Friday, August 31, 2012

What's in a Name? (Hitler and the East Sea)

In the beginning, there were names - names of people, of things, of feelings, of places....  It seems that my life as an ESL instructor is all about teaching "names" for everything, and even though my students and I seem to agree on the meaning of the names, when the "names" or words get translated, they often take on other meanings.

Recently, I've become very focused on vocabulary - which is basically "names" for everything we sense or experience in our lives.  We think that there is a word in every language for the things that all people experience, yet it differs depending on the culture.

I've been fascinated for some time with names because people get very attached to them, and it matters very much what something is called. There are some recent examples of names that have created world political tensions.  Take the case of the Sea of Japan vs. the East Sea.  Why does it matter so much what we call this place?

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, "the Sea of Japan is the only internationally established name for the sea area concerned." The Japanese govenment suggests that if they compromise by accepting a second name for the same sea, "...the confusion would necessarily have an adverse effect on the safety of international maritime traffic." In this way, they are emphatic about keeping "the Sea of Japan" as the only name for this body of water.  The South Koreans (Republic of Korea = ROK), on the other hand, argue that "East Sea has been used continuously for the past 2000 years."

Recently, news reported a problem with a clothing store's name in India.  Apparently, the owner of the store has branded his clothing with the name Hitler and a swastika.  He claims that he didn't know anything about the history of Hitler.  In fact, the grandfather of his business partner is nicknamed "Hitler" because of his strictness.  Because Mr Shah has invested a significant sum of money in labeling his store and its merchandise, he says he'll only change the name if he's given compensation for re-branding the clothing.

Many English speakers know the famous Shakespeare saying from Romeo and Juliet: "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  We use the saying to mean that the name of a thing isn't as important as what it IS.  However, looking at news stories around the world, that certainly doesn't seem to be the consensus.

I recall being told when I was a child that "Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you."  Hah!  Was that something that my parents said to me so that I wouldn't get in a physical fight over "hurtful words"?  Because of my own experiences, which disproved the saying, I never used it on my own children.  In fact, many psychologists will probably agree that children recover from broken bones and bruises, but words meant to put them down and spoken by parents, teachers, friends, and strangers can leave an indelible mark on their memories.  Words can haunt and hurt for decades, sometimes for life.

There's much more to say about names that comes from psycholinguistics and cognitive science. Have you ever wondered if the word we use for a thing is based on some characteristic, such as the shape, of that thing.  Read this if you want to explore that thought.  Can we use this knowledge about words and shapes to help teach our students or ourselves to more easily remember vocabulary?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Brain-based Strategies for Teaching English

Coming from biological anthropology, you can imagine my excitement at studying psycholinguistics for the second time this past spring.  The first time I didn't learn much about how to teach using the concepts because it was a general course on the topic in psychology.  I was a graduate student in anthropology, not a teacher. Three decades ago, we simply did not have the amount of information we have today about how language is stored at the cellular level.  We knew about Wernicke's area, the angular gyrus, and the involvement of the auditory and visual systems in processing information.  However, now, I imagine individual cells firing, axons growing, and chemical exchanges at synapses every time a student focuses on a vocabulary word, uses it, and recalls it.  Exciting stuff!

How can I use this information in the classroom? Armed with ideas and techniques demonstrated by Professor Holly Wilson at Alliant University, I have started using brain-based strategies to teach my vocabulary students.  Does it work?  I have no proof that it does, but it certainly doesn't hurt.  The students enjoy it, especially if you give some background to brain-based learning strategies.

One fun way to get students to recall vocabulary and to spell it is to put the first three letters of their target words up on the whiteboard.  Start passing out markers and get students to retrieve the word from memory.  It gets all students up and out of their chairs, even the shyer ones that don't like to speak.  It allows everyone to look at the words on the whiteboard, to re-view them, to look at the spelling of the words, and to decide if the word(s) is/are spelled correctly on the board.  The instructor can ask the class to pronounce the words, emphasizing the primary syllabic stress, to define, and to give examples of how to use the words. In fact, this game is very much like the "Flexibility" game at Lumosity that triggers word memories.  You can sign up for a free account at Lumosity and gain access to several of their brain game exercises.  They're entertaining (warning: can be addictive), but you can see improvement in your skills if you stick with the training.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Stairway to Heaven" - Rocking English!

Last year was the 40th anniversary of "Stairway to Heaven."  Since I am always on the lookout for musical material for English language learners, I decided to post this for teachers and students.  What seems to make this song a classic are the thought-provoking lyrics and the captivating guitar work.  Many covers for "Stairway to Heaven" were presented here at NPR (National Public Radio) last November in a salute to Led Zeppelin's masterpiece.  There are purely instrumental versions and song performances.

Listen to the story at the top of this page - there is also a transcript link.  If teachers want to use this material for a song cloze or anyone wants to sing along, here are the lyrics. There is the interpretation of the interviewee on NPR, but students might enjoy reading some of the more long-winded interpretations of the song (in comment form) by music listeners.

If nothing else, enjoy the performance by Led Zeppelin (here's another one).  Personally, the wordless flamenco-Mexican (Fla-Mexican?) mix by Rodrigo and Gabriela and Stanley Jordan's offerings were my favorites (other than the original, that is)! Now I've got an earworm!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Jeopardy Game with Homographs (words that look the same but have multiple meanings)

For those teachers and students looking for more activities and ways to learn words with multiple meanings, this is a site which has 25 words in a jeopardy game-like format.  Two people can compete against each other, or you can play by yourself, trying to beat your top score.  The game gives you two definitions, and you have to type in the one word that fits both meanings. The 1000 point words can be challenging, but the game seems geared primariy for intermediate rather than advanced level students.  Have fun!  See if you can get a perfect score!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Using Voicethread for Writing

Hi Students/Teachers/English Language Learners:
This is an example of a homework exercise using Voicethread.  Read, look at the photo, and listen to the description of the speaker's car drive through Los Angeles on Highway 101.Write a response, or record a voice response to the quotation: "Everything has its beauty but not everyone sees it."  What are your thoughts?

Using Voicethread, you can write your answer, or you can write your response and read it aloud while recording it.  It's fun and easy to do.  To leave your answer, sign-in with your e-mail address.  Your e-mail address will not be public.  After that, you can leave a comment.  You can use your real first name for your response, or you can make up a name.

Also, if you have trouble leaving your comment on Voicethread, you can type your answer in the comment section below this blog post.  You have three ways to respond.  It's your choice!

Have fun!  This is another way students can "write" or speak and express themselves.

**NOTE TO TEACHERS:  I assumed that most students could do this activity on their own, but in fact, several of my low-intermediate level students were unable to follow the directions and figure out how to record themselves.  It may be best to use the computer lab for a half-hour and demonstrate exactly how students can record themselves by voice or in writing.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Logical Way to Teach English

I'm not quite sure how I found this article online.  Serendipity?  It was written by a well-traveled Japanese professor in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Chuo University, and it's an opinion piece about teaching English using "logic."  It is provocative and connects to my past roots in science studies.  I have long been fascinated with how science researchers who are non-native speakers of English communicate in English (as you can see from an earlier blog post in 2009).

I was, thus, excited to read this piece by an academic with a background in electrical engineering (who admittedly doesn't really like English).  The basic concept under consideration is that "communication [between non-native speakers at science conferences, for example] is established so long as there is logicin the use of English.  The results of a "logic test" will be discussed sometime in September, according to the article.  You can be sure that I'll be checking in to see what the findings are.  Aren't you curious, too?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Test Your Knowledge of French in English (c)

By the end of last year, I had created three online crossword puzzles focusing on French words that are commonly used in English.  This is the third crossword puzzle.  There may be one or two repeats of words found in the previous crosswords, but you can see if you remember them here.  Good luck - and have fun with vocabulary!

The first link (a) is to my blogpost so that you understand how to use this online crossword puzzle site.  The other links take you directly to the crossword puzzle.  Have fun reviewing more French words in English!  Here are the links to the posts for all three crosswords, focusing on French in English (a)(b), and (c) = the most recent!

P.S.  I am aware that in one of the crossword puzzles, I used entree to mean the first course, and in another, I used it to mean the main course.  If you eat at a French restaurant in the USA, it could be the first meaning.  If you eat at a French restaurant here which has adopted the English meaning, it refers to the main course.  To avoid confusion, some restaurants avoid the French word completely, calling the first course, appetizers, and the main course, main course (what else?).

Monday, August 6, 2012

"K" is for Kind

How often have you used or heard the word "kind"?  Does it always have the same meaning?  Trying to find the words that are most useful in everyday English is important.  A word like "kind" is deceptively simple.  What I mean is that when students see this word, they think, "Yeah, I know that word.  I know how to use it and what it means."  Actually, if you think it's really easy, then you probably don't know all the ways that we Americans use "kind."  Look at the following sentences, and read them adding kind.

1.  John is uniquely funny; he's one of a _______ .

2.  Would you be so _______ as to bring me some water?

3.  We need a different _______ of approach to make our product stand out from the others.

4.  I like traveling in Thailand because the people are very helpful and _______ to foreigners.

5.  If you have a flush in poker, it means that all of your cards are the same _______ - all hearts, diamonds, spades, or clubs.

6.  I _______ of like the red more than the green fabric.

How many ways have you used kind?  

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"Teacher, teacher!"

I've been teaching a long time now, but I feel sometimes like I've come full circle with my students calling me "Teacher" instead of by my name (first name as we do with adult students in our informal state of California, or with title, Ms./Mrs. O.).

First, I went through a phase of requesting that students call me by my name.  Then I read an article in an ESL newsletter suggesting that we should feel honored that students want to call us "Teacher," which is a sign of respect in their own languages (Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Korean, and so on).

However, that voice inside my head began shouting at me after a few quarters of tolerating the "Teacher" name-calling.  This nagging inside me caused me to rethink this issue.  After all, if I were learning English so that I could study in an American college or university, wouldn't I want someone to tell me that calling an instructor by the name "Teacher" isn't respectful in the USA?  The answer is always, "Yes!"  In fact, foreign students should learn appropriate behavior both inside and outside an American classroom.  Students should learn that translating words directly from their language into English often doesn't work. This is one of those cases.

Recently, I've taken to reminding students to call me by my name when they call me "Teacher."  I respond by saying, "Student?"  One male Arab student recently has decided to call me "Teacher" (I believe, to be irritating) and a classmate defended his name-calling by saying, "In our country, it is a sign of respect."  I responded by saying, "Well, you're not in your country."

Afterward, I felt that I knee-jerked, but on rethinking and talking with others, I realized that that is the reality.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do!  When teaching a language, we should be teaching more than words and vocabulary.  We should also be teaching cultural norms and customs.  That is also my job as an ESL teacher.