Friday, November 28, 2014

Adorkable and Hangry?

As an English teacher - and one who teaches to non-native speakers of English, I am often struck by words that are seemingly "invented" by speakers every year.  I often wonder whether these words sometimes crop up as slips of the tongue. For example, years ago, I remember meeting and talking with a very distinguished French professor in social science (Professor Bruno Latour) while he was at UCSD.  I was very nervous and excited to meet him, so as I was describing my observations at a symposium on chimpanzees, instead of saying "chimpanzee symposium," I said "chimposium." As soon as I said the word, he laughed and thought it was quite clever. In fact, the new word was what came out of my mouth as a result of being nervous and speaking quickly. I've used the word subsequently, of course, and it's possible that the term might have spread in our community of anthropologists, primatologists, and sociologists of science to refer to subsequent gatherings of chimpanzee experts. In fact, I found the word was invented and used more recently here with a slightly different meaning..

There is a TED talk that discusses neologisms such as adorkable and hangry (the title of this article) and how they become "real" words. The topic was especially intriguing to me because of my own memorable innovation (it's possible that many others have made that same slip of the tongue, however).  Because of that phenomenon, I can easily imagine words like "adorkable" (an adorable dork?) and "hangry" (simultaneous feeling of being hungry and angry) slipping out of someone's mouth while trying to describe their feelings of being both hungry and angry. I can also imagine listeners' approval and recognition of an imaginative new word and of it spreading from that one listener and speaker to his or her community and beyond. Ann Curzan doesn't address the "invention" of words such as "adorkable" and "hangry," but because of my own experience, I believe that sometimes new words or usages of words come into being as productions of some natural wiring in the brain that produces these combination words. In fact, an article about slips of the tongue and Freudian slips delves into this phenomenon and how these expressions can easily get picked up by an internet-wired community of speakers. I never tire of learning about language.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Was that a choice or a yes/no question?

Sometimes students have great difficulty understanding the importance of intonation when speaking. When a question has an "or" in the middle of it between two nouns, is the speaker asking you to choose between the two nouns, or is the speaker simply asking a yes/no question?

By changing the intonation of these two questions, a native speaker can differentiate between these two types of question. Can you say the questions below using two different intonations so that the meanings are different? 

Do you want to go to a movie or watch TV? (Choice)
Do you want to go to a movie or watch TV? (Yes/No)

In the choice question, the answer should be either "a movie" or "TV." However, in the Yes/No question above, the response should be "yes" or "no." Listen to the following videos to get an idea of what a choice question sounds like and how it is different from a "yes/no" question in intonation. The most important concept to keep in mind is the rising and falling intonation.

In a choice question, the voice goes up on the first choice and falls on the second choice as illustrated below.
                                 Q:  Do you want to go to a movie ⤴ or watch TV ⤵ ?
                                 A:  I'd like to watch a movie.

However, in a yes/no question, the voice goes up at the end of the question.
                                 Q:  Do you want to go to a movie or watch TV ⤴ ? 
                                  A: Yes. Let's do something relaxing.

If you have problems understanding the difference between the two types of question, listen to the examples and practice. Then practice some more. You should also record yourself using a device like Try to approximate the pronunciation of the people in the videos. Have fun!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Spelling Matters

The word "matters" has a double meaning here. (However, matter actually has more than two meanings or uses.) One meaning in this post is that spelling is important (i.e., matters is used as a verb to mean it has significance or importance).  The other refers to the topic of this essay, Spelling Matters (i.e., issues, problems or difficulties).

Convincing students that spelling is important in English is a daily song and dance, especially in writing classes. Why do I care that students learn to spell words correctly? With word checkers built into Word software, why should anyone care?

Amazingly, many tests of English (the Cambridge Exams, IELTS (International English Language Testing System), SAT writing, AP writing, and so on) require test-takers to write by hand. Even if you take the internet-based TOEFL exam, there is no spell-checker on the test computers. In other words, the test candidate must demonstrate his/her skill in writing in English without a dictionary or spell-checking device on the computer. They are not allowed to bring any electronic equipment (e.g., cell phones, iPods, etc.) into the testing area. One letter can create a huge or embarrassing difference in meaning or perception: "mad vs. made," "sit" vs. "set," "to" vs. "too," "read" vs. "red," and on and on. Whether you are a native or a non-native speaker of English, mastery of spelling is a mountain we must all climb to become literate communicators.

I, like many others, fall into the group of educators that believes that spelling counts. Last year Loewenstein wrote a thought-provoking blog post for Edutopia which posed the question "What would happen if you were to eliminate subjects in your classroom?" That is, instead of labeling what students learn in school as "spelling," "reading," "writing," "math," and "science," why don't we focus on projects-based learning, which integrates all the skills that students need to communicate in the real world? 

While I'm not sure that eliminating the label "spelling" as a topic or subject of concern in school would make it any less of a pain for poor spellers, developing the habit of correct spelling does make a lot of sense. Similarly, it makes sense to learn how to add and subtract correctly. That means not being sloppy or lazy whenever you make any kind of financial transaction. When you enter an amount to withdraw from or depost to your checking account at the ATM, don't you pay attention to how many zeros you type in? The ATM doesn't have a checker for you? In the same way, sending an e-mail message to a work colleague can have a very strong negative or confusing effect if you misspell a word or leave words out. If you spell a word that exists in English, a spell checker isn't going to catch a mistake, so you can easily confuse a reader.

In a previous post, I published a photograph of a headline of the wrong word choice printed in the San Diego Union Tribune. However, when I searched for a link to the newspaper's online version, the headline had already been changed. My only proof of this public gaffe is the photograph. While this error was not a simple spelling error, it highlights the significance of word choice and word form as well as spelling. Living in a society with a written language system necessitates being careful about spelling and the words we choose to express ourselves. Words matter, and so do their spellings.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

SAT Writing vs. TOEFL Writing

The big news for educators this year has been that the College Board is redoing its Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) by eliminating the writing requirement in 2016. Is this a good thing? Will this de-emphasis on writing have an effect on ETS's Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)?

More than a decade ago, ETS (Educational Testing Service), which also makes the SAT, decided to create an online internet-based TOEFL (iBT - Test of English as a Foreign Language). In my view, this change was a vast improvement over the paper-based test as it included compulsory speaking and writing components. Before the iBT, I saw many of my Asian students proudly achieve the score of 450+ gain admission to local California community colleges. Later, however, I discovered that many of these same students were still taking ESL courses. Why? Although the paper-based TOEFL was supposedly their passport to entrance into and success in an American college, they found out subsequently that they had little ability to produce academic-level spoken or written English. The old paper-based TOEFL was not a great predictor of success for these non-natives in an American college system.

Not only were these students challenged to understand lectures in English, but they had to summarize and verbally restate in writing what they had heard in lectures. The skills that they needed to be successful at an American college were not just the passive skills (reading, listening, and structure/grammar) that they were tested on in the Paper-Based TOEFL (PBT). They needed to be able to produce English - not just recognize meanings or do error correction. They had to be able to rethink what they heard or read and interpret meanings. With almost no or little preparation or training for this approach to learning, they remained stuck in remedial ESL classes. With the advent of the iBT, many of these foreign students found a purpose to learning to be active producers of English.

It makes no sense to eliminate writing as a component of the SAT unless there is some other way to verify a college applicant's capabilities to produce English. Doing a timed written test in English is different from submitting a prepared statement of purpose for admission. This latter document was likely read and edited by multiple friends, family members, and paid tutors - and may not be an indicator of how a student will fare under college test conditions. Why is ETS planning to eliminate an important measure of the productive and critical thinking abilities of native English speakers while demanding measurable performances from non-native speakers on the iBT (internet-based TOEFL)?

Though I admit to preferring more creative writing in high school, I was grateful in the end that my 11th grade English teacher worked my class hard, so that the five paragraph essay was almost reflexive by the time I was a freshman at UCLA. I passed the Subject A exam of those days and was able to enroll in a required English course from my first quarter. The former "Subject A exam" still exists at UCSD, for example, in the form of The Entry Level Writing Requirement. Students who do not achieve at least one of several entry-level writing composition scores must take a composition course (for which they earn no credit toward their future degree) and pass an exam. An ESL instructor who teaches this composition course at UCSD through Mesa College told me that if a student fails the end of quarter writing exam, (s)he must repeat the course until a passing mark is reached.

As much as I am against the teach-to-a-test approach to education, if high school students know that colleges require a writing score from the SAT, they will prepare for it with the guidance of their teachers. This practice alone may send a message to all (i.e., parents, students, teachers, administrators) that critical thinking clearly expressed in writing matters.

For a supporting view, please check out this Washington Post commentary. For a broader view of the elimination of the writing component of the SAT, read Inside Higher Ed's news brief.