The Real Thing

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Over the past five years or so, the British Library has been engaged in much work supporting English language study. As we embark on a new phase of ambitious activity in this area, now seems a good time to reflect on where we've been and where we should be going.

It's four years since we launched our 'Texts in Context' website (www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/ texts/context.html), a site that enables students to explore how English language and style have continually evolved and changed over time. It contains facsimiles of original texts of different types: recipes, handbills, leaflets, advertisements, letters, logbooks, reports, satires, catalogues, legal pronouncements, guide books and dictionary entries, from humorous, serious to just quirky. Two of the most popular parts of the site illustrate the development of two very familiar genres--cook books and dictionaries--from their origins to the present day.

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We developed the pedagogies that underpin the site through 'real-world' projects in classrooms, museums and archives in London and the South West. Through evaluation we know that the project has had a demonstrable, sustained impact on the original teachers who were involved in the project and, more significantly, through the website on teaching and learning about historical language change and its assessment at A Level, and to a lesser extent at undergraduate and GCSE level.

Texts from the site have been used in examinations and in textbooks and teaching material websites, directly featuring in synoptic exams in June 2005, and June 2006. The texts have also proved popular with students themselves, with the comment below from an A Level student not being unusual:

   This website has added a new dimension
   to language lessons. It was great to be able
   to enlarge texts and find out contextual
   information about the recipes. It was
   interesting to see the recipes in their
   original form. I particularly liked the
   Good Housewife's Jewell, certainly
   different from Nigella Lawson!

This is mirrored in the comments which have appeared in examination reports which indicate that students work in analysing language change data has improved overall in recent years. Here is a comment from the AQA B 2006 report focussing on students' engagement with a facsimile page from The Ladies Dictionary, a British Library text from 1694:

The text for Question 4 provided possibly the most challenging read on the paper, but it is clear that the majority of candidates who attempted the question have had more experience of grappling with early Modern texts in facsimile than would ever have been the case just a few years ago.

(General Certificate of Education, English Language 5706/6706, Specification B, Report on the Examination, 2006 examination--June series.)

Our 'Sounds Familiar' website (www.bl.uk/ soundsfamiliar) set out to do for recorded speech what 'Texts in Context' had done for texts. As teachers were lacking the audio data sets to examine in necessary detail the linguistic features of UK speech, we pulled together 72 recordings of regional accents and dialects from the Survey of English Dialects (1950s), Survey of Anglo-Welsh Dialects (1960s-80s) and the Millennium Memory Bank (1998-99), making it possible for users to explore how spoken English varies regionally and how accents and dialects have changed over time.

'Sounds Familiar' also features a series of interactive sound maps that make it possible to explore specific aspects of language variation and change, and examine the vocabulary, grammar and phonology of spoken English. The website also includes three case studies to give an in-depth look at three very different varieties of English: Received Pronunciation, Geordie dialect and minority ethnic English.

Institutionally, both websites have also had an impact on the British Library itself, through significantly increased web traffic, favourable press and media interest and educational impact. …