Archive for Tag: vocabulary

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Collocations: Digging for Language Nuggets

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

newjgea@aol.com

As a teenaged language learner I did not see much point in spending most of my pocket money on a monolingual English dictionary.  “It’s all in English” I reasoned, questioning the usefulness of definitions written in the language of the headwords.  It seemed circular and otherworldly to me. 

Read more »

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Using Survey Reports to Boost Academic Vocabulary

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

newjgea@aol.com

It was an inconsequential bet.  However, as an act which naturally produced a kind of thrill, it was met with my students’ ardent approval.  I had gambled that I’d guess what phrase 90% of the class would use in their first sentence of a text summary assignment.  I had even conceded that it would not include the author’s name or the title of the text.

“As it turned out,” I won. The legendary and persistent “is about …” was used by everyone in that group except for one student, who, changing the tense, wrote “was about… .”

I often use this mini-game to introduce the concept of academic vocabulary in my writing classes, and I usually follow it up with the question: “Can you think of a brief but more precise expression which can substitute for that phrase?”  Typically, students come up with a healthy little list of expressions such as the text presents …, the article discusses…, the author argues that…, etc., which include key descriptive verbs.

So, what are the characteristic features of academic vocabulary?

No doubt, academic vocabulary, regardless of field, is often used to report, to analyze, and to summarize.  It is also characterized by a level of formality, by its precision and by its accuracy.

What kind of interactive activity could involve students in producing a written piece with some of those characteristics?

Certainly, reports based on interactive surveys, at least those which

  • state the purpose and the method used,
  • present results,
  • analyze results, and
  • draw conclusions

are suitable.

What vocabulary can be used at key points in survey reports?

Students tend to appreciate ready-made lists of vocabulary items that are commonly accepted and are recognized as acceptable in formal, academic writing, and which are keyed to the purpose of a particular writing assignment.  I’ve created a table with words and phrases that have worked well for my students and their survey reports.

What features should typify survey reports?

I recently narrowed down my list of essential features to two: they should highlight an opinion or a preference, and they should focus on a change.

Reporting on survey respondents’ opinions allows students to use vocabulary often found in typical academic writing assignments, assignments such as those requiring argumentation, reference to sources, and presentation of other people’s ideas.

Reporting on changes allows students not only to mention the “before and after circumstances,” but also to use vocabulary associated with comparison, perhaps even with causes and effects.  Such reporting naturally requires special, formal vocabulary.

How have I used a survey activity with my students?

Example survey: I ask my students to prepare a very short survey (a list of 3-4 questions) about how “nerds” are viewed.  They make two copies of their survey.  Then they distribute a set of the first to their classmates, and collect them when the students have finished.  Next, the group is asked to read the article “America Needs Its Nerds” by Leonid Fridman.  Later, a set of the second copy is distributed, completed, and collected for analysis.

After students analyze the results and receive instruction in the organization of survey reports, they move on to the writing. I ordinarily ask my students to use calculators, to create tables or graphs if they wish, and, while composing their reports, to incorporate some of the vocabulary items given in the table.

What approaches do you take to teaching “academic vocabulary”?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dialogues for Beginners: Snooping at Techniques of “Non-ESL” Language Teachers

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

newjgea@aol.com

The story below, which is almost twenty years old, is still worth a few chuckles to my friend and me, and it’s recently gained an additional value: this summer our recollection of an elementary school incident prompted not only an expected giggle, but also an investigation, or rather a casual “snooping,” at some practices used with beginning learners by teachers of languages other than English.

Here’s what happened years ago:

We were beginning students of Russian, and during our second or third class meeting we were asked to prepare a telephone conversation which was to include some of the phrases we’d studied.  As you can imagine, our vocabulary was meager, and our confidence about acting out the conversation in front of a group of other 12-year-olds was definitely shaky.  We scrambled for ideas and put together the following lines (here translated into English):

Good day.

- Good day.

- Is your father at home?

- Yes.

- Is your mother at home?

- Yes.

- Is your brother at home?

- No.

- Thank you. Good bye.

- Good bye.

We earned an F for this performance.  But get this.  It was a failure not because the dialogue was poorly prepared, but because it was never acted out!  The conversation seemed so painfully and funnily unnatural that it threw us into a fit of inextinguishable snickering.  We stood in front of the class with our heads down and shoulders shaking, unable to speak.

This summer my friend asked, “You’re a language teacher.  Is it still common teaching practice to ask beginners who know, let’s say, ten words to create and act out dialogues?

What can we learn about using dialogues in an ESL/EFL classroom from snooping into a textbook for beginning learners of Russian?

Curious to see what dialogue-based tasks are used these days by teachers of Russian, I leafed through a textbook published recently for beginning learners.  Interestingly, almost all reading tasks and the majority of the speaking activities were based on dialogues in that book.

In spite of having a limited vocabulary and a minimal knowledge of grammar, users of this textbook are regularly asked to create dialogues.  How does that make sense?  What makes their task possible and meaningful is that a clear, real context, together with a list of useful words and phrases, is provided.

So, after studying possessives and “furniture” vocabulary, students maybe be asked to prepare a dialogue for this sort of situation: You are in a new dorm.  Visit your neighbor.  Talk about your rooms.  Use these words: bed, table, desk, poster, curtain, lamp, sink, trash can, pillow, blanket.

Even though students’ dialogues may be fairly short and simple, the context will allow for a certain authenticity, and the vocabulary list will provide a level of comfort for the often vulnerable beginner.

What can we learn about using dialogues in an ESL/EFL classroom from taking a class for beginning learners of Modern Greek?

In her article “Creative writing is Greek to me: the continuing education of a language teacher,” Diana R. Ransdell, an experienced ESL teacher, recalls a summer course she took in Modern Greek.  She concludes that the course not only helped her relate to her ESL students’ frustrations, but also provided “first-hand exposure to new techniques” which she later incorporated into her teaching (45).

One technique she remembers particularly well used creative writing. Before taking that course in Modern Greek, she “had never once given a creative writing assignment to beginning students” (43).  Typically, those tasks tend to be rather time-consuming and are generally given to students whose vocabulary is more extensive.  Later, however, because of her experiences as a language learner, she “took steps to ensure that creative writing would be an integral part of future teaching” (44).

As a beginning student of Modern Greek, she was asked to compose a creative story, which she wrote in the form of a dialogue. Because half of the vocabulary she knew at the time amounted to names of food items, the dialogue centered on the theme of food. In her dialogue she spoke to a vendor about the availability of watermelons, cherries, lemons, and bananas.  She writes: “The experience gave me a sense of power because the words I had used … were no longer mere words.  Now they were my words” (43).

So how should I answer my friend’s question about the currency of using dialogues with true beginners? Yes, it seems possible and common enough to ask beginning language learners to create dialogues even if their vocabulary is limited.  But perhaps to make sure that they don’t fail at this (like we did), we can be sure to provide them with a truly realistic context and key vocabulary, and assure them that they will feel accomplished, no matter how simple the conversation turns out to be.

Now I’m considering snooping into my colleague’s textbook, one for beginning learners of German.  I wonder what dialogue-based tasks they use in, let’s say, “Lektion 3.”

Ransdell, D. R. 1993. “Creative writing is Greek to me: the continuing education of a language teacher.” ELT Journal 47/1: 40-46.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Playing Games, Part 4

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

Concentration

Many students will already know this classic matching game, but even if they don’t, it’s not hard to explain. I use this game as a vocabulary review. Allow a good 45 minutes! And with the extension activities listed at the end, it can fill an hour. However, if the preparation is done the class before or as homework, it can be played in 20 minutes.

Students are divided into groups of 4-6. If time permits (here is the step that can be done as homework), each group is given 20-25 words or allowed to choose words from their textbook or other source they have used. Words should be ones previously studied, however; this is a review game, not a teaching game. Students write a definition of the word or an original sentence that exemplifies the word, with a blank line where the word would go.

Example: the target word is “luxury”

For me, a cell phone is not a _____ . It’s an essential tool for my personal and professional life.

It’s important that you check each sentence or definition to make sure it is correct and sufficient, since the group will be drilling with these sentences.

When the definitions and sentences have been approved, students write the word on a small blank flashcard (I cut standard 3″ x 5″ file cards in half) and the matching definition or sentence on another. The words are shuffled together, and the sentences and definitions are shuffled together.

The cards are then laid face down in rows. If you are playing with 25 vocabulary words, then you will have 5 rows of 5 cards on one side of the table for the words, and 5 rows of 5 cards on the other side for the definitions and sentences.

A player starts by choosing, at random, one card first from the word side and then one card from the definition/sentence side, and — here is the important part! — reading each out loud. If they match, the player keeps them and earns one point. If they don’t match, each card is returned to the original position, and the next player draws two cards.

In some forms of this game, a player who correctly matches two items wins another turn; however, I believe this method favors the stronger students and gives them more practice, whereas it is really the weaker students who need more practice, so I don’t allow it.

Inevitably, cards will be drawn again and again, even after their matches have been seen before. This is the nature of the drill — students are repeating and remembering, repeating and remembering. It may take some supervision on your part to remind them to say the words and definitions/sentences aloud each time, yet this is the crucial step.

The game finishes when all cards have been matched.

If time remains in class, have students make two stacks of cards, again keeping the words together and the definitions/sentences together. First, have them take turns drawing a definition/sentence and recalling the words (they should be pleasantly surprised by how easy this is!). Then, have them take turns drawing a word and either recalling the example definition/sentence or creating a new one.  This, too, is usually pretty easy by this point.

Students of all ages and levels enjoy this game, and the advantage for you is that they will drill and drill until they really know the words, with minimal supervision on your part. You can even keep the games the groups have created to use with other classes (as long as those other classes are studying the same vocabulary, of course). Cutting out the preparation step means less practice for new groups, but does save the preparation time.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Colors: Beyond the Basics

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

newjgea@aol.com

Looking into my closet the other month, my best friend said that my clothes seemed “uninspired.”  She surveyed my blues, greys, and beiges with increasing dismay, and concluded that the colors of my clothes simply blurred into one another on the shelves and hangers.  I’ve since been attending to color a bit more and I’m noticing all kinds of shades.  In fact, this summer I’m starting to get the feeling that the world’s colors are actually conspiring to awaken my sense of hue.

They have been revealing themselves almost relentlessly in all directions.  The oranges of poppies appeared between some train tracks I was watching.  Bold greens and striking yellows showed up in the embroidery of a tablecloth I saw at a folk culture center.  Subtly differing blues and whites emerged from an oil painting of a marine scene I viewed at a small museum.  I must say that I’m beginning to be energized a little by the “burst of hues” around me.

While it may still be a while before I buy a carnation-pink dress, I’ve been awakened enough to consider devoting a blog article to the use of colors in the language classroom.  So here it is.

Of course basic color terms are taught at beginning levels.  Students learn names of basic colors, describe the clothes someone is wearing, discuss living-room wall color preferences, and explore color idioms, color psychology, and so on.  Today, I’m thinking about what’s next, about what “color activities” we can use with our more advanced learners.

Mood: Modifying Color Names

This exercise is one I created a few years ago for an intermediate group and it has since sparked enthusiasm among many of my students.  The activity employs two sets of cards: one set with the names of various colors and one set with words describing moods, attitudes, or emotions.  Working in pairs, students draw three color cards and one mood card.  They are then asked to write a very short narrative paragraph which portrays the selected mood. This should be achieved mainly by using other words to modify the names of the colors.  When the paragraphs are ready, students read them out and ask fellow students to guess the mood that the piece was meant to portray.

Here are the ideas of one pair of my students.  The color cards drawn were: Orange, Yellow, and Brown. The color phrases created were: “Mud Orange,” “Washed-out Yellow,” and “Cockroach Brown.” Can you guess the mood card they’d selected?  (Answer: “Dislike”)

Hues: Categorizing Color Terms

This activity is dictionary-based and it is intended for intermediate or advanced learners.  The key tool is a healthy list of descriptive color terms.  Terms like these can easily be found in the paint aisles of home improvement stores.  Some discretion is required here, however, since terms like “Death by Chocolate” and “Gypsy Bloom” are clearly meant to be catchy, not accurate.

Here’s the procedure: students are given a jumbled list of color terms.  Each term includes a word or phrase that is most likely unfamiliar to them.  They are asked to categorize the terms by related basic (or primary) color.  “Heirloom Lace” and “Parchment Paper,” for example, can be put together under “White.” “Wilted Chives” and “Parsley Sprig” may be placed under “Green.”  “Pot Clay” and “Trekkers’ Tan” would probably go under “Brown.”  To their benefit, most students consult a dictionary several times in order to complete the task.

Color and Culture: Researching Color Symbolism

Advanced learners often enjoy tasks similar in difficulty level to those assigned to students who are native speakers.  Research-based projects are of that type.  Students can, for example, be asked to investigate the symbolism behind certain colors in various cultures.  More specifically, they may be assigned to research “Green (or Blue, or White, etc.) in the Flags of the World,” or “The Colors of Weddings across the Globe.”  One plus to this kind of project is the necessity for students to locate authoritative sources, and on occasion those may take the form of a fellow student who has a different cultural background.

Any colorful thoughts?

P. S. I’m off to paint my toenails….. Happy summer!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Playing Games, Part 3

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

A Vocabulary Recognition Game: Flyswatters

Following on my previous posts, here is another game that is easy to put together, useful, and that students enjoy.

This vocabulary review game is a good one for large classes, and because it is active, it’s a good one for waking up sleepy classes or injecting a bit of energy into a lesson.

I first saw this game demonstrated at a monthly JALT meeting in Chiba in… 1988? and I’m afraid I can no longer remember the name of the presenter.  But thank you so much, whoever you were!

To play requires flashcards with words or pictures, and two flyswatters. If you check the dollar store at the beginning of summer, you can probably find cheap flyswatters in bright colors and interesting designs.

The class is divided into two teams. A large class might require two or more separate games, but each team can easily have 6-10 members (and the number needn’t be the same on each team), because play moves very quickly. The teams gather on opposite sides of a large table, and the flashcards are scattered all over the table.

One representative from each team steps up to the table, flyswatter in hand. The teacher (or, later, a student leader) can, at the lowest level, simply call out the name of the object on the card. The first student to smack the correct card with the flyswatter “wins” the card and one point for the team. (And now you see why we use flyswatters—they can reach any point on the table, and it doesn’t hurt when the person from the other team smacks down on top!).

The person who wins the card hands her flyswatter to the next person on her team and moves to the end of the line or group (I don’t think I’ve ever had a class manage to stay in a single-file line–they get too excited and want to crowd around the table watching). The person from the other team who “lost” remains in place for a maximum of two more plays. In this way, an unsuccessful student gets more chances than a successful student—presumably, they need the practice more. But even an unsuccessful student is not put on the spot for very long. Whether a team wins or loses doesn’t depend on one person, which also reduces the pressure for each student.

Here is a game that is easy for the teacher to “fix”—if one team is winning by too great a margin, I might do something like call out the card and then simply hold the arm of the player of the winning team, or cover his eyes. In this way, the player from the other team has all the time necessary to locate the card. If you are very obvious about it, the class will accept it. After all, you have made it clear from the beginning what the purpose of the activity is—practicing vocabulary recognition. That is always the goal, and not “winning.”

You’ll notice that even though only one person plays for a team at each time, the entire team will crowd around the table to watch; even though they are observers, they are just as focused on the vocabulary as the players. You might need to remind them a few times not to point or “help” the person playing! But they will certainly be rehearsing the vocabulary in their heads. After  7-10 minutes of play, in fact, I like to stop the game and point this out to students, and ask them to notice how engaged they are and how focused on the vocabulary they are even when it is not their turn.  In this way, the students know that their time is not being wasted.

If you find that students are, in their enthusiasm, randomly slapping cards hoping to get lucky, rather than actually locating the correct card, impose a “return one card to the table for every incorrect slap” penalty.

To increase the difficulty level, you can say whole sentences with the words in them, or even short paragraphs or longer stories; you can describe the word without giving it directly; and so on.  The flashcards needn’t be picture cards—they can be single letters for young learners, or even complex linguistic terms for graduate students (for which you give a definition or example).

If you wish to have picture cards but don’t have the time to create your own, why not assign the task to students? Give each student or group a certain amount of vocabulary and some blank cards, and let them draw pictures or find them from magazines or the Internet and glue the images onto the cards. If you can, then laminate the cards so they will last longer, and keep them for use in future classes as well.

The game may look as though it is designed for children, with cards and flyswatters and constant motion, and certainly children love this game (it’s an excellent way to review colors, letters of the alphabet, and numbers). However, I’ve used it with teacher trainers and company employees and university students and other groups, who enjoyed it immensely. Adults love games too!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Make ‘Em Laugh: Expanding Students’ Descriptive Vocabulary

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

newjgea@aol.com

If you were asked what mode of writing you enjoy teaching most, what would you say? Argumentation? Comparison? Process? I’d probably choose two: narrative writing and descriptive writing. To justify my choice, I’d most likely mention the inherent versatility of these two modes. Each can be used at several proficiency levels, each can incorporate a variety of grammar structures, and each can be employed to facilitate the expansion of students’ vocabulary.

The Usual Road

Narrative as well as descriptive writing can accommodate and foster the use of expressive vocabulary. Yet there’s often a problem with these modes. They seem to allow too easily the use of vague vocabulary. Students writing in these modes choose verbs like “go,” “see,” “say,” and “think” frequently and verbs such as “meander,” “peek,” “ramble,” and “reflect” rarely. The tendency seems to hold even when students know two or three viable synonyms for “go,” “see,” etc. Nevertheless, students can be cajoled into using suggestive verbs such as “meander” and “peek” as well as graphic adjectives such as “cozy,” “dank,” and “agile.”

But how to cajole? That is the question.

I’ve often instructed students to refer to the senses, use color words, create similes, and avoid certain non-descriptive words when writing descriptive pieces. I’ve utilized the old “show me, don’t tell me” technique when instructing students in narrative writing. I’ve even created the “imagine the movie set” approach to get students to think about the finer details of what they have seen or imagined. I’ve used all these older and newer methods to pretty good effect, I think. They’re concrete enough, and students tend to respond to them.

Still, one alternative stands out in my mind as both natural and effective: the way of humor.

A Road Less Traveled

The way of humor is easier than many think, and it can result in the instinctive reaching for dictionaries and the desperate snatching of explicit words. The key instruction is this: Try to make your reader laugh.

Out of a combination of pedagogical intention and curiosity, I added a few potentially comedic themes to a list of writing topics recently. One theme for a narrative paragraph read “How Lucy Flunked out of Kindergarten.” One for a descriptive essay was “The Worst Restaurant in Town.” More than a few students have chosen one of the comical themes in the list since then, and several have reported that they naturally “spiced up” their papers with graphic images and vivid details in order to amuse the reader. Amused the reader has been, and I’ve been chuckling too.

Reading one “How Lucy Flunked” paper, I learned that Lucy wore some rather strange clothes to kindergarten, but the fact wasn’t expressed as dryly as that. No sir. Lucy’s ankle-length skirts always had ten rows of safety pins in them, and most of the safety pins were unfastened so they nicked other kids. (I was told that “safety pin,” “unfasten,” and “nick” were the words the student really needed to include, and so simply had to look them up in a dictionary!)

From a “Worst Restaurant” paper I learned that the restaurant floor wasn’t just “dirty,” but…,well, I’ll spare you the description of the substances that were splattered on the floor, the foreign matter that was hiding in the corners, and the smells drifting around the place. Oh, yes– it was quite an unappealing scene, but one which was “beautifully” detailed!

I have to say that I’ve been somewhat inspired by such successes. I think I’ll continue along this road awhile. The way of humor feels good and works well.

Have you used any writing tasks that incorporate humor?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What’s the Word on Vocabulary Acquisition?

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

Words are the starting point of language. As a French student, I hunger for more words, and as an English teacher, I strive to make learning words interesting and easy in my classes. In my experience teaching different levels, I have seen a difference in the needs of students of different levels. Beginning students seem, in general, to simply need vocabulary, while more advanced students seem to want to not only build their vocabulary, but also to use a variety of words easily in conversation.

It’s Not Even on the Tip of my Tongue
As a lower-level French student living in Belgium, I am living proof of the hunger for more words. The more words I learn, the more I forget. My inability to remember words is unbelievably frustrating, and, while my grammar errors are cringe-inducing, I can still communicate. However, a lack of vocabulary can stop an interaction in its tracks. Even when the motivation is high to remember a word, it slips away. For example, I have a prescription that I get once a year from the doctor and I leave on file at my pharmacy. For the past year and a half, I have referred to the prescription as “le papier”, the paper. Recently, when we learned the word for “prescription” in my French class, I was thrilled. No longer would I be the neighborhood idiot. I was strongly motivated to remember the word, and I said it quietly to myself several times in class. However, a couple of weeks have passed, and I can’t remember the word to save my life. I guess it’s back to “le papier”.

Flash Cards
From this, I have learned that students need more exposure to words in order to retain them. Experts suggest that learners need to see or hear a word a minimum of 12 to 15 times in context before they internalize it. Wow. In her presentation at TESOL 2009, Teaching Academic Vocabulary and Helping Students to Retain it, Eli Hinkel suggested a tried-and-true method for memorizing vocabulary: flash cards that are reviewed regularly. I have even heard of students putting words on post–its all over their house with the translation on the back for a constant barrage of English vocabulary. I can’t help but feel that if I had to look at the French word for “prescription” several times a day, I would still remember it.

Danny’s List
However, Danny, my wonderful student from Germany faces the second problem that I described above. Danny’s English is so good that I wondered why he would bother with English classes at all for that matter. When he showed me his working list of vocabulary, I was very impressed. He was doing everything right, as far as I could see. His list included everything from academic vocabulary to words associated with his work to phrasal verbs and idioms. He adds to the list frequently and diligently and studies it often to increase retention. His problem, however, lies not in memorizing the words, but it being able to retrieve them when actively engaged in a conversation.
Activate the Passive
So, how can Danny activate his passive vocabulary? Unfortunately, I don’t know any easy answers. (If you do, please respond to this blog immediately! I always like an easy answer!) One of my more advanced students, Emre, thinks hearing it is the key. She told me that she will never forget the word “flexibility” because she attended a presentation in which the speaker repeated the word many times. After the presentation, she was comfortable using the word in conversation without much conscious thought. Obviously, the more exposure students have to English input, the more likely passive vocabulary will become active. However, for students who want a more structured method for activating their vocabulary, unfortunately, I have little to offer.

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Conversation with Amir

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

For quite awhile, I had an ongoing conversation via e-mail with a young EFL teacher from the Middle East who’d come across my blog and determined to start a dialogue with me. He’s a very bright young man who teaches English at a technological university, and the following “conversation” is based on some of that ongoing correspondence we had. I’ve copied Amir’s sections just as they were sent to me.

I’d love to hear your reactions to this conversation and receive any extra observations you can make on this subject.
______________________________________________________________________________

Amir: Why don’t the Americans follow exactly the English way of using grammar, words, pronunciation, etc? Since I think there are two versions of one language. At the word level, for example, tap is British English and faucet is American. At grammar level, for example, the British past participle of get is got, but in American English gotten. At pronunciation level, water in British English is pronounced very different from the American one. You see that I didn’t say the opposite, that is, why don’t the British follow exactly the American … since I think English is originally English not American and so it must be better. What do you think?

Me: I think that’s a marvelous question, Amir. The easiest way for me to answer it is to turn the question around and ask you the same about Arabic. The homeland of Arabic is the Arabian peninsula, but the language spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Do you speak the same Arabic in your country that’s spoken, say, in Morocco?

Amir: Of course not.

Me: The reason for that is that languages keep evolving. In any region, the causes can include geography, the natural environment, other languages that have an influence, the arrival of immigrants, and the history of the region.

Amir: Since your answer is wonderful, it deserves a good reply, and I will do my best. Firstly, I expected you turning the question around.

Secondly, let me explain what I was talking about is the “standard English” accepted in Britain and America.

Thirdly, I’m going to talk about the Classic Arabic or standard Arabic compared with standard English.

Fourthly, I agree with you that we speakers of Arabic do not speak the same in term of pronunciation since everyone has their regional accent, but we use exactly the same words. For example, the word window has many names according to the country one lives in, and that is so-called “dialects”. But when it comes to speaking Classic Arabic, one should use the very word which is understood from the north to the south and from the east to the west.

Fifthly, at the level of grammar, it is completely the same.


Sixthly, there are dictionaries designed for British English and others for the American one. This drives me to presume that they are different. If not, why to have different dictionaries as long as the same? Likewise, in Arabic we have different dictionaries but they differ in the way words are presented but not in the content, that is, a dictionary may start with a word that another may not start with. Yet the meaning and the understanding of word is still the same.

Seventhly, and the most strong factor, is that Arabic is a sacred language. It is used in religious texts, especially the Qur’an and the prophetic traditions.

Me: Your original question had to do with why American English doesn’t follow British English exactly. I answered that by explaining that American English has been influenced by American Indian vocabulary and by vocabulary from every immigrant group that joined us to create the country we now have. Immigrant languages also had some influence on certain grammatical patterns, although not a strong influence.

Pronunciation in American English was first influenced by various pronunciations in the UK. Then American pronunciation was influenced by the way immigrants pronounced certain words.

I hope you get a general picture now of why American English hasn’t strictly followed British English.

As for “standard” English, this is a very tricky area. We don’t have a sacred language like Classical Arabic, so we have nothing to turn to as a reference. Nor do we have a national academy like in France and Spain that makes decrees on what is “correct” and what is “incorrect.” So what do we have?

Well, first, “standard” American pronunciation is based on how television and radio reporters, especially in the 1950s, pronounced English. One of the greatest influences on this aspect of American English was a TV news reporter named Walter Cronkite. His Midwestern pronunciation was so clear and easy to understand that it became the norm for broadcasters all around the country, and that led to its being adopted more or less by all educated speakers who made a conscious choice to speak with a “standard” pronunciation. In the UK, it was how broadcasters on the BBC sounded that became the accepted “standard” British pronunciation except for another version called RP, “received pronunciation.”

As for vocabulary, that becomes a much more difficult area to discuss. My guess is that the majority of English words are what we can consider “standard” vocabulary, and the test for that is that they’re understood by most educated American English speakers. So it doesn’t matter really if you call it a faucet, a tap, a spigot, or a spicket ― most of us will still understand what you’re talking about.

Of course we have words in one region that may not be understood by people in other regions. Those words are classified as “nonstandard.” They may have a standard counterpart, but they’re still considered nonstandard.

Here’s one example: If I say frying pan to native English speakers, they’ll understand what I’m talking about. But then there are regionalisms such as fry pan, skillet, spider.

Here’s something interesting about faucet and tap. I’m mentioning these again because I want to show you how words can become integrated so well into the standard language even though they may originally have been nonstandard. I’m from New York, and I grew up calling that device on the kitchen sink a faucet. People in some other regions call it a tap. But if I’m thirsty and I don’t want bottled water, I’ll say I’d like a glass of tap water even though for me it comes out of a faucet. So I get tap water from the faucet!

The main point is that one variety of English isn’t necessarily better or worse than any other variety. Yes, there’s something we gingerly call “standard American” or “standard British English,” but nobody’s 100% sure what that means except to say it’s the common language used by most educated people in the country.

Okay, Amir, may
be I’ve given you more information than you wanted to know.

Amir: No, I understand, and I think I know much better why you have many differences and why you don’t copy British English. Thank you, Richard.
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So what’s your take on this topic? Anything to add? If something comes to mind, let me know.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Bulltish!

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

I’m going to digress a bit from my usual range of topics this week and deal a little with a topic of language that some would rather avoid dealing with. This week’s entry is really about teaching language and not about the language itself, and I hope you’ll join the discussion.
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So there I was, in the midst of a really interesting university-level conversation class about Hollywood movies. One of my students had just mentioned that she thought European film makers did a much better job than their American counterparts, and suddenly Homayoon, a student from Iran, shouted out “Bulltish!” Everybody turned to him, trying to figure out what he had blurted out. At first I didn’t get it, but it suddenly hit me what he was trying to say, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Then I stood up, went to the board, and wrote the word bullshit.

“The word’s not bulltish, Homayoon; it’s bullshit.” Of course, as fate would have it, at that very moment the director of the intensive English program I was working in just happened to walk by my classroom ― with the door wide open. She stopped dead in her tracks at the door, and I could see by the look on her face that she was none too thrilled with what I had just said and what she saw on the board. She said nothing and just continued on her way, but I knew very well I’d be called into her office for a meeting to discuss this incident later that day or the next. Such timing!

I just sighed and went on with that teachable moment. I explained to my students what the word meant and why it was so inappropriate for Homayoon to use it in class. (Of course the director of the program didn’t hang around to hear that part ― oh, no.) Finally, I gave the class alternatives that would be appropriate, like That’s nonsense. or That’s silly. or That’s ridiculous. I even went further, though, explaining a little about the art of tactfulness and how Homayoon could make his feelings known in a gentler, more polite way by saying things like I don’t agree. or I don’t think that’s so. or Why do you say that?

But that incident got me thinking. After classes, when most of the teachers gathered in our lounge as they usually did to de-stress before going home, I related the incident that had happened in my class and started a discussion about whether or not we had a responsibility at some point to teach intermediate or advanced students of at least college age what we commonly refer to as “four-letter words.” I wasn’t at all surprised at the heated discussion that developed. This was 1976, so it goes without saying that attitudes were quite different then from attitudes now.

That discussion continued in our teachers’ lounge for the rest of the week. Every day some new angle was brought up. One of my colleagues even mentioned how he was going to develop a whole syllabus on this subject, which he’d divide into categories like “four-letter words about parts of men’s bodies,” “four-letter words about parts of women’s bodies,” “vulgar and semi-vulgar synonyms for acceptable words,” “basic cursing,” and all the grammatical ways to use “the f word.” Some of us were in shock at his suggestions; some of us giggled out of embarrassment; some of us cheered him on. Well, the long and short of it is that he never did develop that formal syllabus, and I never created lessons on the subject matter. But I’ve always wondered if I should have.

By the way, isn’t if funny how it’s considered acceptable to say something like “the f word,” when everyone knows perfectly well what that means, but it’s not so okay to say or write the whole word? I find it curious how we seem to be accepting of such initials or abbreviations for some four-letter words. Why should an abbreviation sound more okay than the whole word? Or why should writing sh-t or saying “Shoot!” be more acceptable than writing the scatological word they stand for? We really can be kind of weird in English, can’t we!

Getting back to treating four-letter words and cursing in a formal way, one brave ESOL teacher/author took the bull by the horns ― not the bulltish by the horns ― and wrote a groundbreaking student resource book on this topic. Her name is Elizabeth Claire and her book was Dangerous English 2000*, followed a few years later by David Burke’s Slangman Guide to Dirty English**.

English may be just about the most colorful language in the world when it comes to four-letter words and cursing. And at times it feels good to curse ― at least it feels good to me. Now don’t get me wrong. I was raised in a very prim-and-proper home where such language was never used. In fact, I still remember when I came home one day and called my big brother a pimp. I didn’t know what it meant (I must have heard it on the street) but I used it to show him I was a big boy and could use grown-up words. Well, when I think about it, I can still taste the bar of soap that my mother immediately shoved into my mouth after dragging me over to the bathroom sink. Yep, she literally washed my mouth out with soap! Needless to say, I learned my lesson ― sort of. And I didn’t find out what pimp meant until years later.

But I do think there’s a time and place for cursing, and I think such language has therapeutic benefits. Perhaps it’s something you’d only want to use in private or with people you’re very close to, but whoever you are or aren’t with at that moment, cursing can really do wonders for you. My mother ― yes, the woman who washed my mouth out with soap ― learned to curse quite well after she got her driver’s license and frequently took to the road. I was grown up by then, but I used to laugh out loud sitting in the passenger’s seat next to her every time I’d hear a trail of those colorful words fly out of her mouth as she sat behind the wheel, steaming at what one reckless driver or another had just done.

So how do you feel about that marvelously colorful area of English that includes four-letter words and cursing? Do you think they play a vital role in the language, or do you think they should disappear? I’d like to know what you feel about all of this, and more importantly, I’d like to know what you think about whether this part of the language should be taught to students of an appropriate age. I’d also like to know if you’ve had a situation in class similar to the one I’ve mentioned. If you’d like to discuss how teaching should or should not get involved in this area, please join in.

(P.S. ― I did get called into the director’s office the next day, and she did read me the riot act about teaching such things. Boy, was she p—ed off at me!)

*Elizabeth Claire. Dangerous English 2000: An Indispensable Guide for Language Learners and Others, 3rd edition. Delta Publishing Co. 1998

**David Burke. Slangman Guide to Dirty English: A Guide to American Obscenities and Insults. Slangman Publishing. 2003