Why is English so Weird?

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconI really love working with advanced learners because we can delve into the history of English. In fact,  for many of the questions that arise, especially surrounding English vocab, I find I usually have no choice but to explain  things in light of history; otherwise, lots of aspects of modern standard English would seem quite random.

A while back I developed a two-hour workshops for advanced learners of EAP on the history of English (and I asked for your help doing it!). I wanted to create a workshop that explained aspects of modern-day English that could seem really strange to learners in light of the history of the language, to show that they didn’t just appear out of nowhere. The “OMG English makes no sense!” discourse is quite rampant (here and here are some examples..there are lots more!), even among English language teachers. I wanted us, as teachers, to go beyond the “That’s just the way it is!” response to students’ questions to be able to give them a more informed answer.

The first time I did it it was titled simply “The History of English”. Sounds dry, I know. 🙂 As it was part of a drop-in series of language workshops, the title really has an influence on the attendance, and well, let’s say that there were only a few people who came to the workshop the first time. I changed the title to “Why is English so Weird?”, which is essentially the question that guided the creation of the workshop. More people showed up each time it was offered with that title.

Here are my slides from that presentation. (As with many presentations, the slides may seem a bit sparse without the commentary and accompanying activities, but anyway… 🙂 We talk about and do some activities on language change and old, middle and modern English, Anglo-Saxon vs. Latinate vocabulary after the Norman conquest, spelling and spelling reformers such as Noah Webster, loanwords from other languages into English, the Great Vowel Shift and sound to spelling correlations in modern English. I end the session talking about singular ‘they’ as an example of the evolution of language that is taking place right now.

What inspired me to write this blog post is that I recently came across this Wikipedia page on English word with dual Anglo-Saxon and French/Norman variants. This particular aspect of English vocabulary is so important for EAP, as that Latinate/French-origin vocabulary makes up so much of English’s general academic vocabulary as well as much disciplinary vocab. Learners of English whose first language non-European often don’t have a sense of  which words have a Latinate origin and which don’t, so awareness raising around this issue can help them develop a better sense of register and informal/formal vocabulary.


Language Practice into Teaching Practice

A colleague and I were recently discussing the issue of which aspects of our professional practice as language instructors are informed by our formal training, which by our classroom teaching experience and which by our own personal experience as learners and users of additional languages. The topic came up in regards to the issue of the acquisition of metaphorical competence. For both of us, our own experiences of the process of becoming aware of the metaphorical schemata we hold in our L1, and then overcoming those to fully acquire metaphorical competence in other languages greatly informs how we approach teaching from the most basic structures to collocations, phrasal verbs, and idioms.

Anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of travel and work in one of my additional languages lately, doing a lot of meetings and presentations in Spanish across Latin America. This has also made me reflect on how much of my teaching is informed by my own experiences in learning and using additional languages. Very practical strategies for learning and communication are another area that I draw on, sharing my own strategies with my students. There are the things we always advise our students to do—we all have our old chestnuts—but it’s good to have a reminder every so often of some of the real-life challenges that may come up and some practical advice on how to cope.

Here is what has stood out for me lately:

Predict and Prepare

One mantra I always emphasize when working with advanced users of academic English preparing for academic presentations, conferences or their thesis defence is predict and prepare. In advance of any particular event or context where they will have to talk about their research or discuss ideas in their field, they should think hard to predict what they have to talk about, and questions they may be asked or the responses they may have to give. Then, I advise them to actually sit down and prepare a list of the key words, concepts, terminology, expressions they will need to draw on in doing all of the above. They should not just make a simple list, but include common synonyms or collocations and related word forms, as well as pronunciation. Most people are used to the concept of rehearsing presentations, but I encourage students to also practice smaller-scale or more informal sections of these communicative events, such as Q and A responses, answers to certain predicted interview questions, and rebuttals to criticisms of one’s research.

I’ve certainly had to practice what I preach in this respect with regards to my recent work in Spanish. When presenting in English, I don’t tend to script things too closely; I’ll prepare notes or points on a Powerpoint and then speak off of them rather extemporaneously. But in Spanish I’ve been speaking about an area with a lot of specialized terminology, which I’ve really had to research and prepare for. Thankfully, a lot of the questions I receive are easily predictable, so that has helped me focus my preparation.

Regional variation and register

I’ve done work in 5 different Latin America countries in the last two months, each with its own patterns of second person pronoun use (tu, usted, vos, etc.) and variation in register. I’ll try to read up on the use of pronouns in each country before I get there, but there’s only so much an article can tell you. I try to be very sensitive and observant around patterns of use and how they vary in service encounters, meetings and when speaking to and advising  youth and prospective students, where the age factor comes into play. But it’s tricky! I try to err on the side of formality if in doubt.

This has inspired me to put more emphasis on register in my classes. Sometimes there can be a tendency to view English as simple in this respect, as there is only one second person singular pronoun. But I am feeling inspired about spending more time on examining the other ways register, hierarchy, respect, distance, etc. are expressed in English in interpersonal encounters, and encouraging learners to be observant and sensitive to these phenomena. I used to spend a lot of time approaching register in this way when I taught a lot of business English, but in an EAP context I find the focus tends to be on informal vs. academic writing and speech. I think the regional variation in register in Anglophone countries is also important, but as is usual in many ELT materials, the discussion tends to stop at British vs. American differences. Those trying to figure out register in Canada are left to figure it out for themselves! Observation of patterns and sensitivity become all the more important.

Informal Recasts

Awareness of the fact that even recasts in formal classroom settings go ignored most of the time has left me determined to try to listen for them and incorporate them to improve my accuracy, especially of vocabulary. For example, in a conversation with a student, I had used the term biología marítima to refer to marine biology, but he replied using the term biología marina. “Whoops!”, I said to myself, and took note to correct that term in my internal dictionary.

Does awareness of the research around recasts and the fact that they often lead to very little uptake make learners more likely to listen for them, take them in, and therefore make them more likely to be effective? I think it does, and always bring this up in class, especially in speaking and pronunciation classes.


Finally, not that there as any doubt, but these experiences have driven home the importance of fluency and confidence (over accuracy) in asserting yourself and being accepted as a user of a particular language. Many people, whether subconsciously or consciously, hold the idea that fluency (interplaying with pronunciation here) in a language reflects your cognitive state. So in real-life professional communicative situations it’s best to just employ any strategies necessary to get on with things, rather than getting hung up on grammatical mistakes or blanking on a particular piece of vocab. Finding time in class not just to discuss these strategies, but to practice them via role plays or other activities is very important.


Reading Activity: Refugees

Hat tip to my colleague Tony Rusinak, who posted this great poem on his social media today: Refugees, by Brian Bilsten.


They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way

(now read from bottom to top)

Over and above the discussions that it would bring about on the topic of refugees, and the vocabulary work, this poem would make for a wonderful lesson.

  • You could print out two copies, one the way it’s written here, then another with the sentences in bottom-to-top order, and have students punctuate and adjust the capitalization on both, justifying their choices.
  • A follow up, once it were re-punctuated, would be to do some pronunciation work on thought groups, focus words and intonation. Then both versions could be read and compared not just in how the punctuation and capitalization differs, but also in how this affects aspects of pronunciation.
  • With more advanced groups, you could then try to have students write reverse poems. Or maybe palindrome poems.

Brian Bilsten has a ton of other fun and creative poetry on his website; I bet there’s lots more in there to use in the English classroom!


They Won’t Know Unless You Tell Them

One of my least favourite genres of article is the Kids these days…!  or Back in my day, we…. article focusing specifically on university students. At a very regular frequency, these articles appear in the mainstream press and in publications focusing on academia alike. They invariably consist of a lot of hang-wringing because unlike the (usually Baby Boomer-age) authors of these articles, today’s university students are brainwashed capitalist zombies addicted to social media, who can’t spell or use grammar correctly, and are coddled snowflakes who can’t handle the real world without a trigger warning.

That’s why I loved this article, What First Years Might Not Know and What To Do About It. It’s short blog post listing academic behaviours–emailing, note-taking, interacting with professors–that many first-years lack upon arriving at university simply because they’ve never learned them. The post reminds faculty and staff that they may have to explicitly teach these behaviours. Your first-year students don’t know how to write a proper email? Rather than bemoan that this indicates that the decline of Western civilization, well, just teach them how to do it and get on with it.

And if students are not exposed to these academic behaviours in North American high schools and have to be taught, then what about students who are arriving to a completely new academic culture when they arrive at a Canadian university from another country? For me, this further underlines the need for academic expectations and behaviours to be made explicit and specifically taught to domestic and international students alike. Academic English is no one’s mother tongue, and similarly, no one is born knowing that you shouldn’t use emojis in an email to your prof. If you want someone to act in a certain way, well, then show and tell them what you want; otherwise, how are they supposed to know?

NYT Writing Prompts

Capture I recently came across the New York Time’s list of 401 prompts for argumentative writing. This would come in handy in many an EAP classroom, where opinion or argumentative essays in various forms are taught at most levels, really. The topics and questions are such that most of them could form the prompt for an essay being written purely from a student’s own background knowledge, experience and opinions, or for a research essay drawing on external sources of information.

There is also a list of prompts for personal or narrative writing, along with a lesson called “From ‘Lives’ to ‘Modern Love’, Writing Personal Essays with Help from the New York Times”. It’s true that those two particular sections/columns in the NYT are particularly interesting and engaging; not to mention that there’s an archive with thousands of relatively short, easy-to-engage-with texts that could be mined for any number of uses in a writing class.

Also fun to use would be the daily picture prompt. This could be especially flexible for use with lower levels, or as a prompt for genres other than the essay, such as creative writing.

Video: How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada

CaptureI recently came across a video by CBC News called How to Talk about Indigenous People in Canada, featuring Inuk journalist Ossie Michelin, that I think would be a great classroom resource for those teaching in Canada. It’s language-focused, explaining the levels of specificity of different terms related to indigenous peoples in Canada and some aspects of use. It’s also extremely clear, concise and explanatory, which ideal for those who might not have extensive background knowledge on indigenous peoples in Canada–such as newcomers to Canada or many Canadians of a white settler background whose schooling in this area may be lacking.

I’ve had several students over the years who have come to the classroom without the nuanced and complete linguistic repertoire needed to talk about complex and historically-rooted social issues such as identity, privilege, racism or colonialism. In some cases it seems apparent that they’ve only been exposed to or learned words and terms that reflect the systemic racism present in pop culture and mainstream society, but lack knowledge of the heavy social and historical baggage and power some of those words carry.

I consider it part of my duty as a language teacher to first get myself informed as to the more appropriate and socially just linguistic choices to make when talking about complex issues (and keep myself informed as society and language, evolve and change), and then to pass that knowledge on to my students.

BC TEAL is putting on a webinar entitled An Indigenous Strategy for the ESL Classroomwhich seems like it could be one example of initiatives being taken towards the reconciliation of the ESL/EAL world and the indigenous communities in Canada; a relationship which has been troubled in the past by things such as denials of racism in ELT coursebooks.

I would love it if you could share in the comments any other people, groups or institutions working on Indigenous-ELT reconciliation in Canada.

Teaching Idea: Phoneme Prevalence Chart


 I came across this fascinating chart on Twitter a few days ago of the prevalence of phonemes amongst the world’s languages. Though it could come off as intimidating for someone who doesn’t know IPA, I think that it could be interesting to draw upon in the classroom. It could spark conversation around the fact that some sounds that are common and fundamental in English might actually be rare cross-linguistically, and therefore difficult for some.  It could be a confidence booster for someone who is struggling with a certain sound to know that there is a reason why they find it difficult, and that they’re not the only one.

I think it could also be interesting to get students to think of the phonemic inventory of their L1 and think about overlap with English (though as this chart shows phonemic inventory and not phonetic, there could be sounds in English which also appear in students’ L1s which are not phonemes but exist in allophonic distribution). Here is an amazing resource on phonemic inventories of different languages (along with other cultural and linguistic info). Although these resources have been made for speech-language pathologists and audiologists, they could definitely prove handy for an English teacher focusing on pronunciation.

ELF Pronunciation in Brazil

Most of my pronunciation teaching has taken place in inner circle contexts; mainly, Canada. Standard Canadian English is quite present in terms of models of pronunciation and goals for comprehension on behalf of many students in this context, as much of their interaction is with local native speakers.

Soon I’m going to be doing some speaking and pronunciation teaching in Brazil, an expanding circle context that’s new to me, and so I thought I’d do a bit of research on the Lingua Franca Core, Jenkins’ (2000) proposal for the core set of phonological features that are most crucial for intelligibility.

I plan to cross reference list of ELF core features with the list of features of  Brazilian Portuguese that tend to be most salient in Brazilians’ learner English and focus on these in the course.

What I’ve come up with so far is the following. This list of summaries of the LF Core features is from this amazing blog, and I’ve added my comments in bold below each of their  summaries.

1. Consonant sounds

‘Dark /l/’ (also written as [ɫ]) is not necessary.  Speakers can substitute ‘clear /l/’ (possibly preceded by a schwa if the /l/ is syllabic, like at the end of ‘bottle’).  

In particular, I plan to focus on the substitution of /w/ for /l/ that often occurs word finally, and try to encourage a clear /l/ in this context.

• /r/ should be pronounced as in General American pronunciation (technically called a “rhotic retroflex approximant” and written as [ɻ].  It should also be pronounced everywhere it occurs in spelling, as in American English.

Brazilian Portuguese (BP) has two ‘r’:  /ʁ/ and /ɾ/, and while the latter does not impede comprehension, substitution of  /ʁ/ for /ɻ/ in most contexts in English, especially word-initially, can really affect comprehension.  I plan to work on raising awareness of the patterns of ‘r’ in BP and trying to get students to work on producing some kind of rhotic something word-initially and in the coda position.


2. Consonant clusters

• If learners have trouble producing consonant clusters, it’s usually OK to insert a very short schwa vowel between consonants, providing they don’t then stress this syllable (e.g. ‘product’ could be pronounced more like [pә’rɒdʌkәtә] by Japanese speakers without damaging intelligibility).

• Similarly, learners can add a short schwa at the end of a word ending with a consonant, provided this does not create another word which it might be confused with (e.g. ‘hard’ sounding like ‘harder’).

Speakers of BP often epenthesize schwas into consonant clusters or on the end of words ending in voiced fricatives or affricates such as /dʒ/, etc. I’ll tryt o focus here on making that schwa as short and unstressed as possible. 

3. Vowels

• Length contrasts must be preserved, e.g. ‘pill’ versus ‘peel.  However, the actual quality of vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent (e.g. don’t keep switching between different pronunciations of the vowel in ‘hat’ so sometimes it sounds like RP [hæt] and sometimes it sounds like New Zealand [het]).

• The length of diphthongs must be preserved but, again, the actual quality of the vowels is less important, providing it’s consistent.

• When a vowel occurs before an unvoiced consonant, it should sound slightly shorter than when it occurs before a voiced consonant.  For example, the vowel in ‘right’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘ride’, and the vowel in ‘kit’ is slightly shorter than the vowel in ‘kid’.

• The /ɜː/ vowel, as in ‘girl’ or ‘first’, must be pronounced accurately.

YES to all these. Vowel length is so important and many learners of English are not aware of it. 

4. Word groups and nuclear stress

• The stream of speech should be divided into meaningful tone units (also known as ‘tone groups’, ‘word groups’ or ‘thought groups’).

• Nuclear stress (i.e. which word is stressed within a ‘tone group’) must placed appropriately, especially for contrast/emphasis.  This means the difference in meaning should be clear between, for example, ‘Let’s meet NEXT Saturday’ and ‘Let’s meet next SATURDAY’.

This aspect of pronunciation was the focus of Jane Setter’s great plenary at IATEFL 2017. It’s relatively straightforward to teach and raise awareness about and I plan to do so with this group. 

I have my work cut out for me!

Now, I know that word stress is not part of the LF Core! But I have observed that a tendency of speakers of BT to carry out schwa reduction on syllables that in stress-timed varieties of English are not reduced (in other words, syllables that are stressed or unstressed but not reduced to schwa), and I have seen it cause misunderstandings in interactions with native speakers and non-native speakers. This makes me inclined to bring it up in class.

Any of you ELF enthusiasts out there have more recommendations for me?



Corpus-based Grammars and Style Guides

I gave the keynote address at the AWELL Conference a few months ago, and one of the practical suggestions I included in my talk for writing teachers working with English language learners was to try to draw on corpus-based grammars and style guides based on real language use vs. those that try to pass off personal style preferences as hard and fast “rules”.

Here is an excerpt from that talk, with the references I included. The friendly folks of #tleap on Twitter pointed me toward some of them. I haven’t personally used all of these in the classroom, so welcome any comments and feedback on how well any of them hold up to real-life use.

 I suggest working from a grammar of English that draws on data from language corpora to determine what the constitutive rules of English are. For those of you that don’t know, a language corpus is a “body” of hundreds of millions of lines of text of the language in use. Some corpora compile thousands of newspaper and magazine articles, others academic texts, others fiction writing. So you have a huge repository of the language as its actually used by real people in real contexts. And you can analyze the language in a corpus using technological tools to determine the rules of a language based on how the language is actually used. So for example, if you’re wondering “Can I really never end a sentence in a preposition in an academic text?” corpus data will tell you that in fact, you can; lots of great writers do it all the time. They can’t all be wrong. Use determines the rules in the descriptive approach, remember? So that tells you that not ending a sentence in a preposition must simply be a style choice. (Though it’s debatable if it’s something everyone does literally all the time, if you’d really want to give much time to it. )

corpus grammarsSo here are some English Grammars that are corpus-based: 

Some of them have “learner’s editions” which are aimed at learners of English at lower levels of proficiency. They all endeavor to present the rules of English as it is actually used. Several will contrast frequency of use of a particular item in different contexts, for example in fiction writing versus academic writing.

garnerThe Garner texts (2016 editions), for example, highlight particular language points where there is disputed use. For example, maybe the traditional style guides say one thing, but lots of people do another. It gives corpus data showing the real patterns of use of that particular item, how common each variant is, and if there has been change over time.

 So for me, these are a more accurate choice. Why would we want to enforce grammar rules with multilingual writers that people don’t actually adhere to in real-life written academic English? And If you really want to nerd out, you can delve into corpora yourself to check out certain grammar points. The Google N-Gram viewer or the MICUSP corpus are good places to start. You may also be interested in reading linguist Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style”, which is written by a well-known author who grounds his advice for good writing in linguistic theory.

EAP Reading: Defining the Relationship

Here’s an interesting article that could make for a great reading for a class of EAP students about to enter their degree programs. As summarized by academica.ca:

Students need to better understand the role of a professor, writes CHE contributor

“I wonder if college students today truly understand the nature of their relationship to professors,” writes Rob Jenkins for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Jenkins argues that over his 31-year teaching career, he has seen the lines defining the professor-student relationship become increasingly blurry. In response to this shift, Jenkins lays out several points that he thinks all postsecondary students should know: a professor does not “work for” a student; a student is not a customer; and a professor is not a high school teacher, boss, parent, BFF, or adversary. Jenkins concludes by laying out point-by-point what he is willing to do for students before adding, “All in all, that’s not a bad deal.”

It’s written from he American perspective, so those using this in another context might have to explain/adapt some of the terminology (university for college, etc.). But I think it could make for a good reading and some great ensuing discussion. (Particularly brave teachers might even want to wade into the comments section on the article for added debate).

Defining the Relationship – The Chronicle of Higher Education