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.