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LG 554: Analyzing Language in Society:

Research Methods

Prof. Peter L. Patrick

Dept. of Language & Linguistics

University of Essex


o       Sampling Design

o   Descriptive Report

o   Rapid and Anonymous Survey

            o   Linguistic Variable

o   Analysis of Personal Narratives


Since this is a course about learning to do, it isnt assessed by the usual essay. Instead youll perform several of the research tasks described below.

Ideally, you should integrate these tasks across the year, to inform your own research project – make them a first step in the planning and execution of your MA or PhD thesis research. Think of it as a pilot stage, a chance to try things out, to see where you need to revise, change tack or abandon ship. It is not necessary to actually succeed in producing good research in these tasks – though that is a fine result! – rather, you should succeed in learning from their performance.

Youll perform several tasks this term which involve designing research, collecting and/or analysing data. Youll complete them in time so you can move on to the next. Please bring all your materials to class, every week; well discuss your efforts & results weekly in workshop style. We can’t do this unless you reliably bring your notes, recordings, etc.


Unassessed Tasks

Some smaller tasks are required, but not assessed; these will not be laborious, and I expect you to do them. I’ll tell you more about those as we go along. The first of these is due in the second week of class (Week 3), so please start now!

·          Naïve interview or Stranger Self-report. You must choose one of these two and do it. Just ONE please!

The second and third are due a few weeks later – see the weekly schedule for details. They are:

·          The Taping Game, an introduction to your chosen recording machine.

·          Module Development, an exercise in developing linked interview topics and questions



Tasks for assessment

Choose 2 out of the 4 listed here. Do at least one from the "Research Design/Data Collection" group, i.e. you must do either the Sampling Design or the Descriptive Report. (You may do both of these, if you choose.)

Each chosen task will be worth 50% of the course mark. Your first choice of assignment is due on Thurs 23 Nov 2016 (Week 8). Your second choice of assignment is due on Thurs 14 Dec 2016 (Week 11). Be sure you hand in one assignment in Week 8, and one in Week 11, if not before.

Choice of tasks is discussed in class; details will be linked from this page. Each assignment should be at least 1500 words (not less, but can be more if you need to). No assignment should be longer than 3000 words, maximum.

The four assessable tasks are as follows:


Research Design/Data Collection: Do at least 1 of (a) or (b) for assessment



Sampling Design of a survey or experiment

Due Week 8


Descriptive Report of Sociolinguistic Interview(s)

Due Week 8




Data Collection/Analysis: You may do either (c) or (d) for assessment



Rapid and Anonymous Survey (quantitative)

Due Week 11


Linguistic Variable (quantitative)

Due Week 11


 Analysis of personal narrative(s) (qualitative)

Due Week 11


Comments on the choice of assessed tasks

a) The Sampling Design asks you to select a Research Question for a variationist speech community survey, and design a sampling plan to answer it. You will need to consider various social parameters (sex, age, class, ethnicity, etc.) in defining your survey population. You will need to reject some and select others as you propose and justify your sampling methods. You will consult the sociolinguistic literature (see esp. our textbooks by Macaulay 2009, Schilling 2013, and Milroy & Gordon 2003, as well as the assigned readers) for relevant models, details and advice. You will write a minimum 1,500-word report on the sampling design you propose. If you are relatively far along in your planning for your own dissertation, this is an especially good choice. You may wish to consult me on the readings first.

b) The Descriptive Report requires you to collect spoken data, in the form of one or several Sociolinguistic Interviews, and to reflect on them. (You will need to use several Interview Modules developed in class, so it can build on the unassessed Modules task you have done.) It is qualitative in nature, but allows room for elementary quantification, and serves as good preparation for variation analysis – but can also be useful for e.g. a discourse or attitudes/perception study. As it explores existing data you will have gathered, it is a good way to locate or refine ideas for a dissertation topic. This assignment requires you to collect new data. We will discuss Dept. and University standards for ethical data-collection in class, in advance.

c) The Rapid and Anonymous Survey requires you to observe, and perhaps record, many brief instances of spoken data in public, in order to examine a narrowly-defined linguistic variable. You will need to encounter strangers to collect the data, but will not collect identifying information about them. You may perform this assignment in pairs or as a team (see me for details about this). You will also do simple coding of the data. You will prepare a report that describes the data collection methods and the sample obtained, and provides the coded data (but you will not analyse it at this stage). This method is an excellent complement to the Sociolinguistic Interview. As you will focus in detail on a single linguistic variable, and indeed do pre-analysis of it, it is a good chance to try out a variable you may wish to use in your dissertation, and it leads on to variation analysis methods to be explored in the next term. This assignment requires you to collect new data. We will discuss Dept. and University standards for ethical data-collection in class, in advance.

d) The Analysis of Personal Narratives applies the approach to narrative developed by Labov to your own materials. The key here is having a recording of a genuine personal narrative to work with. It is a qualitative task which requires you to consider deeply the function as well as the structure of linguistic elements in a well-known vernacular genre. Such analysis may be an end in itself, or may be the prelude to asking other questions of either a qualitative or quantitative nature. It’s a good choice for study of a language variety that you know well or have good access to. Read up early to find out what constitutes a good narrative. This assignment may require you to collect new data. We will discuss Dept. and University standards for ethical data-collection in class, in advance.

e) The Linguistic Variable assignment invites you to discover and give a brief initial characterisation of a new linguistic variable (new to you, at least). You will need a recording with enough examples (tokens) of it; and it will need to actually be variable, not categorical or invariant. This assignment may require you to collect new data. We will discuss Dept. and University standards for ethical data-collection in class, in advance.

Remember: You only need to do two of these for credit!

Please do make sure you are familiar with the University and Dept. advice on and rules for post-graduate assessed work, and follow them carefully. They can be found online in the current departmental PGT Handbook or the Research Students Handbook. You should come and ask me, or other Dept. staff, if you are unsure about them.


Ethical permission for Assignments

The assignments for LG554 that require data collection from human subjects (e.g., Descriptive Report, Rapid and Anonymous Survey, and Narrative Analysis) have been submitted by the instructor and cleared for ethics permissions. You do not need to submit a separate ethics application for your assignment. However, you are required to obtain written consent from each person you collect data from by means of a recording – e.g. an interview – unless it is an anonymous public occasion (such as the Rapid and Anonymous Survey). To obtain written consent, you should use an appropriate consent form. You may use the one designed by me for this module, which is available here. Note that several of these assignments can be done on the basis of the same interview(s); each interview or recording only requires consent to be given once.

It is also possible for you to design an appropriate consent form of your own following the principles required by the University, see this page and the discussion on the Dept. ethics webpage. If for example you are collecting data for assignments which you know you will use later in your MA or PhD research, you might be better off submitting an ethics permission application for your MA/PhD research now; that would require you to design a consent form, as part of the process explained in class in Week 2.

Note that some assignments (e.g. Sampling Design) do not require you to collect data from human subjects, so no consent form is required from them. Other sorts of assignments and research (e.g. Rapid and Anonymous Elicitation, in which you do not find out identifying personal data about the subjects) may require oral consent, but avoid some of the issues since they do not produce personal data. See the Dept. ethics webpage for more info.


Presenting non-English language data

You are encouraged to work with data other than varieties of English in your assignments, including varieties you speak natively. However, be conscious that you are presenting it in English to linguists that probably do not speak your variety. Thus there are a number of things you will need to do. You must present it carefully, with attention to issues of orthography, glossing, and translation. These are separate levels, each one representing the same excerpt of speech in a different and complementary way. You may need to highlight briefly the ways in which you do this. While this may sound like a lot of work, it represents the same process you will have to consider when publishing your dissertation, thesis or research article in an English-language venue. Consider it a necessary part of your professional training.

§  If it is normally written in non-Roman characters (e.g. Greek, Chinese, Russian etc.), use them.

§  You will also need to represent it on the orthographical level using Roman characters (the kind normally used to write English). This may be done in the translation (see below).

§  If there is a standard orthography, use it; if there are several, select an appropriate one and mention why you used it. If there is none, you will need to represent it on the orthographical level in a consistent fashion using Roman characters.

§  For most of our assignments, you will also need to present part or all of it in phonemic transcription (using phonemic slash notation, /abcd/) or in phonetic transcription (using IPA, in brackets [ɑɓɕɖ]). It may be appropriate to use both judiciously, e.g. to put most of it in phonemic notation but highlight a few key bits in IPA. In appropriate cases, a mixture of phonemic notation plus standard orthography, or IPA phonetic notation plus standard orthography, will also be fine. (You should explicitly tell the reader about such mixtures! And explain why you use them, briefly. NB: Phonemic notation uses Roman characters.)

§  It is also necessary to either gloss or translate, and you may need to do both. A gloss is a level which identifies and labels grammatical and lexical components, rather than merely translating them, e.g. “3sg fem” for the 3rd person singular feminine pronoun or inflection, rather than “she” or “her”. Glosses keep the word and morpheme order of the original language – they are not sentences of English. For more about gloss, see the Wikipedia entry for "interlinear gloss"; for conventions for glossing, and a list of standard abbreviations for grammatical category labels, see the 'Leipzig Glossing Rules' at

§  A translation should be fairly literal, especially if no gloss is provided, so that the reader can identify the linguistic items used. E.g., do not give the meaning of a metaphor – give the metaphor itself. However, if you do provide a gloss it will accomplish the purpose of transparency of linguistic items, so your translation may then be more colloquial. A translation is written in English – it uses English items and word order, etc.

§  You may thus have up to 4 levels in your presentation:

1.    Orthographic transcription in non-Roman characters,

2.    Phonemic/phonetic transcription using Roman characters/IPA,

3.    Gloss of grammatical and lexical components,

4.    Translation (literal or colloquial depending on whether you provided a gloss) into English.

5.    Some languages' features may require other levels (e.g. relating surface lexical tones to underlying ones).

§  Obviously this is more work than required for presenting English data, which need only have an orthographic transcription and level (2), and if appropriate (3). (In the case of English data, a literal orthographic transcription is normally given, which follows conventions for writing in English). Bearing this in mind, to encourage you to work on such data, I will generally allow you to do less data than if you were working on English – check with me about this.

§  An example of data presentation of a non-English language which uses a standard non-English orthography, primarily in Roman characters, followed by a gloss and literal translation, can be viewed here. The example is taken from Comparative Creole Syntax (2007, ed. JA Holm & PL Patrick; PM 7831.C6), which also has an extensive list of abbreviations for glossing grammatical elements that you may use; any other competent and transparent linguistic standard for glossing grammatical elements (eg the 'Leipzig Rules') is also acceptable.


Criteria for assessment

Your work will be assessed in relation to the following general criteria of my own for this module (indeed, for all my modules). These are in addition to the general advice on assignments given in the current PGT Handbook (pp 65-70 “Advice on Writing Coursework Assignments”) - please be sure you are familiar with those too!

You must be able to:

§    Summarize: Demonstrate your understanding by clear, concise summary of assigned research. Be able to accurately summarize argumentation, facts (both in detail, and at a general level), crucial concepts, and theoretical claims, and explain or paraphrase technical terminology.

§    Analyze: Make and explain distinctions; identify similarities and contrasts; create and take readers through an argument, step by logical step; and generally, use appropriate terminology precisely in analysis of the relevant data.

§    Evaluate: Identify and assess the underlying methods, assumptions and goals of a piece of research; appraise the strength or weakness of a position, a theory, or a set of data. Are the conclusions supported by the arguments? the data? Are the findings significant, and why? When you make evaluative claims, you must be able to cite specific evidence to back them up.

§    Present your work effectively: Communicate your (and others’) ideas with clarity, in a logical and transparent structure, in a coherent fashion and appropriate style, drawing on technical terminology as needed. You must be lucid, precise, and original, while demonstrating a sense of balance among the parts, controlling length to meet requirements, and attributing ideas to their authors through good citation and reference practice.


Advice on Writing Your Assignments in LG554

§   Be familiar with, and follow, the relevant Dept. handbook material on writing assignments.

§   Grammar:

o   Be consistent with number, person and tense.

o   Write in simple, active sentences.

o   Do not use plural number for yourself (“we”) unless there is more than one of you writing a report.

§   Citations and references:

o   If you must use quotes from authors (I prefer you do not), keep them few (2-3 max.) and very brief (1-2 lines max).

o   Unlike a good paraphrase (which is what I do prefer), a quotation gives little evidence of your understanding – which is what assignments are designed to demonstrate.

§   Footnotes:

o   If you must use footnotes (I prefer you do not), keep them few (3-5 max.; I once had a student put 57 in a 1500-word assignment, and she thought it was a good thing!);

o   And put in them only NON-central references and details – all essential info should be in the text, and everything in the text should be essential info.

§   Dictionary definitions: Do not cite general dictionary definitions of concepts in your essays. Even linguistics dictionaries are often not authoritative sources – after all, it is we who write them… You should demonstrate a critical appreciation of how concepts are used in the literature – not a willingness to defer to the authority of dictionaries.

§   Non-academic web sources are NOT to be preferred over established reference books. (Online versions of scholarly linguistics books or journals are fine.) Some are excellent; some are flawed, even though they appear to be decent sources; some are simply crap. You can find examples of all three kinds on such well-known sources as Wikipedia – best to avoid them entirely unless you are sure I will agree that they are reliable sources.

o   If you do use appropriate web sources for information, please see my guidelines for web citations.

o   The Dept PGT Handbook has guidelines for this too, please see them.


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Page last updated on 11 September 2017