‘Word jails’, ‘slang bans’ and the punitive policing of language in schools

Blog post written by Ian Cushing based on a new article published in Language in Society

The late, great linguist and educationalist Ronald Carter wrote that teachers can be forced into acting as a kind of ‘kind of linguistic dentist, polishing here and there, straightening out, removing decay, filling gaps and occasionally undertaking a necessary extraction’. In a new article published in Language in Society, I use Carter’s metaphor as a springboard to critically examine a spate of many current language education policies and pedagogies in schools which are driven by deficit discourses about linguistic variation and change. The focus of the paper is on primary and secondary schools in England who have implemented strict, prescriptive and punitive language policies which attempt to ‘ban’ young people from using particular words, phrases and non-standard grammatical constructions from classrooms and corridors. In doing so, I adopt a stance from critical linguistics in that my approach is to unpick how authoritative bodies weaponise language policies and ideologies as a mechanism to control and suppres how people use language, and as a way of maintaining institutional power. Ultimately, my argument is that a prescriptive language policy carries a threat of language discrimination and serve to bolster the stigmatisation that many speakers of non-standard language already face.

One important commitment that I make in the article is to use discursive methods to analysing language policy. In this, policy is conceived of as an ‘onion’: a series of interconnected ‘layers’ or ‘levels’, which typically carry different degrees of power and agency, from ‘macro-level’ (e.g. government; curriculum documents; national tests) through to ‘micro-level’ (e.g. teachers; students). I argue that current macro-level policy in England is particularly problematic in the ways in which it uncritically emphasises a requirement for students to use Standard English in schools, for teachers to ‘model’ Standard English, and the ways in which language is reductively framed as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ in national grammar tests and political discourse. In interviews, one reason that teachers at the micro-level gave for implementing prescriptive language policies then, is in response to these kinds of top-down policies which coerce and intimidate them in compliance. Schools are particularly crucial spaces for language policy, being controlled by the state, being key sites of socialisation and legitimisation, and the curriculum being a key vehicle through which the state can shape the attitudes and behaviours of the next generation.

Strict language policies mirror a shift (and return) towards conservatism in English education more broadly, along with a growing trend for schools to implement hostile ‘no excuses’ and ‘zero-tolerance’ behaviour policies, which are driven by retribution and punishment. Media reporting on these policies is equally problematic, often inviting readers to submit their own words they would like to see ‘banned’ and whipping up the kind of moral panic about language change, ‘falling standards’ and young people’s behaviour which has long permeated UK society. Critical discourse analysis of media stories and interviews revealed that crime metaphors often appear within prescriptive policies: language policing, word jails, crackdowns and rule breakers serve to re-enforce teachers and management as powerful language policy agents who are concerned with linguistic control, regulation and ‘standards’.

Importantly, the article draws attention to the lack of opportunities for students to study sociolinguistics in schools, as well as the low-number of linguistics graduates training to become teachers and a general lack of linguistics on many teacher education courses. These remain pressing issues for applied linguists and educationalists in working to educate teachers and policy makers about the dangers of prescriptivism and the potential for language discrimination it can bring about.

Read the full article ‘The policy and policing of language in schools‘ published in Language in Society

This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)


Words on the loose: The power of “premium”

Blog post written by Crispin Thurlow based on a new article published in Language in Society


In a new paper for Language in Society, I open with the following anecdote about the disingenuous power of everyday language games. On a work trip to Stockholm several years ago, I needed to take my two sons along with me. My local colleagues had kindly accommodated us in one of Sweden’s “Elite” hotels. On arrival day, my sons and I checked in and made our way up to the room. As we stepped across the threshold my oldest son declared, with genuine disappointment, “But this isn’t elite!” After I pressed him, he explained that the room was just not big enough. Evidently, he had already learned about the well-established link between space, privilege and the performance of status. And, in that moment, he was also learning two truths about language: words do not carry meaning, but words really do matter.

Against this domestic backdrop, I undertake an extensive critique of another floating signifier at work in the world today: “premium”. Attached to any number of goods or services, this ubiquitous label is an apparent effort to persuade people into an easy sense of distinction. My own collected examples include chocolates, beer, clothing, haircuts, towelling, potato chips, olives, crab cakes and tomatoes. The power of “premium” is at its most vivid, however, in the elaborately orchestrated rhetorics of so-called Premium Economy. Here we have not the sorting of tomatoes but rather the sorting of people. Arguably the most profitable of passenger classes, this is also where language comes to the fore. In an industry where profit margins are slim, one of the cheapest resources available to airlines – the one with the lowest fossil-fuel burn – is words. Words are precisely how airlines fabricate a “class” of passengers tangibly but not too visibly distinct from Economy, while steering clear of the more prestigious (and expensive) Business.

In teasing apart the copious and florid marketing copy of over forty international airlines, I have pin-pointed three common strategies which underpin this in-between passenger service. The first is extraction (of money and of other people’s comfort) and the second is excess (of words and other largely immaterial performances of plenty). Perhaps most important of all, however, Premium Economy rests on a core grammatical feature and a related social-psychological phenomenon: comparison. Airlines can only profitably afford to offer “extra” and “more” – as in the words of one airline, “More comfort, more choice, more privileges”. All of which hinges on the human predeliction for downward comparison – or, in the case of airplane seating configurations, backwards comparison. And it works, as behavioural economists attest. Simply knowing that others are worse off makes people feel better about themselves and more willing to part with their money.

In the final reckoning, I have come to understand “premium” to be a prime example of Bourdieu’s symbolic power. For all its seemingly frivolous, innocuous appearance, this little word is deployed – and quite successfully it seems – as a means for controlling people through seduction and enchantment. In fact, and following the impressive interventions of critical economist Frédéric Lordon, I propose that the “humble joy” of having a little extra or a little more – of being just a little bit better than the rest – is partly how members of the aspirational middle classes make themselves compliant to the capitalist order. As such, “premium” promises just enough to keep me striving willingly for my own subjugation.

Read the article Dissecting the Language of Elitism: The ‘Joyful’ Violence of Premium published in Language in Society.

Call for Editor Proposals – Language in Society

Professor Jenny Cheshire is completing her tenure in December 2019 as Editor of Language in Society (LiS). Cambridge University Press is now inviting applications for the position of Editor. A team of two Co-Editors will also be considered. Final appointment decisions will be made by the Syndicate of Cambridge University Press.

The deadline for applications is February 1, 2018.

Language in Society is an international journal of sociolinguistics concerned with language and discourse as aspects of social life. The journal publishes empirical articles of general theoretical, comparative or methodological interest to students and scholars in sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, and related fields. LiS aims to strengthen international scholarship and interdisciplinary conversation and cooperation among researchers interested in language and society by publishing work of high quality which speaks to a wide audience. In addition to original articles, the journal publishes reviews and notices of the latest important books in the field as well as occasional theme and discussions sections.

LiS published volume 47 in 2018. Its 2017 Impact Factor was 1.426, placing it 45 of 181 journals in the Linguistics JCR and 56 of 147 journals in the Sociology JCR (ranked by Impact Factor).

Interested applicants should send a curriculum vita and cover letter along with an abbreviated development plan (not to exceed two pages) and the names and email addresses of three referees, to Amy Laurent at Cambridge University Press (details below).

Editorial responsibilities will include:

  • Shaping the strategic direction of the journal, in cooperation with Cambridge
  • Organizing and managing the editorial office, with support from Cambridge
  • Managing the peer review process (the journal uses the ScholarOne system)
  • Making final article acceptance decisions
  • Editing and proofing articles for the journal
  • Proposing and working with members of an active Editorial Board
  • Attending relevant conferences and an annual editorial meeting

In your application, please indicate your:

  • Experience of publishing in the field
  • Editorial experience, ideally with an academic journal
  • Ability to work under pressure, meet deadlines and work as part of a team
  • Strong professional and academic links
  • Organizational, communication and IT skills
  • Institutional support, financial or otherwise, to aid your work on the journal
  • Proposed plan for development, including areas such as:
    • Engagement of journal reviewers and editorial board members
    • Areas of focus for commissioning
    • Journal metrics

Please direct applications and any questions to Amy Laurent, Editor, Cambridge University Press at [email protected]Please use Language in Society Call for Editor as your email subject line.

Trump’s Monolingual Disadvantage

Blog Post by Douglas Kibbee, author of Language and the Law: Linguistic Inequality in America

Early in the fall of 2016 several news agencies speculated that Donald Trump might be suffering from early onset dementia.  Could this be related to his adamant monolingualism?  During his campaign Donald Trump rebuked Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish, telling him to talk English, he’s in America (2015).  In the campaign against Hilary Clinton, Trump dismissed bilingual communities, refusing to advertise in languages other than English. America will not be made great by making it monolingual.  Monolingualism is not just a threat to national security and economic competitiveness.  It’s a threat to public health.

One of the greatest weaknesses of our educational system is the decline in foreign-language education, confirmed in a recent report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (The State of Languages in the U.S. A Statistical Portrait, https://www.amacad.org/multimedia/pdfs/publications/researchpapersmonographs/State-of-Languages-in-US.pdf).  The Academy’s report describes a decline in offerings of foreign language education and the widening gap between American education and the rest of the developed world.  In the U.S. only a fifth of K-12 students are enrolled in languages other than English, compared to more than half of European students.   Middle schools offering other languages have dropped from 75% to 58%, effectively foreclosing the possibility of advanced competency.  At the same time, the benefits of dual-language immersion are substantial : by the eighth grade students in dual-language immersion programs are a full year ahead of their counterparts in English language skills.  A study by researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University placed Mr. Trump’s English skills at a 5th-6th grade level, by far the lowest of any of the serious candidates from either party.

As a policy issue, the decline in foreign-language education may reflect a fundamental misconception of education’s role. The fragmentation of education represented by home schooling and the charter school movement is a means to make education confirm what students (and their parents) already believe, rather than to challenge them to understand a diverse world. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of Education, spins this as a rejection of “one size fits all” education, but in fact it’s a rejection of very foundation of education.  Self-segregation by race or religion is on the rise, while students avoid exposure to other ways of thinking, including language.  Eva Moskowitz, CEO of one of the largest charter school groups (Success Academy in New York) bragged to the American Enterprise Institute about dropping foreign language education at her schools, serving, or disserving, 10,000 students in New York.

Apart from the social, economic and political consequences, monolingualism turns out to be bad for public health.  Scientific evidence for a bilingual cognitive advantage has been building.  Numerous studies have demonstrated that knowing two languages significantly improves transferable brain skills, an advantage psychologists call the “executive function system” of the brain.  The development of this sytem, located in the prefrontal cortex, is described by Canadian psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Fergus Craik as “the most crucial cognitive achievement in early childhood”.  The executive function system allows children to focus their attention, to distinguish relevant from distracting information, and to remember more accurately sequences of colors or shapes.

The scientific evidence is sometimes contested and certainly merits more, and more sophisticated, research, but it is clear that over one’s lifetime there are advantages to bilingualism.  Most clearly, Bialystok and her team found that for bilinguals the onset of dementia was delayed by over four years, compared to the onset age for monolinguals.  The advantages of lifelong bilingualism were confirmed in recent PhD research by Henrietta Boudros of Central Michigan University.

Computer brain games to maintain cognitive function have become a multibillion dollar industry, but the claims of the commercial applications are largely unsubstantiated.  A recent review of the research concluded “the evidence larely does not support claims of broad cognitive benefits from practicing the sorts of cognitive tasks used in most brain-training software” (Simons et al 2016, 172).  In short, the computer brain games make you better at playing computer brain games, but have little or no proven effect on cognition.

Instead Simons and his team found that “the development of such capacities appears to require sustained investment in relatively complex environments that afford opportunities for consistent practice and engagement with domain-related challenges” (2016, 112)  – exactly the challenges that learning and maintaining a second language provide.

Instead of mocking foreign language knowledge we, as a nation, should encourage it, both in educating our children and in supporting our bilingual communities.  We have done this in the past, as my book demonstrates; now more than ever it is essential that we embrace bilingualism.  Denial of language education and the suppression of bilingualism is not just a threat to national security, to international economic competitiveness, but also to public health.  It’s never too late to start learning another language, Mr. Trump.  Maybe Russian?

Hipsters in the hood: Authentication in young men’s hip hop talk

UntitledBlog post based on an article in Language in Society, written by Pia Pichler and Nathanael Williams

How do we ‘authenticate’ our own identities? Can hip-hop help us in this process? If so, what might we ‘invoke’ and what are the implications for social class and various other aspects of identity?

In this article we look at the spontaneously occurring conversation of four ethnically mixed, working class young men from South London. The data recorded by these young men soon led us to appreciate the significance of hip hop talk to the authentication and identification processes within this group. We found that the data contains many phonological, grammatical, and lexical markers that are indexical of what we call Hip Hop Speech Style (HHSS). However, our data also shows how difficult it is to differentiate between HHSS and the kind of multiethnolect spoken by many young Londoners.

Our own study aims to demonstrate the value of moving the study of authenticity in relation to hip hop from a consideration of (the indexicality of) linguistic style towards a focus on discourse and ideological meanings. A limited number of studies have approached the topic of hip-hop authenticity with an analytic focus on discourses/ideologies rather than linguistic style and even fewer studies have investigated what we might call ‘third sphere’ of hip hop, that is, interaction among Hip Hop fans and activists.

In our analysis we focus on terms and expressions that not only index, or, in other words ‘invoke’ or ‘point to’ various aspects of hip-hop culture, but that also need to be understood in relation to wider macro-sociological concepts. These cultural concepts in turn ‘index’ or ‘invoke’ unconscious sociocultural knowledge and allow speakers to position themselves in relation to these concepts and to one another. This often indirect relationship between linguistic forms and social meaning, and between different levels of indexicality, is at the core of indexicality studies.

Thus, when the young men talk about ‘white girls from The Hills’, or ‘hipsters moving into the hood’, or, in reference to the local gang, ‘dhem man will spray the matic out da Porsche’, they not only evaluate the authenticity of their own and others’ identity performances in relation to hip-hop culture, but hip-hop culture in itself is presented as indexical of various aspects of larger-scale practices and structures.

The speakers position ‘white posh girls from The Hills’, ‘hipsters moving into the hood’, ‘white boys from Cambridge’, as well as the pop star Miley Cyrus in opposition to hip-hop culture. What is interesting is that many of these individuals take part in cultural practices that in themselves index allegiance with hip-hop or street culture, for example, by producing World Star Hip Hop videos, by moving to or living in the hood or in rough London estates, by having extensive knowledge about hip hop, or by ‘twerking like a mutha *****’. These attempts to index hip-hop or street authenticity, however, are not accepted by the group.

Read the full article ‘Hipsters in the hood: Authenticating indexicalities in young men’s hip-hop talk‘ for free through 30th November 2016.