Author: Kaylin Wainwright

“Building a thick skin for each other” The use of ‘reading’ as an interactional practice of mock impoliteness in drag queen backstage talk

Years ago at a New Year’s drag show, the queen hosting the event said of me and a couple friends,  “Look at these trashy whores from Virginia!” as we took some seats near the stage. I was mortified, but my bold friend tried to avenge our honor, “We live in DC!” The drag queen clapped back by mocking her outfit. This was my first experience being on the receiving end of a drag queen’s withering remarks, and as three straight women in a gay bar angling for good seats to the show, we had it coming.

‘Reading’ & Mock Impoliteness

If you have been to (or performed in) a drag show, you have likely witnessed or experienced the hilarious and creative insults skillfully employed by drag queens. Sean McKinnon of Indiana University takes us on a linguistic journey of this practice in his paper “Building a thick skin for each other” The use of ‘reading’ as an interactional practice of mock impoliteness in drag queen backstage talk (2017).  

If you are not steeped in drag queen culture, you may not be familiar with the practice of ‘reading.’ Who better to tell us what it means than a crowdsourced dictionary by fans of drag queen royalty, RuPaul?  

read

  1. v. To wittily and incisively expose a person’s flaws (i.e. “reading them like a book”), often exaggerating or elaborating on them; an advanced format of the insult. The term is a reference to the film Paris is Burning.
  2. n. Criticism made to a drag queen.

McKinnon’s work situates ‘reading’ in sociopragmatic theories of politeness and impoliteness. Reading, which definitionally includes an element of truth, straddles mock impoliteness and genuine impoliteness depending on relationship and context. McKinnon focuses on in-group reading and identifies it as an interactional practice for the purpose of building a tolerance to cruelty through mock impoliteness while noting that the same insults from an out-group member would qualify as genuine impoliteness.

Like that time in Mean Girls when Janice said Damian was too gay to function and it was funny, but when Cady repeated it to the Plastics and they sneered and wrote it in the Burn Book, and Cady was like ‘Oh shit maybe it’s only okay if Janice says it,’ and then the Burn Book was distributed to the whole school, and Damian saw it, and Janice was all indignant and was like ‘That’s only okay if I say it!’

It’s like that, guys. In-group, out-group. Know your place.

In-Group

Out-Group

The Research

The majority of existing research into how drag queens use language has analyzed language used during performance, in interviews, or from media. This paper is unique because McKinnon was able to record and transcribe almost 3 hours of backstage talk between 4 drag queens before and during a local drag holiday show.

His research also included an interview with Eva, the show director and hostess of show, who was one of the drag queens backstage. When McKinnon asked her about a particular interaction backstage, she brought up reading unprompted saying, “Reading is about finding something that you know the other person is kind of self-conscious about, and picking on that. In a playful way.” She later elaborated, “and it’s supposed to be funny, reading is supposed to be funny and creative. And that’s the thing, it’s not like “oh girl well you’re a bitch and you’re ugly,” that’s not reading, that’s just being rude.”

McKinnon straight up inquired if Eva thought the purpose of reading was to build in-group solidarity, a theory posited in other mock impoliteness research. She responded that she believed it was to “build a thick skin” (Hence the title of the paper. Thanks, girl!) because of the ostracism and slurs they receive from the out-group for being “over feminized” or a drag queen at all. In this case, the out-group in question is the broader gay community. Through Eva’s interview and the literature review on mock impoliteness, McKinnon conceptualizes the backstage as a safe space for drag queens to dish out and take insults in preparation for unsafe spaces.

McKinnon goes through numerous examples from the backstage talk transcripts and categorized each insult as personalized negative assertion, personalized negative vocative, personalized negative reference, pointed criticism, condescension, or unpalatable supposition (Culpeper, 2011).

(This is a personalized negative vocative, btw.)

He provides analysis and context from other parts of the transcript to demonstrate how the criticism was frequently something the drag queen was already self-conscious about.

He also identifies how the insults are perceived by the target as “allowable offenses” by identifying laughter, vocalization patterns, and cooperative turn-taking in the recordings thus demonstrating how they are mock impoliteness and not genuine impoliteness. Many of the topics (appearance, performance, etc.) the drag queens used to insult each other are also topics that they might receive criticism on from the out-group. McKinnon points this out as evidence for Eva’s assertion that reading serves to build a thick skin.

Conclusion

By taking a deep dive into the talk used in this intimate setting of a drag queen community this paper is able to offer up a nuance to the academic definition of reading. A read should target something the receiving drag queen is aware of and self-conscious about, so that it can accomplish the goal of building a thicker skin and arming her against the world. This paper applies mock impoliteness frameworks to show that developing in-group solidarity is not the whole story in why drag queens talk trash to each other.

Check the paper out for yourself if you’re a bish interested in queer linguistics or a pragmatics bish. (The transcripts alone are worth it.)


Culpeper, Jonathan. 2011. Impoliteness: Using Language to Cause Offence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511975752

McKinnon, S. (2017). “Building a thick skin for each other” The use of ‘reading’ as an interactional practice of mock impoliteness in drag queen backstage talk. Journal of Language and Sexuality, 6(1),90–127. doi 10.1075/jls.6.1.04mck

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Dismantling the Native-speakerarchy Post 2: “The role of vowel quality in ELF misunderstandings”

(This is the second post in the series “Dismantling the Native-speakerarchy.” Check out the first post here.)

It’s time to pull another Jenga block out of the Native-speakerarchy tower. That block is vowel quality in English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) interactions brought to you by the Asian Corpus of English.  

ELF v. EFL

English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) is often defined in juxtaposition to English as a Foreign Language (EFL). Yes, yes, the acronyms are irritatingly similar. Don’t shoot the messenger.

ELF refers to English used by speakers of other languages for intercultural communication. Think a French girl and Thai boy falling in love with English as their medium of communication. Or a Korean businesswoman negotiating with a Chinese board of directors in English. ELF prioritizes intelligibility and acknowledges that users will have variations (dropping articles, using relative pronouns like who and which interchangeably, etc.) that deviate from ‘native-speaker’ norms. The variations are a feature not a bug. A natural occurrence in language patterns, not a deficit.

Whereas, English as a Foreign Language is designed to prepare users for communicating with a ‘native-speaker,’ and implied is an attempt to conform to inner-circle (U.S., U.K. etc.) standards. Think a Japanese student studying English to matriculate in a Canadian university. Deviations from the standard are errors. English language instruction in an EFL model seeks to raise students’ accuracy levels to be accepted in academic and professional settings dominated by ‘native-speakers.’ Individual teachers of EFL might not have that philosophy, but mass market coursebooks, curriculum, assessments, and hiring practices demonstrate the pervasive nature of the ‘native-speaker’ norms.

Back to my bae, ELF. English as a Lingua Franca is a threat to the status of ‘native-speaker’ teachers as the gatekeepers of English AND I AM HERE FOR IT. ELF speakers bring the richness of their accents to English, and they don’t have time for all of English’s quirks. Third person singular ‘s,’ I am lookin’ at you.

The Paper

David Deterding and Nur Raihan Mohamed (2016) used the Asian Corpus of English (ACE) to investigate the impact of vowel quality on intelligibility. ACE is a collection of “naturally occurring, spoken, interactive ELF in Asia.” A veritable playground for ELF fanatics.

The OG ELF fangirl Jennifer Jenkins wrote the literal book on it and identified the Lingua Franca Core: a list of pronunciation features that are necessary to comprehensibility in English. Spoiler alert: it’s a short list. It includes “all the consonants of English apart from the dental fricatives,the distinction between long and short vowels, initial and medial consonant clusters, and the placement of intonational nucleus.” (Deterding and Mohamed, 2016, p. 293).  

Lemme ‘splain.

  • Most consonant sounds are necessary for intelligibility. However, the pesky sounds /θ/ as in thot and /ð/ as in that hoe over there are not necessary because substitutions like /f/, /v/, /d/ typically suffice.
  • Short v. long vowels. You know, your sheets v. shits, and your beachs v. bitches, etc. Mastering vowel length is considered important for intelligibility according to Jenkins’ research.
  • Initial and medial consonant clusters. Sounds like  /str/, /mp/, /xtr/, /pl/ /scr/, and so on at the beginning of words, and to a lesser extent, in the middle of words, need to be kept intact for the speaker to be comprehensible.
  • Placement of intonational nucleus: This is stress on a syllable in an intonational unit (group of words), and the wrong stress can throw off the listener, so Jenkins includes it in the Lingua Franca Core.

All other pronunciation features are deemed fair game in ELF by Jenkins, including vowel quality, which is what this paper focuses on. Vowel quality refers to what makes vowels sound different from each other: “I must leave the pep rally early to get a pap smear. Pip pip!”

Vowel quality is why JT’s delivery in “It’s Gonna Be Me” spawned this meme: 

From ACE, Deterding created the Corpus of Misunderstandings (incidentally, the name of my emo band) with data from exclusively outer and expanding circle English speakers.

This paper is building on Deterding’s earlier 2013 work that determined 86% of misunderstandings in CMACE involved pronunciation. He and Mohamed dig into vowel quality specifically because it was left off the Lingua Franca Core by Jenkins.  

Of the 183 tokens of misunderstanding in the corpus, 98 involved vowel quality. In many of those tokens vowel length and quality was an issue, but as vowel length is part of the Lingua Franca Core, they were not included in the analysis, leaving 22 tokens of short vowels misheard for other short vowels. Half of these tokens included /æ/ and /ɛ/, referred to as the TRAP and DRESS vowels in the literature, but what we will call the SASS and FEMME vowels.

When they analyzed each of the 22 tokens in context, they found other pronunciation features that probably caused the misunderstanding, and that vowel quality was indeed a minor factor. For example, “In Token 5, wrapping was misunderstood as ‘weapon’, but the key factor here was the occurrence of /w/ instead of /r/ at the start of the word” (p.229). Recall that consonant sounds are in the Lingua Franca Core and play a big role in intelligibility.

Conclusion

David Deterding and Nur Raihan Mohamed’s research supports Jenkins’ contention that conforming to ‘native-speaker’ standards in vowel quality is unnecessary for English users to successfully communicate. Let me put on my extrapolation cap because you know how I do. ‘Native-speaker’ English teachers don’t have a pronunciation edge over ‘non native-speaker’ teacher colleagues when it comes to vowel quality. It literally does not matter if someone pronounces it, “Thet’s eccentism, you esshet!”

Check out this article if you are a research bish that wants to see the kind of work that can be done with corpus linguistics. And if you’re a EFL bish or an ELF kween. And if you’re a NNEST.


ACE. 2014. The Asian Corpus of English. Director: Andy Kirkpatrick; Researchers: Wang Lixun, John Patkin, Sophiann Subhan. http://corpus.ied.edu.hk/ace/ (May 26, 2018)

Deterding, D. & Mohamed, N. R. (2016). The role of vowel quality in ELF misunderstandings. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, 5(3). 291-307.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English and an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Language ideology change over time: lessons for language policy in the U.S. state of Arizona and beyond

Those silly Brexiting kweens across the pond are making headlines (por ejemplo) about implementing an English language requirement deadline for UK residents.  While we wait for that sitch to shake out, it seems like a good time to dive into a bit of language policy research.

Shannon Fitzsimmons-Doolan’s (2018) paper examines the interplay between stakeholders’ language ideology and language policy in Arizona’s K-12 public schools. The related literature shows a chicken and egg situation in which language ideology drives language policy, but language policy affects language ideology. Arizona offers an interesting case study for unpacking this relationship.

Vamos a establecer la escena/Let’s set the scene

For those unfamiliar with the U.S. educational context, primary and secondary education policy is driven at the state rather than national level. In 2006 Arizona adopted the anti-bilingual/multilingual education policy Structured English Immersion, aka the 4 Hour Model, aka the No-Me-Gusta-People-That-Talk-Different model. English language learners (ELLs) are segregated into English language development classes for 4 hours a day until they reach proficiency on a state assessment. During this time these students are being withheld from content classes (math, science, etc.). These requirements can be particularly burdensome to older ELLs who are unable to get credits that would allow them to graduate from high school.

This policy was an outgrowth of the political climate in Arizona that had passed Proposition 203, a voter referendum that repealed bilingual education laws in 2000. While I would love to spend more time wagging my finger about English only policies, that’s not really why we are here.

El papel/The paper

Fitzsimmons-Doolan is interested in the change in language ideology of policy-influential people in Arizona from 2010 and 2016. She surveyed politically active Republicans and Democrats, teachers in districts with high ELL populations, and education administrators who manage language policy. From the 2010 survey data she identified 5 broad language ideologies: 1) pro-monolingualism, 2) pro-multilingualism, 3) English as a tool, 4) multiple languages as a problem, and 5) language as an intelligent standard. Check out the deetz in the table below (p.40). The 2016 survey measured shifts in orientation to the ideologies above by reaching out to the same group of respondents from 2010.

Los resultados/The results

Language ideology on the survey remained pretty stable over 6 years. There were statistically significant shifts away from pro-monolingualism and multiple languages as a problem, and higher positive orientation toward pro-multilingualism. However, those shifts were concentrated in the educator respondents, and not in the politically active Republicans and Democrats respondents, who exhibited little change.

you, a linguabish: why does it matter what some some random voters have to say about language policy, the teachers and administrators implement language policy

me, someone that googled a bit: recall that Arizona has ballot initiatives, including the aforementioned Prop 203, which voters passed to severely restrict bilingual education. democracy lol

It is unsurprising that the politically active Republicans and Democrats did not change their minds greatly over time. Fitzsimmons-Doolan notes that the average age of respondents in the 2016 survey was 62.3 years old, which makes sense when you consider how much more likely older generations are to consistently go out and vote. I think opinions about language are pretty baked-in for the layperson at that age. That said…maybe no news is good news?

Given the political climate of 2016 and Trump’s nativist rhetoric propelling him to the Republican nomination and presidency, perhaps we can be thankful the politically-active people of a fairly red state like Arizona didn’t swing *more* toward pro-monolinguism, multiple languages as a problem, and language as an intelligent standard.

Conclusión/Conclusion

While Arizona might not be ripe for reform just yet, this research shows some positive trends away from English only policies among those who work directly with language learners. Educational language policy in AZ might continue to be a hot mess for now, but don’t lose heart, linguabishes. I believe language ideology is correlated with immigration policy preferences, and the increased polarization is going both ways. As nativists and restrictionists get more vocal, they are spawning fiercer, more outspoken allies of immigrant communities. Maybe by proxy support for bilingualism and multilingualism will intensify. (Fingers crossed.)

Check this paper out if you’re a bish interested in language policy, a bilingual educator bish, or  any old, K-12 teacher bish that works with ELLs.


Fitzsimmons-Doolan, S. (2018). Language ideology change over time: lessons for language policy in the U.S. state of Arizona and beyond. TESOL Quarterly. 52 (1). 34-61.

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Dismantling the Native-speakerarchy Post 1: “Interlanguage Talk: What can breadth of knowledge features tell us about input and output differences?”

Why

A movement has been brewing in the English language teaching field to raise awareness about the discrimination against ‘non-native speaker teachers’ and the privilege of ‘native speaker teachers.’ (The labels themselves are problematic, and, as the incredible advocates at TEFL Equity have argued, can perpetuate the hierarchy.)

Apart from the very compelling reasons of fighting against the inequality, racism, linguistic imperialism, etc. of the native-speakerarchy, there is a lack of evidence in linguistics research that ‘native speakers’ are superior language teachers.

As someone who got my start in ELT through the privilege of my ‘native speaker’ status and a silver spoon passport, I feel the urgency to use whatever influence I have to advocate for equal status of all English language teachers. SO consider this the inaugural post in a series that digs into research showing the emperor has no clothes. ‘Native speaker’ teachers have no magical teaching abilities bestowed upon them by the fairy godmother of English.

What

Scott A. Crossley and Danielle S. McNamara (2010) set out to determine if ‘non-native speaker’ lexical production (that just means words, kiddos) changes whether their interlocutor is a ‘native speaker’ or not.

DISCLAIMER: Crossley and McNamara do not pass the Holliday Test. Adrian Holliday has had it up to here with ‘native speaker’ bullshit. He’s decided not to review any research that uses the labels ‘native speaker’ or ‘non-native speaker’ without a critical discussion of such. This work was published 8 years ago and does not reflect the latest thinking on the use of those terms. I am giving them the benny of a doubt, but I do wish they had called their subjects ‘language learners’ or SOMETHING less incendiary.

How

The researchers recruited ‘native speakers’ (NS) and ‘non-native speakers’ (NNS) from an American university, and collected a corpora of spoken language between a boatload of NNS-NS and NNS-NNS dyads. They analyzed the interactions with a computational tool, Coh-Metrix, focusing on lexical diversity and frequency.

I MUST DISCLAIM AGAIN: There is no mention of how these groups were deemed ‘native’ or ‘non-native speakers,’ or what that even means, so take it all with a grain salt. Re-read what Adrian Holliday has to say on the issue, and proceed with caution.

They hypothesized that NS-NNS interactions would provide more comprehensible input to the language learner. Comprehensible input is the language that learners are exposed to via listening or reading that is modified for their level of proficiency. It is generally acknowledged to be critical to language acquisition. Crossley and McNamara suggest that because ‘native speakers’ alter how they speak when communicating with someone they perceive as ‘non-native’ their speech will be extra comprehensible.

A second hypothesis was that NNSs would “produce more varied and more infrequent vocabulary” with NS interaction. This is the aforementioned lexical diversity and frequency. Lexical diversity is calculated by dividing the number of different words by the total number of words in a given (in this case spoken) text. The idea is that higher diversity equals a wider vocabulary, a signal of higher command of a language. Lexical frequency refers to how common a particular word is in corpora. Therefore, “more infrequent vocabulary” just means less common words, again signalling a wider vocabulary.

Allow me to paraphrase this ménage à deux of hypotheticals: ‘Native speakers’ will have a positive effect on language learners’ lexical input and output.

And so…?

What they found regarding output was NNSs produced more lexical diversity when speaking with other NNSs, which is to say they used a wider range of vocabulary. They also found that NNSs used more frequent vocabulary when speaking to other NNSs. The explanation being they likely simplify their speech to be comprehensible to lower proficiency speakers, much in the same way NSs do.

Furthermore, “the study demonstrates that NNSs receive no specific lexical benefits related to lexical diversity and frequency from interacting with NSs.” The input from NNSs and NSs was equally comprehensible vis a vis lexical features.

There you have it, folks. A study which a) employed problematic terms, and b) hypothesized NS interlocutors would come with lexical benefits actually provided evidence to file in our ‘NATIVE SPEAKERS’ ARE NOT HASHTAG BLESSED WITH LANGUAGE ACQUISITION GIFT-GIVING-POWERS FILING CABINET.

Indeed, it shows that NNS interlocutors are fine and good and great. Can I extrapolate that ‘non-native speaker’ teachers are fine and good and great? Try and stop me. Crossley and McNamara conclude that their findings have implications on the use of pairwork and groupwork in EFL classrooms, but I think we can also point to this study to show that ‘non-native speaker’ English teachers are not at a disadvantage when it comes to lexical features of input and output.

Recommended reading for all language teacher bishes and bishes who wish to arm themselves against the native-speakerarchy. BONUS: It’s pretty short and not behind a paywall.


Crossley, S. A., & McNamara, D. S. (2010). Interlanguage talk: What can breadth of knowledge features tell us about input and output differences? Proceedings of the 23rd International Florida Artificial Intelligence Research Society.

 

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Linguistic Predictors of Cultural Identification in Bilinguals

What Research has established that there is a relationship between language and cultural identification in bilinguals. Howevs, Schroeder, Lam, and Marian (2017) are interested in unpacking the variables (age of acquisition, exposure contexts, etc.) that predict cultural affiliation. Does our favorite polyglot kween Daenerys Targaryen identify more as Westerosi or Valyrian? And what makes it so?

Schroeder, Lam, and Marian lay out a three-part framework as to why “language knowledge, use, and experience” connect to cultural identification in bilinguals.  

  1. Linguistic knowledge gives you access to culture. Maybe if we all spoke better Spanish, we wouldn’t have needed Justin Bieber to introduce us to the 2017 delight that was Despacito.
  2. Linguistic knowledge begets reflection and awareness. Constantly making linguistic choices may lead to introspection on cultural affiliation. The implication is monolinguals operate on a linguistic autopilot that doesn’t necessitate this sort of reflection.
  3. Bilinguals make deliberate style choices to signal cultural affiliation- using one language over another in certain contexts, employing accent in one or both languages, etc.

Before we proceed, a few acronyms for the newbies:

  • L1- a person’s first or “native” language
  • L2- a person’s second or additional language
  • C1- the culture of the L1
  • C2- the culture of the L2

How

The study was completed with 209 bilingual participants filling out LEAP-Q, a questionnaire developed by Marian, Blumenfeld, & Kaushanskaya (2007).  Participants self-reported details about their language acquisition and usage, including the extent to which they are currently exposed to their languages and in what kind of context, formal or informal. The questionnaire also had respondents list the cultures they identify with and select on a scale from 0 (no identification) to 10 (complete identification) the degree to which they identify. All participants reside in the USA (we’ll be coming back to this), but there was diversity of linguistic backgrounds- e.g. a variety of L1s and L2s, early (<5 years old) or late L2 learners, and different immersion and current exposure contexts.

And so…?

Schroeder et al. crunched the numbers (aka conducted a couple multiple regression analyses) and found some similarities and differences between the predictors of C1 and C2 identifications.

Identification with C1 was reliably predicted by

  • L1 current exposure context
  • L1 proficiency
  • Fewer L2 years in family
  • More years in L2 school/work

Whereas identification with C2 was predicted by

  • More years in L2 school/work
  • Lower perceived accent in L2
  • Early age of L2 acquisition

To illustrating their findings, we’ll need a little help from our imaginary friends. For example, Kim (L1=English, C1=American, L2=French, C2=French) was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio. Sse studied French in high school and college achieving bilingual status. She primarily consumes English media and has no French speaking family members. These facts predict her identification with her C1. Whereas, Khloe (L1=Spanish, C1=Mexican, L2=English, C2=American) was born in Guadalajara, but moved at age 4 to Austin, Texas where she learned English in school and achieved bilingual status. She speaks English at work and is taken as a native English speaker by her coworkers. These facts predict a stronger identification with her C2.

The researchers concluded that their three-part framework explained the findings, with the first hypothesis having “the most explanatory power.”

But what about…

Selection effects? It would be interesting to see similar research outside the United States. Current American political climate notwithstanding, the U.S. (for now) remains in the Inner Circle of Kachru’s influential model of World Englishes (1992). As such it is considered “norm-providing,” and, however unfairly, one of the more prestigious Englishes.

There could be a perceived desirability of affiliation with American culture that increases a bilingual’s identification with it as a C2. Would results be substantially different if bilingual participants were living in Outer Circle or Expanding Circle countries? Consider our third imaginary friend, Kourtney, a Chinese businessperson in Nigeria, an Outer Circle country. She was born in Shanghai, China and studied English throughout her childhood and into university. She speaks with a minimal foreign accent, and uses English daily in professional contexts. She has lived in Nigeria for years. She exhibits the predictors uncovered by Schroeder et. al. that align with a C2 affiliation, but would her tenure in an Outer Circle country have a mitigating impact on that potential identification?

While more research into bilingualism is needed, these bishes have certainly furthered the field’s understanding of the interplay between language and culture. Check the article out if you’re a bilingual bish or a teacher bish interested in language learner identity.


Kachru, B. (1992). World Englishes: approaches, issues and resources. Language Teaching, 25(1), 1-14.

Marian V., Blumenfeld H. K., & Kaushanskaya M. (2007). The Language Experience and Proficiency Questionnaire (LEAP-Q): Assessing language profiles in bilinguals and multilinguals. Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 50(4), 940–967.

Schroeder, S. R., Lam, T. Q., & Marian, V. (2017), Linguistic predictors of cultural identification in bilinguals. Applied Linguistics, 38(4), 463–488.

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