I am sometimes, while reading student essays, moving along fairly smoothly, and then I’ll be hit with something like “He was all like…And then I was all like…” (to be “all like,” for the uninformed,” is “to say” in some dialects).
Other big offenders are “totally” and “sort of” and “kind of’ and “hella.”
It can be difficult determining what the source of the problem is in using language like this in an academic essay: do students just lack other language for terms like “angry” than “pissed off”? Or do they actually have other language resources but don’t fully understand these highly conversational forms’ inappropriateness in academic writing? Or perhaps they think that conversational usage is more expressive and effective?
The problem probably has a number of origins, but there are some ways that the instructor can address highly conversational language in student essays, moving students toward using the more academic register, or situation- appropriate language.
Following is a list of the kind of nonacademic, conversational language I’ve seen in student papers this term, with examples and their approximate translations into Standard English:
Check Conversational Vocabulary
to say. It’s not uncommon to hear young adults in California (and probably the larger U.S. by this time) engaged in a conversation such as this: “He was all like…and then I was all like…” In conversational language, “all like means simply “said.”
“My new dress is hecka cute.” Very much so, extremely.
very much so, extremely, completely. Can be used with verbs, unlike “hecka/hella”: “I totally want to go.”
Really; an emphatic. “He said the food was bad, and I was like hey…”
Kind of/Kinda Way
“He asked me in a rude kinda way.” Manner.
To Get a Kick out Of
“We went to the new James Bond movie and got a real kick out of it.” To enjoy.
“My professor is a chill/laid back kinda guy, so he took my late paper.” Calm, relaxed. “Chill” also can be used as a verb: “I’m busy, so just sit here and chill for a minute, okay?”
To Sort of Creep Out
“He gave me this smile that sort of creeped me out.” To rather frighten/scare.
To Kind of Just Roll With
“The teacher was all like ‘the assignment’s due tomorrow,’ but whatever; we just rolled with it.” To accept.
To Get Punked On
“I have a sorta weird name, so I’m always getting punked on.” To be disrespected.
Run-ons and fragments are common to developmental writing, mainly because students write the way they speak, without regard to sentence boundaries, and this tendency creeps into academic writing. Similarly, students make use of the narrative past, which is use of present verb tenses to discuss past events: “So anyway, I’m standing in the cafeteria, and this guy comes up behind me and bumps into me, and I’m all like…”
Moving students from this kind of highly conversational usage into a more academic register may seem like an impossible task; however, there are several steps an instructor can take to move students toward adopting the academic register.
Check Out Ways to Teach More Academic Language
Sometimes I’ll present students either a paragraph I’ve written myself or a past student’s paper which uses highly conversational language, and students usually are quick to point out something doesn’t “sound” right, although they may not be able to pinpoint it. This can then lead to a discussion of more appropriate language.
Have Students Read Their Own Work Aloud
Because many students, native speakers of English as well as long-term immigrants, have often developed this sense of what “sounds” right, just reading their own work aloud can give them insight into problems with it, when they begin stumbling or hesitating in certain places, for example--insight they wouldn’t necessarily get from just reviewing their work silently.
Read Each Other’s Work
Because students have more distance from their peers’ work than their own, they are more likely to see problems with it. The reader can then circle potential problem areas and discuss them with the paper’s author.
Discuss More Academic Choices for Conversational Language
Once students have developed a sense of the differences in “register,” or situational appropriateness, of language use, the instructor can then begin to teach the academic alternates to the conversational usage they are more used to: not “all like” but simply “said,” “wrote,” or “according to.”; not “hella” or “hecka” but “completely” or “extremely.”
Engage in Critical Analysis of Text
It can actually be more difficult to analyze an academic text using the conversational register: for example, “In the second paragraph, the author is all like…” sounds unnatural and may actually be a more difficult structure to form, taking conscious effort, just as it might take conscious effort to use the casual language you might use with peers with older family members or employers. Students, actually, already have some practice switching between registers, so when discussing an academic text, they often without much consideration move from “He’s all like--” to “According to the author--”
If the instructor finds students persist in using conversational language, then she might pass out a worksheet of conversational language/phrases with their more academic equivalents, modeling the academic usage and then having students consciously practice their use until it becomes more “natural.”
Practice Academic Discussion
As noted above (not “like I already said”), use of academic language is not something that always comes “naturally,” without conscious consideration, so some practice may be needed. After directly teaching students some of the academic words and phrases they might use in discussion, some strategies should be employed to get students to actually use this academic language in class.
The choice of academic/current topics for discussion, such as the right to bear arms or the right of same sex couples to marry, often leads to the analysis of the Second and First Amendments, which can be difficult to discuss without the use of the academic register because those texts are written in the academic register. To use the conversational register when discussing them would then actually require the students to “translate” them into the conversational register, a conscious effort rather the more straightforward process of just using the language already in the text.
Set Up a System of Rewards
Although it may be too simplistic and behaviorist for some classes, as well as requiring careful monitoring by the teacher, setting up a system of rewarding points for the use of academic language during discussion will encourage its use. Also, points can be added if the academic register is used in short writing assignments and subtracted when the conversational creeps in.
Moving students from academic language to the more appropriate academic register can be a challenge because it ultimately is a first step of entering an academic community of analysis, discussion, and writing critically. However, the first steps can be taken by raising student consciousness of this new manner of communicating, helping them enter the academic world.