Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Sowing the Seeds of Grammar

David-BarkerBy David Barker
Author and Publisher of Materials for Japanese Learners of English

Back to Basics Blog for Teachers

People often ask me how long it took me to learn Japanese, and I normally tell them that it took me about six months. When they look surprised, I add, “But it took me about two years to learn how to learn it.” This is not a joke; this is exactly how I feel about the stages I went through when I began learning the language. Of course, I didn’t really learn it in six months, but I did go from not being able to say anything to being able to survive daily life in Japan within that time frame.

The two years prior to that six-month period were not completely unproductive, but they did involve a great deal of frustration and time-wasting because I failed to grasp a number of key concepts about the learning process. The particular misunderstanding I want to focus on today is the idea I had that learning a language should be “linear.” In other words, I believed that I would study a particular item, understand it, master it, and then move onto the next thing. As anyone who has learned a foreign language will know, that is simply not how it works.

One experience that still sticks in my mind is the time when I was taught the expression shika nai, which means “only.” The problem was that I had already learned another word (dake) that also apparently meant “only,” and I couldn’t understand the difference. To be more exact, I couldn’t really understand why there had to be a difference. “English seems to manage okay with just one way of saying ‘only,’” I thought, “so why does Japanese need two?” In the end, I decided to give up trying to work it out and just use the simpler dake. Read more »

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Kneading your Way into the Passive Voice

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Don’t you just love it when inspiration strikes in the middle of an activity and turns a so-so lesson into a great one? It doesn’t happen that often to me, actually. My “great” lessons are almost always the result of careful planning and hours spent cutting out little bits of paper, but once in a great while, it all comes together in a moment of glorious on-the-spot quick thinking.

My job at the British School of Brussels is to prepare and support my students for survival and success in their mainstream classes. I have had my eyes opened to the joys of content-based language learning, and, as a result, my lesson plans often veer away from pure grammar activities. For most of my students, the vocabulary they need for their chapter on Atoms and Elements in their Science classes supersedes their need to properly use the past perfect. However, I am always on the lookout for that perfect lesson that seamlessly blends grammar with content.

How to Make Bread

So, anyway, my “grammar and content unite” moment happened after several of my students had just begun their cooking classes. We’d done all the kitchen utensils and verbs associated with cooking to death, and I was trolling the internet for an idea that would allow me to revisit cooking in a new way. I came across a great video called How It’s Made: Bread. Now, the title alone might have got many of you thinking, “Aha! The passive!” Sadly, this did not happen to me. Not right away. After watching the video, I typed up several sentences that described the process step by step.

  • The ingredients are ground in a mill.
  • The ingredients are mixed together.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 4 of 6

Items in English that May Stick. Only Time will Tell.

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist 

There are lots of really quirky things going on in English these days, and I have a hunch that some of them will become standard parts of the language as time goes by simply because they’re so commonly heard and read. So when will we be teaching them? That’s an interesting question. I wonder what your take on this is.

At any rate, here are just a few examples I’ve noted over quite some time. And remember that all of these examples come from educated native speakers:

  • Change in Stative Verbs

Many stative verbs, which are traditionally used only in the simple forms of the tenses and aspects, are now being used in the progressive form more and more often, perhaps signaling a significant change in this area of grammar:

  • It’s close to the end of the game, so for sure they’re not wanting their opponents to get any more points.
  • We weren’t believing any of what he was claiming.
  • The kids are loving their new board game. Look how into it they are.
  • She’s having to look for a second job now to make ends meet.
  • What they’re needing is more money for a down payment.
  • I guess I just wasn’t understanding where you were going with that story.
  • Where did he go? I’m not seeing him. Read more »

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dictations Revisited

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Dictations as the Wide Collars of Language Teaching?

I was recently chatting with a colleague about the disappearance of certain “old-fashioned” activities from the language learning classroom. Often, we are so swept up in encouraging communication that we forgo lessons that promote competency. One of the babies that long ago seemed to get thrown out with the grammar translation bath water is doing dictations. For years and years, maybe even as long as I have been teaching, it has been considered very uncool to subject students to the painful task of writing something verbatim. After all, it’s not a real-life communicative task. We very rarely find ourselves writing stories exactly as someone tells them, do we? So, why make our students do it?

The Redeeming Qualities of Dictations

Well, as it turns out, there are some very good reasons to include dictations in our language teaching repertoire. They can offer effective practice for decoding the sounds of English. Dictations can “reinforce the correlation between the spelling system and the sound system of a language.” (Alkire, 2002) They can also help students identify grammatical and pronunciation features, as “dictation activities where students compare their version of the text to the original can increase their ability to notice aspects of the language which are sometimes overlooked, as well as mistakes which they commonly make.” (Lightfoot, 2005) Finally, for the overworked teacher, dictations can provide a quick, useful lesson that requires just a little preparation, a benefit which, in today’s hectic working world, cannot be underestimated. Clearly, there are many pedagogically sound reasons to include dictations into our lessons. Read more »

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Responding to Compliments: Do I Really Have to Say “Thank You” or Can I Just Spit Three Times?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

newjgea@aol.com

Advice about Compliments …  the Surprise of the Hour

“Well, at least they have a healthy pile of magazines I can shuffle through,” I consoled myself after hearing that it would be a bit longer before the doctor could see me.  Passing over the monthlies dealing with sports, cars, and teenage-hood, I settled on a magazine concerning lifestyles–and that’s where I found the surprise of the hour… an article entitled 10 Things Your Mother Never Taught You, which included a section on how to take a compliment.

“Really?” I thought, questioning the piece’s relevance to the average American audience.  To my at-least-somewhat-assimilated mind (which has lived in the US for about ten years now), most Americans seem to accept compliments almost automatically.

Responses to Compliments…  Spitting

As I began to read the section, I recalled having to adjust my reactions to compliments when I relocated to the US.  In Poland, where I was raised, people almost invariably downgrade or even reject compliments.  Reading on, I found mention of someone’s relatives who, in the face of a compliment, spat three times in order to avoid bad luck. Read more »

Thursday, December 13, 2012

English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 3 of 6

Silly and Illogical – but still Commonly Used – Bits and Pieces

Richard FirstenBy Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist

 In Part 2 we took a look at some things in English which, although considered ungrammatical by conservative language users, have nevertheless become commonly used features nowadays. At least they aren’t silly or illogical in a common-sense way of looking at things.

Now, however, let’s take a little time to check out some elements of English that really are silly or illogical if you step back and think about them objectively, even though they, too, have become standard features in the language. Here are examples of things that educated speakers say and write.

  • They say they’ll try and get here before sunset.
    I know you try and save some money every month for your kid’s college fund.

Try and is a very commonly used phrase that goes way, way back to who knows how long ago. But if you dissect it, you can see on different levels why it’s really very silly and illogical. In the two examples I’ve cited, they’ll try and get here and you try and save money, my question is, try WHAT? If it’s “getting here,” shouldn’t the speaker just say they’ll try to get here or they’ll try getting here? And in the other case, shouldn’t the speaker just say he or she knows that the other person tries to save or tries saving some money every month? In these versions I’ve suggested, we clearly see what those people will try: “to get here” and “to save some money.” But that try and get here and try and save money really throw me for a loop. It seems that they’re trying to accomplish two things, with the first of those things simply not mentioned.. For me it just doesn’t work, it’s illogical, it’s silly – but for many, many native speakers, it’s fine. Go figure.

To add to this silliness, can you use this phrase try and with he, she,or it? Read more »

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Error Correction and Fossilization

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series
betty@azargrammar.com

I recently received an email from a teacher concerned that exposing students to incorrect language usage in error correction exercises will lead to fossilization of the incorrect usage.  Below  is my response to him, which I thought might be of interest to others as well.

“Fossilization” means that usage errors have become embedded (i.e., habitual) in L2 learners’ language production.  It occurs when learners get no corrective feedback.  In some cases, L2 learners with fossilized language patterns are able to communicate successfully enough for their immediate purposes and thus have no immediate motivation to change.   Other times, L2s have no resources available to help them improve their English usage.

L2 learners who come to our classes, however, do not want to emerge with fossilized language.  That’s why they are in our classes, trusting us to move them forward during their interlanguage period as they reach toward a higher level of communicative competence. Read more »

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Windows, Rubber Bands, and Neurosculpting

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Recently I attended a professional development session offered by renowned educator and educational psychologist, Dr. Jo Ann Deak. Among many other interesting things, Dr. Deak spoke about the brain’s physiognomy and how it relates to language learning. It was a fascinating session; I learned some new things and found some of my long-held beliefs upheld by current research. (I just love it when both of these things come out of the same professional development session. Don’t you?)

Windows

According to Dr. Deak, everyone is born with about one hundred billion “short, skinny and naked” neurons in their brain. James Zull, in The Art of Changing the Brain, likens these neurons to a “leafless tree in an Ohio winter” because apparently that’s what they look like under a microscope. These neurons become robust at different times. This means that there are optimal time periods for certain kinds of brain development. For instance, the judgement centers of our brains aren’t fully formed until we are in our 40s. So, the window for the growth and expansion of the neurons in the part of our brains that controls the judgements we make is open until we are almost middle aged. Read more »

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 2

More Bits and Pieces Already Accepted in the Language

Richard Firsten

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

  • The following have already made a niche for themselves in the language, and if you go by what descriptivists say, they’re considered acceptable in informal language:

There’s been endless books written about the Titanic.
Where’s the bargains in this flea market?
Here’s the files you asked for.
There was lots of lights we could see coming out of the woods.
There’s been some problems with starting the business.

The problem is that now it seems just about everybody uses these five in every kind of situation, informal or formal. In fact, at this rate, I won’t be surprised if there are, there were, there have been; where are; and here are just about disappear altogether from usage.  

  • We told him to never do that again.
    I’ve told them to always use the back door for deliveries.
    People getting divorced always have motives to not like their spouses.

The traditional rule for the three sentences above, based in large degree on the dictates of Bishop Robert Lowth in 18th century England, has been that you should never split an infinitive, and this rule was upheld for the most part in educated speech a generation ago. You were only supposed to say . . . Read more »

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Feel the (English) Burn

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels
jonestamara@hotmail.com

Boot Camp

I am not particularly athletic, but in order to counter my Belgian chocolate and french fry addictions, I have found that I need to exercise a whole lot. So, I recently signed up for a ‘boot camp’ type of class with several other expat women here in Brussels. On the first day, the instructor, a mild looking guy named Dan, had us doing hundreds (oh, I wish I were exaggerating) of lunges and these jumping jack/squat combinations that left my legs trembling. It was brutal. The next day and for days afterwards, my legs were so sore that climbing the stairs had me making little gasping noises and getting off the sofa involved my husband’s help.

So, as you might imagine, when I woke up on the morning of the second of these torture sessions, I was filled with more than a little dread. This time Dan had us alternating sprints up and down a long, cruel hill with planks and other contortions designed to do something called ‘engage the core’. About 2/3 of the way into the lesson, when Dan shouted that we needed to race up and down this hill yet again, I wanted to cry. I felt like I couldn’t face that hill again. As I lined up with the other ladies, I felt tired and sore and a bit sick. When Dan shouted, “Go!” I just wanted to go home. But, I ran. We all did. And, when we got to the bottom of the hill and Dan cheerfully told us that we would have a moment to rest and then run it again, I rested and ran again.

How does Dan do it?

As I was laboring up the hill, I couldn’t help but wonder at the fact that this young, kind, friendly guy was getting a bunch of women to run up and down a hill as fast as we could again and again. It was painful and awful, but we were doing it. How? How was he managing to motivate us to do this? Well, obviously there was a huge amount of self-motivation at play. We paid for the class and we were all there to counteract our own personal Belgian chocolate and french fry addictions. But, there was more than that. Dan did a couple of essential things to get us running and doing all those difficult core exercises that I think all good teachers do to motivate their students. Read more »