Friday, April 10, 2009

Breaking the 'Broken English' Cycle

Years ago before I got into teaching English as a Second Language, I did research in anthropology, pursuing an interest in comparing Japanese science with American science, in particular, primatology. At that time, I attended some conferences with a colleague from Yokohama University. He was rather frustrated with international conferences where all attendees delivered their papers in English without any regard to the varying skill levels and linguistic backgrounds of non-native English speakers. In his letter to the editor of ISHPSSB, he wrote a short commentary about how English was NOT the international language. Rather, 'broken' English was, for him, the common language. After one particularly annoying experience in Seattle, Professor Sakura posed the question, "Was this really an international conference?"

Since the problem of operating in international forums is undoubtedly a continuing issue for non-native speakers of English, I wonder what can be done in the way of facilitating more cross-cultural communication from both sides. On the one hand, native English speakers need to be more sensitive of second-language learners and should also realize that European language speakers have a clear advantage over those coming from Asian language backgrounds. On the other hand, second-language learners need to be better equipped to comprehend 'real' spoken English.

First of all, Professor Sakura suggested, of course, using visual aids and for presenters not to simply read their papers aloud. Unfortunately, many people enamored of their wonderful computer tools go in the opposite direction and find that almost everything - which can be illustrated now in slides - should be put up on the screen, leaving the audience to figure out what the main point of the talk is. The best and funniest presentation of how NOT to use Powerpoint is presented in this comedy video.

Second, ESL instructors need to provide students with more realistic practice in delivering clear presentations and, especially, fielding questions from the audience. I know from personal experience that it is much easier to deliver a flawless presentation than it is to field questions from the floor afterwards, even if you're a native speaker. Sometimes Americans preface their questions by long-winded monologs to display their own expertise and, at the end, ask their follow-up question. When a member of the audience indulges in such self-serving displays, I have seen many non-native speakers become paralyzed and lose all confidence in their ability to understand English because they couldn't figure out what the question was in the end.

Obviously, a good moderator can immediately put an end to that form of questioning by asking people to get to the point and to be sensitive to non-native speakers. Once, I almost jumped out of my seat when a Japanese sociologist was bombarded by several people from the audience who expounded during the follow-up question period, leaving the poor professor with no way to respond. Eventually, the guy shut down and apologized for his poor English and inability to spontaneously respond to questions from the floor.

Finally, the point must be made that along with teaching English, instructors should try to arm their students with as much information as possible about customs and habits of Americans, in this case. If you know about this popular activity of grandstanding from the audience in the USA, non-native speakers can prepare for it. In addition, they can prepare for a wide variety of question types from the floor by practicing fielding spontaneous questions before getting into the conference room. Another possibility is to request that interested audience join the speaker in a dialog over dinner or breakfast, which gives the non-native speaker a chance to be face-to-face with the people who are seriously interested in exchanging ideas or getting clarification about the paper. This is, after all, the main point of international conferences - the opportunity to exchange ideas with your counterparts from other countries. 'Broken' English, like broken French or broken Japanese, doesn't have to be a breakdown in communication. Rather, it can enhance people's ability to form communities of knowledge. That is the awesome thing about sharing a common language.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Fun with English

Everyone loves to have fun with English. Studying sentences designed for native speakers of English can help ESL students who are preparing for an FCE or CAE exam. If you don't understand what's funny or strange about the expressions, ask me here in a comment, or ask another native speaker.

Since the Cambridge Exams seem to be examining students' knowledge of some idiosyncrasies of English as well as their general understanding and ability to use it, you might enjoy the following examples of language play. A post from lists more than 50 sentences that contain homonyms or pose questions about the irregularities of English. Very advanced level students might get the humor in the sentences in this very popular post at Writing English.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Words with Multiple Meanings

The Cambridge testmakers never seem to tire of coming up with word tests for students of English as a second language. The CAE and CPE, especially, are even challenging for native speakers. That's why it is essential to use English all the time while you're preparing for the Cambridge exams. In that way, you'll be used to operating in English and not confused by translations into your native tongue.

On the Use of English section (Paper 3), the CAE has some fun exercises that they didn't have a few years ago. Look at these gapped sentences. One and the same verb fits into each gap. The spelling and form of that word is identical in each sentence.

1. Dominik will __________ his presentation to the class this afternoon.

2. The postman could not ____________ the letter because the postage was missing.

3. The doctor had to ___________ the baby by C-section.

If you chose the verb 'deliver,' you are correct. Usually, there is one sentence that you can figure out (#2). Try out that verb in the other gaps. Does it make sense there? If so, write that word on your answer sheet and move on to the next set of sentences. Never leave a blank answer on the Cambridge exam because you are not penalized for guessing.

4. You'd ___________ go to the doctor about that cough; you've had it for a month now.

5. Most students are studying to ___________ themselves in English.

6. ESL students who speak English all the time will be _________ able to pass the CAE.

Did you recognize the modal expression 'had better' in sentence #4? 'Better' is the word that works in all the gaps. Isn't this fun? If you play with words, it makes learning English more of a game than a pain in the neck.

Look up some other uses of 'deliver' (e.g., deliver a blow) and 'better.' Make the dictionary your friend!

If you liked this post, you can find more recent ones with similar activities by clicking here.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Words that Go Together

Just as certain food goes together in our minds - spaghetti and meatballs, hamburger and fries, chips and dip, so do certain words. A collocation is a word pairing, and there are lots of them in English, the same as in your native tongue.

On the CAE and CPE, testmakers seem to like digging up collocations for your fun and pleasure on the English in Use section (Paper 3). It's a good idea to start making collocation-collecting one of your hobbies.

For example, we talk about 'biting sarcasm' or a 'biting wind,' meaning that the wind or the sarcasm was painful to bear. However, we don't say that the pain in his shoulder or head was 'biting.' In other words, a headache does not collocate with 'biting.'

There are many examples of this in any reading or song or movie that you encounter during your studies. Try to be alert for collocations. Also refer to my previous post about how reading one paragraph per day very carefully can enhance your understanding of the English language and lead you to greatly expand your vocabulary.