Canadian Spelling up in Smoke?

Capture2By now, my friends and family have become used to my regular raging as we drive past The Center on Windsor Street. I have nothing against the mission of this “hub of openness fostering community and collective growth”, but regarding their name…COULDN’T THEY HAVE SPELLED IT THE CANADIAN WAY?

The other industry in Canada that seems to have a love affair with American spelling is the vaping industry. There are a lot of vape shops that have popped up in the last few years, and the majority of them seem to prefer the American spelling “vapor” over the Canadian “vapour”, at least in Nova Scotia and PEI.



(Props to the Vapour Spot and the Vapour Trail for providing us a place to preserve our national linguistic identity while stocking up on e-cig juice!)

I don’t think there’s a secret American-led conspiracy to get rid of Canadian spelling conventions, nor do I blame “kids these days” or the “horrible ‘grammar’ teaching they receive in schools”. I tend to agree with Shuttleworth (2012), that computer language settings  play a very influential role in people’s, especially students’, exposure to and familiarity with spelling conventions. The default language on many Canadians’ computers is American English, and unless they have an interest in language or Canadian English, many never change these settings. So when Microsoft Word underlines colour (or vapour!) with those dreaded red dots, you’re probably just going to change it to color ( or vapor!) and move on.

But I do think there is a cumulative effect, and for many who don’t take a particular interest in the continuing use of Canadian spelling, the more you get used to seeing a word spelled a certain way, the weirder it is to see it spelled differently. Will the Vapour Trail eventually change their name?

Also, the fact that an update to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary is years overdue does not help.

(I suppose I should also stop assuming that before making a big decision such as choosing your company’s name, or having a large expensive sign printed, business owners stop and think and perhaps get someone to proofread things. Though of course, some companies do misspell their name on purpose. )


An Illustrated Style Guide?

elements of style illustratedI heard about The Elements of Style Illustrated
on the radio this past weekend. Illustrator Maira Kalman  had worked her magic on the ol’ Strunk and White chestnut and I was intrigued. An illustrated style guide? I pictured jazzy artistic renderings of the syntactic sentence trees I had to do in my undergrad. However, a bit of googling brought up several excerpts and examples of her warm painting style and the illustrations in the book. Many of them bring to life the example sentences Strunk and White use in the book. Beautiful work.

I did lament, though, that Kalman chose the most maligned of style guides (read takedowns of Strunk and White here, and here). Couldn’t she have chosen a corpus-based English grammar or style guide that’s based on English the way its actually used? Alas.

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.

AWELL 2016: Keynote Address

AWELLConferenceRackCard2016_02Feb03_Page_1-1200x533I’m giving the keynote address on the opening day of the Academic Writing and English Language Learners (AWELL) conference being held at Saint Mary’s University tomorrow. It’s a really neat conference which brings together a range of people who deal with writing in the university environment: ESL/EAP instructors, writing support centre tutors and administrators, and faculty who teach writing across the curriculum.

Here’s the abstract:

What to correct? How to correct? Why to correct? Focus on Form with Multilingual Writers

In the teaching of writing to multilingual writers, the grammar correction debate rages on—should we be sticklers about the fine points of grammatical accuracy or overlook errors that don’t inhibit communication? A focus on form gives rise to questions about which linguistic standards to adhere to, how to approach form and grammar when giving feedback, and what our students even gain from it. This talk will offer a look at differing approaches to form and grammar in the teaching of academic writing to multilingual writers, as well as the history, politics, and preferences surrounding these practices.

Here are the slides: AWELL 2016 Presentation

 My talk puts the forward the proposition that we should see our role as language specialists rather than just writing specialists. We should move past whatever prescriptivist tendencies we may have and work to promote a socio-literate perspective on language form and use in our classrooms that better suits the linguistically diverse university environment in Canada today.

The Joy of Dad Jokes

haircutDad jokes–jokes so corny, so lame, so obvious, they make us roll our eyes, groan and exclaim “DAAAAAaaaad!!!” like an embarrassed 8-year old. (Here are some, and some more, and yet another list, and even a Dad Joke Quiz.)

But could Dad Jokes be the gateway humour for language learners? Lots of people have written lots of stuff about humour and language learning:  learning about it and through it in the classroom, using humour as a teaching tool, and the challenge of understanding and making jokes as you learn a second or additional language.

Both as a language learner and teacher, I’ve felt that humour was the final frontier; the level of linguistic and cultural knowledge necessary to understand jokes in the media, in advertising, or those made socially was incredibly high. And making your own jokes was even more of a challenge.

But today I was giving a talk to some of the university campus tour staff on best practices for serving students whose first language is not English. Someone mentioned that the jokes he makes with tour groups whose English proficiency is lower often fall flat, and he wondered if it was best to avoid humour altogether. It made me think about how on different occasions some cheesy quip or aside I’ve made in the classroom has been met with roaring laughter. So I suggested he not cut out humour compeltely, but to keep it on the corny side.

Why are Dad Jokes accessible for learners? First, they’re usually super obvious. Lots of them deal with language, but very simple language. And the aspects of language that are at the centre of many Dad Jokes are the very linguistic phenomena that beguile learners: homophones (“Why can’t you play poker in the jungle? Because there are too many cheetahs”),  word boundaries (“Did you get a haircut? No, I got them all cut.”), multiple meanings of words (“Do you know where you can get chicken broth in bulk? The stock market.”), literal vs. figurative meaning (“Did you hear about the guy who invented Lifesavers? They say he made a mint.”), and syntactic ambiguity (“A ham sandwich walks into a bar and orders a beer. Bartender says, ‘Sorry we don’t serve food here.'”)

I think I might let my inner Dad shine in class over the next while and see what happens. Do you ever use Dad Jokes in class?



Linguistic Diversity and the CBC

cbc logoI love the CBC, especially CBC Radio, and I listen a lot, so I can’t help but reflect on what I’m hearing. And it’s long struck me that the CBC doesn’t go far enough in terms of linguistic diversity– in terms of regional linguistic diversity, the evolving nature of Canadian English , and the issue of nativeness.

I know that the CBC has a diversity policy, which is  great thing. The policy says the following:

“Canada’s population is made up of a wealth of cultures, linguistic and ethno-cultural communities, genders, sexual orientations, ages, religions and people with different abilities. Each of us contributes to the collective success. CBC/Radio-Canada is committed to reflecting the country’s diversity through its programming. All Canadians need to be able to recognize themselves on-air and know that its programs reflect the changing face of Canada on all platforms.

But the thing is, in terms of the national on-air personalities on CBC Radio, I don’t think they live up to this policy,

First, let’s talk about the standard Canadian English heard on-air. It is a fact of life that any language changes and evolves. Yet the CBC seems to maintain a certain old-fashioned, conservative idea of what Canadian English is, which is at odds with the way it’s actually spoken today by millions of people. A perfect example of this is the pronunciation of the word news  or  Tuesday. Traditionally, the Canadian pronunciation of the vowel in these words was more in line with the variant heard in many British dialects, with the palatal glide before the “u” vowel (/nju:z/ and /tju:zdej/); the absence of the /j/  (/nu:z/ and /tu:zdej/) is more common in American dialects. But the thing is, there’s been a lot of language change in that area, and in this study, for example, 80% of people under 40 dropped the /j/ in the word news, and it’s common even in the speech of 70-year-olds. Language changes, and this is one way in which Canadian English is evolving and has evolved. (And that study is from 20 years ago!) So why, according to a friend who works there, are  people who work at CBC Radio chastised if they say /nu:z/ on the air? That does not seem to be “reflecting the changing face of Canada”, as most young people don’t speak in a way that sounds like that. (And that’s only one example; there are others.)

Another way in which the CBC falls short of really allowing all Canadian to recognize themselves on air is in regional and social variation in the language of on-air personalities. The different Englishes in Canada sound different: the qualities of the vowels especially make Newfoundland English sound different from Edmonton English from Aboriginal English or the English of African-Nova Scotians. Regional programming is more representative, but most national personalities on CBC Radio, for example, all speak a “cleaned up” standard Canadian English that erases any regional flavour. I’m not proposing they get a bunch of Newfoundland fishermen to deliver the news in regionalisms and slang, but just that Standard Canadian English can be be spoken in a way that preserves some of the phonetic qualities present in the many Canadian Englishes. The BBC has done it; why couldn’t the CBC?

Finally, Canada prides itself for being a country of immigrants; a multi-cultural mosaic of cultures, right? Multi-cultural often means multi-lingual. Why don’t we hear any non-native speakers of English on the air as national radio personalities? I’m not talking about someone who is still in the beginning stages of learning the language but rather a high-fluency, extremely proficient speaker of English who just happens to speak it as a second or additional language, with some type of audible accent. I don’t think that would be a big deal. Non-native English speakers are my friends, colleagues and neighbours; why shouldn’t they be able to be heard on our public broadcaster?

I’ve been rhetorically asking why the CBC doesn’t get a bit more progressive in this area, but we know full well that if they made any of the three changes I’ve described above, they’d get hate mail in droves from that certain type of CBC listener that doesn’t like the youngs and their degenerate way of talking and that can only put up with the “awful twang” of the guys on Dead Dog Cafe or 22 Minutes in a comedy context and then, only for so long. But those type of reactions are barely disguised ageism, racism and regionalism most of the time: see certain people’s reaction to Shad as the new host of Q as a case in point. Rather than pandering to the old-fashioned and intolerant in its listenership, the CBC should show leadership and, by featuring a variety of voices on air, better fulfil its diversity mandate.

Upcoming webinar: Why is English So Weird?


I’m doing a webinar on March 7 with English Online called “Why is English so weird?” Looking to History to Answer Tough Learner Questions.

Here’s the description:

The particularities of English orthography, vocabulary and pronunciation are stumbling blocks for many learners. However, what may appear to be random makes sense if one looks at the history of the English language, and knowledge of this history can therefore shed light on how we handle common student questions. This presentation is aimed at new teachers or experienced educators wanting to refresh their approach to questions perennially present in our day-to-day teaching. Classroom activities aimed at developing learners’ language awareness, with a focus on the influence of the history of English on its present-day form, will be discussed.

Here are the handouts and slide for the presentation.

It’s only 30 minutes, so I don’t intend it to be a comprehensive survey of the history of English, but rather a look at some of the things that have influenced the English language over the years that have resulted in features  present in modern day English that are perplexing to learners. I”m really into bringing linguistic awareness into the classroom, so I’ll share some activities to get learners thinking about language as a system, as opposed to a series of random, disconnected phenomena.

I’m really excited about this. We offer a free ESL/EAP workshop series here for students enrolled at the university, and I developed one looking at this very topic. I then went ahead and named it something super boring and dry sounding (The History of English!), so the turnout was small, but the attendees were very keen to finally have explanations for aspects of English that had always just been explained to them as random exceptions or inexplicable. I’m looking forward to sharing  a lot of the material I developed for that workshop to teachers via this webinar. (We’re also planning to re-name the student workshop and offer it again in an upcoming semester!)

“See” you on March 7!

Lexicon Valley: How to Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Speak Much English

logoA post I wrote for the Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog, How to Talk to Someone Who Doesn’t Speak Much English, was posted today. It’s labelled as “Language Travel Tips”, but it was actually originally conceived of as a series of tips for people in countries where English is the dominant language to keep in mind in their interactions with non-native English speakers. It could be of use to ESL/EFL teachers trainers as well, especially those who work with primarily native speakers on their initial certification. Enjoy!

Stigmatized Speech Behaviour in the Classroom

2012-02-20_042110_language_iconPeople love a good bitch session about their pet peeves of speech. I’m constantly coming across articles in the mainstream media about different stigmatized speech behaviour, be it vocal fry, uptalk, nasal tones, “whisper-talkers”, overuse of “like”, or misuse of “literally”. (these are examples from North American English; different pet peeves are prevalent in each region.) Many of the forms most snarked about in mainstream media are associated with young people, and young women in particular.

I teach young people English. Teaching EAP in a university context means many of our students are aged 18-25, and learning English is not only a necessity to fulfill their academic and career goals, but also will be the medium through which they relate socially to their peers on campus and in their lives here in Canada. At this age many are in full identity exploration and creation mode, as they start a new life at a university far from home, and their identities as English learners and speakers are an important part of that process.

So what happens when your students want to learn and use stigmatized speech behaviour? On one hand, they hear their peers using uptalk (or “high rise terminals”), quotative “like”, and the “erroneous” (yet widespread) use of “literally”, and want to speak like they do. Language is, after all, one of our most important tools used to show solidarity with others, show social group membership and fit in. You can’t blame them for wanting to speak like their friends.

But bringing these features of speech into the classroom ups the ante. Inasmuch as an English teacher can, I have a descriptivist take on language, and therefore don’t mind explaining not only the structure and social context of use of any bit of language my students observe and bring to class (as opposed to “That’s bad English, never say it!) With any of the speech features mentioned above, I feel obliged to underline that even though lots and lots of people speak that way, there are many people out there who will judge you negatively for using that form, rightly or wrongly. (Vocal fry will hurt your career prospsects! Or not.) Many learners understand that to mean that the form is something “bad” that should be avoided; many learners I’ve encountered are accustomed to language being presented to them in a black and white prescriptivist way. And admittedly, I often leave it at that and move on with the class.

But my student just wants to fit in with the girls in residence. Is it really a big deal if one of my students uses extreme uptalk when she’s with her friends, as long as she tones it down when she’s doing a presentation for one of her classes? Should I take it one step farther and get into uptalk in my pronunciation lessons focusing on intonation? Would I be setting my students up to be judged as ditzy or dumb? Or would it be my contribution to us, as a society, just getting over uptalk and realizing it’s quite widespread and is no representation of any speaker’s intellectual ability whatsoever?

How do you deal with stigmatized speech in the classroom?