Outside Uni

Invited paper: Approaching language policy from a critical perspective: the role of discourse studies

Centre for Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, Guangzhou, China

(N.B. This is an updated version of the talk I gave at Leeds LLTPRG last year)


In this paper I will outline some of the main theoretical and methodological considerations involved in applying a critical discourse studies framework to the study of language policies and language attitudes. In particular, I will attempt to show how we can best use critical, discursive approaches such as critical discourse analysis when examining language attitudes and policies. Two case studies will illustrate this point: first, drawing on a previous research project, a study of the Scots language, an autochtonous minority language spoken in Scotland, is used to show how language attitudes pervade the public and private spheres, and how often languages are evaluated positively, but not necessarily valued; and second, I will present the findings from an investigation into attitudes towards the use of English as a Lingua Franca at a higher education institution in France, in which students in a highly multilingual environment hold sometimes unexpected attitudes towards the various languages in their linguistic repertoires. In each case, “top-down” data such as policy documents and debates among power elites are combined with “bottom-up” data gathered from language users affected by policies and attitudes. I will argue that it is not enough to look at the content of language policies and what people say about language. Rather, to fully account for the impact of policy and attitudes on the lives of language users, we must look at how both powerful and affected groups and structure, instrumentalise, and recontextualise discourse on language and language varieties.

My visit to Olashore International School this past June was featured in the School’s magazine, Oasis. I’m about to go again – really looking forward to seeing the students and staff again.


1Welcome to the last edition of Oasis for this academic session, 2012/2013. This has been a busy and exciting term in the school and I hope you will enjoy the photos and stories in the magazine relating our activities. The focus of the magazine this term is on our new prefects and the leadership role that they take on in the school. Prefects are the face of leadership within the school. During the year parents and guests have seen the leading role that prefects played at major events such as Founder’s Day. They also take responsibility for many programmes within the school including the mid-term carnival along with a range of daily duties.

As we have begun to develop our Alumni Association and taken time to reflect on the words of the Founder, it is clear that leadership is one of the key qualities that makes an Olashore graduate standout…

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been involved in two events that have tested my analysis skills. The first was as “Rhetoric Officer” in the first sitting of The Rational Parliament. This innovative new forum for public debate on issues that matter took place in London last week. The organiser Adam Smith invited me to comment on how members of the parliament were using language, and to alert them to any attempts to use “rhetorical tricks” to manipulate the audience. What made this unlike any other analysis I’d done before was that it had to happen in real time. There I was, on the night, sitting next to the “Speaker” (Michael Brooks, the moderator of the debate) and giving my thoughts on language use every so often.

Picture of the rational parliament in session

The Rational Parliament in session

The good news is the audience seemed to appreciate my contributions, and I quite enjoyed it. Someone commented that it really “cooled off” the debate – perhaps making people think about how they were speaking discouraged them from verbal attacks. I think the way the session was introduced by Adam and moderated by Michael had a much bigger impact in this regard.

Having observed my live analysis at the Rational Parliament, Daniel Trilling, editor of New Humanist magazine, approached me earlier this week to ask whether I would perform a similar kind of analysis on the UK party leaders’ speeches being broadcast over the next fortnight. Though I had some doubts over whether I wanted to open my analysis to the scrutiny of potentially thousands of followers of the Rationalist Association twitter feed, I agreed, because I have for a long time believed that we critical discourse analysts need to get out of the ivory tower and communicate our research, and above all our analyses,
to a wider public. This is the result of my first live-tweeting, then writing up in a slightly more coherent fashion (you may disagree with the latter statement), my analysis of the speech.

I got some help along the way from my colleague Veronika Koller, my PhD student David Pask-Hughes, and several other linguists and non-linguists who were watching the debate. I wonder if this could become a trend? At least for important public events and speeches, if enough linguists, logicians, political scientists, sociologists, and other thinkers, make a concerted effort to post their on-the-fly critiques of poliiticans’ speeches and actions, would this make a difference? Perhaps I’m being idealistic, but it sounds like something to try.

Comments and thoughts, and above all critiques of my analysis (bearing in mind it was done in real time) are very welcome!