tag as Citizen Sociolinguistics

In my last entry, I made the assertion that, given the opportunity, people speak up about what they know about the language they use. And now, thanks to the Internet, we can bear witness to that speaking up—and learn something important about language from these Citizen Sociolinguists.

Take Kelly and her YouTube performance of her own “English” and “Konglish” ways of speaking. Here she performs the Accent Tag inventory—a list of words to pronounce (caramel, aluminum, mayonnaise…) and lexical prompts (“How do you address a group of people?”) that was developed by Serious Dialectologists decades ago, but has since been taken over by Internet People. Please take a look by clicking on this link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWOVL2bUKMI

While the list of words and lexical prompts could take about 60 seconds to recite, Kelly’s video lasts longer than eight minutes because, as a Citizen Sociolinguist, she takes time to contextualize her performance. She mentions that she grew up in North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia, that she was raised by Korean-speaking parents, and that at the age of 10, “when kids develop that whole language thing,” she went to Korea to live. Then, she moved back to Southern California as a teen. Because of her varied experiences with language, she performs the Accent Tag both in her “American” accent, and as a “Konglish” speaker.

One look at this video illuminates at least five critical and liberating points:

  • A speaker does not necessarily orient to one standard pronunciation, but selects between many possibilities.
  • The more experiences one has in different contexts, the more choices one has available—Korean? Texan? Californian?
  • How one pronounces or selects words can be an aesthetic choice—While Kelly does not (yet) use “Ya’ll” when she addresses a group of people, she has observed Texans say “Hey, how y’all doing,” and says she’d “like to pick up on that.”
  • How one pronounces or selects words can be a social choice—“People always picked on me,” she says, when she spoke English in Korea. And so she spoke differently there.
  • Speakers have awareness of what they want to sound like and why they say things in certain ways.

This video also yields one ominous observation: Despite these liberating aspects of Kelly’s performance, a sense of a judgment looms; A Standardizing Big Brother lurking somewhere, wanting to say someone sounds way off, really weird, FOBy, or jumbled up (all words Kelly uses to describe her own fluid language use).

As Kelly’s video exemplifies, under the imagined gaze of Standardizing Big Brother, sometimes people on line speak apologetically about their own language—voicing comments they have heard from other people. Other times, people speak out about more nuanced features of their own language. Usually, the same person does a little bit of both. Have you performed an accent tag video? Have you found one you appreciate? What did you think of Kelly’s?  Post your comments and findings here!