Glass Houses and Stones

captureI’m a total CBC fangirl, but nonetheless, on a regular basis you can find me raging out at my radio,  verbalizing my disagreement with some host or guest, much to the entertainment/chagrin of my partner. Saturday’s episode of Day Six was one such occasion. Host Brent Bambury interviewed Ross and Kathy Petras on their new book You’re Saying it Wrong: A Pronunciation Guide to the 150 Most Commonly Mispronounced Words and Their Tangled Histories of Misuse.

Ugh. I had a couple of issues with this piece. (I haven’t read the book! I’m only reacting to the interview.)

I am not a huge fan of prescriptivism, language pedantry and masquerading style preferences as rules of right vs. wrong. (I’ve written about them before; in other places they’ve written about it much more extensively than I have.) I generally don’t get on a high horse about language use. But when you write a book on pronunciation called You’re Saying it Wrong, well, all bets are off. You’ve opened yourself up for some language snarking.

The verb is “pronounce” and the noun is “pronunciation”. Both Brent Bambury and Ross Petras used the non-words “pronounciation” and “mispronounciaion” on several occasion during the interview.

I know  “pronounciation” is far from uncommon; I’ve heard it quite a bit, from speakers of a variety of backgrounds (proficient/less proficient in English, highly educated/ lower education, English teacher/non-teacher). I’ve actually had someone on Twitter argue that it was becoming acceptable use. I, however, don’t think it’s quite at that point yet.  I maintain that this word was being pronounced incorrectly on a show about correct pronunciation and is therefore extremely ironic. (It’s also an awesome example of Muphry’s Law!)

I find these types of books and the interviews about them quite frustrating. It’s an example of the way of thinking that promotes the idea that language is the domain of all; if you can speak it, then you’re an expert in it, and we have to listen to your opinions on it. t’s mentioned in the interview that the authors aren’t linguists (as if you couldn’t tell!).

So what happens is that they talk about a bunch of random examples of things that peeve them, and talk about them as if they’re these special, mysterious things that are totally weird and inexplicable, as opposed to presenting them as the known linguistic phenomena they are.

They bring up the example of “spitting images” vs. “spit and images”, for example. This isn’t some random bizarre thing; this evolution of the words of an idiomatic phrase into something that sounds very similar is known as an eggcorn. There are tons of them, and they’re really interesting (and often entertaining) to examine. Like, guys, it’s a thing already.  You guys just don’t really know much about language, so you don’t know that (or at the very least don’t mention it in the interview).

In an (interview on a) book on pronunciation of words, you could get into so much interesting content. They do mention metathesis, which is great, but there’s so much more.  I’m by no means any type of expert in this area of linguistics but I find the the different classifications of loanwords and their nativization, calquing, phono-semantic matching, eggcorns, and a lot of the other phenomena that influence our pronunciation of words to be completely fascinating. Even just the issue of prescription vs. use is very interesting. But in the interview when this issue comes up–with the word “gif”, which they say that 99% of the population pronounce /gIf/ but apparently the person who invented them says /dZIf/–they just gloss over it and talk about how much of an idiot you sound like if you say /gIf/, avoiding what could be a really interesting discussion about language in use.

I’m kind of disappointed in the CBC for spending so much time talking to these non-experts on air. Like, invite in guests with some knowledge and insight! For example, maybe I own cats, and I observe all the crazy things they do around the house. And maybe I have some opinions on that behaviour and maybe even write a book on those opinions. But you’re not going to invite me in to talk on the radio as an expert on animal behaviour, are you?

Here’s one example from the CBC of how to talk about language. Find an actual expert, and have them talk about the phenomena, bringing in social, historical and phonological points of note. The only thing missing from that piece is any type of sound recording/samples.

 

 

 

 

 

Does Morality Change in a Foreign Language?

captureI just came across this interesting article in Scientific American: How Morality Changes in a Foreign Language.

I admit when I saw the title, I was expecting it to be another re-hash of linguistic relativity, aka. the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  However, the focus of this article is not on comparisons of how speakers of different language may or may not experience the world differently, but rather on the contrast between any one speaker’s first language and any “foreign” language acquired later in life and how they may make decisions differently in the different language in their repertoire.

I haven’t delved into any of the source studies in their article yet,  but for me it would be crucial to see if the issue of proficiency is discussed. Of course someone is going to make decisions differently in a different language if their level of proficiency is very low. The issue then shifts from the discussion of first vs. foreign language to languages in which one is fluent vs. less proficient, and how that affects decision-making.

They author does make the link between decision-making and cognitive activity, and this would be an area where proficiency would come into play. The lower the language proficiency, the higher the cognitive load:

“Why does it matter whether we judge morality in our native language or a foreign one? According to one explanation, such judgments involve two separate and competing modes of thinking—one of these, a quick, gut-level “feeling,” and the other, careful deliberation about the greatest good for the greatest number. When we use a foreign language, we unconsciously sink into the more deliberate mode simply because the effort of operating in our non-native language cues our cognitive system to prepare for strenuous activity.”

It would be interesting to compare groups of people who were fluently bilingual from childhood vs. those who learned their foreign language later in life, and see if the above explanation held out.

Learner identity is also brought up in the first paragraph:

“And yet, like many other people who speak more than one language, I often have the sense that I’m a slightly different person in each of my languages—more assertive in English, more relaxed in French, more sentimental in Czech. Is it possible that, along with these differences, my moral compass also points in somewhat different directions depending on the language I’m using at the time?”

What’s I think it’s interesting to remember here is not that the linguistic attributes of Czech or French make you behave in or feel a certain way, nor is it simply a matter of different brain activity in L1 v. foreign language centres in the brain. The host of social factors present when you learned and use each of those languages shapes you identity as a user of that language. This is cognitive science research that focuses on the brain, but in cases of linguistic or language learner identity, I think it is very simplistic to strip away the myriad of social factors that influence how you act and feel in a foreign tongue.

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.

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

Chatbots and Academic Writing?

astar_playsafe
Astar the Robot could put their arm back on, but can they provide effective feedback on writing?

Today I came across this article on a university teaching assistant who was actually a computer. “Ms. Watson” managed to fool students and fellow TAs alike, as “she” quickly and accurately answered the barrage of questions on the online forum for a computer science course in Georgia.

Many of the questions this robot, and most of us teaching in a university setting, respond to are requests for information that is easily accessible elsewhere–course syllabus, handouts, lecture notes, textbook, etc. What if we extended this information-gathering function that AI is so good at to the regulative rules of English grammar, spelling and structure? Could a robot like this be useful in an EAP or academic writing class?

There already “robots” of sorts being used to correct writing, such as the ETS Criterion Online Writing Evaluation Service, which provides “immediate, detailed feedback on grammar, spelling, mechanics, usage, and organization and development” so that instructors can “can concentrate on the content and style of students’ work and teach higher level writing skills”. I’d love to hear from anyone who uses this or a similar service at their institution. I’ve only ever been exposed to this program in the context of TOEFL practice exams. I wonder, does this division of labour between grammar/mechanics and style/content actually work out this way? I also wonder about the format and nature of the feedback given by this software; there’s certainly no shortage of debate in the academic literature on the issue of written corrective feedback with far from across-the-board consensus on the most effective treatment of errors. .

My students regularly use software like Grammarly and Ginger Grammar, but in some cases, without the guidance of a teacher or someone more proficient in and knowledgeable about the English language, they often have difficulties in correctly applying the suggestions made or stumble on the gap between grammar and style. Chatbots have also been used as a tool for TESOL, mostly for writing practice to improve fluency, but they have their shortcomings as well.

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 Swedish Number: Speaking task?

CaptureIf I was teaching a speaking class right now, I would definitely turn making a call to The Swedish Number into a speaking assignment.

The Swedish Number is an initiative of the Swedish Tourism Board, which is a phone number which “connects callers to a switchboard and then, wherever in the world they are, to “a random Swede, somewhere in Sweden.”

There are so many directions you could take an assignment based around The Swedish Number.

  • For a low-level English language learner, especially one in an EFL environment, the call would simply serve as great interactive speaking practice. They could work off a script or prompt if needed, and prepare and practice strategies for asking for clarification or repetition, asking the interlocutor to slow down, etc.
  • If a student was studying  vocabulary or other language from a particular topic area, academic discipline, or hobby or area of interest, they could call the number and try to pursue a conversation in that direction. The direction the conversation took, though, would depend on the random Swede who picked up the phone.
  • If a student was planning to travel, study or do business with Sweden, then it would be a no-brainer to have them call. Bonus points for asking the random Swede about language issues, how widespread English use is, some rudimentary phrases in Swedish, etc.
  • If my student was studying English for business in order to work on an international team, was studying English for academic purposes to be able to present and publish at international conferences, I might bring up the concept of English as a Lingua Franca. I’d explain what it is and walk about some of the features, maybe giving them a reading on it, and then ask them to call the Swedish Number and talk with the person as an applied exercise in ELF.
  • Assuming that the random Swede who answers the phone is going to have a good level of proficiency in English, then I would ask students to call and talk to the random Swede about their language learning strategies, experiences and tips.
  • If I were playing around with language learning identities in class, I would encourage my students to call and “try out” some different personalities in English with the random Swede who answers.

Any more ideas? This number will only be working for a limited time, something like 135 more days, so get on it!

 

Presentation @ IATEFL Birmingham

I’Birmingham_Logo_webm excited to be presenting at IATEFL Birmingham on the topic of EAP Pathway Program Study and Academic Success at University. My session is on  Friday 15th April at 12:30-13:00 in Executive Room 1.

My doctoral research revolves around the teaching and learning of English in the university context, and so I’m hoping some other people working and researching in this area make it out for my session so we can get a good discussion going. Unlike most of my past conference presentations, this is a research talk focusing on my and others’ research, rather than a practical talk full of immediately applicable ideas. It’s a bit of a change, but I’m looking forward to it.

Dialogue

Scene: Dinner party conversation with random friend of friend I’m meeting for the first time.

Friend-of-friend: What do you do for a living?

Me [aloud]: I work in ESL. [briefly describes context]

Friend-of-friend: Oh, well, I used to work with new immigrants, teaching them pronunciation. I didn’t teach them grammar or anything, just pronunciation.

Me [inner dialogue]: I’m sure you are extremely well-meaning, and that these people learning English will benefit from language input hours talking with you, the chance to practice and apply their speaking skills with you, social interaction and contact with you to boost their confidence. But I’m pretty sure your training/qualification in this are are non-existent, so please don’t call yourself an English teacher, and I really hope you weren’t charging these people money! [shudders while imagining all types of shouty “NO. THAT’S WRONG. SAY. IT. LIKE. ME.” pronunciation “teaching” techniques]

Friend-of-friend: [shares inaccurate observation about sociolinguistic challenges facing newcomers to this region that’s insulting to both newcomers and locals.]

Me [aloud]: [In a socially graceful way, offers a more nuanced counter-observation to the one shared.]

Friend-of-friend: No, that’s not the case.

Me [inner voice]: I wasn’t asking, I was telling you, or rather, sharing what’s been told to me by the hundreds of people per year, as opposed to your sample of n= <5. Ah well, I don’t feel like rocking the boat socially at this party, so I’m really not going to go into this.

Me [aloud]: Oh.

Friend-of-friend: You know what the worst accent is, though? THE SPANISH. [goes on about how horrible and hard the Spanish accent is to understand, even harder than the Middle Eastern and the Arab.] I was teaching this lady once, she had the strongest accent, and I worked with her for so long, but she just didn’t even improve one bit. And I tell you it wasn’t because of me. [goes on to blame this woman for having the nerve not to improve her accent].

Me [inner voice]: Oh wow, so you must have drawn on your in-depth knowledge of the phonological systems and articulatory phonetics of North American English and South American Spanish, the most challenging phonemes and prosodic patterns for Spanish L1 learners of English, your familiarity the interplay of grammar/meaning and pronunciation, with the concepts of fossilization, learner identity and its influence on pronunciation performance, and access to a wide inventory of exercises for pronunciation explanation and practice and the ability to scaffold said exercises and explanations, in working with this woman, right? No? Oh, so you happen to be able to speak English by an accident of birth and  then watched My Fair Lady a few times? Ok, yeah, that’s definitely more or less the same thing.

Me: [downs the rest of glass of wine. Changes subject to weather].