Discourses: How do I write about Language for a non-specialist audience?

Note: this is a re-run of a post from my previous site/blog, so if it feels a bit déjà vû, it’s not you: it’s me.

In several of the A-Level English Language specifications, you are required to write about Language topics for a non-specialist or general audience. In the specification I know best, AQA, this comes under the heading of ‘Language Discourses’, because it is the place – in the world and specifically the media – where language is discussed. Many students find this a tricky task, because you are being asked to do several things at once. Perhaps most challengingly, you are being asked to ‘turn off’ your technical terminology and express complex and detailed ideas about language to people who will not be familiar with even the most common jargon that we bandy about in the language classroom.

So, what can you do? How do you tackle this in order to gain decent marks?

Well, the mark schemes make clear that you are assessed on two separate counts:

  • how well you understand and comment on the language issue
  • how well you write

Let’s unpick those a bit.

In order to show understanding of the language issue, you need to talk about some studies, research findings, language concepts or ideas. What you don’t need to do is chuck terminology around like you just snagged a load on a Black Friday deal. It’s perfectly possible to, for example, explain prescriptivism without using the term – and how helpful is the crumbling castle metaphor in that scenario? Or to explain the concept of covert prestige as shown in Martha’s Vineyard by describing what happened in Labov’s study – you don’t need to talk about vowel qualities or prestige at all! But, the fact remains that you do need to show the examiner that you know this stuff – and to be clear to your reader, you need to do more than just name-drop the researcher.

If you want to show that you write well, you need to engage and interest your reader, as well as successfully communicate with them. In my experience, the students who do best in these questions can write entertainingly. They use anecdote and metaphor to help them get the point across, and they remember to make the whole piece hang together well, often linking the final paragraph to the opening effectively. They definitely avoid essay constructions like ‘in conclusion’, and they often address the reader directly.

To be honest, you’re best off imagining your reader as someone you know and writing for them. I’d picture someone who is an adult, who hasn’t studied language but is a smart person who you would never talk down to. Many students find it helpful to imagine they are writing to a parent or other relative, as this avoids writing patronisingly and also allows for the humour and direct address to feel a bit more natural.

What do you think?