Monday 12 May 2014

On dumbing up

I’ve been appalled, this week, as most language-aware practitioners have, with the misinformation being presented in the media about the proposal to use examples of celebrities’ language along with classical literature in the proposed Language and Literature A-level specification. Russell Brand seems to have been the focus of most of the comment, along with Dizzee Rascal, Jeremy Paxman, and others.

Excellent responses have already been forthcoming from the English and Media Centre and from the EngLangBlog, so I won’t repeat what is said there. But one example from the media illustrates the profound misunderstanding of what language study is all about. Dan Clayton shows how the Daily Mail is typical of the way the facts are being misrepresented by quoting an exam question. The Mail asserts the following:

One question simply states: 'Analyse the text on this Caffè Nero website'.

This is the question that actually appeared:

Text A, below, is an advertisement for coffee published during the Great Exhibition of 1851. Text B, on page 3, is a webpage produced by the coffee company Caffè Nero in 2012.

Analyse how language is used in Text A and Text B to represent the companies’ coffee.

With reference to Text A, Text B and your own studies, illustrate and evaluate different ways of explaining how language changes.

The Mail has omitted the crucial part of the question, which focuses the student's attention on the changes in language which have taken place during the past century or so. It's a brilliant question - and one that would have taken quite a bit of time to research. How many people would know where to look to find 19th-century coffee ads? And it gets to the heart of any language syllabus.

All language awareness, ultimately, is about contrast and change. You appreciate standard English by contrasting it with nonstandard English. You understand singulars by contrast with plurals, present tenses with past tenses, comparatives with superlatives... A friendly intonation contrasts with an aggressive one. A headline contrasts with a sub-heading, and with no heading at all. Usage today contrasts with usage yesterday, or last year, or last century.

The press juxtaposes Russell Brand and Shakespeare, and calls the process a dumbing down. But we appreciate Shakespeare by contrasting him with non-Shakespeare - both in his time (other dramatists, other prose-writers) or afterwards. The point is a general one: we appreciate literature by contrasting it with non-literature. The process can be unconscious - it usually is - but is enhanced when it is made conscious, which is what these A-level courses are all about. Celebrity use of language is not being promoted as literature. It is enabling students to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the language of literature. It is not dumbing down. It is actually dumbing up.