Archive for September, 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008

Is Being Politically Correct Correct?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Understand me. I don’t like ruffling people’s feathers. I don’t like being confrontational. I also don’t like being silly. As much as language reflects the most profound thoughts and greatest of achievements in society, it can also reflect the hypersensitivity and silliness of that society. So it is at times with what people refer to as “political correctness.” But when does the language go too far with being “pc,” politically correct?

Let’s start off with the term American. Over the years, I’ve had many students from Latin America object in class to my calling myself an American. They would immediately pipe up and say, “We are Americans, too!” I could always anticipate that response, and then I’d give out a big sigh and proceed to explain why we call ourselves Americans in the US. It’s not to exclude all the other peoples of the Americas; it’s because the official name of the country has been the United States of America since the time of independence from Great Britain. Back then the US was the only country that contained a group of united states; ergo the official name. Now people from the United States of Mexico are called Mexicans, people from the United States of Brazil are called Brazilians, and people from the United States of Colombia are called Colombians. So if people in the United States of America aren’t called Americans, what should they be called? Besides, that’s what people in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world call us. Heck! Even the Canadians call us Americans. I rest my case.

What about the term Native American? I think this is another case of political correctness gone too far. I, too, am a native American having been born and raised in the US. If the “pc” people insist on using it, why is it that there are indigenous people in the US who still use the word Indian to describe themselves? They don’t seem to have a problem with that term. I love when “pc-ers” tell others what they should or shouldn’t be called. Talk about presumptuous! I like the term indigenous people or the Canadian term First Nations people. Both terms are neutral and appear quite accurate, don’t you think? But ultimately it’s up to the indigenous people to decide what they should be called.

Remember when you started seeing humankind replacing mankind? That was considered “pc” because that new use wouldn’t exclude women. Well, if those who try their best to be “pc” have changed mankind to humankind, what are they going to do with a word like anthropology? After all, anthropos means “man” in Greek, and anthropology means “the study of man.” So should they insist we rename that science anthropinology, which means “the study of humans”? Food for thought, if you ask me.

Now what about the terms used for black Americans? The following terms, which were considered acceptable in their day, were Negro, black, Afro-American, and now African-American, although black is still used. Why was there a need for those changes? None of this would bother me if it weren’t for the fact that I’m still called white, not European-American. Why was it necessary for the “pc-ers” to make the leap from black to African-American? If there’s nothing wrong with being called white, why do they consider it wrong to be called black? I remember the famous slogan “Black is beautiful.” And it is. So why did that change? It mystifies me, but it clearly shows the continuing racial disquiet in this English-speaking society.

We’ve been deluged with “pc” terms for people with physical and mental disabilities. Here are a few you can find on a Web page of the Life Span Institute that’s entitled Guidelines for Reporting and Writing about People with Disabilities. I’ve added some thoughts of mine in italics:

“Reflecting input from more than 100 disability organizations, the preferred terms for referring to disabilities are listed and defined below.

Autism is a mental disorder originating in infancy that is characterized by absorption in self-centered subjective mental activity, especially when accompanied by marked withdrawal from reality, inability to interact socially, repetitive behavior, and language dysfunction. Do not say autistic. Say person with autism.Huh? Isn’t autistic simply the adjective for autism? Is there anything pejorative in saying He’s autistic?

Brain injury describes a condition where there is long-term or temporary disruption in brain function resulting from injury to the brain. Difficulties with cognitive, physical, emotional, and/or social functioning may occur. Do not say brain damaged. Say person with a brain injury, woman who has sustained brain injury, or boy with an acquired brain injury.Does anyone find it offensive to say brain damaged? In this case, doesn’t that mean the same thing as injured? I don’t see the difference.

Small/short stature describes people under 4’10″ tall. Do not refer to these individuals as dwarfs or midgets, which implies a less than full adult status in society. Dwarfism is an accepted medical term, but it should not be used as general terminology. Say persons of small (or short) stature. Some groups prefer the term “little people.Okay, I’m a person of short stature, being only 5’6” tall. For a man, that’s short. And ironically, I find the term “little people” demeaning, since I can’t help but compare it to little boy or little girl, which deals with age and level of maturity rather than height. So can’t that imply “a less than full adult status in society”? I’m perplexed!

In addition, I saw a documentary in January 2008 on the Discovery Health Channel called Dwarf: Standing Tall. Neither the producers nor the little people featured in the documentary had any problem using the term dwarf. They also used people of short stature and little people, but the term dwarf was used more often than the other two. So what does that say about instructions given at the Life Span Institute’s Web page?

My point is that English, because of the times we live in and the people wh
o want to do the right thing, has become a testing ground for changes in attitude that good people want to bring about in society, but I think this quest may go too far at times. I remember when it became a standard joke to add challenged to a variety of adverbs in order to sound politically correct:

  • He’s not short, he’s “vertically challenged.”
  • She’s “cosmetically challenged.” She never learned how to put on makeup.
  • I see your little boy needs glasses. How long has he been “visually challenged”?
  • I can’t stand my wife’s cooking. She’s “culinarily challenged”!
  • Half my students are “auditorily challenged.” They never listen to me.

So in teaching and speaking English, should we just toss out all the standard adjectives we’ve used for centuries perhaps to describe people and things? How do we determine what ELL’s should learn? I’d like to hear your opinions on this subject, so please join in the conversation.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

So What’s New? Plenty!

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation between two friends in a restaurant. As you read through their conversation, make note of any and all vocabulary that you don’t think you would have heard or used ten or fifteen years ago the way they’re being used in this chat. Then we’ll compare notes.

Ann: Hmm … Everything looks so interesting on the menu.
Kim: I think we should start off with edamame. It’s delicious and so nutritious.
Ann: Yes, they certainly are nutritious.
Kim: What are?
Ann: The edamame. I was agreeing with you that they’re nutritious.
Kim: You mean, it is nutritious, not they are nutritious.
Ann: Huh? No, I think you’re supposed to say they are nutritious.
Kim: Whatever. Edamame is certainly one of today’s iconic foods, don’t you think?
Ann: Absolutely!
Kim: Oh, there’s the server. Excuse me. Could you bring us some plain water, please?
Server: Certainly. I’ll be right back.
Ann: So how is Julie enjoying her summer vacation?
Kim: Oh, she’s having a wonderful time staying with her grand uncle Tim.
Ann: Nice of him to look after her all summer.
Kim: And you know what? She’s joined the girl scouts.
Ann: That’s terrific. That’ll be a good experience for her.
Kim: Absolutely. And she’s getting involved in a girls’ softball team.
Ann: Oh? That must be hard for her since she’s so new at the sport.
Kim: They’re giving her some weightage in each match because of that.
Ann: That’s considerate of them.
Kim: I’m glad we got here early enough to enjoy a leisurely lunch.
Ann: So am I. This way we won’t have to rush to catch that reading of Under Milkwood.
Kim: I’m so glad the theatrette is just a block away. Okay, let’s order.

One way that I know I’m getting older is that I notice more and more how many words or expressions I hear quite often that I probably wouldn’t have heard and definitely wouldn’t have used the way they’re used today when I was younger. In one way, it’s nice to witness how my language keeps evolving, to see how it can generate new vocabulary so handily. In another way, it can be somewhat disconcerting or even disorienting to hear familiar words used unfamiliarly in everyday conversation. After all, it is my language, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I feel comfortable with what’s being said?

Keeping up with new words and expressions can be a daunting task for ESOL teachers, but I suppose it can be a fun activity, too. Here are the items that I know I wouldn’t have heard or used in this way just ten or fifteen years ago: edamame, whatever, server, plain water, grand uncle, girl guides, absolutely, weightage, and theatrette.

Interesting, eh? “Eda-what?” Edamame! It’s the Japanese word for soy beans. They’re served in the pod in a bowl along with drinks.

Did you use the adjective iconic years ago the way Kim used it in the conversation? I didn’t. I understood what it meant the first time I heard it, and that’s one of the wonderful things about language. It can generate words we’ve never heard before or used in ways we’ve never heard, and yet we can understand them. Amazing! But what’s even more amazing is how the noun icon has been turned around from the days when I used it many years ago. Here are the definitions given by the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online. Note especially the order that the definitions are given:

icon [countable]
1. a small sign or picture on a computer screen that is used to start a particular operation:
To open a new file, click on the icon.
2. someone famous who is admired by many people and is thought to represent an important idea:
a 60s cultural icon
3. also ikon: a picture or figure of a holy person that is used in worship in the Greek or Russian Orthodox Church
iconic adjective

Isn’t that fascinating? For me, no. 3 would have been the first meaning, but now it’s been relegated to the last meaning on the list of definitions. Wow! And the adjective would only have referred to a painting or mosaic found in a religious setting like a church. How word usage has changed!

And what about that rejoinder Whatever? Was that usage part of your vocabulary ten or fifteen years ago? It wasn’t part of mine. I understand, of course, that it means I really don’t care too much about what we’ve been discussing or debating or what you’ve just said. It’s a kind of curt way to end that discussion.

As for server, I still have a problem with that one. I have no problem saying “Waiter!” or “Waitress!” or calling the waitress “Miss!” but saying “Server”? Nope, I just can’t get into that.

The first time I heard somebody ask for plain water, I almost laughed out loud. What on earth is that? I had to ask of course, and found out it means the customer doesn’t want bottled water or mineral water. I would have said tap water, but I guess that doesn’t sound nice enough, so now it’s plain water.

Grand uncle. Now that was a new one on me. It means the same thing as great uncle, in other words, the brother of one of your grandparents. And, of course, there’s also grand aunt besides great aunt. I’m sure these two terms have been around for a very long time, but until recently I’d never heard them. I guess the reasoning for saying grand uncle and grand aunt is that if you have a grandparent, you should also have a grand uncle and a grand aunt. We don’t say *greatparent, so why should we say great uncle/aunt? Of course I can see the logic in it.

Was I surprised to learn about grand uncle and grand aunt? Absolutely! Oops! There’s another word used in a relatively new way. Isn’t it amazing how often people use this adverb as a rejoinder nowadays? I try to use it sparingly, because I’ve noticed that one person can use it an outrageous number of times during just one short conversation, which starts to get on my nerves. It seems like every other word out of the person’s mouth is “Absolutely!” That can get absolutely irritating!

Another term that makes me exclaim “Live and learn” is weightage. According to Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, Preview Edition, 2003-2008, weightage is defined as “a weighing factor assigned to compensate for a perceived disadvantage.” I suppose it’s starting to take the place of the term handicap, which was the term used in my day. I’m told that it’s still something heard more often in British English than North American English.

And last, but not least, we come to one of my favorites, theatrette, an offering from our cousins “down under” in Australia. We can easily figure out that it means, a relatively small theater, and I think it’s a great term. I first heard it not long ago while talking to a friend of mine from Perth. I’m not sure it’ll catch on throughout the English-speak
ing world, but I, for one, like it. And at least I didn’t have to squirm to figure out what my Australian friend was talking about when she used it! I can’t find this term in dictionaries yet, but I’m sure it’ll make its way into some in the near future.

So there you have it, a sampling of words and expressions that have either changed the way they’re used or have been created to fill a need that some speakers perceived was there. And the beat goes on! If this should teach us anything, it should be to react with interest and curiosity when we hear something new or something old that’s used in a new way. In the long run, that’ll make us better, more “with it” language teachers.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Head Scratchers, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

Awhile back I wrote a piece with the same title as this piece, “Head Scratchers.” I had lots of fun with it, and I must say I enjoyed sharing my amazement with you over the things that people say or write without anybody questioning the logic of what they’ve come up with. I said in that piece that I’d have more little gems to comment on, and the time has come. So let’s get started.

First off, there’s the case of one of my all-time favorite redundancies: Church of Christ. Now really, can there be any other kind of church besides one that deals with Jesus Christ? Or there’s a Spanish version I’ve recently come across: Iglesia Cristiana, “Christian Church.” This is just silly. Jews have temples or synagogues; Muslims have mosques; Hindus and Buddhists have temples ― and Christians have churches. We know who churches are for.

Besides silly things people say or write, there are things in our grammar that make me scratch my head just as much as the kinds of things I talked about in my first piece on this topic. Take, for example, a newspaper headline like “Ice Cream Chain Co-Founder Dies.” (This was a story about Irvine Robbins, one of the co-founders of Baskin & Robbins, Inc.) Yes, I know it’s common to use the simple present in such headlines, but have you ever stopped to consider how silly that is, how funny that sounds, and how this use of the simple present can confuse ELL’s? Here’s a verb form that signifies something done repeatedly or habitually, and it’s being applied to something like dying? Where’s the logic in that? I mean, if you’ve died, you’ve died. You’re not going to do that all the time! If you want to say Ice cream chain co-founder shaves, that’s okay. Ice cream co-founder smokes, that’s okay (grammatically speaking, anyway). But Ice cream co-founder dies? Doesn’t that bother you? There are points of English grammar that do bother me!

And just for the heck of it, how is it that highly is an adverb, but lowly is an adjective? (Just thought I’d throw that in.)

Continuing with more grammatical oddities, let’s talk about teeth whitening. I’m beginning to come across this outrageous creation of advertising more and more. TEETH whitening? Not TOOTH whitening? To begin with, the grammar rule is that when you’re compounding nouns ― which is what’s happening here ― the first element, the descriptive element, is almost always in the singular. That’s why we don’t say *bedsroom or *starslight. The exceptions are when that first element is normally used in the plural, like in the arms race. Why on earth would they think that teeth whitening would be acceptable? Do we say TEETHbrush or TEETH decay? And how about fingers or feet? Have you ever heard anybody say FINGERSprints or FEETprints? Exactly! I rest my case.

Finally, before we all run for some aspirin or blood pressure medicine, there’s the matter of unnecessary mispronunciations. Shouldn’t educated people at least approximate the way a name is pronounced? Not too long ago, the famous fashion designer Yves St. Laurent passed away. That’s pronounced “Eev San Laurón” for those in the know, not like my local news anchor who pronounced it, “Eev Saint Law-rent.” Ugh! And I recently heard the actor Ben Stiller do a public service announcement to help the victims of that horrible cyclone that hit Burma, also known as Myanmar, or, as Mr. Stiller so sophisticatedly pronounced it, “MY-an-mar,” as if the first syllable should rhyme with tie. I must have heard a hundred news stories about that country after the cyclone hit, and in every one of those stories, the reporters pronounced the name more or less correctly, “Myanmar.” But not our Mr. Stiller. I guess he never listens to the news. And along the same lines, another one of my local news anchors called the General Secretary of the United Nations “Ban Kigh Moon” (“Kigh” also rhyming with tie) instead of the right way, “Ban Kee Moon.” That gentleman is the Secretary General of the United Nations, for Pete’s sake!

Am I amazed at these mispronunciations? Yes! I would think that educated or professional people would know better. They don’t have to get the pronunciations exactly native-like, but they surely can come close if they just put a little effort in checking out the pronunciations when in doubt. The problem is, they don’t seem to care.

But that’s not what really gets me. What absolutely flabbergasts me is that those people aren’t working in a vacuum. They’re involved with script writers, producers, directors, videographers, et al., and yet nobody but nobody seems to notice their off-the-wall mispronunciations and think it important enough to save the day by giving them a tip on the right way to pronounce the name. That’s what flabbergasts me. I just don’t understand it.

Here’s one for you that you may not know. There’s a very ancient fish swimming around out there in the ocean that scientists thought had gone extinct about the same time as the dinosaurs. It’s the coelecanth. That’s right, you haven’t read it wrong; the coelacanth. Now don’t you think it would be a good idea to check out how on earth that name is pronounced? I certainly do. Well, it so happens that the name of that ancient fish ― which isn’t extinct after all ― is pronounced “SEE – luh – canth.” So, besides being one of the ugliest fish you can imagine, it’s also got a name whose spelling doesn’t give you much of a clue about its pronunciation. Of course that didn’t stop yet another TV newsperson from calling it ― yes, I’m sure you can guess ― the “koh – ELL – luh – canth.” You can imagine how fast I fired off an email to him! At least he had the courtesy to thank me for the correction.

Of course the example of the coelacanth is kind of understandable. It just boils down to laziness or not having enough curiosity to check the pronunciation out. As far as all the other gems I’ve cited in these two pieces like “Recorded before a live audience” or teeth whitening, I keep trying to come up with scenarios that will explain how such blunders are made, but I can’t. I simply can’t. If any of you can explain this to me, I’ll be very grateful. I’d like to stop scratching my head before my hair starts falling out.

I don’t think I’m being picky in these instances. Some things are acceptable, but some things just aren’t. And yet there they are, for all to hear and read and use. And we don’t have any Academy to rule on such usages, do we, or to tell us what is or isn’t silly. Nope, we don’t. With English, it all seems to be very “democratic,” so to speak. If enough people say it’s okay and use it, or simply don’t react negatively to it whatever it is, it becomes “acceptable.” That certainly doesn’t make our jobs as English teachers any easier, but what can you do? So even though I lowly recommend it, we may find ourselves having to teach our students these odd alternatives to what we traditionally cons
idered “correct logic,” “correct English” or “correct pronunciation.” And, by the way, this piece has been pre-written.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

If You Say it Right, You Hear it Right, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I’ve been asked to mention some more of the sounds that I think make the biggest difference in our students producing more native-like pronunciation (“If You Say it Right, You Hear it Right”), and I don’t have to think very hard to come up with the ones I think most important. Actually, I was very glad to be asked, and I’m happy to accommodate. If you focus your teaching on these sounds, I’m sure you’ll see a marked improvement in your students’ ability to understand the spoken language because, as I keep saying, if you say it right, you hear it right.

Let’s start off with the North American flapped d [D], but I should add a disclaimer here. I can’t escape the fact that I’m North American and that I teach American English, so this is a sound that’s found in North American pronunciation. If you happen to teach another variety of English, please understand this.

The flapped d is the sound of /t/ when it’s in medial position in an unstressed syllable. The funny thing is, many ELL’s tend to think they hear a trilled r when they’re not familiar with this sound in North American English. It’s produced by quickly flapping the tip of the tongue up against the hard palette (the front of the roof of the mouth). For example, when I say butter, it sounds like [bә-Dәr], not [bә-tәr]. (Unfortunately I can’t find the correct IPA symbol for the stressed schwa, which looks like a triangle without the bottom line, so I’ll have to settle for the schwa. Sorry about that.) Other words that contain the flapped d are party [par-Di], atom [æ-Dәm], and cattle [kæ-Dәl].

A sound in all varieties of English that I think is very important to accomplish better listening comprehension is the schwa /ә/. Many teachers don’t realize that it’s the most common vowel sound in the English language. In fact, when many vowel sounds are unstressed, they reduce to schwa. Here are some examples: America [ә-me-rә-kә], banana [bә-næ-nә], and giraffe [jә-ræf]. Get your students to reduce unstressed vowel sounds properly to schwa, and you’ll be helping them a lot towards better recognition of the words they hear and therefore towards better listening skills.

Moving right along, one that comes up more often than you might expect is the pronunciation of the final –ate in nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Take the word alternate. As a noun or adjective, that final –ate is pronounced [әt] or even [It], but when it’s a verb, the pronunciation changes to [et]. The same is true with words like associate and intimate. When used as nouns or adjectives, the final syllable is pronounced [әt] or [It], but when they’re used as verbs, the final syllable is pronounced [et]. Such a change in sound can really throw students who aren’t aware of this phenomenon.

And speaking of language phenomena, another gem that really improves students’ listening skills is when they’re made aware of the phenomenon we call juncture, which I discussed at length in my last blog entry (“A Cheap Present of Reef Fish for Ronny”). So make it a point to teach your students about juncture, and their listening skills should definitely improve.

That’s it, folks. Between this piece and Part 1, I’ve now covered the sounds that I think go a long way to giving our students better listening skills. I strongly believe that if you say it right, you’ll hear it right. Am I right? I’d love for you to share your thoughts on this topic and any anecdotes you might have from your own teaching experiences, so feel free to write in.