Linguamania at the Museum

This is my guest post for the Oxford German Network, reblogged

Oxford German Network

Consider this phrase: Creative Multi-lingualism. So many things right with every single part of this!  It’s also the name of a new, exciting, and high-profile project between six top UK and US universities, led by our very own, ever-enthusiastic language champion, Katrin Kohl.

Linguamania – going mad for languages

harry-potter-and-the-rosetta-stone Harry Potter and the ‘Rosetta Stone’ – students rewrite a children’s classic

Creative Multilingualism kicked off in style with Linguamania – another great name! On 27 January, the venerable Ashmolean Museum in Oxford pulled out all the stops – and even the disco lights! – for this packed “Live Friday” event, celebrating all things language with music, theatre, taster sessions, and interactive art. Language-lovers of all ages enjoyed writing a new, multilingual Harry Potter chapter, laughed as Ovid’s Apollo chased Daphne to Benny Hill music, and hummed-and-drummed away to Samba rhythms, before writing their own name in…

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Arrival – will Linguist Louise save the world through language?

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In a departure from my usual choice of film – you know, the ones with subtitles and no plot – I went to see Arrival – and it’s got aliens in it. I know – bear with me! So aliens have landed, the world’s on the brink of blowing itself up – who you gonna call? A Linguistics expert, of course! Well to be fair they also called a Scientist, just to even things out, because of that, er, well-known Linguistics/Science paradigm split, with nothing much in between. But who’s better? Let’s look at how Linguist Louise, played by Amy Adams, got the job. Seeing in Arrival most conundrums are framed in an easy-to-manage binary pattern, there are only two Language experts in the world: Louise and the guy from Berkeley (if only it was that simple, the literature review for my thesis would be a hell of a lot easier to write!) There is some sort of academic micro-debate going on though: it all comes down to the dealbreaker question of the Sanskrit word for war. Louise knows ‘the better’ translation, and that’s the end of the line for the guy from Berkeley. Baam! Of course Louise also has another major advantage: a traumatic back story. Perfect! (I just kept hoping throughout the film she wouldn’t get it mixed up with the X-Factor and break into song. Without giving too much away: she didn’t. Phew.) Also in true ‘what people who know nothing about Linguistics think Linguists do’-fashion she speaks lots of languages – this will come in useful later. In contrast, we know nothing about Jeremy Renner’s Ian the Scientist’s recruitment process – he probably slept with someone important, you know those sciency types.

arrival1Brought in to figure out why the aliens – half giant spiders with a leg missing, half massive cracked heel – have come to Earth, Linguist Louise whips out a mini-whiteboard to facilitate communication. Primary school teachers of the world, rejoice, and keep up the good effort – your methods are working! Turns out there is no correlation between the eerie noises the aliens make and what they write. For all we know they may just have been farting. Luckily Linguist Louise stops short of asking Ian the Scientist to explain what correlation means (unlike when she says to her daughter: ‘if you want Science, ask your dad’ – adding in her head ‘how many times, Sweetie? Daddy’s Science, Mummy’s Linguistics!’) Now this is where it gets interesting: Linguist Louise wipes the slate clean (literally) of Maths (aka Science…) scribblings and explains the morphology, syntax and semantics of the question ‘What’s your purpose on Earth?’ in the most pragmatic way (ha – see what I did here?) She even knows how to explain stuff to Forest ‘Ah, now I get it’ Whitaker’s The Colonel, who clearly knows nothing about anything but is tasked with conveying key information to the guys with the finger on the red button. Risky. There’s a curious absence of The President – wouldn’t he (or she – but in the light of recent electoral events more likely he) be on the scene in this kind of Situation with a capital S? Of course – the concept of Donald Trump ever becoming president would have been too far-fetched to entertain, even for a Sci-Fi movie. Shame really, because he would have known just what to do – build a really, really high wall! Simples! As it happens it’s down to Linguist Louise to save the world – no pressure.

If you can suspend disbelief and put up with occasional pockets of ridiculousness, it’s a rare treat indeed to sit back and watch a Linguistics academic (female!) try and stop World (and beyond!) War 3. You don’t even have to be familiar with non-linear approaches to Language Studies, Whorfianism, or Determinism to enjoy how events unfold (but it may help). Personally, they had me at Linguistics.

Arrival, based on Story of your Life by Ted Chiang, directed by Denis Villeneuve, written by Eric Heisserer, and starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, is on general release in cinemas right now.

It’s time! Viva Day – Reblogged

This is my guest post for the University of Reading ‘Engage in Teaching and Learning Blog‘. (Click here for original post)

There can’t be many more nerve-wracking oral exams than the PhD viva. A several-year build-up –and then… what? To give research students an impression of what’s it actually like on the day, Dr Carol Fuller from the Institute of Education has produced a short, entertaining and informative video. Using some Teaching and Learning Development Fund (TLDF) money, Carol, who is Director of the Institute’s EdD Programme, has teamed up with film maker Henry Steddman – a UoR alumni — to provide reassurance to potentially anxious candidates. Starring some IoE colleagues as well as professional actors, the video thankfully stays clear of vague and meaningless advice often found in self-help type viva-survivor tips, such as ‘just be yourself’ (which is fine if your self is a confident academic on top of your game, not so much if it’s a nervous wreck.  As Father Ted says to Dougal: never be yourself! That’s just something people say!)

So how should you be, then? First, let’s remember the cornerstones of the situation you’re in here:

  • You’re the expert on your thesis
  • The examiners have read your work thoroughly…
  • ….and they’re keen to discuss it with you.

On viva day:

  • dress smartly
  • refer to your thesis
  • keep eye contact
  • if unsure, ask questions
  • stay hydrated
  • ….try to relax!
  • at the end, if you’re asked whether you’d like to add anything, take the opportunity.

Then, you’ve done all you can for now, and there’s no more to than just wait, until… it’s time!

Hopefully, you’ll get the desired result, and will be awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy! Congratulations!

If UoR PhD’ers and EdD’ers find the video useful, Carol is keen to hear their feedback – via any means possible, be it the YouTube comment box, on Facebook or twitter, or via email.” It’s a good way to give students access to an easy-to-use resource”, says Carol. “If students tell us they like this video clip, we can make the case for funding to make more such short films, for example on epistemology or methodology.”

What do you and your students think of Carol’s video?

Brexit: a victory for ordinary people?

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Words are distributed unevenly in texts. This is a lucky fact for corpus linguists, who study the nature of this distribution, and are often able to identify linguistic patterns which may otherwise remain hidden.  Why should we care?  Here’s an example, based on a) evidence from my collection of 40.000+ digital newspaper articles, aka ‘corpus’, and b) my heart.

This morning that same heart was broken, when I woke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU. I can’t even begin to tell you how devastated that makes me feel. Only yesterday I had such a happy day, because I’d reached a milestone in my PhD: I’d finished processing all my data and had excitedly begun to explore the above-mentioned corpus.

Some words have a tendency to co-occur with others, which is known as collocation. Corpus linguistics makes a strong case for collocations being a more helpful unit of meaning than words.  Take for example the collocation ‘friendly fire’: this phrase means something entirely different to just simply the sum of the words ‘friendly’ + ‘fire’.  So playing around with my corpus of British articles on German, the Germans and Germany, I made a list of frequent collocates of ‘Germans’. Right at the top of the list: ordinary.  When I looked at the concordance lines in detail, they showed that ordinary Germans was almost exclusively used in the context of the darkest chapter in German history, such as:

  • Did ordinary Germans know what was going on?
  • Ordinary Germans were more complicit in the liquidation of European Jewry than historians have previously supposed
  • There were widespread denials by ordinary Germans that they had known about the existence of internment and death camps
  • A television drama exploring the guilt of ordinary Germans during the Second World War
  • The issue of how much the inhumanity of ordinary Germans was an acquired survival response to the prevailing Nazi terror is sidestepped
  • Her account of ordinary Germans coping with life during wartime
  • At the time Nazism had a powerful appeal to ordinary Germans
  • Hitler didn’t use violence against most ordinary Germans
  • The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans

The Nazi party championed ordinary Germans.  As opposed to whom, extra-ordinary Germans?  Who are these ordinary people?  I don’t really know, but what I do know is that splitting any group or society in a polarised way is a very very bad idea.  Early this morning, an icy chill took hold of my heart when I heard UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s comment on the referendum result: “This will be a victory for ordinary people”.

When Sandi Toksvig asked me about my PhD

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Can’t think of any character from Scooby doo. Not even Scooby doo.

Missing your regular dose of TV quizzing now that University Challenge is done for the season?!  No need to mope – Fifteen to One’s back on, hoorah!

I love this show – so much so that I seem to make a habit of exposing my lack of general knowledge publicly by appearing on it every ten years or so.  So against better judgement I did it again for the third time – and these days you get to go on three shows in a row!

 

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I think we need some more makeup

Contestants were sworn to secrecy about anything to do with the casting and recording until the show you’re on has aired. Well it has, and the gagging order’s been lifted!  After a whittling-down process involving pen and paper tests and onscreen auditions, eventually whoever was left standing was invited to the BBC studios in Glasgow in October last year – yes I know it’s a Channel 4 show, but that’s where it was.  Extremely lucky for me, as Glasgow’s practically my second home!  Presenter Sandi Toksvig was hilarious and made a point of having a little individual chat with everyone.  “So, Heikie, what’s your PhD in?”  Now we’d been briefed that if Sandi asks you something, give a bit of detail.  So I whittled on about my PhD until she could take no more – needless to say, that bit never made it onto the show.  But I’ll never forget the moment when Sandi put an end to my monologue with a desperate “that’s really interesting” and turned to the next person: “So, Vicky, I hear you breed bunny rabbits?”

If you really must, you can watch me on catchup for the next few weeks (13/14/15th April episodes).

RX5

The Glasgow Fifteen, with Sandi

German is like a mushroom…

This is my guest post for the Oxford German Network

Oxford German Network

This is a guest post by our PhD researcher, OGP coordinator Heike Bruton, who is investigating motivation for German learning.  You’ll know her as the author of our ‘Joining up German teaching in the UK’ newsletters, top tips, events and resources from the world of German teaching (to sign up for the newsletter click here; to see past newsletter editions click here).

German is like a mushroommushroom (2)

The year is 1994.  In a comprehensive school on the outskirts of London, a newly qualified German teacher takes up her first job.  She’s brimming with plans and enthusiasm, and she’s looking forward to her many questions being answered.  How do students in this country feel about learning German?  What makes some people here just take to all things German, and what’s the best way to share the love?

That teacher is me.  Two decades later I’ve taught countless numbers of…

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DATA! Or doing research in schools

 

IheartData

 

I’ve created simply the most exciting folder of my PhD so far. It’s called DATA! Complete with capitals and exclamation mark – I just couldn’t stop myself. I’ve actually gone out ‘in the field’ and gathered some real data! I never thought the day would come, but it did, and here’s what I learnt:

Research in schools. Who needs it? Well yes, a lot of us, but don’t forget that everything about fieldwork in schools is hard, from A for access to Z for… it’s just hard, ok? Don’t get me wrong. I love education, I love schools. I’ve spent most of my life so far involved in some sort of educational establishment or other, be it as ‘educatee’, educator, or both. But the three top things to remember are:

 

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  1. School teachers are busy, busy people. I should know, I used to be one. Make it easy and keep wordy emails and long lists of things you want done to a minimum. If you’re lucky enough that someone responds and offers you a time slot, take it, even if it means getting up a silly o’clock, finishing at silly o’clock or rushing madly from one appointment to the next, which will be at, yes, silly o’clock.

 

  1. Waste Spend your own time and money to make sure all documents are copied, stapled and ready to go. Don’t expect the teacher to take the time to prepare this, or the money for it to come out of the departmental budget. Put it all into one big bag and be prepared to hand over the bag as well – if you’re lucky you’ll get it back at the end, full of completed questionnaires. If you’re lucky, that is.

 

  1. Never been to this particular school before? Allow A LOT of time. Last week I was waiting outside of firmly locked electronic metal gates for what seemed like ages, worrying I might miss my appointment. And the parking! Parking’s always, always an issue. What’s legal isn’t always acceptable to the local community – if you’re parked in a side street, you’re almost certain to put someone’s nose out of joint. On my return to the car I found a handwritten note – impersonating a traffic warden – on the back of an envelope, telling me that my car was parked illegally (it wasn’t). The message was clear: “Don’t do it again”.

 

parking note

 

This was only day one of my data collection schedule. I interviewed two teachers at two schools – the text books say to only do one interview a day, but hey, see point 1) above. I’ll be back for more interviews, questionnaire sessions, lesson observations and focus groups – I can’t wait. So then, what to do with all this lovely, fresh and juicy data? Well, before you can crunch it all up and then spit it out again in some sort of (hopefully) meaningful fashion, it needs to be transcribed. But that’s a blog post for another day!

 

Are you conducting research in a school? How’s that going? Please post your comments below!