Transcript Episode 48: Who you are in high school, linguistically speaking - Interview with Shivonne Gates
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This is a transcript for Lingthusiasm Episode 48: Who you are in high school, linguistically speaking - Interview with Shivonne Gates. It’s been lightly edited for readability. Listen to the episode here or wherever you get your podcasts. Links to studies mentioned and further reading can be found on the Episode 48 show notes page.
Lauren: Welcome to Lingthusiasm, a podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics! I’m Lauren Gawne. Today, I’m joined by Shivonne Gates, and we’re getting enthusiastic about linguistic variation in the UK. But first, Crash Course Linguistics is out this month – the beginning of the 16-part introduction to linguistics through the Crash Course YouTube Channel. We’ll have a link to their channel in the show notes. We’ll also be doing weekly emails every time a new video is out through the Mutual Intelligibility newsletter. If you sign up to Mutual Intelligibility, you’ll receive a link to every new video as it comes out and some related linguistics resources.
Lauren: Today, I’m joined by Shivonne Gates who is a Senior Researcher at NatCen Social Research. Shivonne has a background in linguistics as well as sociology and applied social research. Her linguistics research interests include language and ethnicity, sociolinguistics, and critical race theory. Welcome, Shivonne.
Shivonne: Hi, Lauren! Thanks for having me.
Lauren: It is absolutely a delight to have you here today. Can you tell us a bit about how you got into linguistics?
Shivonne: Sure. I actually got into linguistics when I was in sixth form, which is the last two years of high school in the UK. I did A level English language. As part of that, I did a mini research project.
Shivonne: Yeah, it was really cool. I did some narrative analysis of a couple of recordings of my cousin at different developmental stages. He was, I think, something like 5 and 9. I compared how his narrative structures had developed over time, essentially.
Lauren: Cool. Had you happened to just record him as a 5-year-old because he was cute, or were you thinking that you had plans to analyse his language?
Shivonne: Neither. His family just did lots of home videos, and something he liked to do for himself was just stand in front of the camera and record himself telling stories.
Lauren: Oh, how wonderful.
Shivonne: I got him to do another one at the time that was kind of so many years later. That was the one I asked him to do. It was just a stroke of luck that that data existed, essentially. I was really interested in child language acquisition. But also, as I think a lot of people are, I was also just interested in accents and the different ways that people spoke and understanding why that was and what kind of social things drove that. Then, I studied linguistics as an undergrad and then went on to master’s and PhD after that.
Lauren: Did you know from studying English language that linguistics was a thing that existed? Was it on your radar and you sought it out? Or did you get to university and go, “Ah, here’s the thing I wanted to do”?
Shivonne: So, something in the middle. I knew I really enjoying doing that research project, for example, in school. I didn’t know what I wanted to study at university, so I spoke to my English teacher. She asked me what I enjoyed, and I told her the specific bits of our English course I liked. And she said, “Oh, well, you should look for a university course that includes linguistics.” I had that steer from her to look for English language and linguistics undergrads. I ended up at the University of Sheffield and really, really loved it because there was a lot of flexibility in what we were able to study. I was able to really tailor in terms of what I studied, which I really enjoyed.
Lauren: You managed to do a little bit of research in your high school subject, which is really cool. Is there, for you, a coherent narrative line between that and then going on to your PhD research?
Shivonne: Not particularly beyond that that was linguistics. I honestly didn’t see that as research at the time. I did think I really fully understood what that was. I only started to understand that university lecturers do research – I only got that insight because I got a job as an RA for one summer in my penultimate summer. I think all of that only really came through towards the end of my undergrad and then through my master’s.
Lauren: What did you do for your summer research position?
Shivonne: I worked on Emma’s Isle of Scilly project, which the Isles of Scilly are a group of islands off the southwest coast of England. They’re about 30 miles off the very bottom corner off the coast of Cornwall. They’re quite isolated because of that. Emma has gone on holiday there for years. She discovered an archive of video interviews and, as a linguist, had some thoughts about the local dialect and wanted to explore a bit more. When she found this archive, it was like, “Jackpot – I’ve got all this data!” My role was to help do all the data management for that, essentially – transcribing and archiving the data. Then, because I’d had that involvement with the data, at that point, I was then able to write my undergrad dissertation on some of the data. That was really cool.
Lauren: Amazing! I love the theme with your high school work of finding existing recordings and using them strategically. I think that’s a really nice thing that a lot of us can learn from using data that’s already out there in the world.
Shivonne: Yeah, definitely. I hadn’t even picked up on that until you just pointed it out, actually. But, yeah, I mean, especially as an undergrad, it took a lot of stress out of the dissertation because I didn’t have to do the data collection. I already had it. It absolutely makes sense to do things like that when we can.
Lauren: And what makes this dialect so distinct?
Shivonne: I think the reason it’s interesting is because there’s not been a lot of research about it but the stuff that has been written, essentially, just kind of lumped it together with Cornwall. But as we see quite often with island communities, it’s a lot more insular than Cornwall. You get the thing that you see quite often – I think Martha’s Vineyard is a classic example – of somewhere touristy that young people then leave and don’t want to go back to. You get a traditional older people living – who work in the tourist industry. Then, on the Isles of Scilly, you also get a lot of more wealthy people going there to retire and having holiday homes there and stuff like that. The thing that I looked at for my undergrad dissertation was the stylistic variation because their video archive had two different interviewers. There was a local person who’d done some interviews, but then also somebody who had moved there later in life did some interviews as well. I looked at the differences with a couple of speakers in how they interacted with those two different interviewers. There are definitely differences from Cornish English for sure. The vowel space looks slightly different. I can’t – honestly, it’s so long ago since I looked at that I can’t remember the details. But, yeah, there were definitely differences in terms of pronunciation as well as grammatical stuff. Emma’s done a lot of work on it since then.
Lauren: I assume that when people were chatting to the more local interviewer, they tended to be even more strongly local in their pronunciation and their word choices. Did that come through?
Shivonne: Yeah, exactly. I remember one of them, it was almost like he was a different person with the local interviewer. He was a lot more talkative and, for me, a lot more difficult to understand because his accent was pretty broad. They’re also rhotic in that part of the country, which isn’t that typical of the rest England. That threw me for a loop to get my ears into listening to that dialect.
Lauren: It is something that, in terms of the methodology for how people collect data, deciding who was going to be the person that goes into that space and does that data collection is going to really influence how people speak and the type of data you collect. You’ve had to, I know, kind of think about this really critically and come up with some innovative ways in your own later research when you started to collect data as well – how to navigate that.
Shivonne: Yeah. I think it’s something that, as linguists, quite often we know that that’s there and that’s an important thing to consider. But sometimes it’s almost like, well, if we acknowledge, it then that’s enough. I don’t think we are always as critical of that as we could be – or critical in acknowledging how that shapes the findings that we get.
Lauren: All of this experience led you to then – did you go into a master’s or did you go into a PhD programme?
Shivonne: I went into a master’s program. I did a master’s degree at North Carolina State University. That experience was really affirming in terms of that I want to be a linguist and also really eye-opening in terms of different ways of being a linguist, like doing more impact-related stuff – I hate the way that “impact,” I think, is a really kind of UK higher education buzzword.
Shivonne: But basically doing more public-facing linguistics and doing linguistics that is for and serves the communities that you’re collecting data from. I really enjoyed that experience. It was a two-year master’s as well, which I think if you’re gonna do a master’s – a one-year master’s is typical of a UK master’s.
Lauren: It’s a “Blink and it’s over” situation.
Shivonne: It’s just not enough. And, yeah, because it was two years, I was able to spend the first year properly getting more closely into sociolinguistics specifically. And then in my second year I had the time to actually develop a research project in a way that I think you don’t necessarily have the time to do if you do a one-year master’s. It’s all like a big rush in the summer. And, you know, I got into conferencing and doing all that other I find fun academic related stuff as well because we had the time to do that. Yeah, I really enjoyed my time there. Then, I went straight from the master’s to the PhD. At that point, when I did my master’s, I was like, “I know I want to do a PhD.” I ended up at Queen Mary University for that.
Lauren: Did you have an idea when you went into the PhD program what you wanted to work on? How did you come to decide on your area of focus?
Shivonne: Throughout all of my undergrad research project and my master’s research project what I was really interested in stylistic variation. We all, I think, are aware that – even if we’re not linguists – we’re aware that we’ll talk differently to different people, or we have a job interview voice, or a telephone voice, and all those types of things. I found that stuff really interesting. I think when I was doing master’s Sarah Benor’s paper on ethnolinguistic repertoires came out. Devyani Sharma had also published some stuff recently about stylistic variation in a British Asian community in London. It was just, for me, a really hot topic and something that I was really interested in – how people moved it forward using different methodologies and trying to really unpick stylistic variation as it happens on an everyday basis, rather than the traditional Labovian approach is to look at, you know, “Oh, let’s have a reading list, and we’ll compare that to spontaneous interview speech.” But, of course, those are quite artificial speech contexts. It’s not the same as how we’re interacting on a daily basis. I was really interested in the fact that things were moving towards getting into more detail about that. That’s what I did my master’s project on. I got some self-recorded data and looked at stylistic variation in that. My PhD project, I initially proposed to do the same in London with adolescents. I was also really interested in some recent work that had come out about Multicultural London English, which is this variety of English in London that has emerged over the last 20 years. Jenny Cheshire and Paul Kerswell and team had been publishing on that. I think at that point there’d only been two or three publications. It was all quite new still. I was interested in bringing those two things together – finding out more about Multicultural London English but looking at stylistic variation using more novel methods for doing that in London.
Lauren: I think it’s worth flagging for people who aren’t familiar with the UK context just how different London is but also is perceived to be from the rest of the country. This is mostly my outsider-who-came-and-lived-there-for-a-couple-of-years view, but it seems – I mean, London does just have a lot more linguistic and ethnic diversity than many other places in the UK. There’s also this idea for many people mentally that if you’re a Londoner you may not visit other parts of the country very much. It has a mental state a bit like people talk about New York or something. So, the linguistic context of what’s happening in London is very specific to the ethic and social and economic dynamics of that particular part of the country.
Shivonne: Absolutely. It’s a real economic hub, isn’t it, London, in the UK. Post-PhD, that’s why I stayed in London because that’s where the jobs are. Things like, I think – these figures are not precise but just as a rough idea – I think something like the percentage of black Britons in the UK is 2% or 3%, but then in London it’s like 13%. It’s really, really quite different. Comparing even with other cities, it’s just a really unique social context in London compared to the rest of England and the UK.
Lauren: That’s the London part of London Multicultural English. I don’t think I’ve ever really interrogated what the “multicultural” is doing in that name. Is there an assumption that it’s a particular set of cultural groups who have come together to form this variety?
Shivonne: This is my interpretation. I think to really get a proper answer about why it was given that name you’d have to go to Jenny and Paul who decided that’s the label they wanted to give. I also think it’s important to say I think they recognise that it’s an imperfect label. But I think the idea behind it was essentially, when they were first observing language change in London and doing their data collection, I think there was an expectation that there might be some differences between speakers depending on their ethnic or cultural background because London has so much – it’s ethnically diverse, but there’s a lot of people moving into London as well as people whose parents or grandparents were immigrants. There’s also a lot of ongoing in-migration into London of people from all over the place. Other cities in the UK will have a lot of immigrants from Poland or that – but London, people are coming from everywhere. So, I think, essentially, what they found was that language had shifted amongst working class young people in London, but there weren’t significant differences between the young people because of their background, it was because of who they were friends with – so peer social networks. The young people with the more ethnically diverse social groups, they were the ones who used the linguistic features of Multicultural London English. That included white British young people in London – or adolescents. I think the intention of that label is to essentially say you can’t predict who is going to speak this way based off of the more traditional social categories that we use in linguistics. The young people were predominantly working class, and they predominantly lived in inner-city London. But in terms of ethnicity or culture or other languages spoken or anything like that, none of that stuff predicted. It was the diversity of their peer group networks.
Lauren: Right. It is worth flagging as well, one thing that that I really noticed in the UK is obviously race and ethnicity and cultural background are something that people are very aware of and talk about a lot, but this idea of class and working class is very ingrained in the British mentality as well in a way that – Australians are very desperate to believe that we are some kind of egalitarian society. If you speak to any Australian, they’ll say they’re middle class. Whereas, in Britain, everyone seemed quite okay with pointing out who was working class and who was middle class and who was posh. You had all these social markers about where you went on holiday and what supermarket you shopped at were meant to give insights into this structure of class. I found that really different to how Australians perceive themselves, and I think it also feeds into people’s language choices.
Shivonne: I think the key thing that’s really different about the UK context compared to Australia and also America is that people who identify as working class are proud of that. There’s no shame about being working class. That’s not to say some people don’t feel ashamed. Some people want to be socially upwardly mobile, and they want to leave behind their working class roots. But for those people that are working class and identify as working class, all the cultural things that come with that, they’re important, and they’re valuable, and they’re proud of those things. I don’t see those same dynamics coming out in other western English-speaking countries. I think you might have that – using America as an example – you might have it in a specific city or specific town or within a state, for example, but there’s not this more unified across the country sense of being working class is something you can be proud of. I think you do have that in the UK. It’s definitely different.
Lauren: You have to pay attention in this complex social environment to all of these factors but, as you said, the thing that seems to determine what variety people use is their social network. Of course, you looked at an environment where social networks are – maybe the most important place in the world for social networks. You went and looked at people and their language and their social dynamics in high school.
Shivonne: Yeah. I love teenagers. I think teenagers are fascinating. I think they’re great and interesting people. I think that quite often because it’s such a quick transitional time, I think we often don’t engage with teenagers enough. Yes, I was really keen to go into a school and – it’s where they spend so much time. It’s where they’re doing a lot of their identity forming and figuring out who they are. I thought it would be a really interesting way to get a bit more insight about how all of that works for these young people. As I said before, I was interested in looking at stylistic variation. I went into it with the assumption that these young people, because they lived in an inner-city area of East London, that their language would reflect what had been found previously by Jenny Cheshire and Paul Kerswell. However, I came up against two things that were unexpected, 1.) that getting teenagers to cooperate – that’s the wrong phrasing because that’s obviously unethical. You’re not persuading people, pressuring people, into doing research. But essentially presenting to them the value of engaging with the research was definitely challenging. My intended approach to collect data on stylistic variation was not feasible. I wanted to do self-recording. I was doing interviews with them, but I wanted them to record themselves in lessons when I wasn’t present, and I wanted them to record themselves at home – just having dinner with their family or hanging out with their mates. Basically, they just would take the recorders and it would sit under their bed for a month. Or they would use it and they would do something really, really performative, which is not un-useful data but, you know, there needs to be other stuff to compliment that. It’s really difficult.
Lauren: But your genius data collection plans were thwarted by teenagers.
Shivonne: Essentially. But that’s the nature of doing research, isn’t it? You’ve just gotta roll with it when things come up that you don’t expect. I did traditional sociolinguistic interviews, and I was also doing ethnographic work alongside that. I got a load of data anyway. It just shifted the focus of my work. Then, I also – because of the work that had been done previously – I didn’t anticipate ethnic identity as being something that would be overly salient for these young people. I think it’s definitely just kind of a problem in general in diverse urban centres across Europe. The way that they’re presented it is quite often just, “Oh, well, they’re just really diverse and ethnicity doesn’t matter anymore.” It’s almost like that colour blindness in looking at race and all that type of stuff. I bought into that. Then, when I went into the school, I was like, “Wow, no. That’s not – no. That’s not what’s happening here.” It is important.
Lauren: What was happening for the kids?
Shivonne: Well, the girls in particular. In some respects it was things that were to be expected. Everything was super gendered. The girls hung out with the girls. The boys hung out with the boys. They had their different areas in the yard outside where they would go at their breaktimes or recess or whatever you call it. They had very typical gendered social practices. The boys would go and play football at breaktime. The girls would sit on the steps and gossip and do their ma – you know, all of that stuff was all just like when I was in school. It’s not changed. However, there were all of these little nuances to how they presented themselves which, for me, a lot of it was grounded in asserting their ethnic identity. Part of why I’m able to say that so confidently is because that’s what they called themselves – their peer groups, the girl peer groups. There was the black squad. There was the Asian squad. There was the white squad. And then there was the Skittle squad because they were all different colours. They rebranded themselves after I’d been there for about a term – the main squad – because they wanted to assert themselves as the popular ones. But, yeah, I mean, just the fact that those were the labels – and they weren’t throwaway labels. That’s how they referred to each other across peer groups as well. I mean, how can you say that that’s not an important part of their identity if that’s what they’re actually calling themselves? Then, you know, there’s the hair styles. There were differences between the groups in terms of what they did with their hair and how they wore their – they wore school uniforms, but there were differences in how they wore their uniforms. All that type of stuff was going on. Yeah. I was not expecting that.
Lauren: Yeah. After being told you were expecting everyone to just be one big happy melting pot, those group creation strategies were still there.
Shivonne: There’s this term “homophily” – I think “homophily.” It’s basically, when there are people like you, you will gravitate towards those people. I think, for me, an explanation for why we don’t always see that in ethnically diverse communities is because sometimes there just aren’t enough other people like you. You’re not gonna not have any friends as a teenager. From my own experience, for example, I’m a mixed-race black woman. I grew up in the countryside in rural Shropshire, so there was no one else that looked like me. But I wasn’t gonna not have friends. So, all my friends were white. But if there was someone who looked remotely like me, I definitely gravitated towards them. I can personally relate to that feeling. I think my experience at this school was a really nice example of where this can happen – it does happen – because that stuff is important.
Lauren: I think it’s one of those things where, especially when there is a feeling that there is so much divide around race or ethnicity, we can forget that being aware of race is not in itself a racist action. Students in this school are probably doing a better job of navigating a complex cultural environment than a lot of adults seem to manage to do.
Shivonne: I think then the interesting thing for me was how that then related to their language and their linguistic practices. Going back to what I was interested in in the beginning, Multicultural London English, that definitely was present, but there were differences, particularly for the girls. The white squad girls sounded, without doing any recordings or analysis, they just sounded very different to their peers. Their pronunciation was different. They did not have the same vowels that were documented in the MLE literature. What I heard then played out in my analysis. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a huge amount of data from the boys, so it’s difficult to say for sure, but there was definitely descriptive evidence that there were differences for – the black boys were the more advanced in terms of MLE pronunciation, as in they sounded the most MLE, shall we say, than the other boys. There were definitely ethnic differences going on there. That’s not to say it was just about ethnicity. There’s all this other stuff going on. It’s definitely gendered. There’s definitely stuff going on also in terms of their school identity – how they orientated towards the school. The main squad, for example, they were a mixed ethnicity group, and those girls didn’t tend to sound as MLE as, say, the black squad. But they were also very pro-school. They wanted to do well in school. There were differences in terms of that type of stuff. It’s just super complex.
Lauren: That reminds me a little bit of Mary Bucholtz’s work in the US looking at nerd girls and how people who are pro-school and very comfortable with school tend to have more standardised language, and they’re moving more towards using the teachers as their peers almost more than their actual peer groups because they want to set themselves apart. It’s interesting that those dynamics play out in this context as well.
Shivonne: Absolutely. Even with the boys, there were two boys. They were both really bright, just characters, really stood out in their year group. That’s, I guess, partly why I ended up being drawn to interviewing them. Addy – this is a pseudonym, of course – Addy was very pro-school. He did lots of extra-curricular activities and wanted to do really well. And he sounded not very MLE. He sounded definitely London, but not this shift in vowels and grammar that we see in MLE. Then John, on the other hand, he was smart. He did do well at school, but he very intentionally – it’s almost like he kept that hidden. It wasn’t part of his identity to be good at school. It was part of his identity to be, like, a cool guy. He was really into music. He sounded very MLE. So, there’s definitely all of that interesting stuff going on here as well. It just would’ve been really nice to have got some more data from a greater range of kids in this school because I think, yeah, to be able to unpick all of that a little bit more I think would’ve been really nice.
Lauren: Was that part of what your ethnographic methods were trying to get at – understanding all of these social dynamics?
Shivonne: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, all of that stuff I just told you about – the different characteristics of the peer groups and differences between those two boys – that’s purely because I went to school three to five days a week, not necessarily for the entire school day each time. But I would observe at least two lessons, and I made an effort to stay there through their – they had their recess break mid-morning and then they had their lunch break. I would always be there for those periods so that I could go and hang out with them outside when they weren’t in the classroom.
Lauren: They got used to you being around.
Shivonne: Yeah. Because of the way that the national curriculum is designed, when they’re in lessons, it’s just like, they’re on a schedule. They have stuff to get through. There’s a lot of content that is being delivered and that they’re supposed to be kind of – so actually the amount of interaction they’re doing in the classroom really varied. One of my favourite lessons to observe, actually, was they had a citizenship lesson. That was a lot more – there was a lot more dialogue because that was that was part of the, you know. But something like English or maths was just like, content, content, content, learn this stuff. Being outside was really key to be able to have that. Then it was interesting to be able to reflect and see how much of what was going on outside was brought into the classroom in terms of their social dynamics and things. I even went and observed after school things, netball games, theatre stuff. I really tried to see them in as many contexts as possible to be able to understand their social practices and linguistic practices as fully as possible.
Lauren: Amazing. Because language is, as you have discovered, incredibly complex and messy and tied up in our identity and our aspirations and our peer groups. It’s really great to have been able to go really deep into one little community and see what was happening there.
Shivonne: Definitely. I think that’s part of what drew me to working with teenagers specifically because I think that’s when we’re most creative, I think, because we’re figuring all of that stuff out. It was really fascinating to see that in action and be with these kids for a year and see how they changed over that time. It was a real privilege to be able to have done that.
Lauren: And you finished your PhD around 12 months ago?
Shivonne: A bit longer. It’s two years since I submitted my thesis. We just have a really delayed graduation in the UK.
Lauren: Ah, yeah. We have the same in Australia. Did you share your dissertation with the students, and did they have any opinions on it?
Shivonne: I didn’t share my dissertation because by the time I finished it, they would’ve left school But what I did do was, after I finished my fieldwork, I think it was the next semester, I went back and I did a presentation – not like a formal presentation. It tried to be interactive, but basically just all the stuff I had observed that they did, I just kind of made an effort to validate that and say, “Here are all these things you do with your language. Isn’t it really cool that all of this stuff has a function, and this stuff is part of your identity, and it’s legitimate? It’s not wrong or incorrect.” That was really important to me to be able to do that for them because I think that’s definitely a message that gets given to adolescents repeatedly through schools in the UK is that there’s a right and wrong way to speak. I think that’s a real shame when that’s such an integral part of who you are and your identity.
Lauren: Who you are and what your identity is, high school is a very emotional time to be prodded on those things even in the best of circumstances. Having someone affirm just how cool MLE is, I’m sure, was really great. You have had a, do we say, a lateral move since finishing your dissertation into, still a research career, but a very different pace of research.
Shivonne: Yeah. I mean, as I said before, the stuff that’s got me fired up about linguistics was doing stuff that’s more public-facing, and that’s what I really got out of my master’s. I tried to carry that on throughout my PhD. I was never really 100% sure that academia was for me. Through having that at the back of my mind during my PhD, I was able to do research along the way about alternatives. I didn’t get to the end and think, “Oh, no! What am I gonna do now?” I put the time in of looking at alternatives and come across social research which is essentially using a lot of the methodological skills that I developed and learnt through my master’s and PhD but, instead of using it just for linguistics, I use those skills to unpick more general social questions/social problems. Quite often, these are directly related to policy. So that’s what I do at the National Centre for Social Research. I work on the Children and Families Team, specifically. So, the thread there is I do research in schools still. I do research with children and young people still. While there’s not as much scope as I would like to do linguistic stuff, I loved all of that other stuff that I did for my fieldwork. The language is fascinating, but all that other stuff is fascinating too. Being able to find out about people’s lives and find out about how young people feel about a new educational programme – they’ve tried all that stuff – is also really fascinating to me. It’s been a really good alternative career track to go down for sure.
Lauren: When you say it’s research that directly affects policy, you mean government policy around the implementation of different programmes and stuff. There’s a really direct line between the research projects that you do and that feeding into things that change government policy or direct government policy.
Shivonne: Yeah. Sometimes it’s about evaluating programmes and assessing whether those programmes have any impact, that they’re doing what they’re intended to do. Are they making any change? Sometimes it’s just actually finding out about, okay, the government has implemented a new policy, how is that going? How are the people this is supposed to help – how do they actually feel about it? How is it actually affecting their lives? One project that I did recently was about shared parental leave. That was a policy. It was implemented in 2014. It was this idea that in the UK you still just have maternity and paternity leave. Now, you can split it between both parents. So, it not only improves things for heterosexual couples but also gives more options to couples who are adopting and same sex couples – not just the traditional heteronormative approach to parenting.
Lauren: Sounds great!
Shivonne: There’s a lot more options. Yes, sounds great! In theory. But there’s not been as much take up as they had hoped, so our project – we interviewed people who had taken it and who had chosen not to, and their employers, and different people, to find out not just what the individual’s experiences were but also what kind of workplace barriers might there be to why people have not engaged with this policy as much as might have been hoped. That was really fascinating to be able to do that. It’s really topical. It’s something that while we were doing the research every month The Guardian was publishing an article about it. It was something that was really topical, and people are interested in. Doing stuff like that is really, really cool.
Lauren: It’s great that your linguistics PhD gave you heaps of training in general skills for doing this kind of research, but you make it sound now like it was a decision you were okay with to move into working in a non-academic research stream. But did it feel like an easy decision at the time? Or it is something that was more difficult?
Shivonne: I mean, I’ll be honest, it didn’t feel like a decision. It felt like just kind of how things panned out. Obviously, I’m able to reflect on it and make it sound positive. I’m definitely very happy where I am now, but it took a while to get there, Lauren. It took a while. [Laughs] I had a lot of feelings about not getting an academic job. I felt like I’d failed because I’d not got a job in academia. I felt resentful because I’d done everything that I was supposed to do. I’d not just done my PhD. I did the teaching on top of it. I worked as an RA. I did all this other stuff. I’ve got a publication. And then that still wasn’t good enough to even get interviews. I just found that so upsetting and so frustrating. But because alongside that I had done all this – I knew this was a possibility along the way, I just I think possibly didn’t realise quite how much of a possibility that it was that I wouldn’t get an academic job.
Lauren: Yeah. I don’t know how well we set people up for that to be honest.
Shivonne: I think it’s one of these things that I knew it was a possibility, but I honestly thought wouldn’t apply to me because you’ve got on to a PhD programme, and you’re succeeding in that, you feel like, “Okay, well” –
Lauren: “I’ve survived this far.”
Shivonne: “Why should I not” – yeah.
Lauren: I think there’s a sense of survivor bias from – your professors have generally been in academia for a while. That’s why they’re professors and supervising dissertations. And it means that training people in linguistics with the expectation they’ll got out into industry is definitely not the default way we approach things even though that’s what’s gonna happen for the majority of graduates on a basic numbers level.
Shivonne: I think as well, like, I mean, it’s also changed a lot. I’m just thinking of my mentors. Emma Moore, I think, went from her PhD to her job – you know, maybe worked at Manchester where she did he PhD for a bit and then went to Sheffield and got her job there, and that’s where she is now. Devyani was my PhD advisor. She went straight from her PhD at Stanford to a full-time permanent job at Kings and then moved to Queen Mary. While they were supportive and endeavoured to help me to be realistic, I think the fact is that’s not their experience of the academic job market. They’re not able to give realistic advice. I should also say that I was very clear in that I did not want to move around. I was like, “I’ve already done that. I’ve done my degrees in three different cities in two different countries. I just want to have my feet on the ground for a bit.” I knew that in making that choice, that massively limited my ability to get on the ladder. I just accepted that to be honest.
Lauren: I think knowing yourself is more important than chasing a postdoc and then another postdoc and then maybe I’m actually just talking about myself now. [Laughs]
Shivonne: I mean, it’s really difficult. I definitely get pangs of like, “Oh, I miss linguistics.” I’ll see people tweeting about stuff, and then I’m like, “Oh, I wish I could go to that conference” or “I wish I could find time to write a paper. I really want to have a paper for my dissertation. It would be really cool to have that out there.” But then I’m just like, but I have work-life balance, and I have a job that I really like, and those things were really important to me. And I’ve got them.
Lauren: And you didn’t even have to leave London, which is a nice addition.
Shivonne: Well, exactly. It swings in roundabouts, isn’t it. But, yeah, it sounds like a straightforward trajectory, and I guess on paper it was, but there was definitely a lot of emotional turmoil along the way for sure.
Lauren: Thank you for sharing the linear narrative and the feelings behind the narrative. I think it’s important to acknowledge that and acknowledge that a lot of people do hope for the best and it doesn’t always pan out in terms of academic careers.
Shivonne: I should also say that even in terms of non-academic work – “alt-academic work,” if you wanna call it – I really like my job now. I didn’t at first. It was a real – I talked about it with my line manager at the time and stuff. It was a real transition. It wasn’t a transition in terms of my ability to do the job. I was more than capable of doing the job, and I performed well at my job. It was just finding it difficult to be in a space that was so different to what I had been used to. The things that I enjoy about my job now were also challenging at first in terms of working on project teams and not having the final say in terms of what the research design was or all those types of things.
Lauren: A very different dynamic.
Shivonne: I love working on teams. I didn’t not like working on teams then, but, you know, I love that now that you get to share the responsibility, you get to bounce ideas off of each other, the writing up findings into a report isn’t as traumatic as writing in academia a paper or something because – especially when you’re junior. I’m sure it gets easier when you’re older. But sharing that load is actually really fulfilling and enjoyable. But, yeah, it can definitely take time to adjust.
Lauren: Of course, even though you don’t do linguistics research in your day-to-day job, you are always a linguist.
Lauren: Do you have any go-to linguistics examples or stories or explanations that you find yourself reaching for when people ask about linguistics?
Shivonne: I mean, obviously, it depends what they ask, but I’ll just give an example that used recently that, quite often, the things that are socially stigmatised in terms of language, there is evidence of similar patterns in other dialects or at a previous time where it wasn’t stigmatised. That just really shows us why it’s about who is using this feature rather than about the feature itself. The example I used for that, the person I was talking to was asking me about “aks” instead of “ask,” so metathesis – swapping those two sounds round at the end, which is quite often stigmatised because it’ll be black speakers who are using it and it’s something that’s evident in the US and also here in the UK. And I said, “Well, you know, that was the way that people used to say it hundreds of years ago.” I think there are examples of it in Shakespeare. Shakespeare is revered and black people are generally kind of oppressed. It just really shows you that it’s not the language, it’s the people.
Lauren: That’s a great one to go to. Because I know it does stand out for people as a salient feature.
Shivonne: Yeah, it really does.
Lauren: If you could leave people knowing one thing about linguistics, what would it be?
Shivonne: [Sighs] I think my pet peeve is when people are described as “having an accent.” We all have accents. We all use language in a way that has a social function. The reason that some things are stigmatised and others aren’t isn’t because there are good or bad ways of speaking. It’s because we see people as being less than or as something to aspire to. I think recognising that is really key in shifting the narrative on those types of things.
Lauren: That is a great sentiment to end on. Thank you so much, Shivonne, for chatting with us today about Multicultural London English and linguistic variation.
Shivonne: Thanks, Lauren. I really enjoyed being here. It was a great conversation.
Lauren: For more Lingthusiasm and links to all the things mentioned in this episode, go to lingthusasim.com. You can listen to us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, Spotify, SoundCloud, YouTube, or wherever else you get your podcasts. You can follow @Lingthusiasm on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. You can get IPA scarves, IPA ties, and other Lingthusiasm merch at lingthusiasm.com/merch. I tweet and blog as Superlinguo. Shivonne can be found on Twitter @ShivGates. Gretchen can be found @GretchenAMcC on Twitter, and her book about internet linguistics is called Because Internet. Have you listened to all the Lingthusiasm episodes and you wish there were more? Well, you can get access to 43 bonus episodes right now to listen to at patreon.com/lingthusiasm or follow the links from our website. Patrons also get access to our Discord chatroom to talk with other linguistics fans and other rewards as well as keeping the show ad-free. Recent bonus topics include pangrams, linguistics for kids, and LingComm on a budget which includes the origin story of Lingthusiasm. If you can’t afford to pledge, that’s okay, too. We really appreciate it if you can recommend Lingthusiasm to anyone who needs a little more linguistics in their lives. Lingthusiasm is created and produced by Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne. Our Senior Producer is Claire Gawne, our Editorial Producer is Sarah Dopierala, our music is “Ancient City” by The Triangles.
Shivonne: Stay lingthusiastic!
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