Wednesday, December 26, 2007

World Englishes, Pop Musics, and Writing about Writing about Music

"I even have a column in Ebony magazine called 'Musings.'"
- Tracy Morgan as Tracy Jordan (NBC's 30 Rock), on the subject of whether or not he is illiterate.

  • Writing about writing -- that is, studying professional, published writing -- seems like a dangerous thing to do if you want people to like you. I don't mean being a critic, writing about whether or not you think Joan Didion's new book is any good, because we seem to have a pretty well-accepted system set up for that kind of thing. I mean being a rhetorician, and making a study of people who write. This is on my mind because I've been kicking around (for some time now) the idea of studying music reviews -- how they're written and why, all their attendant tropes, expectations, and biases -- and it seems to me that what I'm thinking about is nothing short of, you know, kind of ripping on my colleagues. How could it not be? You know, something like "Sexism in reviews" or "Music critics' portrayals of Japanese women." It's like to be "critical" in every possible sense of the word, yes? How can I do this? I specifically want to start looking at the way music critics write about Chinese rock bands.

A further question: does this fall under the general heading of "cultural studies," a discipline which I have claimed to hate for the last two years? Or is this simply rhetorical analysis? I have this scary feeling that it's cult-studs. Noooooooooo!

  • Still doing a lot of thinking about a program of research that involves studying the use of English in rock/pop music in "non-English-speaking" countries (i.e., "expanding circle" countries, particularly China, because if you are interested in the global spread of English, how can you not study China? Plus, I live here).

Potential research questions include:
What influences a band/singer's choice to sing in English vs. any other language?

Codemixing in songs -- for example, throwing in English words like "yeah," "uh huh" or "come on" in a song that's otherwise not in English. Why?

How do fans react to the use of English in pop music?

How and why do bands/singers choose English pseudonyms/band names?

How do a country's language policy and planning decisions affect/interact with the use of English in pop music? (For example, the Singaporean government's enlisting of rappers in Speak Good English campaigns.)

How do English learners in China use English-language pop music (by Chinese artists and otherwise)? What about the weird pseudo-genre my students refer to as "English songs," which is basically songs in English that nobody outside China has ever heard and which are often translations of Chinese pop songs?

What I need to do to investigate this:

First and foremost - listen to more expanding circle pop music, esp. Chinese pop and rock. Need to find a balance between indie rock and big pop stars, but I'll have much easier access to China's indie rock bands if I want to actually interview musicians.

Find out who is doing research on this stuff. Obviously Pennycook is looking at language, identity, and hip-hop; I need to start trolling his bibliographies. Lily Kong looks at geography and pop in Singapore, but I haven't found anybody who is specifically looking at English + pop music + China. (Maybe this means I am original! Until some PhD student reads this blog and steals it!) Search back issues of World Englishes and other WE-related journals, and also relevant pop music-related journals.

Start writing more about it in a popular capacity (newspapers, magazines). Find some outlets who are interested in Chinese indie rock and start covering it for them! If possible, make trips to Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong and make contacts in the indie rock scenes. Make money while doing research! (...just call our toll-free number...)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Mystery of the (dry) Salty Peanut

The mystery: why is the Chinese word gan (土) inexplicably -- and frequently -- translated as everybody's favorite English swear word? I myself enjoy snacking on a local brand of packaged, salted peanuts, the label of which reads: "Salty to F*** the Peanut."

The mystery is solved by a couple of bloggers, including Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania.

Please visit these links if you're up for a frank discussion of 土, which is supposed to mean "dry," but often isn't translated that way, with hilarious results. Plenty of pictorial evidence.

The Language Log (UPenn)
The Etiology and Elaboration of a Flagrant Mistranslation
F***ing Stationery

Monday, December 03, 2007

esl vs efl

Maybe, just maybe, this is the case:

Purpose of ESL writing in the US: Teach Ss the conventions of English academic writing for use in "content" classes, in which they'll be graded by professors who are well-versed in "inner circle" English writing.
Purpose of EFL writing in China: Teach Ss formula for "a good essay" which will earn them high marks on the TEM and CET exams -- which will be graded by English teachers who may be grading them "Chinese-style*" -- therefore allowing them to graduate from college.

This isn't always true, but it's making me rethink the way I teach. This semester, I mostly taught the writing process and focussed on clearly expressing original thoughts and ideas. We've been going through it step by step, with, I'm sorry to add, little explicit grammar instruction. (Shamefully, I'll try to make up for this in coming weeks.)

Perhaps what the students need -- as much as it goes against my own training and beliefs -- is instruction that's heavy on "correctness." I need to do a lot more thinking about this!

* I don't mean this pejoratively; I just mean that in some cases, writing in a more "Chinese" style may be preferable to writing in a "Western" style. I'm too tired to explain this properly.