Archive for Tag: grammar

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Students in the Land of Grammar: The Use of Discovery Techniques

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

newjgea@aol.com

“No, no, definitely no comma here,” insisted my student Tania, who immediately followed her confident statement with an enthusiastic, “We do need that information to know which tourists we’re talking about!” Her group mates nodded in wholehearted agreement. “Yes, Yes! It’s not extra information. It’s necessary information,” added Claudia, who, out of sheer excitement, almost sprang out of her chair.

Who would have thought that working on rules governing the punctuation of defining and non-defining relative clauses could generate such excitement in nineteen-year-olds? All right so we’re not talking El Dorado, but such rules can be quite valuable discoveries to most students.

For me, allowing students to become “grammar explorers” brings several benefits:

1. Because of their “mystery-solving” quality, discovery-based activities can capture and hold students’ attention as effectively as most interactive presentations can, and they demonstrate to students that working with grammar does not have to be dull;

2. Because of students’ personal involvement in exploratory tasks, discovery techniques help them remember rules more easily;

3. Because of their analytical character,these techniques actually show students ways to approach other, unfamiliar grammatical structures;

4. And, perhaps most importantly, because of the independent work requirements integral to discovery tasks, these activities prove to students that they can recognize a rule by themselves, and that they can be active “explorers” of the language even outside the classroom.

I recently came across a very informative article by Pavel V. Sosoyev entitled Integrative L2 Grammar Teaching: Exploration, Explanation and Expression in which he not only discusses the benefits of discovery techniques, but also shares a sample lesson as well as a questionnaire which he created to explore his students’ views on inductive learning.

And here are four of my own discovery-based lessons:

It seems to me that discovery techniques have various merits, but they are rather time-consuming and I ordinarily manage to use them only intermittently in a course.

Which grammar structures or concepts do you think might be taught naturally by way of discovery techniques? Do you use exploratory techniques in your classroom? If so, have you found them to be effective usually?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Why I Teach the Parts of Speech

By Dorothy Zemach
ESL Materials Writer, Editor, Teacher Trainer
Eugene, Oregon
Email: zemach at comcast dot net

Actually, I wanted to write about phrases and clauses and about teaching them as adjectives and adverbs. However, that reminded me how many teachers I’ve run into over the years who disagree that the names of parts of speech should be taught to students. I argued with a publisher over this for at least three years, actually, before being “allowed” to teach the parts of speech in a textbook for lower-level students. So let me take a brief diversion to defend this position.

The arguments against teaching the names of the parts of speech are mainly that the terms are too difficult for students to learn, and further, that they aren’t helpful. I disagree with both of these arguments.

Minimally, I think students should know noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, and article. With advanced students I might add in determiner. OK, that’s seven words. Is that too high a vocabulary load, especially when most of those concepts exist in the learner’s native language? I think if they can learn seven objects in the classroom, or seven modes of transportation, or seven irregular verbs, then seven parts of speech isn’t going to short out the brain.

A larger issue is whether they’re helpful. This depends, of course, on whether the teacher uses the labels. I use them all the time. I use them to talk about

  • different word forms (accept is a verb, acceptance is the noun form of that verb);
  • the placement of different parts of speech (Your sentence “Is late again,” is missing a noun or a pronoun as the subject); and
  • the functions of subordinate clauses and prepositional phrases and so on.

And now I’m back to where I wanted to be . . .

It seems to me that one of the challenges of forming correct and elegant sentences in English is in knowing where to put the different elements. Where does the subject go? Where does the verb go? How about the direct object? And those are the easier things to teach.

Where my more advanced students trip up is in knowing where to put longer elements, such as

  • in the morning,
  • running for the bus,
  • while on his way to the bakery, or
  • on the corner.

The problem is that students don’t know what these elements are—that is, how they function. Therefore, they can’t place them correctly in a sentence.

Pretty much, they’re adjectives and adverbs—more correctly called adjectivals and adverbials, but I use adjective phrase and adverb phrase with my students at first, and then just adjective and adverb, once we’re all on the same page.

Suppose we have a simple sentence:

  • He fell.

Even lower-level students have probably seen the structure subject + verb + adverb, and might be able to write a sentence such as

  • He fell slowly.

However, the most common adverbs are actually NOT the one-word ones that end with ~ly, even though those are the easiest ones to identify. An adverb tells us where, when, why, or how. If students know that phrases can be used to talk about when, where, why, or how, then they can write

  • He fell to the ground.
  • He fell when he tripped.
  • He fell as soon as he tried to stand up.
  • He fell with a strange choking sound.

The trick is in knowing that to the ground (where?) functions as an adverb, as do when he tripped (when?) and as soon as he tried to stand up (both when? and why?) and with a strange choking sound (how?). English allows (and even encourages!) one to combine adverb phrases and clauses, as in

  • He fell to the ground with a strange choking sound as soon as he tried to stand up.

Getting this concept down is huge. It doesn’t bother me terribly much if a student writes

  • *He fell at the ground.

Or

  • *He fell as soon as tried to stand up.

Those sentences contain errors, of course, but the basic pattern of subject + verb + adverb is still there.

Adverbs are movable elements, more so than most others. But students need to know that adverb clauses and phrases move as units, and where they move to—for instance, to the beginning of a sentence:

  • As soon as he tried to stand up, he fell.

To take another example: A student who is writing short, careful, simple sentences and wishes to expand them might wish to add some adjectives. Students are usually taught simple one-word adjectives (that answer the question What kind of? or Which?) that come before a noun.

  • She went to the bakery.
  • She went to the new bakery.

But how much more interesting if we can describe the
bakery with some prepositional phrases; note that these come after the noun:

  • She went to the bakery on the corner.
  • She went to the bakery with the jumbo strawberry creampuffs.

Again, an error in choosing the correct preposition doesn’t bother me if the student is able to modify the noun with a phrase.

This is the way I like to address syntax, especially in reading and writing, with at least intermediate and advanced students—and some beginners as well. And that is why my very lowest level students learn the names of the parts of speech—so that we can talk about what the parts of speech are and how they function.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It Just Sounds Right

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com

“This is so hard.”

I am sure all L2 instructors are familiar with the frustration students feel when studying another language. I feel particular sympathy for ESL and EFL students (and their teachers) because English grammar is especially aggravating. English grammar is often illogical and native speaker use of it is fickle.

It must be so annoying for students to spend hours mastering a new grammar skill only to hear a native speaker using it incorrectly. For years, I diligently taught students that we did not use “love” in the progressive. Inevitably, the next day a student would point out that he or she heard “I’m loving it” on a Burger King commercial. Thank goodness many grammar books have since caught up with that one (I hated looking like a liar), but there are thousands of examples of grammatical choices that native speakers make that violate the “rules” in our texts.

Although the line that English as a “living” language that is always changing is comfortable for teachers to give, it doesn’t ease the burden our students carry. The bottom line is that English grammar is hard, and it just keeps getting harder as students learn more.

It just sounds right.

As a teacher, I often feel a bit helpless when I am faced with a student’s crinkled forehead and bewildered question, “But, why?” Even to my ears, the answer, “it just sounds right,” sounds like a bit of a cop out. However, often, we just say things in a certain way just because it sounds better. A word just collocates better with one word than another, although there is no real “rule” for students to learn. One verb tense is just a little more appropriate than another, although both are technically correct.

A (wonderful, inspirational) teacher I worked with in the US begins each semester with a lecture about how English grammar isn’t like math. Students can’t necessarily memorize grammatical “formulas” and expect them to work even most of the time. This is true, but don’t you wish it weren’t so?

Transition from learner to fine-tuner

When I reflect on my own experience as an English teacher, I find that students in the High Intermediate level tend to struggle with this frustration more than any others. Recently, one of my students from Poland admitted that she was finding the High Intermediate class frustrating because she felt as though she wasn’t learning anything. I have been her teacher for several semesters, so I knew that she wasn’t criticizing me. I understood that she just missed that learner’s rush that comes with “getting” a new grammatical concept.

Beginners and Low Intermediate students are usually happily caught up in a frenzy of learning new things; however, in my experience, the High Intermediate level is all about a move toward fine-tuning. This transition can be very wearisome for students, as it is time-consuming and lacks those “light bulb” moments. It seems, too, that High Intermediate is a hurdle some never get over; they have good enough English to be understood and that is enough for many of our students.

Familiarity breeds a good TOEFL score?

It seems to me that the students who do succeed and move on to an Advanced level tend to be the ones that can get beyond an obsession with memorizing grammar rules. They tend to have a more well-rounded approach to language learning that includes reading and listening to authentic input. They are the ones that have become so comfortable with English that they just know which words go best together and which tense to choose.

I used to teach a TOEFL Prep class in the US, and I help prepare students for the Cambridge Proficiency Exam here in Belgium. At that level, students need to have internalized most of the grammar “rules” (although explicit instruction and more fine-tuning is always helpful) and they should be choosing correct answers more by instinct. Unfortunately, it’s something I have not figured out how to “teach” in a few months of class, but for the students who get to that point, English grammar doesn’t seem so hard, after all.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tenses: They Work Well in Groups

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

newjgea@aol.com

When I heard that by the end of the EFL class in which I was enrolled I would have learned sixteen tenses, I had ambivalent feelings. The number sounded discouragingly huge, but comfortingly specific. At the time I imagined that the challenge of mastering them all would lie in remembering their various forms and meanings. A few tenses later, I realized that the difficulty lay rather in deciding which tense to use on a given occasion.

Timelines and lists of time adverbials commonly used with specific tenses definitely cleared up some of my confusion. Still, differentiating between the two Present Perfect tenses, for example, was a Herculean task. Can I blame my puzzlement on, as Ralph Walker points out, “the nature of these two tenses, which are neither wholly present nor wholly past, but paradoxically both present and past”? (http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2sql/content_storage_01/0000019b/80/33/e5/f1.pdf )

Do your students struggle to understand the use of Present Perfect tenses as well? What truly helped me sort out my “tense confusion” were activities which combined the use of various tenses.

Going Beyond Tense Pairs

Teachers often use activities which contrast two related tenses, but it seems that tasks requiring students to use three, four, or even five tenses can do the trick more effectively. Students not only practice the forms and demonstrate an understanding of the meaning of each tense, but, by having to switch tenses, they learn when each is appropriately used.

Five Tenses: Sample Activity

One of my favorite “tense-decision” exercises is based on an information gap activity created by Nick Hall and John Shepheard more than fifteen years ago. In this activity, called “Ups and Downs,” students work with four tenses. In my slightly modified version of the task, students practice five tenses: Present Perfect, Present Perfect Continuous, Present Continuous, Simple Past, and Future Perfect.

Students work in pairs and are given two versions of a line graph presenting one trend, such as a trend in DVD sales, inflation rates, road accidents, crime rate, or online shopping, but each version is missing some information. (Here is an example: tenses.chart.pdf) The students’ task is to complete both versions of the graph so that each is identical to the other and so that it is clear what trend the chart represents. While working on the task, students need to decide which tense they should use when asking their partner questions about the missing information. Here are a few sample questions and answers.

Q: What happened to the crime rate between 2007 and 2008?
A: It rose dramatically.
Q: What has happened to it since 2008?
A: It has changed since 2008. It has been falling steadily.
Q: What is happening this year?
A: It is continuing to fall.
Q. What will have happened to it by 2010?
A. They predict it will have decreased slightly by 2010.

Do you think we could include more tenses in this exercise? Do you know of other activities which combine more than, let’s say, three tenses?


Monday, May 4, 2009

Teaching Grammar with Songs

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

What better way to liven up a grammar class than with a little music?

Instructors new to the idea of using songs as a teaching tool may be reluctant, as I once was, because they worry that some of their older, more “serious” students (usually found in an IEP or college program) will perceive songs as trivial, a waste of time and money. But we can successfully use songs with these adult students as long as we have specific lesson objectives and convey that songs are simply another source of authentic language input.

There may also be evidence, which will delight even the dour rocket scientist in your class, that language learned in songs is more readily retained and memorable. (Think about how we sing our ABC’s.) Finally, I’ve found a great way to ease into songs with my adult students is to inform the students that the song is a grammar lesson disguised as a break. (“You’ve been working really hard this week, so listen, enjoy…..and learn.”)

While there are many ways to use songs in language learning in general, many grammar instructors use song lyrics as sources of authentic language models of specific grammar points. Searching for lyrics that utilize the structure being taught is a time-consuming process, but luckily there are already some linked grammar/song sources available.

There are seven different songs lessons for low level grammar structures, nine intermediate lessons, and ten more advanced structure lessons right here on the Azar Grammar site in the collection of classroom materials. These lessons involve completing cloze exercises, sequencing, completing charts, analyzing and discussing grammar usage alternatives and meaning, listening for specific words and structures, using lyrics as a model for spoken and written production, and other activities.

Lyrics can be found at any one of many sites, like SongLyrics.com, but be sure to check the lyrics with the version of the song you are using because of slight variations in live vs. studio recordings and errors in lyrics transcribing. I frequently use YouTube as a free source of many songs, and the video is sometimes a stimulating source of discussion as well.

As you listen to the radio or when you pop in a cd at home, listen to songs with an ear for grammar and you’ll likely stumble across a song that you can use for a future lesson — just don’t forget to jot it down! If you are “always” searching, you’ll save a lot of time, as opposed to pouring over song lyrics searching for a specific structure the day before you plan on teaching it! The songs on this website provide an excellent jump start to your own collection as well as offering some activity ideas that can be reused on any song you come across. Have fun!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

More on Oral Correction

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

At a Sunshine State TESOL conference a year or two ago, I attended a session given by a professor from the University of Central Florida about methods of correcting of oral grammar. The paper presented was the result of a survey given to 80 community college students in Florida. They were asked which type of correction they preferred to receive from an instructor.

While I can’t remember the sample sentence used in the survey, the correction choices given to the students were as follows:

Student says “I go to the store yesterday.”

The choices:
  1. Rising intonation question (You go to the store yesterday?)
  2. Recast (I WENT to the store yesterday.)
  3. Explicit (Don’t say “go” for the past- say “went”)
  4. Metalanguage (Are you talking about the past or present? What has to change in your sentence if you are talking about the past? And, so, what is the past tense of the verb you want?)
The preferred correction method by a wide margin was method 4: metalanguage explanation. It seems that walking the student from the error through the correct answer is seen by students as being the most effective and the most “enjoyable,” if correction can be enjoyable.

We might jump to the conclusion that the preferred method was culturally related; however, the study included students from all different cultures, both low and high context. That got me thinking that maybe the preference bias had to do with educational level and goals. Maybe the fact that all the students were in community college meant they had developed a sense of what worked for them, or maybe being in community college meant they were getting strong and direct grammar instruction so the metalanguage was comprehensible and meaningful.

Personally, I use all four methods in my classes depending on the situation. Although I would never say “DON’T DO THAT — DO THIS,” but rather “Try this instead.” The metalanguage method logically seems that it would have the most permanent effect on learning, since students would know the “why” behind constructs and thus be able to correct themselves better in the future. It’s kind of like the Band-aid or surgery metaphor: going through a Socratic metalanguage approach addresses the root of the problem while an explicit correction or a recast merely puts a band-aid on the problem which will likely “erupt” again at another time.

The only problem I have with the metalanguage correction method is that it tends to single out a single erring student for what could be a long and tortuous questioning. I have gotten into downward spirals where I ask the student a leading question and he can’t answer. So I ask a more basic question, which it turns out he can’t answer either. Then I try a question from a different approach. By this time, the student just wants the ground to open up and swallow him, so I have probably now opened up the question to the entire class, trying to make it a class lesson instead of the single person focus it started out as. Still, that’s a pretty arduous process to be repeated X number of times in a 53-minute class!
My blogger colleague, Tamara Jones, recently related this experience:

“For the first several weeks of my French class, I repeatedly said “dans les Etats-Unis” when I referred to my life in the USA. My teacher patiently recasted and recasted and recasted: “aux Etats-Unis.” It was almost like a running joke in the class, but for some reason, I just could not get it right … until one glorious day when I just remembered. The entire class applauded, and since that day, I have said it correctly. Although researchers have often doubted the effectiveness of recasts, I am living proof that our patience is not in vain.

I pose this for consideration:

What if one day, like a random quantum misfire, Tamara correctly said “aux”? This resulted in thunderous applause, in other words, positive reinforcement, which led to correct use of “aux” from that point forward? What if her new behavior wasn’t a result of the recast after all? Let’s face it — just because it’s “common sense” that correction will result in modified behavior . . . well, we’ve been wrong before! For a look at that very possibility, read What’s Wrong With Oral Correction.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Final -S Problem: Does Teaching Grammar Help? Students Still Make Mistakes

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I’d like to explain what I call “The Final -S Problem.” For a lot of teachers, it goes like this: “I teach my students when to use a final -s, and they can do it fine in a controlled exercise, but then when they talk or write freely, they go and make final -s errors!” Whereupon the teacher throws up his or her hands in despair and determines that teaching grammar does no good because there is no immediate transfer to internalized language.

It seems to me that those who would expect immediate mastery of grammar patterns perhaps confuse teaching language with teaching arithmetic — though, even in arithmetic, students get to make repeated mistakes without all arithmetic teaching judged to be ineffectual.

What gets missed in this equation is that grammar teaching provides a foundation for processing, for conceptual understandings of how a language works, and for developing skills — sort of the way music lessons provide a foundation for learning to play the piano. Learning a second language is far more similar to learning to play a musical instrument than it is to learning arithmetic.

In learning to play the piano, certain students — especially adults who are literate and educated — find cognitive understandings of concepts such as musical key and notation helpful to the process, despite the fact that no amount of cognitive awareness is going to make anyone able to play the piano immediately upon being given abstract information about it. Can you learn to play the piano without cognitive knowledge of musical form? Yes. But is such awareness helpful for many adult students, and does it speed the process for them? Yes, indeed.

“The Final -S Problem” is a metaphor representing the idea that students learn grammar rules and practice them, but then make mistakes using these rules in their output.

Here are the questions I ask myself about “The Final -S Problem,” and my answers.

Q: Is it harmful for students to know when a final -s is supposed to be used?
A: That seems highly doubtful.

Q: Do students want to use final -s correctly? Do they care?
A: In my experience, yes.

Q: Is grammar information about the use of final -s helpful to students?
A: Yes. On a practical level, it helps students self-monitor, understand marked errors in their writing, catch a recast (students with a grounding in grammar often show that they “get” a recast with a look that says, “Ah, right.”), use a writing handbook, and make sense of dictionary notations such as mosquito, n., pl. –toes, –tos. More importantly, attention to final -s raises students’ awareness, making them more likely to notice it in what they hear and read.

Q: Are grammar concepts such as singular and plural useful?
A: From my observations both as a language teacher and a language student, yes. If I were to undertake learning Urdu, I know that I would like to understand how singular and plural are marked. And I also know that I’d like to be able to find that explicit information without having to figure it out completely by myself.

Q: Does information about using final -s help students reach fluency and accuracy in its usage?
A: In my experience, ESL students in my freshman English class who had spent four years at an American high school with no grammar component and with fossilized ungrammaticality underperformed (in accuracy within fluency, as well as rhetorical skill in writing and ability to comprehend academic English in readings) compared with students who had had a grammar component in their home countries (as well as in our IEP prior to their enrolling in freshman English). So, in my observation, the answer to the question is yes.

Q: Are there longitudinal studies showing that students who have grammar instruction in the use of final -s develop better usage than those who do not?
A: I think longitudinal studies are very much needed in the area of eventual (not immediate) mastery of grammar structures, comparing ELLs with no grammar component in their long-term instructional program with those who do have a significant grammar component.

Q: Is practice helpful?
A: Practice in a classroom context can instill confidence, encourage risk-taking, give students opportunities for experimentation, and lead to successful communication experiences. (A grammar base can easily lead to communicative activities. A lot of meaningful communication goes on in a grammar-based class.) But does practice guarantee mastery? No. (If it did, I wouldn’t still be hitting F-natural when I should be hitting F-sharp on the piano.) Grammar teaching simply lays the groundwork and helps speed the process in adults and young adults. Anyone learning a second language as an adult (which is different in a number of obvious ways from a child learning a first language) needs lots of input and experience using the language. Grammar-based instruction provides just a little help along the way.

Monday, March 30, 2009

If Not Mastery, What?

By Maria Spelleri
Instructor, Department of Language and Literature
Manatee Community College, Florida, USA

I am often confounded by how much time to spend in class on a grammar point. My early training taught me to focus as much time as needed for students to get it–”get it” meaning being able to call up and meaningfully use the structure in free production. However, from further study, different books and papers I have read, and from lectures from instructors and researchers far more knowledgeable than I, it seems most experts in the field agree that students don’t “master” a grammar point at the time it is presented but rather in their own time.
Yet even if the students are able to use the structure fairly well in class by the third lesson, that doesn’t mean they use it error-free for the rest of their lives. We’ve all had advanced students write or speak lower level mistakes. Does this imply that if the majority of my students are able to form and use a grammar structure at the end of three lessons, that I shouldn’t waste my time spending four or five lessons on it? After all, we are on a fixed semester and have a curriculum to cover.

Clearly the structure won’t become automatic after three hours, nor is it likely to after five hours. If my goal can not be mastery (that is, repeated and automatic production of a grammar point without delay from obvious monitoring), what is my new goal? When is good enough. . . good enough?

I don’t buy the argument that learners will never be error-free. I’ve had non-native speaking professors who conducted classes for hours without a single spoken error and we know famous personalities who speak accented, yet grammatically perfect English. So I’m not talking about giving up my early dreams of student “mastery” because it is unattainable. It is, however, very impractical.

Life’s reality is that students don’t have unlimited time to reach the level of English they need for a goal--a job, college entry, grad school, whatever. As a result, instructors perform a kind of linguistic triage, deciding either at the classroom or the program level, what grammar to teach when. But surely we have to rely on more than a calendar to help us decide when it is time to move on to a new grammar point in the class, leaving behind one that may get a bit of recycling over the remainder of the semester.

Curriculum, assessment, objectives. Objectives, curriculum, assessment. It’s not as smooth as the teacher training books imply. There’s a lot of egg-chicken-egg going on. But since I have relinquished mastery as my goal, I remain stumped at how to define success. Is passing a test going to become the end goal of my course? Or perhaps increased awareness of grammar? Or maybe the ability to produce structures in class under guidance? How will I know if my students have been successful in my class?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

What to Teach?

By Tamara Jones

ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium
jonestamara@hotmail.com


What will Keep Pino Safe?

Okay, I admit I am way behind the curve on this. People have been talking about English as a lingua franca for ages. However, it was not until I started my current job as an English teacher at the SHAPE Language Center on a NATO base in Belgium that the importance of non-native speakers being able to communicate easily in English with each other really hit home. English is the “official” language within NATO, so many of my students use English to communicate with their co-workers from other countries. An interesting example is one of my delightful Italian students, Pino, who wants to perfect his already impressive command of English in order to communicate more precisely with translators when he serves in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever my personal opinion about the war might be, I do know that when Pino is “in theater,” as they say, I want him to be as safe as possible.

A Legitimacy of Variation

Somewhat belatedly, I came across an article written by Barbara Seidlhofer in which she argues, if my understanding is correct, that since more non-native speakers than native speakers use English, native speakers don’t “own” English anymore. As a result, there is a “legitimacy of variation” (Steidlhofer, 2004, page 214) in grammar and pronunciation forms. In other words, when Pino is communicating with his German counterpart and an Afghan translator, certain non-standard forms of English are usually not cause for confusion. This begs the question, how important is it really that the speakers always include the final -s on third person singular verbs?

Incidental Errors?

Seidlhofer (2006, page 226) lists several common grammatical “errors” that many English teachers would correct if we heard, but which actually don’t cause any misunderstandings in non-native speaker/non-native speaker conversations.

  • the third person present tense –s (It cost.)
  • the relative pronouns who and which (The man which I know …)
  • definite and indefinite articles (Please pass salt. I went to the Chicago.)
  • tag questions (It will be ready, no?)
  • redundant prepositions (We have to study about … )
  • overusing general verbs, such as do, make, have, put, take
  • infinitives (replacing infinitives with that, as in I want that …)
  • explicitness (black color)

This list reads like an inventory of all the lingering mistakes my students of all levels consistently make. However, if these mistakes don’t cause any misunderstanding in the majority of English interactions should teachers be focusing on teaching and correcting them? Shouldn’t we instead focus on intelligibility rather than accuracy? After all, I have never heard of a conversation screeching to a halt, except in an English class, because the final -s was left off a verb.

Safe and Accurate

For me, the answer is simple. Even though I want my students like Pino to be able to express their thoughts as intelligibly as possible, I cannot let go of the notion of “correct English”. Moreover, I have never had a students ask me not to correct these minor errors because they were more concerned with fluency than accuracy. Usually, in fact, it is quite the opposite. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t help feeling that, although intelligibility is important, grammatical accuracy is as well. Furthermore, the studies I have read on English as a lingua franca (although I am by no means an expert) have neglected to comment on the perceptions created by inaccurate use of English. The German NATO soldier might not have any trouble understanding Pino, but if his English is better than Pino’s, will he subconsciously form a negative opinion of my student? I would be interested in knowing what others think about this issue. Are you hyper-vigilant in your correction or do you tend not to sweat the little stuff? As English evolves, and non-native speakers increasingly influence the way it changes, do you think the wretched final –s will eventually disappear?

Seidlhofer, B. (2004) Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209-239

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.