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Category Archives: English language

Catch-up part one: some interesting sites.

1. A book, really – and a site that introduces it.

whiffling_ukcoverThe Wonder of Whiffling is a tour of English around the globe (with fine coinages from our English-speaking cousins across the pond, Down Under and elsewhere).

Discover all sorts of words you’ve always wished existed but never knew, such as fornale, to spend one’s money before it has been earned; cagg, a solemn vow or resolution not to get drunk for a certain time; and petrichor, the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell.

Delving passionately into the English language, I also discover why it is you wouldn’t want to have dinner with a vice admiral of the narrow seas, why Jacobites toasted the little gentleman in black velvet, and why a Nottingham Goodnight is better than one from anywhere else.

I am a sucker for things like this, and you can do a lot worse than to become interested in odd and curious words, and above all in the fascinating stories that lie behind so many words.

2. A good reference site for ESL teachers

It doesn’t hurt that this site is included there! 🙂 — 15 of the Best Blogs for EFL and ESL Teachers.

efl

3. Ed Tech, e-learning, e-literacy.

There are some good posts on Barking Robot. For example: Study: Children Who Blog Or Use Facebook Have Higher Literacy Levels.

Research conducted by The National Literacy Trust on 3,001 children from England and Scotland showed that schoolchildren who blog or own social networking profiles on Facebook have higher literacy levels and greater confidence in writing…

Among the key findings:

  • 56% of youth reported maintaining an active profile on a social networking site such as Facebook or Bebo, while 24% said they maintained their own blog;
  • The study also found that 49% of young people believe writing is “boring.” However, 57 per cent of those who used text-based web applications such as blogs, said they enjoyed writing compared to 40 per cent who did not;
  • 56% of youth who had a blog or profile on a social networking site (SNS) reported to be confident in their writing ability: 61% of bloggers and 56% of social networkers claimed to be good or very good at writing, compared to 47% of those who had neither.
  • A total of 13% of children surveyed had their own website, 24% kept their own blog and 56 % had a profile on a social networking site like Facebook or Bebo;
  • Social web activity was also credited with encouraging children to engage with more traditional forms of writing. Those who were active online were "significantly more likely" to write short stories, letters, song lyrics and diaries than those who had no online presence;
  • The National Trust urges that kids should be encouraged to write blogs and use social networking sites like Facebook to improve literacy levels and encourage them to engage in writing…
 

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The hidden power of language

The idea that language shapes (if not determines) our perspectives, indeed what we may think, has been around for a long time. I have encountered examples of the phenomenon in teaching ESL and EFL (English as a Foreign Language). For example, some Chinese students and I once disputed the colour of something we were all looking at only to discover that our mother tongues cut the spectrum into somewhat different arbitrary bits in the blue/green section. The “real” spectrum has no divisions; our language imposes or constructs divisions.

So I am drawn (via the Arts & Letters Daily) to HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? [6.12.09] by Lera Boroditsky.

For a long time, the idea that language might shape thought was considered at best untestable and more often simply wrong. Research in my labs at Stanford University and at MIT has helped reopen this question. We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity…

Scholars on the other side of the debate don’t find the differences in how people talk convincing. All our linguistic utterances are sparse, encoding only a small part of the information we have available. Just because English speakers don’t include the same information in their verbs that Russian and Turkish speakers do doesn’t mean that English speakers aren’t paying attention to the same things; all it means is that they’re not talking about them. It’s possible that everyone thinks the same way, notices the same things, but just talks differently.

Believers in cross-linguistic differences counter that everyone does not pay attention to the same things: if everyone did, one might think it would be easy to learn to speak other languages. Unfortunately, learning a new language (especially one not closely related to those you know) is never easy; it seems to require paying attention to a new set of distinctions. Whether it’s distinguishing modes of being in Spanish, evidentiality in Turkish, or aspect in Russian, learning to speak these languages requires something more than just learning vocabulary: it requires paying attention to the right things in the world so that you have the correct information to include in what you say.

Such a priori arguments about whether or not language shapes thought have gone in circles for centuries, with some arguing that it’s impossible for language to shape thought and others arguing that it’s impossible for language not to shape thought. Recently my group and others have figured out ways to empirically test some of the key questions in this ancient debate, with fascinating results. So instead of arguing about what must be true or what can’t be true, let’s find out what is true…

 
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Posted by on June 30, 2009 in challenge, English language, for teachers

 

Good academic writing source for seniors and university students

In answering a recent comment I found the following site from Monash University. It is very good.

monash

 

For many kids Civics is arid, deadly dull and is thus hard to teach

That, I suspect, is part of the problem behind the story in today’s AustralianStudents do badly in study of civics. I really don’t think results would have been much better fifty years ago when I was fifteen.

STUDENTS’ knowledge of Australia’s system of government is lower than expected, with only one in three Year 10 students knowing what the Constitution is.

The national assessment of civics and citizenship in Years 6 and 10 found about 54 per cent of primary students and 41 per cent of high school students met the proficiency standards for their year. But about one in five Year 10 students failed to meet the Year 6 standard.

"This was especially the case in relation to information about the constitutional structure of Australian democracy," the report says. "Lacking such fundamental information will restrict the capacity of students to make sense of many other aspects of Australian democratic forms and processes, and they may, therefore, be disadvantaged in their capacity to engage in meaningful ways in many other levels of civic action or discourse."

At Year 6, students are expected to recognise the division of governmental responsibilities in a federation, identify a link between a change in Australia’s identity and a change in the national anthem, recognise the benefit of different political parties and the federal budget.

By Year 10, students are expected to recognise key functions and features of parliament, analyse the common good as a motivation for becoming a whistleblower, explain the importance of a secret ballot, and recognise how the independence of the judiciary is protected. On the Constitution, Year 10 students were asked "what is the Australian Constitution?" and given four possible answers: the rules about how the major Australian political parties are run; the policies of the Australian federal government; the framework for the ways Australia is governed; all the laws that Australian citizens must obey…

Look at the last paragraph there! Did I know all that fifty years ago? Answer: NO! What do we expect then? Why, aside from pious hopes, should we expect 100% of kids to have mastered all that arcane matter?

On the other hand, kids today do have advantages. In the web world there are some marvellous sources of information. Even the Book of Answers from the last government’s ill-conceived citizenship tests is not a bad resource on these and other matters. But then there are sites such as Australian Politics and Oz Politics. Certainly it isn’t hard to find out these days; in my day it was less easy.

There is a big role here too in well organised excursions to parliaments and courts, as many schools do. The information people there are often brilliant, and the whole thing becomes more concrete. On the other hand bureaucratic responses to child safety issues have made organising any excursion a logistic nightmare, so I suspect there has probably been some reduction in such activities. A shame. Mock courts and parliaments are another approach that can bring these matters to life.

Coincidentally, yesterday I found myself with a 15-16 year old from China, a recent arrival whose English is developing, trying to help him with a Legal Studies task on the rule of law – and a whole host of other key terms all crowded into one or two of his school lessons. A challenge. We did our best.

 

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A Dolphin or a Lonely Transvestite? Thoughts on the story of English.

That puzzling headline is taken from a fascinating review article on Slate.com: “A Dolphin or a Lonely Transvestite? How best to talk about English in English.”

… But it’s hard to resist the urge to pick a particular kind of animal as the perfect emblem for English. McWhorter says it’s a dolphin among deer. He calls German, Dutch, Yiddish, Danish, and other close English relatives antelopes, springbok, and kudu. English has evolved so far away from the basic language body plan, he says, that it swims underwater and echolocates. McWhorter himself strays far from English-language dogma, which says that, first, our language is special because of its openness to new words and, second, that the displaced Celts had little to no impact on English. He argues that English grammar, thanks to the pre-English inhabitants of Britain, is what really makes it unique. Welsh and English are two of very few languages in the world that use something like -ing as a habitual way of marking present tense, not to mention a fairly unusual use of do, as in "Why does English use do in questions?" It can be no coincidence, says McWhorter, that these two languages coexisted for hundreds of years in England and both have these highly unusual features.

Abley says English is a mallard because the common duck’s indiscriminate interbreeding threatens indigenous duck breeds all over the world. In the same way, modern English infiltrates diverse languages everywhere. Today, English is spoken by billions of people all over the globe. Mandarin may have more native speakers, and Spanish and Hindi-Urdu have about the same number, but English claims a special distinction: It is so popular among language learners that there are more speakers of English as a second language than there are native speakers. English is now the language of urbanization and globalization.

You could as easily call English a whale for its size. Hitchings says there were about 50,000 English words 1,000 years ago. Now there are at least three-quarters of a million. Though the inflation began when English was spoken only in England, it continued apace when English began its migration across the world. It occurred via trade and during the Crusades, when words from Arabic like dragoman, algebra, crimson, and cotton entered the language. It continued in an extraordinary period of linguistic plasticity following the Renaissance: Between 1500 and 1600, approximately 39 of every 100 words in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary entered the language. English expanded symbiotically with the British Empire, which, at its height, covered more than one-quarter of the planet’s surface. The slave trade left its mark, too. Hitchings says that honkie, hip, and possibly OK come from Wolof, which was originally spoken in Senegal, Mauritania, and Gambia. English ballooned again by at least 90,000 words in the 20th century, a period characterized by many scientific advancements and not coincidentally turning up words like robot, from the Czech noun robota, meaning forced labor…

If this makes you curious about language and general and English in particular, good! English teachers – here is an area that I have found is fascinating to students, even ESL students who haven’t been speaking the language for all that long. In fact, they are, I find, often even more curious about such things than native speakers, I guess because the language is still a wonderful and challenging thing for them and not something to be taken for granted. Do consider exploring such things with your students.

 
 

Worth visiting

And yet another email informed me about this site:

multimedia

…which is how it looks in Google Chrome. 🙂

MULTIMEDIA ENGLISH CLASSROOM is a free online classroom to learn English, designed for students from all around the world. It uses authentic material and is targeted at students of English who already have a basic knowledge of the language (though we’ll soon have a section for absolute beginners too). If you can read this and understand it (at least the general idea), then this virtual classroom is for you!

This website is very young, but it is growing quickly. Every week (on Sunday) new material is posted and the old material is moved to libraries where you can access the stuff published here before…

Most of the language used here is authentic English not adapted to any specific level and taken from real sources. Though my language is British English, so that is the variety I use myself, the material on this site comes from different countries, especially the UK and the USA; there are even some non-native speakers too. That way, you train yourself to use and understand English as it is, the English used by natives (not the simplified, artificial language nobody uses in real life).

The activities and videos are usually loaded with lots of help and explanations in case you need it. If your level is low, understanding the general idea is more than enough, or sometimes trying to understand a few things here and there will help you progress. If your level is advanced, then you should be able to focus on more difficult aims.

And remember, the more you listen and read, the more you will understand.

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2008 in English language, ESL, esl for students, student help

 

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Spell it like it is | spiked

Spell it like it is | spiked by Frank Furedi, author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004), is a mix of sense and nonsense in my view. First the nonsense:

In essence, variant spelling is a true companion to the idea of variant truths. Contemporary cultural life has become estranged from the idea of Truth with a capital T. In academia, social scientists never tire of informing students that there are no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers. Instead of the truth, people are exhorted to accept different perspectives as representing many truths.

The demotion of the status of truth calls into question the purpose of gaining knowledge. Celebrating variant truths, like variant spellings, is presented as a pluralistic gesture of tolerance. In fact it represents a reluctance to take education and its ideas seriously. And not surprisingly, those who do not take ideas seriously are also not very worried about how they are spelled.

Only if you like grinding axes, Frank! Talk about reading things into stuff… The question of how best to deal with errors, spelling or otherwise, has been around long before those deep cultural matters of postmodernism and relativity that so vex cultural conservatives. There are areas where pluralism is extremely appropriate, in my view — religion not least. Religious tolerance, much to be desired in the modern world, depends on such pluralism, as it not such a long step from rejecting that to deciding “You’re right and I’m wrong, so I’m afraid I have to kill you…”

But spelling?

Yes, I am in favour of people being able to spell English words correctly; always have been. But I try not to confuse issues in the manner of Frank Furedi. I do not see spelling errors as evidence of cultural rot. I do see them as inconveniences for writers and readers, and therefore to be dealt with. So I can sympathise with Frank Furedi when he complains that this is not good enough:

My principal objection to ‘variant spelling’ is that it reinforces the pernicious idea that children and young people today cannot be expected to meet the difficult challenge of learning how to use language correctly. For some time now, influential educators have asked whether it is desirable to teach children correct spelling. Some pedagogues argue that teaching spelling is a waste of time that serves no positive purpose. Others claim that an insistence in the classroom on spelling everything correctly frustrates those who suffer from learning disabilities and dyslexia.

I suspect he has never seriously considered the issues of learning disabilities and dyslexia. I have, and am perfectly able to reconcile thinking teaching spelling is far from a waste of time with adjusting my practice when dealing with those with learning difficulties.

Sorry, but Furedi really is a bit of a windbag on this matter.

Yes, you can learn about spelling on this site: I’m a poor speller. Can you help?