Archive for Tag: vocabulary

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


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

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

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

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.

So what’s your take on this topic? Anything to add? If something comes to mind, let me know.

Saturday, November 1, 2008


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.

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My English is Better than Your English! Part 2

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

In my last entry, I discussed standard language compared to nonstandard language, focusing mainly on variations in pronunciation and vocabulary, and besides mentioning a few differences in the past and current language of Michigan compared to standard American English, I reported what my British friend Mick O’Hare had to say on the subject.

Now I’d like to mention some more differences between standard and nonstandard language, and also get a little into what we term substandard language.

I come from New York City. To this day people don’t stand in line when waiting to get into someplace; they stand on line. That’s an example of nonstandard American English. But in one part of the city, it’s common to hear people say things like You want I should do that now? instead of Do you want me to do that now? And even though it’s fast dying out, there was a time when it was common in a certain part of the city to hear people switch the pronunciation of “oy” with “er,” so you’d hear things like I need some erl for my car and That British aristocrat is called the Oyl of Devon. So should a teacher in New York City teach stand on line along with stand in line, and should that teacher tell students it’s okay to say You want I should do that now? or She’s a lousy cook. The goil doesn’t even know how to berl water!?

My answer to the first question is yes, stand on line can be taught alongside stand in line since ESOL students in New York will undoubtedly hear native speakers say on line, but the teacher should emphasize which one is the standard phrase. My answer to the other question is no, teachers should not teach that it’s okay to say You want I should do that now? or The goil doesn’t even know how to berl water. That’s because such grammar and such pronunciations are not standard or even nonstandard English; they’re simply substandard English, and substandard English is unacceptable as a teachable variation. Such grammar and pronunciation basically fall into the same category as ain’t and double negatives. They exist, but the consensus of opinion is that they’re substandard forms. Sometimes it may take checking into to decide if something is a regional variation (nonstandard) or substandard.

At any rate, here are the questions I put to my Australian colleague, Penny Cameron, to get her take on things, and Penny’s answers:

Penny, does Aussie English have regional variations that are so outstanding that you don’t have a problem recognizing which part of the country somebody comes from?

There are regional lexical items, and some regional variation in, for instance, long or short /a/ in words like Newcastle. Please visit the Australian Word Map for a work in progress on this very topic.

Is there a standard Aussie English that kids are taught in school that differs from their everyday speech?

We try to teach a standard English, but the kids undermine us the way they always did.

Is there any prejudice against certain regional variations rather than others? Do some Aussies poke fun at the way other Aussies speak?

Not really. We make cruel jokes about other states, suggesting that Tasmanians are inbred and Sydneysiders brash and property obsessed, and we sometimes say that Queenslanders drawl.

Are there words or pronunciations in one regional variation that Aussies in other parts of the country wouldn’t understand?

Very few, I believe. See SCOSE (the Standing Committee on Spoken English) and the Word Map

We have a steadying influence in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) based on the BBC. Apart from giving us informed non-partisan discussion (the politicians hate it), the ABC hosts SCOSE, the Standing Committee on Spoken English.

This is from their website: “The ABC’s Standing Committee on Spoken English (SCOSE) this year celebrates its fiftieth year. It evolved from earlier groups which had existed since 1944.

“However, the brief for previous incarnations of SCOSE was to maintain standard English pronunciations. In 1952 it was recognised that the ABC should make some departure from BBC practice and recognise Australian English.

“The role of SCOSE is to provide a reference source for broadcasters and journalists through the Language Research Unit, which is maintained by News and Current Affairs.

“Broadcasters and journalists can check all aspects of spoken and written English ― pronunciation, grammar, spelling, usage and style. The Committee also monitors the use of language in a broad sense across all ABC platforms to ensure it is conforming to community standards and the ABC’s editorial policies.The Committee meets once a month to discuss language policy and usage, queries from staff, and any observations or complaints from the public. Members include staff representatives from program producing areas across radio, television and online.”

The SCOSE Academic Adviser Professor, Pam Peters, is Associate Professor of Linguistics at Macquarie University. Professor Peters sits on the Macquarie Dictionary Advisory Board and is the author of Cambridge University Australian English Style Guide, my constant desk companion.

However, we certainly sound different to other people. Please see the story at the beginning of the most recent Ozwords (Oct 2007) about the unfortunate Australian woman who got arrested.

I did, Penny, and I was amazed at what happened to her. Incredible! I hope all my readers will take a look at the story and see what misunderstandings can arise from one form of English to another. And thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us, Penny, and for offering such good links to visit.

As I said last time, I’d love to hear from you folks, so please share any reactions or thoughts you have with us by leaving a comment.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

My English is Better than Your English!

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

I returned some days ago from East Lansing, Michigan, where I gave a six-hour workshop on grammar to over 150 gracious, enthusiastic ESOL teachers from all around the state who eagerly wanted to understand more about the workings of the English language. The six hours flew by, and I feel very grateful to have had the experience of meeting and chatting with those teachers.

One of the topics that came up while some of us were chatting during breaks and after the workshop dealt with a subject I had brought up in the early part of the workshop, namely, standard English vs. nonstandard English, also known as regional variations. A number of the teachers wanted to know if one was better than the other, and which form of English (e.g., standard American, standard British, etc.) should be considered “the best.” I quickly explained that there is no such thing as one form of English being better than any other and that all forms are fine if they work all right for the people who use them. I added that we have what is gingerly referred to as standard English, which seems to be the language that’s understood and used by the majority of educated native speakers. I suggested that the teachers might want to teach standard language to our students first, but that there was nothing wrong with introducing regional variations, nonstandard English, at the appropriate level and appropriate time.

Here are some examples of regional variations as opposed to the standard forms. For example, in pronunciation, since it was the fall and the leaves were starting to turn colors, I mentioned foliage (/fo – li – әj/ as the standard, /fo – lәj/ as the regional variation). Then one of the teachers brought up auxiliary. She’d noticed that I pronounced it /ŏg – zIl – yә – ri/ while she always said /ŏg – zIl – ә – ri/. Which one was standard, she wanted to know. I told her the way I pronounce the word is standard, which surprised her. But she said she’d pronounce it that way from now on.

Then there are words. In Michigan, years ago, people called a couch (sofa) a davenport. And when you were thirsty and didn’t care for water, you’d go to the fridge and get a pop (a soda). So couch or sofa is the standard word, and davenport was the regional variation. Refrigerator and soda are the standard words, while fridge and pop are regional variations. Does that mean the former are better than the latter? Not really. The only thing that may be important for us ESOL teachers is to know which should be taught first to our students. Or perhaps the two forms should be taught at the same time. Food for thought. One other thing of importance is attitudes that native speakers have about standard language as opposed to nonstandard forms. How judgmental are people about nonstandard pronunciations and vocabulary compared to the standard language?

Of course, American ESOL teachers aren’t the only ones wrestling with these questions. While preparing this blog entry, I contacted a friend of mine, a writer and editor in London, to get his take on what is considered standard language in the UK. I did the same with a friend and colleague in Sydney, Australia to hear her views on this topic, and will discuss her answers in my next blog entry.

So here are the questions I put to my British friend, Mick O’Hare, along with his answers. Mick has written some wonderful books and is an editor at New Scientist magazine:

Mick, is there a standard British English that kids are taught in school that differs from their everyday speech? Is it different from “received pronunciation”? And if it is different, who learns that and who learns RP?

Only in the public schools such as Eton, Harrow, Rodean (posh private schools to you), I believe they still teach RP through elocution. Otherwise you are taught in the accent (generally) from the area in which you were born. I guess teachers tend to iron out dialect, but as far as I know there’s no law over pronunciation. For example, my teachers would have said /fæst/ whereas my wife’s would have said /fast/ purely because I’m from the North and she’s from the South. And, of course, we all had teachers who came from different parts of the country, so they just taught in their own accents. I don’t recall any calamities. RP is taught to the wealthy or the aristocratic, but it’s dying out to a certain extent as regional accents become more acceptable and as English homogenises generally through TV, etc.

Is there still any prejudice against certain regional variations rather than others? Do some Britons poke fun at the way other Britons speak?

Yes. my wife’s mum, for example, who speaks RP, thinks that only RP should be allowed on the BBC (even happily says it to me). But even so, society is far more egalitarian now and it matters far less. Nonetheless, certain prejudices apply to certain accents: good examples would be the Birmingham ‘Brummie’ accent, which is associated with being stupid and rather universally disliked, Glaswegian which is considered incomprehensible by everybody else, Geordie (much the same), Yorkshire (my accent), which is considered dour or down-to-earth. On the other hand, some accents such as Edinburgh, Highlands, West Lancashire, and West Country are considered ‘pleasant’. And everybody who is not a cockney hates cockney because they all love themselves too much, the chirpy l’il sparrers!

Are there words or pronunciations in one regional variation that Britons in other parts of the country wouldn’t understand? (I’m talking about regional variations within England, not including Scotland, Wales, or Cornwall.)

Yes, lots. Loads of dialect words. I’m not too up on other areas, but obviously, because of rhyming slang, there are simply hundreds in cockney. And I know East Anglia has a lot, but in Yorkshire we have plenty ― these are the ones I know best. My granddad could speak virtually in a different language if all the dialect words came out at once. A few that spring to mind are laik (“play” ― I still use this and also laikers for “players”), baht (“without”), allus (“always”), claht (“cloth”), and snicket (“alleyway”).

Pronunciation might still catch people out area to area.

Thanks very much for your i
nsights, Mick. I think it will be helpful for English teachers, no matter where they are, to read your take on these points about British English, compare them with things I’ve mentioned about American English, and then think about whatever form of English may exist in their parts of the world. This may have more of an impact on how they teach English than you might think at first glance.

Any thoughts, folks? If something comes to mind, please share it with me by leaving a comment.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

So What’s New? Plenty! Part 2

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

One of the greatest joys I get out of delving into the wonders of language, especially English, is that never-ending wonder I experience from witnessing the way words that have been around for so very long can suddenly be found with totally new meanings. This has been happening to English, as well as all other living languages, I presume, since Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons cavorted around Europe and the Middle East, and Homo Habilis ventured into Asia.

In a recent entry to my blog entitled “So What’s New? Plenty!” I dealt with words that I never would have heard years ago such as edamame, plain water, server, and weightage. I’d like to continue this, but in a different way. On a few occasions, I’ve come across a masterpiece of writing that’s on the Web which, besides being extremely funny, perfectly exemplifies the new meanings that old words can take on.

Perhaps there are those of you who have never heard of the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, very famous comedians who made movies in the 1940s and 50s, and had their own television show in the 1950s. One of their most famous routines was called “Who’s on First?” In this classic comedy routine, Abbott tries his best to explain the game of baseball to Costello. If you know baseball, you’ll really enjoy listening to the routine.

I wish I could take credit for what I’m about to post here, but I can’t. And I wish I could find out who the author of this marvelous piece is, but once again, I can’t. If anybody out there knows who the author is, please let me know and I’ll be very happy to give him or her full credit.

At any rate, here is this hysterical take-off on the original Abbott and Costello routine “Who’s on First?” Even if you’re not familiar with those two great comedians of the past, you’ll still appreciate fully how placing them into our era can make for great comedy and can be an excellent example of how language keeps generating new uses for old words. So, if Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were alive today, their famous sketch might have turned out something like the following. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!

Costello calls a store to look into buying a computer, and Abbott happens to be the salesman who answers the phone.

ABBOTT: Super Duper Computers. Can I help you?
COSTELLO: Thanks. I’m setting up an office in my den and I’m thinking about buying a computer.
COSTELLO: No, the name’s Lou.
ABBOTT: Your computer?
COSTELLO: I don’t own a computer. I want to buy one.
COSTELLO: I told you my name’s Lou.
ABBOTT: What about “Windows”?
COSTELLO: Why? Will it get stuffy in here?
ABBOTT: Do you want a computer with “Windows”?
COSTELLO: I don’t know. What will I see when I look at the windows?
ABBOTT: Wallpaper.
COSTELLO: Never mind the windows. I need a computer and software.
ABBOTT: Software for “Windows”?
COSTELLO: No. On the computer! I need something I can use to write proposals, track expenses and run my business. What do you have?
ABBOTT: “Office.”
COSTELLO: Yeah, for my office. Can you recommend anything?
ABBOTT: I just did.
COSTELLO: You just did what?
ABBOTT: Recommend something.
COSTELLO: You recommended something?
COSTELLO: For my office?
COSTELLO: Okay, what did you recommend for my office?
ABBOTT: “Office.”
COSTELLO: Yes, for my office!
ABBOTT: I recommend “Office” with “Windows.”
COSTELLO: I already have an office with windows! Okay, let’s just say I’m sitting at my computer and I want to type a proposal. What do I need?
ABBOTT: “Word.”
COSTELLO: What word?
ABBOTT: “Word” in “Office.”
COSTELLO: The only word in office is office.
ABBOTT: The “Word” in “Office” for “Windows.”
COSTELLO: Which word in office for windows?
ABBOTT: The “Word” you get when you click the blue W.
COSTELLO: I’m going to click your blue W if you don’t start with some straight answers. What about financial bookkeeping? Do you have anything I can track my money with?
ABBOTT: “Money.”
COSTELLO: That’s right. What do you have?
ABBOTT: “Money.”
COSTELLO: I need money to track my money?
ABBOTT: It comes bundled with your computer.
COSTELLO: What’s bundled with my computer?
ABBOTT: “Money.”
COSTELLO: Money comes with my computer?
ABBOTT: Yes. No extra charge.
COSTELLO: I get a bundle of money with my computer? How much?
ABBOTT: One copy.
COSTELLO: Isn’t it illegal to copy money?
ABBOTT: Microsoft gave us a license to copy “Money.”
COSTELLO: They can give you a license to copy money?
ABBOTT: Why not? They own it!

A few days later . . .

ABBOTT: Super Duper Computers. Can I help you?
COSTELLO: How do I turn off my computer?
ABBOTT: Click on “Start.”

Yep, it’s a joy to witness how old words can take on new meanings! A joy for us ― but not for poor Costello, who passed away in 1959 and probably never even heard the word computer.

If you’ve come across old words that have taken on new meanings and they’ve surprised or delighted you, please let me know. We teachers always need to do our best to keep abreast of these changes.