Monday, December 15, 2008

Another ESL Game Board: Verbs with Gerunds/Infinitives

Below is another favorite game board that I created a few years ago. My fellow instructors have used it successfully as a simple way to get students speaking to each other using these structures.

The verbs included on the board come from lists in Betty Azar's classic Blue grammar book (click on 'Contents' of Third Edition of Blue Azar book). I usually photocopy the reference lists (14-9 and 14-10) and hand them out to students to use as they practice creating their own sentences orally, rolling dice and moving around the board.

The tenses or structures that you ask your students to use with the board can be adapted to several levels from intermediate to advanced in any course where the object is to get students to produce and control these forms in speaking or writing. Try it out, and let me know if it works for you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

CAE - Fall 2008

From pain to gain!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mixing Up English

What's the problem? The words 'to marry', 'married,' and 'marriage' are perhaps poorly chosen words for what are legal designations as well as rituals or actions often performed in churches in our society. You wouldn't think a simple eight-letter English word could cause so much trouble, would you?

The mixing of two definitions of 'marriage' - one legal and one religious - has resulted in Californians passing Proposition 8, a law which prevents gay people from enjoying the right to equal treatment under the law, including the right to be legally married.

James Madison, often thought of as the Father of the United States Constitution, once said “...I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

In this case, the mixing of meanings of 'marriage' in our language has led to a decision that seems based on religious interpretations rather than consideration of the U.S. Constitution.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The 'New' Cambridge Advanced English Test

This fall we are training a large number of students for the new Cambridge exams. As usual, I am teaching the CAE everyday, which means that I cover all five papers (reading, writing, English in use, listening, and speaking). After seven years of helping students pass the 'old' CAE, it is nice to have a fresh challenge.

If you go to the Cambridge test site, you can get a very thorough overview of changes to the exam. Having had a chance to look at the two practice exam books, I can say that I like the alterations overall, especially the fact that the CAE is about one hour shorter.

I'm sure that our students were happy on Friday that our first practice test didn't go beyond 3 p.m. Some of them planned to head up to L.A. right after the exam. That was the 'carrot' they dangled in front of themselves to get through the all-day event. Hope they had a chance to unwind before we get back down to business tomorrow. ;-)

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Activating English in 'The Dating Game'

Several years ago, another teacher (Sara Jensen) and I would collaborate to put on the Dating Game with two or three classroomsful of students participating. It was always very successful, thanks to Sara's planning. For a summertime activity in my advanced conversation class, I decided to put together my own Dating Game Show.

I asked two other instructors (Mai and Siobhan) with advanced conversation classes to help me re-enact the once popular game show program. We had a large audience and 12 participants, including a last round with the three female teachers playing the 'bachelorettes,' competing for a date with a student bachelor. The object of the game is for the contestant (male or female) to ask a number of questions of the three candidates for a date. Based on the candidates' responses, the contestant chooses one of the three for the special date. The audience also votes for their preferred match, and the contestant can either stay with his/her choice or change based on the audience feedback.

To carry out this production successfully requires a relatively large space (20x30 feet minimum - we had more), four chairs, and some kind of space divider to prevent the contestant from seeing the three candidates for the date. Strips of questions (about 40 total) are given to the contestants (I compiled the list from student-generated questions and others that I got from my daughter which had been passed on to her from another college student) so that the contestant doesn't have to invent the questions on the spot. The audience can sit on the floor or on chairs, if available, facing the candidates. The audience contributes to the activity with their emotional reactions (e.g., sound effects) to the answers given by the candidates and by their votes. From all accounts, they had as much fun observing and listening to English as the candidates and contestants had acting!

Before my students actually participated in the game show, I showed them a couple of samples of the 1970's TV program. Click on the names to see footage of some familiar celebrities on YouTube: Arnold Schwarznegger and a teenage Michael Jackson.

Here is a video clip of our class version.
Tanita got everything off to a great start (thanks, Tanita!):
Great performance y'all!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

English in Action

As a teacher, one of the most rewarding experiences is seeing your students use their English in a situation that they might never experience in their own countries. For example, most students would have no opportunity to speak in an American courtroom.

To give students a flavor of how our legal system works, a fellow teacher and I worked together to prepare our students to perform a mock trial of a real case (this is a great lesson idea from A Different Angle by Michelle Buehring, JAG Publications, 1998, Ch. 15 "Given Half a Chance," pp. 82-94) involving the shooting death of Yoshihiro Hattori, a high school foreign exchange student from Japan.

In preparation for the trial, two advanced ESL classes watched the film 'Philadelphia,' starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, both of whom played lawyers. Although the movie covers the weighty topic of discrimination against gays and all the ramifications of society's fear, abhorrence, and misunderstanding of homosexuality, it also gives students a chance to see some of what can take place in an American courtroom. In addition, students read about the case of Yoshihiro Hattori (see above reference).

The two classes were divided into jury members, judge, witnesses to the shooting, a defendant, and two legal teams, one for the prosecution and another for the defense. The two instructors who were present observed, and only at the end, after the jury made its decision, did the teachers intervene by informing the students of the outcome of the real court case.

Below is a video excerpt of the trial and a photo of both participating classes and their instructors. All the students gave outstanding performances and took their roles seriously, and there was a sense of suspense as we awaited the jury's verdict. Bravo! Encore!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Beginning ESL Students - Summer '08

This was a fun mix of beginners from very different parts of the globe, Algeria and Japan.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Thoughts on Grammar Teaching by Azar, Folse and Swan

I decided to check out Betty Azar's site since I haven't visited for a while, and to my delight, I found videos of the panel discussion presented at this year's national TESOL meetings in New York. You'll need some time to view the two videos (Part 1 and Part 2), but if you have questions about how to and why to teach grammar to your ESL students, here are some answers from the experts.

"The World in Words"

If you are interested in language, in general, along with the many Englishes spoken around the world, then you'll want to sign up for the 'World in Words' podcasts with Patrick Cox, brought to you by PRI's 'The World.' For ESL students/teachers, this podcast would be great for advanced level listening practice. There is a brief summary of the topics covered to serve as a guide to what's being talked about. Enjoy!

International Year of Languages?

I have been waiting for months to hear some mention of the
2008 International Year of Languages, but apparently it's just one of many events that has gotten lost in the more 'dramatic' news of politics and economics. Still I don't quite understand why this UN-sponsored event hasn't gotten more publicity since what language we speak and in what contexts we speak it does affect our daily and global lives.

Since I teach English to non-native speakers, I am daily confronted with other languages, both inside and outside the classroom. Personally, I love learning foreign languages, but at our ESL school, we stress the importance of 'English only.' This means that teachers should not practice or show off their other language skills with their students while in the school. On the other hand, how can we acknowledge the value of other languages without occasionally using them to communicate with our non-native English speakers? To get around this, I often point out some of the foreign words that English has adopted into its dictionary (from German, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, etc.), but it would certainly be nice if more public figures could give some lip-service to the fact that all languages and accents enrich our society. By officially celebrating the International Year of Languages, Americans could send a message to our own immigrants and to immigrants around the world that diversity is beautiful. There's still time.

Partly in response to the the 9-11 attack, several years ago, our President established the Office of Global Communication. I like the name even though I'm usually not in favor of creating more government departments. Its mission is to provide a "means for the United States Government to ensure consistency in messages that will promote the interests of the United States abroad, prevent misunderstanding, build support for and among coalition partners of the United States, and inform international audiences." However, how can we accomplish this mission without placing a value on sociolinguistic, linguistic, and communicative competence? (Of course, many people view the Office of Global Communication as an organ for propaganda for the USA. I like to think that building communication lines, however tenuous, is important.) Again, why has there been so little news about the International Year of Languages?

There is a site that caught my attention which addresses intercultural exchange and what is contained there is what I was hoping to see at the UN site for the International Year of Languages. For some Europeans, 2008 is the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue. What is fascinating is that in the video clip above, you have speakers from all over the world addressing their audience in English. (It appears, however, that the event is taking place in Belgium.)

On the other hand, the next video is reminiscent of an old Coca Cola commercial that I used to enjoy that has people from all over the world joining hands in song. (Yeah, it was about the globalization of the world by Coca Cola, but it worked because it focused on something that all people could understand and share - a coke.)

One of the messages of Euro 2008 is 'Different languages - one goal. No to racism.' Besides color, religion, sexual orientation, and culture, language can also divide people. English has played a unifying role for the most part, but I think we native English speakers must be open to the idea that bi- or tri-lingualism is another path to forging strong global ties.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Lessons from the Field

Many ESL instructors whom I've met over the past decade taught English abroad before teaching here in San Diego. However, when I started taking classes to get my TESOL Certificate at UCSD, I found that my 'field' experience was quite different from most others'. While I was a foreign language major in high school (4 years of Spanish, two years of French), I had had only three months of travel outside the USA when I went abroad as a graduate student in anthropology.

My real language immersion experience took place while I was in the former Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo) in Central Africa studying bonobos/pygmy chimpanzees. This research necessitated language immersion in Lingala while simultaneously making field observations and collecting data on non-human primate subjects. That experience and subsequent returns to Africa greatly influenced my views on adult second language acquisition.

One of my first courses in TESOL was "Theories of Second Language Acquisition." There I was introduced to Krashen's concept of 'affective filter.' What is an affective filter? The concept can perhaps best be understood by an example. When a student is stressed out in the classroom, s/he will put up a protective filter which ironically can also block out the very language s/he's trying to learn. Thus, it is the job of the instructor to provide a safe or sheltered environment in which students can practice the target language, reducing the 'affective filter' effects.

On the other hand, an instructor could consciously ignore the likelihood of anxiety in the foreign language classroom and increase the stress level in order to force production of the target language. What I found in my Lingala immersion in the field is that when I had to depend on the language to communicate my every day needs and wants, my mind, despite the stress, learned relatively quickly how to break the linguistic code. Many people including locals were surprised that, one fine day, I was able to go from cluelessness and sign language to expressing complete thoughts, invent hypothetical situations and argue and defend my need to follow chimps everywhere, even into the swamp forest. For me, it was a lack of consideration on the part of my language 'mentors', rather than a consideration of 'affective filter effects', that pushed me forward into communicativeness in a month's time. I've found in teaching, too, that when students brave the classroom and are put on the spot and say anything that gets a reaction (i.e., makes their classmates nod in understanding, elicits comments or even laughter), these risktakers feel pretty motivated to speak again. If you have a very limited amount of time (i.e., a few weeks) to become productive in the target language, a teacher can create a level of stress through competition.

Games, such as 'Hot Seat,' 'Taboo' with student-made cards, and 'Pictionary', put students under extreme time pressure to speak English so that their team has an opportunity to earn points. Surprisingly, even extremely shy Asian students have blossomed under these pressure circumstances rather than cracked, as some teachers predicted they might.

The bottom line is that if you give people too much time to think about their fear of embarrassment or their shyness, they often give into it. It depends on your objectives as a teacher and the goals of individual students. In the 'real' world, outside the classroom, people need to communicate their wants and needs spontaneously (e.g., in Germany, I went to a pharmacist to get something to stop my daughter's case of the runs, with only one primitive German sentence under control - 'Meine Tochter hat Durchfall', which caused the pharmacist to ask, 'Wie alt?', forcing me to infer from my limited vocabulary - 'Altstadt'- that he was asking how old she was; as I talked to my husband and we realized we didn't know how to say '18' in German, the pharmacist overheard us and shook his head that he understood the number in English; we got the medicine in the correct dose, and 'danke'd the man. This whole episode took less than three minutes, but it definitely raised my confidence in my limited German and proved to me that I could communicate in that language).

Forcing students into a 'spontaneous' situation in the classroom is something that allows them to simulate the real life tension or stress in a safer environment than the 'streets' of a foreign city. My approach to foreign language teaching, consequently, is usually not to lower the 'affective filter' in the classroom, but to use the energy from students' anxiety to 'force' production of English. Accuracy may be sacrificed to some extent, but communicativeness is most students' primary goal.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Spring 2008 CAErs

A CAE class with a flair for drama! Our silly and serious sides! Keep smiling!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Vocabulary Review Quizzes with Crosswords

I've long been a fan of games for reinforcing vocabulary because competition gets students trying to actively use or recall vocabulary, and even the shy want to participate. The game of 'Hot Seat' is one that many ESL teachers use as a warm-up or a cool-down activity. In addition, my Cambridge students like playing 'Taboo' with game cards that they've created themselves. Believe me! Student-made taboo cards are much more difficult than the manufacturer's version. Always have a stack of index cards cut in half for students to make up new cards. I've done this activity with several levels from Low Intermediate through Advanced.

Since last year, I've been using the online crossword puzzlemaker called 'Just Crosswords' This site allows students to create their own crosswords but requires them to be creative in writing definitions. There is a 25-letter limit (including spaces) for both the target word or expression and its definition. Here are some links to examples of crosswords put together by iBT (TOEFL) and Advanced- and Proficiency-level Cambridge students. Some of the iBT crosswords are based on vocabulary taken from a textbook that is commonly used in teaching the iBT, i.e., the 2nd Edition of 'The Next Generation iBT TOEFL' by Pearson Education, Inc.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Working with Widgets

You may recall that in an earlier post last year, I happily announced that I had discovered 'widgets' and had placed a clock on my blog. Now I'm unhappy to report that my clock has disappeared. I'm not sure what happened to it. My unverified explanation is that the site that allowed me to download the clock for free no longer supports that particular widget clock. (It also disappeared from my wiki.) I have, therefore, removed my timepiece and will be searching for a new gadget to replace it.

How Can I Improve My English Spelling?

I often get asked this question, and my usual response is "Write the misspelled word several times until you develop some muscle memory and a visual image of the correctly spelled word." However, for the internet-based TOEFL, it doesn't make too much sense to write the word out longhand, since the iBT is an online exam. What should you do?

Now there is a wonderful online site called Spelling City. I tried it out myself and have also gotten feedback from one of my iBT students that it was fun and effective.

There are vocabulary lists of words arranged in alphabetical order for first through eighth grade, and you can either study the words or test yourself. In either case, you can hear the individual word pronounced or listen to the word within the context of a sentence. In addition, you can create a list of your own commonly misspelled words; if they're in the 'bank' of words at this site, 'Spelling City' will help you to practice those particular words.

I'm not sure how long this site has been in existence, but I'm very happy it's here and that I have a suggestion for how students can improve their spelling in a fun way.

Picturing English

If you haven't yet noticed, I have a sister blog called 'Picturing English,' which I just started last month with the help of some relatives who are skilled artists. I give them the story concept, and they create my pictures. All of the cartoons are based on true stories from students and from my own experiences teaching English. I hope 'Picturing English' stimulates your English cells. Enjoy the cartoons! Maybe you'll see yourself in one of them.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Spring iBTOEFLers

The fun part about teaching this iBT preparation class is the multi-cultural composition of our group and the fact that we cover four language skills. It means that Monday/Wednesday/Friday afternoons are devoted to a mix of reading, listening, speaking and writing activities. Though at least one student suggested that I follow a schedule, such as 'Fridays are for writing practice,' I purposely don't follow such a fixed routine. Because we do not give grades at our school, one way that I can ensure that I get writing or speaking samples from every student is to spring it on them. In the past, when students knew that on Fridays, they would have to write for a half-hour online, they would often be absent.

Currently, I'm experimenting between online writing and paper/pencil writing to see if fewer spelling errors are generated this way. I've discovered that several students are not skilled typists. Thus, it is hard to tell if their errors are primarily an outcome of typing mistakes or if they need help learning how to spell words correctly.

I am a strong typist, so I think it's a great idea to have an internet-based TOEFL. However, I now understand why some students feel handicapped having to do the TOEFL test online, especially the hour-long writing component. I've queried Cambridge students about the idea of doing Paper 2 (Writing) online, and many of them also said they'd be at a disadvantage because of their poor typing skills.

Awesome Cambridge Students, Winter 2008!

The ten-week winter Cambridge preparation course went very fast, and soon I'll start training another group of students for the June exams. What was impressive about these last two groups of Swiss students was their determination and dedication to speaking English inside and outside the classrooms. A few will stay on to do the CAE and CPE exams in June, and I'll be delighted to have them in any of my classes again.

The few reports I've heard through the grapevine were that there were no surprises on the March exams. I trust that this means good outcomes for everyone. Everyone learned a lot of English, and you all impressed the heck out of me! Best wishes, Martina, Nick, David, Jonas, Moritz, Alex, Patrick, Ruben, Joas, Philipp, Marcel, Daniel, and Pascal!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Reading English Using Online Resources

Not everyone likes reading online, but if you want to browse through a book without going to the library, you can access many books online. There are lots of sites that come up if you Google 'free reading materials.' However, one of the easiest sites to find a range of classics at is called Read Print. Here you can choose, by author, American, British, and translated versions of books in the 'public domain.' You can't go wrong with any of the selections. In addition, if you want to listen to a book being read, there's another great site called 'Librivox'. Anyone can use this site, volunteer-record a book, or download a recording of a book. You can buy books on CD/tape, but now you can also listen to podcasts by people who enjoy reading books aloud. It is a wonderful tool for students who would like to know what words sound like as they're silently reading the book, or if you just want to be read to and not have to look at the words.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

More on Indian English Accents

I am highlighting a comment that I received recently (February 27, 2008) from a New Zealander. My previous post on the topic of prejudice against Indian English has attracted some attention since last year. I fully expect that, with China and India containing nearly half the world's population, their English accents (should English remain the international lingua franca) will be familiar and unremarkable in the future. Instead of the giggles I sometimes get from European students when they hear Indians speak in a movie (I love 'Spellbound' and 'A Passage to India'), for example, people will begin to admire the accent, thinking it's cool-sounding.

Today many students studying for the Cambridge examinations really don't like the British English accent, saying that American English is 'cooler.' How ironic is that? This is quite the opposite of what I observed in academia a few decades ago, where if you had a British accent - even an acquired or pseudo-British accent, you definitely had an advantage in getting an academic position here. Other Americans love French accents...

So, I definitely agree with maxqnzs. Indians as well as speakers of other Englishes should be proud of their accents. They add color and flavor to daily conversations, and it would be unimaginably dull to live in a world without them.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Practice English while Donating Rice

This evening while practicing English vocabulary online, I donated 1200 grains of rice to the United Nations World Food Program . Native speakers as well as non-native speakers can donate rice at the same time as they're practicing English vocabulary, and it doesn't cost a thing, except a little of your time. It's intellectually challenging and personally satisfying because you know that you're helping others while improving your skills in English! The site is called Free Rice. Just do it! (Thanks, Lauren, for telling me about this site!)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Farewell iBT TOEFLers, December 2007

Thanks to Alicia for this souvenir of our class. Wherever you all are, I hope this brings back happy memories. We had some great discussions in between practicing for the test. With luck, we'll meet again.

When is English not English?

While searching for some references to link to the previous post about English as a lingua franca of Switzerland, I ran across a related article that was thought-provoking. Although English has become a lingua franca around the world, there no longer seems to be a direct cultural connection back to England, where the language originated and gets its name. Here is an essay that expands on this notion and English-language education policy from the perspective of a European.

Anthropologically speaking, a language is one of the primary reflections of a society's culture. However, when a language becomes the lingua franca of the world, in order to reflect the variety of speakers' cultures, the language changes. What happens when English is used by Asians (e.g., Korean, and Japanese) as their lingua franca? Certainly, some lack of differentiation of r's and l's is acceptable because 'they' understand each other. In other words, today where communication commonly breaks down is between native and non-native speakers when conversing, not writing.

Indeed, I have often noticed, as mentioned in the linked article, that non-native speakers can understand each other's English better than a native speaker can. For example, when I teach low level students at my school, sometimes a Swiss student can understand what a Korean student has said better than I can. It is always a bit eye-opening for me since it's my daily job to understand non-native speakers, and I've had a lot of practice listening to many Englishes. Usually misunderstanding has to do with the common misinterpretations of where the stress lies in a word or how non-native speakers have learned to pronounce a word that is spelled a certain way.

Should we have a broader range of accepted/acceptable pronunciations of words? This goes back to the question of whether there is or should be a 'standard', especially for spoken English. Can the lingua franca English technically still be considered English? I wonder what you think.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

English is the 'Neutral' Language of Switzerland

I follow the use of English in Switzerland more than in other parts of the world because my school is made up of a large percentage of Swiss students. Most of them come to San Diego to prepare for the Cambridge Certificate Exams.

On my first trip to Switzerland in 2001, I went with the expectation that the people there could speak at least two of their four national languages (German, French, Italian, Romansh) and that since I knew some French, I could rely on that more than on German. I didn't expect people to prefer to use English. Contrary to my image of a country where people moved freely from region to region, easily slipping into French in Geneva, Italian in Lugano, and German in Zurich, there were strong feelings against German-speakers in the French or Italian part, and against Italian- or French-speakers in the German part. So, apparently, the way this small country functions with four distinct national languages is by strong regional linguistic separation. In addition, with the recent introduction of English into the public school system, English is becoming the neutral lingua franca of Switzerland. That is, most German speakers would rather speak English than French in Geneva, and French Swiss would rather speak English than German in Zurich.

Naturally, I am not the first to make this observation, and I've often queried my students about this phenomenon. Their responses vary. For example, I have encountered Swiss school teachers who were rather irritated or indignant that they had to pass an advanced level Cambridge exam in order to secure or hang on to their teaching positions in Switzerland, even though English is not one of the country's national languages nor is there any deep historical connection to an English-speaking country. (But see an account of the English love of Swiss). On the other hand, many young Swiss German students are happy that they had an opportunity to study English early in their education. Few German-speakers enjoy studying French, especially since they 'dislike the sound of it.' Likewise, the French and Italians claim that German is a harsh-sounding language that is difficult for them to pronounce.

The following are some online references which you might want to peruse. The first is an essay by Duermueller entitled "English in Switzerland: From Foreign Language to Lingua Franca?"From a different perspective, there is an abstract by Christof Demont-Heinrich, "Language and National Identity in the Era of Globalization: The Case of English in Switzerland." For a historical perspective, Duermueller also wrote an article about 20 years ago based on a survey of roughly 5,000 Swiss military recruits, exploring their attitudes toward learning English.

Romansh, which is a nationally recognized language of Switzerland, now appears less important than English. In fact, the canton of Zurich broke tradition when it made the change from French to English as 'the first foreign language' for its school-age children. comments here on the importance of English - the Fifth language of Switzerland? Finally, here is some commentary in French and German about English in Swiss schools.

Free 'Fun with Grammar' @

For those of you who have read my previous posting about Betty Azar and Michael Swan, there is some exciting news for friends and users of Azar's grammar book series. Betty Azar has recently put up a new website. I've checked it out, and you should, too. Because it's brand new, we need to spread the word so that folks are aware of this resource.

One of the exciting attractions is that Suzanne Woodward's 'Fun with Grammar' book is available there for free downloading. 'Fun with Grammar' is filled with interesting ideas and game materials to get students to use their grammar communicatively. It's great to have this book available for teachers who have internet access. You can print out pages from the book as you need them.

Check out the many features of the Azar Grammar website, including a blog and a moderated forum for discussion among ESL/EFL instructors. Currently, Betty Azar is requesting feedback from instructors about correcting errors in writing. If you're interested, please join the discussion there.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cleaning up my blog and adding a clock

There is always a choice when it comes to working on my blog. Being a neophyte at this (thus everything takes me ten times longer than a savvier blogger would), I'm in a constant battle with myself. Should I just focus on content, or should I invest more time now trying to organize what I've already written and make my growing number of entries easier to find and access?

A few weekends ago, I did reorganize my blog, adding a directory and labels to my posts. Another modification was the addition of Twitter, which simply encourages me to make a habit of pausing and taking stock of what I'm thinking or doing.

Today I hid my archive which may bother people trying to find an August 2007 post, for example, but I'm trying to get a handle on best use of the navigation panel space. Since I show five posts per page now, it's easy to see the most recent additions. I haven't learned yet how to show only part of a post so that a reader can choose to read a long entry or move quickly on to the next one.

This year is the first time I've used the calendar with my Cambridge students, and some of the CAE students say it's really nice to have the homework posted here. They've even asked if I could put up homework assignment reminders for their Tues-Thurs teacher (which I now also do).

Today I added a clock to my blog which I hope readers find useful and even thought-provoking. I tend to lose track of time when I'm visiting a site. Our lives these days are so much governed by the clock that perhaps it will give my readers in other parts of the USA and overseas a sense of what time zone I'm living in. Hope you enjoy the new features. As always, user feedback is welcome.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Is there more power in English-language graffiti?

A few weeks ago when I took the photograph of the sign at Palomar, I got to thinking about signs that are put up for public viewing but which are considered both artistic and criminal. Though there are some lengthy deconstructions of graffiti, such as "Graffiti and Language", here I'm pondering why so much graffiti is in English in non-English-speaking countries.

Here's one in Vienna, Austria, for example, The Mad Realness. Is that the name of some rock band? Perhaps. What is 'mad realness'? Is it a literal translation of something German? I'm clueless.

Language is very central to who we are as people, and putting writing on walls (like ancient hieroglyphics) is something very human, too. I think we have always aspired to leave messages or words behind and played with language, and probably command of a language has always been associated with power.

As for English-language power, I used to remark to my Japanese colleagues (I don't think they ever took me seriously, however) that if they wanted to make the Japanese language more 'powerful', they needed to publish their most important work in Japanese, not English. In this way, the public would have to seek out translators or learn Japanese themselves in order to follow the latest achievements of these non-English speakers.

Instead, (though I haven't done a statistical study to support this hypothesis) it seems that the Japanese who are most recognized for their achievements are often those that have superior English skills and/or are fearless about using their English in public forums. In other words, we may be aware of only a small cross-section of outstanding scholars because here in the USA, we don't pay too much attention to publications in languages other than English. What we must be missing!

For more information about graffiti, in general, you can click on an older version of graffiti terms, which contains some history of this communicative form.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Strange English Sign at Palomar Observatory

As some of you may know, I've had other postings dedicated to funny English signs, usually photographed in non-English speaking countries. However, recently I discovered that there is some funny English being displayed right here in Southern California. I couldn't resist taking these photos of a sign at the foot of the entrance to the Hale Observatory on Palomar Mountain outside San Diego. It says, "Do not pick the fern." I don't know who did the translations of the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, but I wonder how good those are. Did the translator make a typographic error, dropping the 's' making 'the fern' singular? Is it okay to pick the other plants? As it reads now, the viewer is left wondering which fern the sign is referring to, and why this directive was translated into Chinese, Japanese and Korean only. There were lots of Spanish speakers at the observatory when I was there. Do the rest of the non-English speaking tourists know what a 'fern' is in English? Are Asians more prone to picking ferns than other tourists outside the observatory? So far, it's a mystery to me. There seems to be a subtext here, but I don't have the full context to figure it out. Can you?

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Fun Vocabulary Practice for CAE Students

Play the BBC's Word Master game online. There are three levels from easy to difficult. You have a limited amount of time and a limited number of tries to get the correct word. There are a total of ten sentences with a blank in each. You can click for a definition, and you can see how many letters are in the missing word. Even the 'easy' level, however, can be challenging.

The focus of the game is on activating vocabulary. From the context and definition, the player is challenged to come up with the word that fits the blank. It's an excellent entertaining way to practice your British English.

Check out the other games and quizzes on the same page with 'Word Master.' These are also fun and great for practicing vocabulary and thinking in English.