Category Archives: language

Review: Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Child’s-eye view of London life after Ghana

This is a wonderful read, offering Harri’s 11-year-old perspective on the world he’s moved into. The strongest feature here is the voice: Harri’s version of Multi-Ethnic Youth Dialect combined with his natural innocence provides us with an endearing, optimistic take on what is often grim reality. There are many features of Harri’s narrative which flavour the story. My favourites include ‘hutious’, ‘asweh’ and ‘advise yourself’, alongside more familiar features of kids’ language like the prolific use of ‘even’.

But I’m pretty sure that this is a great read even if you don’t happen to teach English Language :).

Harri is sweet and charming. He knows that the gang on the estate could be a force for good, if someone just explained to them about how to help others. And some of the uglier facts in his life are clear to us, but seemingly less so to him. Stephen Kelman’s use of the naive child narrator is executed with precision and charm, providing an upbeat, often funny, and enjoyable read even as deeply unsavoury truths about life in the UK are explored. Harri’s guardian pigeon is also a nice touch, showing Harri’s natural sympathy for other creatures, and providing an occasional broader view of events (although this was a bit strange a first, the brief pigeon’s-eye sections are illuminating in their own way).

The plot revolves around ‘the dead boy’, whose identity we never fully know. He was stabbed (‘chooked’) shortly before the novel opens, and the football boots on the cover are part of the community’s display of grief for him. Harri and a friend decide to turn detective and investigate the murder. After all, Harri’s friend watches all the CSI programmes, so they’re clearly experts. Their enthusiasm for this task is another sweet touch, as well as an effective mechanism to have the boys run around the neighbourhood, blissfully unaware of the chaos in their wake.

As well as Harri, the book is peopled with fabulous supporting characters: Harri’s sister Lydia, other kids – both bad and good, but all seen as potentially good by Harri, and various adults just trying to survive.

Overall, I can see why this was nominated for the Booker, and why it’s now being promoted to a YA audience. I’d love to see lots of teens reading it, as it raises so many questions. I’ll certainly be recommending it to many of my students.

From the Back Cover:

Newly arrived from Ghana with his mother and older sister, Harrison Opoku lives on the ninth floor of a block of flats on a London housing estate. The (second) best runner in the whole of Year 7, Harri races through his new life in his personalised trainers – the Adidas stripes drawn on in marker pen – unaware of the danger growing around him.

But when a boy is knifed to death on the high street and a police appeal for witnesses draws only silence, Harri decides to start a murder investigation of his own. In doing so, he unwittingly breaks the fragile web his mother has spun around her family to keep them safe.

Harri will come face to face with the very real dangers surrounding him. A powerful, unforgettable tale, importantly relevant for young adult readers of today.

Includes a Q&A with the author, Stephen Kelman, and a piece about what inspired him to write Pigeon English.

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This edition published in Oct 2012 by Bloomsbury Childrens
My grateful thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy
For more information (including an extract to sample), visit the Bloomsbury website

Round up for October

It’s that time again already! Here’s a round-up of what’s been going on over the last month, both here and at my website.

October Reviews

4 YA (2 fantasy, 2 realism), 2 kids’ (1 fantasy fiction, 1 non-fiction) and 2 adults’ (1 lit fid, 1 crime fic).

Other posts for October

Material on my website this month:

My website is focused on the teaching of English A Levels, especially Language, and is built around a collection of revision notes for students. I recently began a big revamp project, including new material which is updated weekly – a series of features for students, along with tips/activities/ideas/resources for teachers. The notes are fairly extensive at this point; this round-up will focus on the regularly updated content.

For teachers: a record of the students’ features (with occasional linked resources) and teaching tips:

  • a no-prep end-of-topic starter activity
  • a tip about getting Language students writing about meaning as well as showing off their new-found terminology
  • a discussion of How Much Grammar students need for Language A Level
  • a tip on using exemplar essays

On the students’ page:

  • Features on: child phonology; NaNoWriMo; semantic weakening (is it really ‘epic’?); new words as a sign of the times.
  • Vocabulary pieces on: guiding the reader; being tentative about meaning; avoiding the vague adjectives ‘positive’ and ‘negative’; using connectives logically.
  • Books for wider reading: Dante’s Inferno; Jenefer Shute’s Life-Size.
  • Reads to relax with: The Hunting Ground by Cliff McNish; Dark Parties by Sara Grant; The Storyteller by Antonia Michaelis; Poltergeeks by Sean Cummings.
My other big website announcement of the month is that I have collated all my ‘Frameworks’ notes (the key terms for English Language or English Language and Literature A Level) into an ebook and self-published it in Kindle format. Should you know anyone this would be helpful for, please do send them to my Frameworks pages for more info. The notes will continue to be freely available online, but the ebook version may be more convenient on the go.

Words on Wednesday: Teen Talk in #UKYA

Dialogue is one of the things I notice most when I read: unrealistic conversation will turn me off a book quite rapidly. And, as it’s one of the’English Language’ things I teach, I really notice when dialogue doesn’t quite square with characters’ age, or regional or socio-economic background.

I thought today I’d share a few examples of recent UK YA novels which are particularly authentic in their use of teen-speak. For any other Eng Lang teachers out there, extracts from these are good ENGA3 analysis practice – and might just encourage the odd student to pick up a novel…

Hollow Pike by James Dawson (my review) may contain fantasy elements (witchcraft), but the characters sound exactly like many of my sixth form students. Since a key theme is bullying, bitchy comments and witty comebacks feature particularly highly in the carefully crafted dialogue of this third-person voiced novel.

When I Was Joe by Keren David (my review) is a first-person novel which demonstrates a keen ear for teen talk. Interestingly, both this and Hollow Pike feature a character who’s moved to a new area, so there are some characters whose relationships are very well established and others who are relative strangers.

Della Says: OMG! by Keris Stainton is a realistic contemporary novel (my review is coming soon, but short version: a great read) which captures the teen voice beautifully. This is another good choice for first person narration with a realistic teen feel, as well as sharp dialogue between characters.

I think one of the things that is really interesting about these (and other) novels that are successful in their depiction of teen language is the relative lack of up-to-the-moment slang. Of course, there is quite a lag between writing a book and its publication, but also slang can date really quickly. Authenticity is achieved via things like speech tags (… so he’s like ‘I’m leaving’ and she’s like ‘fine’…), qualifiers (it’s well good), alongside realistic depictions of teen life such as social hierarchies shown through labels (freak; ginge etc). All these things are likely to still signify teen culture and speech for the next few years, whereas more specific slang (maybe “reem”, for example…) is likely to firmly place any novel using it in 2011-12.

Words on Wednesday: the Meaning of Epic

What a great word! Applied to a story, it describes the sweep of a complex tale, usually incorporating a quest. It seems now, like many other words before it, to have broadened and weakened its meaning in some contexts, to mean something like “really really good”. 

It’s been our teenager’s adjective of choice for things she’s really pleased about for a while. For example, most of her Christmas presents were declared epic (to our great delight). I don’t know exactly how widespread this weakened teenage use is, but my students don’t tend to use it in this way. That could be due to age (my daughter’s 13, my students 16-19) or geography (we’re in Leicester, I teach in Nuneaton). Students in the college I work in are aware of it, though. GCSE students working on writing film reviews criticised a sample student review of Pirates of the Caribbean because it used the word epic, which they saw as slang usage and therefore inappropriate.

Is this a sign that some of these words which are used differently by teens could gradually lose their original meaning, as people no longer are aware of them? It hasn’t happened to some of the reversed meaning teen slang words like ‘sick’; the earlier meanings still stand alongside the new ones, but I’m pretty sure many teens don’t know any other meaning for ‘blatantly’ than ‘clearly’.

Is epic a teen word for good/great where you are?

Words on Wednesday: Teaching Political Correctness

One of the topics we have to cover in the A2 year of English Language is Political Correctness, as part of the broader topic of how and why language changes. It amazes me, the extent to which seventeen year olds seem to have been raised on the Daily Mail diet. It’s always a far harder task than you’d think to get a class to accept that maybe – just maybe – there have been some good things that have come out of the PC movement.

But then there’s the perennially popular topic of swearing, which can be beautifully aligned with PC to open up the idea a little bit. Swearing reveals something about taboos and a simple survey, asking people to rate words according to their acceptability, can be most effective in reminding students of the need for PC language. Once they’ve made the connection, students are never really surprised that their grandparents/elderly neighbours etc find a different category of words to be taboo compared to their own sensibilities. Racial epithets are usually rated worst by teens, while older people are likely to find sexual swearwords more offensive. And there it is, right there. We need alternatives to ‘those’ words because they have become unacceptable – and most seventeen year olds can agree with that and have horror stories about grandparents embarrassing them with inappropriate racial descriptors.

The big task is getting students to separate the clear and apparent need for new terms represented by topics such as race and disability (many teens are shocked that ‘The Spastics Society’ ever existed, for example) from the myths perpetuated by the tabloids on a slow news day. Of course, the problem is that so many well-meaning institutions have embraced some of these myths in their desperation not to offend. If one more student tells me I can’t say ‘brainstorm’ (I can, actually) I might just spit.


exciting news for tomorrow’s blog

Sally Gardner will be here tomorrow, celebrating the publication of her new book The Double Shadow. She will be continuing the PC theme, from her perspective as a historical novelist. 

Words on Wednesday: Fry’s Planet Word

If you’re interested in language and you haven’t yet caught BBC2’s fabulous programme “Fry’s Planet Word“, I’d like to suggest that you do. It’s a five-part series of hour-long programmes exploring language in a wide-ranging and intelligent way, and the last one is on this Sunday night (but don’t worry, they’re available on iplayer until the end of the month).

For those of use teaching English Language A Level, it’s been a godsend, with topics such as swearing, coded language (such as Polari) and how children acquire grammatical rules. Students have been delighted to see familiar names such as Jean Berko-Gleason and Steven Pinker talking to the wonderful Stephen Fry. We’ve also been able to see academics working on related disciplines in Psychology and Evolution Studies, and hear the stories of people with language-related problems such as Tourette’s Syndrome.

My students have been enjoying the familiar nature of some of the programme’s ideas, while also being stretched with new aspects that aren’t on the exam specification, but no specific prior knowledge of linguistics  is assumed. Go have a look!

Words on Wednesday: Gender Differences in Language?

It’s an oh-so familiar argument to linguists, just as gender differences in other spheres are regularly debated too. It’s a great topic in the classroom: how is men’s speech different to women’s speech? Students always have ideas about this and so many of the claims ‘feel’ true on some level: men swear more often and more violently, men problem solve while women sympathise, men compete while women co-operate etc etc etc.

The trouble is, every claim can be debunked with quantitative evidence. According to Deborah Cameron’s fantastic The Myth of Mars and Venus: Do men and women really speak different languages?, that sense of familiarity is due to our ‘confirmation bias’ – we recognise and notice things which confirm what we already believe. Society tells us men and women are essentially different and behave differently, so that’s what we notice.

I must say that, when faced with the same transcribed conversation, it amazes me that students will be able to find ‘proof’ of completely opposing ideas. Those who are stuck in the ‘men are aggressive and women are lovely’ mode will find examples of male interruption and females agreeing with others and generally smoothing things over. Those who think men and women have different (but equally valid) styles of conversation will find evidence of males’ preference for factual communication and females’ tendency to share feelings. Only those who have understood and accepted Cameron’s arguments are likely to find evidence that contradicts any of the 70s and 80s studies showing clear gender differences.

So, with people happy to see confirmation of what they already believe, outdated ideas about gender are merrily being published. This piece in the Times Higher, dealing specifically with the recently-published work of John Locke, does a lovely job of discussing the evolution model used in some of this stuff. It’s scary really, how tempting these arguments about our ‘natural’ or ‘primal’ or ‘instinctual’ gender-regulated behaviour can be.

This is easily one of my favourite bits of English Language teaching, as there’s lots of scope for students to discuss and explore real data. Plus, I get to discuss a bit of feminist theory and get into gender-as-a-social-construct with some of them!

Words on Wednesday: I’m going to dress up as a bitch

This is one of my favourite children’s speech stories. When my now 7 yr old was 2, she uttered the above words at Halloween to inform us of her plans. Unfortunately, she found the word ‘witch’ too difficult to pronounce, and as was her tendency at the time, she simply inserted one of her favourite consonant sounds in place of the one she couldn’t do.

Her preferred sounds were the bilabial plosives: ‘b’ and ‘p’ (feel free to use these examples, as I do, for initial language acquisition). This resulted in the similarly amusing description of Christmas as ‘pisser’. Imagine our delight with the little one pointing out ‘pisser trees’ and ‘pisser lights’ everywhere we went…

What mispronunciation stories do you have?

Words on Wednesday: Blatantly

My students (and, I assume, other teens) tend not to use ‘blatantly’ in the same way I do. I’ve been telling Language classes for a few years now that there has possibly been some confusion and now merging between ‘patently’ and ‘blatantly’.  To me, ‘patently’ means obviously, while ‘blatantly’ means in an unsubtle and obvious manner (which isn’t quite the same as ‘obviously’), while students use ‘blatantly’ as though it were synonymous with ‘clearly’.  We also talk about how this is perhaps an example of bleaching (weakening the word’s original meaning) or even broadening (since it used to mean a specific kind of obvious and is now used in the more general sense).

Poking around the internet and various reference books, I find that words such as ‘flagrant’ and ‘unsubtle’ are used in definitions of ‘blatantly’, while ‘patently’ is defined simply as ‘obviously’ or ‘clearly’ in most reference sources. However, some online sources (for example “Daily Writing Tips“) define ‘blatantly’ as having a judgmental tone, making it similar to ‘unashamedly’, with the implication clearly that shame should be involved.

More interestingly still, Urban Dictionary – the source for youth and urban slang – simply equates ‘blatant’ with ‘obvious’, and includes the youth dialect versions of ‘blate’ and ‘blates’. Finally, the Oxford Dictionaries site explains that ‘blatantly’ has been weakened in youth slang, to become a “stock intensifier”.

It’s not just me, then.

That fine line between pedantry and accuracy

I’ve written before about the tensions inherent in teaching English at A Level: the seeming hypocrisy of not allowing students to describe such-and-such a dialect as “wrong” because it uses a non-standard subject-verb agreement (like “so I says to him,…”), while underlining their every mistake. Of course, a lot of that (or should that be alot of that? ;-)) is about context and mode – writing and speech are different, and have different rules.
This is one thing that I do really struggle with sometimes, and I really see myself fitting into that ‘older person’ stereotype of getting all hot and bothered about mistakes. I’d like to argue that it’s about respect for words and grammar and so on, but just how school-teacherly and old-fashioned does that sound? I do see more and more misspelt printed and mass-produced material, and I do happen to think that is a problem. What intrigues me is the indignation people will display about this, when we all in fact make errors sometimes. I think, perhaps, we get all hot and bothered because we assume that someone making a mistake does so because they don’t know how to get it right – but this may not be the case (although of course, sometimes it is). 
I was particularly amused at some students’ disgust with Virgin Media when their ‘superfast broadband’ ads which mentioned each town by name misspelt Nuneaton as Nuneton. OK, this is a shocking mistake in a mass-produced billboard advert, but many of the students who were upset were the same ones who clearly think I am ‘mean’ or ‘picky’ to correct their misuse of  your/you’re and bizarre (to me) constructions such as ‘as a pose to’ (as opposed to….).
For the time being, I am justified in correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar errors, since these things will cost marks in their A Level, although those marks are becoming fewer. I also think that universities and employers receiving these young people are likely to assume that an A Level in English (especially in Language or the combined Language and Literature) means they are able to write accurately.
How do you feel about accuracy in writing? If you find yourself uncertain about some of the more commonly confused homophones (your/you’re; their/there/they’re; it’s/its etc) and/or apostrophe usage, you might find the  accuracy section of my student website useful.