Studying English language in the age of “Post-truth”

With all of the misinformation that seems to be circulating online nowadays, it is said that we are living in a “post-truth” world, a world where facts don’t matter, and where people make important political and personal decisions based on “fake news”, rumours, and their own feelings. In fact, Oxford Dictionaries has named “post truth” the 2016 word of the year.

In an era of “post-truth”, it may be tempting to dismiss the importance of studying language. After all, if nothing is true anymore, what’s the point of paying attention to what people say or write. But actually, the decline of truth in mainstream and social media, and in political discourse makes studying language more important than ever before. This is because current theories in English Language Studies and Applied Linguistics can help us to understand why people are inclined in believe seemingly outrageous things they read online, and can help us to spot fake news stories and recognise the strategies people use to try to trick us into engaging with them.

Propaganda and fake news are not definitely not new phenomena. They have been with us for years. And it doesn’t take the Internet to spread fake news. In fact, one of the most influential recent pieces of misinformation, the claim that Brexit would result in £350 million being channelled to the NHS, appeared on the side of the bus. What is different about misinformation on the Internet is the way the information architecture of digital media affects both what we read and how we read.

Scholars of reading have found that when people read online, they are more easily distracted, and spend less time on a particular page. This can make us less critical when we are reading online, because we are less likely to follow an argument to its conclusion. Online we are used to reading short form texts, such as tweets and status updates, rather than long form texts which present reasons and evidence for statements. When it comes to fake news, most of the time, people simply read headlines as they scroll down their Facebook Newsfeeds. They usually don’t read the news stories themselves, and of course headlines are usually just assertions which are difficult to verify without more information.

But the more important way that the Internet affects reading is the way it changes what we read. The difference between reading news in a newspaper, and reading it on a social media site, is that on the social media site, the news that you read has been selected for you by your friends, many of whom may have similar opinions to you. The algorithms of sites like Facebook and Google are also designed to select which status updates appear at the top of your newsfeed or which websites appear first in a list of search results based on your past behaviour: the kinds of posts that you have “liked” or the kinds of search results you have clicked on in the past. And so what you read on the Internet is often likely to reinforce opinions that you already have rather than introduce information that challenges those opinions. The writer Eli Pariser calls this phenomenon “the filter bubble”. What this means is that the information we get online is “filtered” based on our pre-existing beliefs.

So what does this have to do with “fake news”? First of all, we are more likely to believe news that confirms our existing opinions about a particular issue, particularly if it appears in the context of a whole lot of other news which also confirms that opinion. Psycholinguists, people who study language and the mind, have shown how the way we comprehend what we hear and read can be affected by what we have heard and read immediately beforehand. They call this “priming”. Sociolinguists, people who study language in society, talk about how people who belong to particular groups develop not just particular ways of using language, but also particular ways of interpreting what they hear or read, and when they interact, they reinforce these “norms of communication”. When you read a piece of “fake news” on Facebook, you might be more likely to believe it, because it fits in with the opinions of the group to which you belong (in this case, your group of Facebook friends), you may also be more likely to share that piece of fake news with those very same friends, thus reinforcing those opinions. Some people might even argue that we are being “brainwashed” by the algorithms that govern what we read on social media sites and by our “like-minded” Facebook friends who keep sharing stories that reinforce the group ideology.

But we can’t blame it all on Facebook and Google, or even on our friends. New research by applied linguists Carolyn Tagg and Philip Seargeant reveals that, for many people, the problem is not that all of their Facebook friends believe the same thing, but that their friends include people from different parts of their lives (classmates, relatives, co-workers), who might have lots of different opinions. They argue that the prevailing ideology of social media sites is conviviality; people want to be friendly, and avoid conflict. Because of this, people are much less likely to challenge what they might think is “fake news” posted by one of their Facebook friends. In other words, if you think something is true, you are likely to share it, but if you think something is not true, you are not likely to challenge it.

So how can we tell if something we read online is “fake news”. Of course, the best way is to read the article carefully, consider its source, and cross-check the “facts” in it with other sources. But there are also some clues in the language of “fake news” headlines. One field of English language studies called discourse analysis can help us to notice these clues. Discourse analysis is the study of the way different kinds of texts are put together. It can be used to reveal common patterns across texts. Texts that have similar patterns and similar purposes are called genres. “Fake news” headlines can be said to belong to a particular genre of headlines called “clickbait”. Clickbait headlines have a common purpose – to get you to click on them so that their creators can earn advertising revenue. These headlines also have some common lexical and grammatical characteristics.

One thing that characterizes clickbait headlines is that they tend to contain words chosen to trigger an emotional response from readers such as epic, amazing, incredible, unbelievable, and shocking. for example:

Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement. 

Internet researchers from Brazil and Qatar conducted a study in which they measured how likely people were to click on different kinds of headlines. They found that people were much more likely to click on headlines that expressed extreme (either positive or negative) sentiment, which they called “sentiment polarity”.

Apart from emotional words, writers of clickbait headlines also sometimes personalize the content of headlines by using pronouns like you or your, as in the following headline:

BREAKING: Hillary Clinton To Be Indicted… Your Prayers Have Been Answered.

Another way clickbait headlines get people to click on them is by creating some kind of mystery or ambiguity. Many of us are familiar with clickbait headlines like:

Someone Gave Some Kids Some Scissors. Here’s What Happened Next.

 A Gorgeous Waitress Gets Harassed by Some Jerk. What She Did Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.

Such headlines normally consist of two sentences. The first sentence expresses something that happened or some state of affairs, usually involving some undefined person such as “some kids” or “a gorgeous waitress”. The second sentence can be called the “hook”. This sentence is designed to raise a question about what happened in the first sentence (e.g. “what she did” or “ what happens next”) and to promise the reader and emotional payoff if they click to find out the answer to the question.

As it turns out, many fake news headlines use this structure. Here are some examples:

WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS… Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL!

 IT’S OVER: Hillary’s ISIS Email Just Leaked & It’s Worse Than Anyone Could Have Imagined

Both of these headlines begins with a statement about something that supposedly happened, and ends with an ambiguous statement which adds mystery to the first statement. Of course none of these statements are actually true. But because of the emotional way in which they are expressed, the fact that they might confirm the worst fears or fantasies of people who belong to particular groups, and, the way they are grammatically constructed to manufacture curiosity, people are more likely to click on them or share them with other people.

The important thing to remember about fake news is that sometimes it doesn’t even pretend to be real. Often, the purpose is not to get you to believe that the Pope supported Donald Trump or that Hillary Clinton is a member of ISIS, but rather, to create confusion and undermine your faith in all news. If we are living in a media environment in which so much of the news is fake, that makes it easier for politicians and public officials to dismiss any news that is unfavourable to them as “fake news”.

 

Professor Rodney Jones

Professor of Sociolinguistics, Head of Department

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

How I shaped my dissertation around my interest in counter-terrorism

Emma Campbell, a final year English Language and Applied Linguistics student, tells us about her dissertation topic and hopes for the future.

“When I applied to do English Language at the University of Reading during my last year of sixth form, I didn’t imagine I would be considering a career into counter-terrorism. I always knew I wanted to study English at University, but never really thought about the careers that would be accessible to me after completing my degree. A lot of people would associate an English Language degree with only the options of becoming a teacher, a journalist; but what people don’t realise is that doing this degree opens so many other doors. I am currently in my final year, and completing my dissertation. To stay motivated and manage to write 10,000 words I knew I had to do it on a topic I am really passionate about, and with a degree like I English Language I was able to be as flexible as I liked. After some research, I decided to look at the terrorist organisation; Islamic State’s use of propaganda. My research involves using an approach in linguistics known as critical multimodal discourse analysis, which allows me to investigate the group’s use of language, and images and begin to understand the vital role they both play in a terrorist organisations communication strategy. I eventually hope to use my research to help build frameworks to further the efforts of counter-terrorism strategies. By thinking a little outside of the box, I can pursue my choice of a career in working on counter-terrorism strategies, whilst following my passion for studying the English Language. My advice would be is if you love studying English like I do, do it at University. You don’t have to limit yourself to the small pool of careers that are stereotypically associated with this degree. There are so many more options out there and it only takes a place like university to learn about what a degree in English Language can offer you.”

Find out more about the modules we offer here: http://www.reading.ac.uk/english-language-and-applied-linguistics/Undergraduate/elal-browse-our-modules.aspx

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Halloween: The Meaning Behind the Word

Halloween.  A night filled with scary costumes, decorations and chocolates. The rich history of this annual ritual is often forgotten. The word itself is so rarely considered, yet certainly ought to be as its origin is thought provoking.

Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween

I admit, until recently I knew only that Halloween was an abbreviation from “All Hallows Even” but have since researched and have become fascinated with the origins and developments of the word and the celebration.

“All Hallows Even” refers to the evening of the 31st October, a time where people would give thanks for the harvest and honour their deceased loved ones. Over time, this name became shortened via the omission of “all” “s” and “v”.  This was originally written as “Hallowe’en” but has since become more commonly known as “Halloween”.  This word was popularised by Burns in his poem “Halloween” in 1785.

All Hallows Even is the night before All Saints Day. “Hallow” is a relatively archaic noun which means “a saint or holy person” thereby clearly relating to the following celebration “All Saints Day”.

Whilst an official connection has never been confirmed, Halloween is very closely linked to the pagan festival “Samhain”. There are varying pronunciations of this word, one of the most common being “Sah-win”.  Samhain occurs on the same date as Halloween and it is arguable that the two have merged over time. This is because Samhain is the celebration of the changing seasons. Sunset on Samhain is the beginning of the Celtic new year. All modern spellings of Samhain come from Old Irish “Samfuin” which can be translated roughly to “Summer’s end”.

This can easily be linked to the concept of death which is prevalent throughout both festivals as Summer is often seen as the season of life and fertility whilst Autumn is a time of transition; that is to say, death and ‘ending’ is all around us during this time. It is at this time that the physical world is said to be most connected to the spirit world.

If I have left you with a slightly sad impression of what is usually a light hearted festival, don’t let it get you down. Instead consider celebrating the cyclical nature of the Earth, the seasons, and of life and death! And more importantly, dress up and have fun!

By Saskia Knight (Current Student)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Welcome Week Experience

Becky reflects on her enjoyable Welcome Week and gives you an idea of what to expect in yours.

Welcome Week at the University of Reading was one of the busiest weeks of my university career, packed with meeting new people, attending introductory lectures and taster society sessions, and, along with many students, moving away from my family for the first time.

My Dad dropped me off, his car filled to the brim with my clothes, books and other stuff I’d decided to bring with me. We’d had to attach a roof box just so I could fit in an extra few boxes. After we had carried everything to my new room, he hugged me goodbye and left but, as cheesy as this sounds, I wasn’t on my own. Everyone else was in the same boat: excited, nervous, and (like me) putting up their posters before even unpacking their bedding. Some people I met that first week in lectures commuted from nearby, or lived in student housing, but we all had one thing in common- we were all starting the next Big Step in our lives. It’s the most uniting thing I’ve ever experienced, making Welcome Week really special and good fun. It also really helps if you offer everybody chocolate biscuits!

I soon become close with my flatmates. I had worried that because I had not been clubbing much, this would affect my social life. I couldn’t have been more wrong! My flatmates and I started having many nights dedicated to watching Game of Thrones boxsets, and days scouring Reading’s charity shops for bargain fancy dress outfits. I also got to know students from my course, going to a café after one lecture to discuss the modules before we had even started them, and to this day we still revise together in the summer term. I even became friends with one girl at a university bar because of the amazing coincidence that we were both named Rebecca.

Societies Fayre at Welcome Week

Societies Fayre at Welcome Week

The Societies Fayre and Sports Fayre gave me more great opportunities to meet new people, as well as try new things. With over 150 societies and sports clubs to pick from, it was hard to decide which to join. From the fencing society to the Harry Potter society, from modern languages to rugby to singer-songwriting, between me and my friends we went to a huge number of taster sessions. In addition, another fayre available in that first week was the Careers Fayre, which was exceedingly useful. The companies recruiting students at the stalls prove that there are so many career options and a huge variety of graduate jobs for humanities students, and they start you thinking about the career path you would want to follow after finishing your degree.

With all the activities available in Welcome Week, introductory lectures still managed to be the most exciting part of it. I met the tutors who would be teaching me over the next few years, met students I would be sharing classes with, and got my first feel of what it was going to be like to study at the University of Reading. I remember meeting up with all my flatmates straight after our introductory lectures, sitting on a bench in the middle of campus, and talking enthusiastically about each of our subjects, and our plans for the future. It was a whirlwind of a week, and a great start to university. I hope you enjoy yours just as much.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Where to go for help and advice at University

Final year student Chloe takes us though the many places to go for guidance at Reading and assures us that ‘everyone is in the same boat’. 

Beginning university is a big milestone. A change in studies and often a change in scenery, university is the start of a new adventure and marks, for many, the first experience of moving out of home. In the coming months you will start to contemplate all of these changes: writing lists of what will make the cut in your packing for university; looking at your reading list; figuring out how to do things that you may not have had to do before (like your own washing!). When the time comes, the move to university will surely be a momentous occasion, and awaiting you alongside your studies are friends and experiences that you will treasure long after your university time.

However, understandably, such a change can seem daunting. Everyone will be telling you that ‘everyone’s in the same boat’ – I’m sure you’ve already heard that a few times! – but it actually is true. When you arrive to university, whether that be your move-in day at Halls, or your first lecture, you will see that all of the other students have exactly the same feelings of apprehension, excitement and nerves. The friends you make in your accommodation and/or on your course will most probably be your closest support network for the coming years. Providing a home away from home, the bonds between students are so tight because they become your first port of call when you need a companion for all the new things you are discovering: when you want to go and explore the campus; when you need to watch a favourite film to combat a bit of homesickness. These bonds are important to the transition to university. However, as in any situation, there can be times when things go wrong or something is making your time less enjoyable than it should be. For such times, there are a fantastic range of support services run by the university, to help you in any way that may be required.

Upon arriving at university you will be assigned a personal tutor, a member of staff within your subject of study. Your personal tutor will be a constant throughout your degree, providing help and support for not only academic issues or concerns you may have, but also with personal issues such as housing, relationships, finance etc. Most tutors are more than happy to talk to you either in person or via email at any point during the academic year, and will be able to refer you or provide necessary advice for the specific problem. During my studies at university I have used both my personal tutor and even tutors from modules I have taken. Members of staff, in my experience, are so friendly and helpful, and having such a great network of tutors and staff to talk to means that there is likely to be at least one person that you feel comfortable talking to.

 

Outside the Carrington Building

Outside the Carrington Building

Alongside the personal tutor connection, the University runs a Student Wellbeing Service, housed in the Carrington building on campus. The ‘Counselling and wellbeing’ facility operates many services, including: Counselling sessions with trained professionals (can be a one-off session or a series of sessions), Peer supporters (fellow students offering advice), Life Tools talks (resources and advice about living independently, managing time, study advice etc.), Study Advisor ( to help with academic problems). This is a free service available to all registered students, and fully trained counsellors are always on hand to provide guidance and support to students about a range of personal and academic issues. Similar to this, RUSU (Reading University’s Student’s Union) runs events throughout the year to help students deal with stress. ‘RUSU says Relax’ is a scheme precisely for this, and is currently running a ‘Mobile Zoo’ that is on campus during exam period to help students relieve stress.

So always remember, especially in the run up to starting university, that help and support is always on hand at any point, even if you just need a friendly chat and a cup of tea!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How to use a reading list: Advice for applicants

One of the first things that we will send you before your course starts is a reading list, so we thought this might be a good chance to say something about what a reading list is for.

The reading list helps you make the best use of our learning resources in a way that is tailored to your modules.  For your first term, you may get this reading list in paper copy, but for the rest of your degree you will be able to access it electronically on our VLE. We will explain how to access the VLE and use the library’s online systems in Welcome Week.

Your reading lists will be divided into sections: there will be an ‘essential reading’ or ‘set texts’ section that will list the books that you will be studying on the module (a textbook, an anthology, or a short list of book or film titles). A few of these will be listed as ‘recommended for student purchase’. It is a good idea to buy copies of those, because you will be using them intensively on the module. It’s also a good idea to buy the edition we recommend. (This means buying a copy published in the same year and with the same ‘ISBN’ number: the ISBN is a 10 or 13 digit number that identifies a book.) We try to recommend editions that give you the most up-to-date information. There will always be at least one copy of these books in the library, but it will be in high demand. Watch out for second –hand copies for sale in the bookshop on campus!

The rest of your reading list will be longer than the ‘essential reading’. This is what we often call ‘secondary reading’. Anything listed as ‘secondary reading’ or ‘general reading’ is not a book you need to buy: there will be a copy in the library, either in paper form or electronically. We don’t actually expect you to read all of the texts that we list in this section! Secondary reading is to help you with the topics that you’ve decided to research for essays or other assignments.  This reading supports your ‘essential’ reading with more detailed analysis. The list might include links to web resources as well as the names of books that you can find in the library or journal articles and essays that you can access electronically. So the ‘secondary reading’ list contains lots of very detailed scholarship on a whole range of topics: your job (once you start researching your assignment) is to choose which items on that list are most useful to the topic you are working on.

Your seminar leaders will give you advice on how best to tackle your reading, but don’t be afraid to ask for help if you feel unsure. The reading list is a key component of university study, and there is an art to using it well!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Warm Welcome from the Professional Track Team!

The Professional Track is a unique professional development scheme that is open to all students who do degrees in English Language, English Literature or Modern Languages. Since the scheme’s launch in September 2015, already we have had well over 150 students involved which is simply fantastic! We’ve offered a wide variety of courses, masterclasses and placements with the aim that these additions will turn your career hopes into real plans.

Professional Track Structure

Since this is a flexible scheme, you can hop on and hop off whenever you like. If you would like to attend one course and leave it at that, that’s great, please be rest assured that we will never chase you down the corridor and ask you to sign up to more! If you do want to complete all of it however, all you need to do throughout your time with us, is complete three training courses, two placements and one university scheme – you can even draw from your past experience and you’ll get a very snazzy certificate at the end!

The amount of placement opportunities is endless; in the past students have gone to Penguin Publications, the BBC, Disney and even wolf sanctuaries! We’ve also offered course so far in skills such as report writing, marketing and first aid and we are always open to suggestions.

If you have any questions or queries about the Professional Track or Placements, please feel free to send us an email (Lucy Stone: l.k.stone@reading.ac.uk; Sarah Mills: s.a.mills@reading.ac.uk).

Professional Track Banner

From both of us – best of luck with your upcoming exams and results and we are both really excited to meet you all in September!

Sarah and Lucy

Professional Track Facilitators

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

BAAL Testing, Evaluation & Assessment (TEA) SIG Conference at University of Reading

On 11th March 2016, the Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics at the University of Reading hosted the annual British Association of Applied Linguists (BAAL) Testing, Evaluation & Assessment (TEA) SIG conference. This was an exciting event in which 80 delegates from different countries took part in a one day conference on “Assessment for Learning and Assessment of Learning”. http://www.baal.org.uk/sig_tea.html

The participants included distinguished scholars such as Professor Cyril Wier (OBE), prominent alumni including Professor Barry O’Sullivan and Dr Nick Saville, and many of our current staff and postgraduate and research students. The talks and posters presented at the event offered new perspectives to language assessment and opened new horizons for language teaching and learning.

Group photo thumb_DSC_0446_1024Barry Cyril

The presentation slides from the conference will be available here:

http://www.beds.ac.uk/baalteasig/events/2016

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Celebrating 50 Year of Linguistics at the University of Reading

The University of Reading has been teaching linguistics for 50 years this year. To celebrate the English Language and Applied Linguistic and Clinical Language Science Departments put on a day of events for Year 12 students interested in pursuing the subject at University.

Throughout the day students took part in interactive workshops giving them a taste of university lectures and seminars. The first seminar was run by Dr Christiana Themistocleous on English Language in Society, based on a compulsory first year English language module. Christiana took the group through a number of exercises looking at gender and languages and global languages. We discussed how some words and grammatical structures seem more masculine or feminine. For example ‘Close the door.’ is seen as masculine for its directness, whereas ‘ That’s an adorable dog!’ is seen as feminine due to the adjective ‘adorable’. Similarly the phrase ‘They did the right thing, didn’t they?’ is seen as feminine due to the tag question at the end of a statement. During the global languages section of the workshop, the group looked at words English has borrowed from other languages such as ‘ketchup’ from Chinese and ‘rucksack’ from German. Christiana then guided the group though a debate on whether one language spoken globally would be a positive or negative change. Participants spoke about the loss of culture, identity and knowledge this would cause over enhancing learning and working opportunities and perhaps lead to reductions in world conflict.

The Clinical Language Science workshop was run by PhD students Laura Spencer and Laura McFiggans. The group watched two videos of patients and then spoke about the kind of speech and language therapy work they would do with each patient.  This reflects the hands-on approach of the Clinical Language department at Reading whose BSc students work on clinical placements and spend at least 600 hours observing, working and treating children and adults with communication and swallowing problems. Reading also has an on-site clinic for children and adults run by University and NHS staff, which students learn from.

50 years event

Visiting students enjoying Dr Christiana Themistocleous’ workshop on English Language in Society

In the afternoon some of our students gave talks about being a student at Reading highlighting the fantastic Student Union (RUSU), societies, halls and support here at Reading.   Zoë, a final year English Language student, highlighted the 200 + societies at reading ranging from sub aqua and debating to Harry Potter and Russian, not forgetting the English Society!  Katie, also a final year English Language student, mentioned the support students are given. In English Language there is a first year compulsory module which helps you with the transition between A-levels and university focusing on academic writing, assignments and sourcing reading for modules. The Student Services Centre on campus can help with most things including financial support, student loan queries, applying for jobs and counselling.  Student Support can also help with health, welfare, study support, disability support and students with children.

Visitors were interested in the dissertation topics our students are completing, for example Zoë is looking at representations of gender in the lyrics of popular music in the 1990s, early 2000s and recently. Katie is studying how homosexuality has been written about in the English media before and after the legalisation of same sex marriage and Jess, a third year Clinical Language Science student, is thinking of looking at autism when she completes her dissertation next year.

At the end of the day visitors were given a tour of our beautiful Whiteknights campus including the Humanities building, student union, lake and Clinical Language Science clinics. We hope those who came had an enjoyable experience and learnt more about what makes Linguistics at Reading so special.

Sarah Robertson and Katy Green

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

David Crystal: Linguistic, what next? Lecture review

Fifty years after David Crystal helped set up a Linguistics degree at the University of Reading, he returned to give a public lecture about the changes he’s seen to linguistics over this period. The Great Hall at the London Road Campus was filled with students, lecturers and members of the public who all had great admiration for a man who has done so much for linguistics at the University but also for the research he has undertaken and the developments he has made. Indeed, his works are a staple to anyone studying English Language and Linguistics and are featured on the English Language course at Reading.

David Crystal delivering his lecture at the University of Reading. November 2015

David Crystal delivering his lecture at the University of Reading. November 2015

Once the lecture began, it only took moments before the audience were in the palm of his hand. His charismatic charm and ease of public speaking made for a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere where people were hanging on his every word. David began by telling the audience about the evolution of linguistics, and how it will never be the same tomorrow as it is today or was yesterday. Somehow, regardless of how obvious this statement seems, it struck a chord with me and reminded me why I found studying English Language so exciting. David’s enthusiasm for the subject as a result of his first-hand experience of studying these changes was definitely rubbing off!

David then spoke about how he helped create a Linguistics degree at Reading, how it has developed and how many issues are just as important now as they were then. For example he told us that he still gets asked “How many words are there in the English language?” which will and can never be answered with certainty.  Whilst at Reading, David worked with a child with a delayed development of speech and nobody knew why this delay occurred. As a result of this work, David helped to set up the Speech and Language Therapy course ten years after Linguistics had started. The story told was very moving. Although it was clear that the audience were touched, it wasn’t long before the atmosphere was once again joyous. Making jokes throughout, his happiness was infectious and everybody was clapping and smiling.

Once the lecture had finished, there was a twenty minute question time where David answered every question with a smile and in great depth. At the end, with people giving standing ovations, David seemed genuinely touched by such a warm and welcome reception at the University of Reading.

Sarah Robertson

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment