Monday, May 26, 2014

Word Forms Matter

Last year, UCSD psychology professor Christopher Bryan reported a fascinating finding about word forms and behavior. In an experiment exploring adults' responses to the verb use of "cheat" and the noun form of cheat referring to the person who cheats or "cheater," Dr. Bryan found that when people were directed "not to cheat" or advised "please don't cheat," they were more likely to cheat than if they were advised "not to be a cheater." Here is a link to the abstract of the research report. 

More recently, in a collaborative study, Professor Bryan worked with a team focusing on word choice and effects on behavior in young children. Similarly, experimenters were able to get child subjects to help more often by asking them to be "helpers" rather than to "help." Findings such as this lead me to believe that we need to be more attentive than before to the word choices and more specifically, word forms, that we use to promote ethical behavior in our students. It would be interesting to know if the same effects apply to non-native speakers of a language as to native speakers. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The meanings of "date"

As part of my series of posts about WMMs (words with multiple meanings), I am now adding to my sister blog, Picturing English. There, whenever possible, I will provide photos, drawings, or clipart to illustrate the multiple meanings of a word. This provides a language learner with another way to acquire vocabulary so that it sticks to her/his long-term memory.

In the classroom, I often act out words. Former students have told me that a word "stuck" because of my "act" or visual illustration of it. Ultimately, that's the goal of language teachers - getting the language to stick!

Most of the words or expressions that I remember from Spanish, French, Japanese, and Quechua classes taken decades ago are those that are associated in my mind with events or images of people or a context in which I used or understood the language. I have no memories of words that I wrote on a page or a flashcard - even though I did use those tools for studying and improving my foreign language skills. Maybe those methods work best for short-term memory building.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Language and Thought ("Futured" and "Futureless" Languages)

Back in the 20th century before laptops, smart phones, and the Internet dominated student lives, I took my first course in anthropology. Since that time, I have been fascinated by the concept of cultural relativism and Benjamin Lee Whorf's linguistic relativism (or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), which views language as a cultural construct that shapes our thoughts and the way in which we view the world.

The academic debate about the influence of language on thought goes back at least a few centuries, and the discussion continues to pop up and to cause me to reflect on my English teaching practices.Students are often confused when they try to translate English into their own language or when they seek a word in English from their native tongue. Sometimes there isn't an equivalent concept, term, or item that exists in both languages. Most translating dictionaries do not show the range of usages of a single word in another language, so how far should I go in explaining to students that when they enter another language, their thinking and behavior might change?

Last year, I ran across this TED blog post and talk which made me pause to think more globally about human language, the English I teach, the vocabulary that enters American English from other languages, and the grammatical rules that continue to be broken and change as my American English becomes a species of English.

The findings of Keith Chen presented in this TED talk are provocative. (The published paper related to the talk is accessible here for free.) Chen's long-term research and surveys provide some compelling evidence to support the view that something basic like the existence of a future tense or lack of one can result in noticeable and measurable differences in behavior. Patterns of saving, for example, are correlated with the existence of a future tense. Wow!

Friday, May 16, 2014

Another Reason Why Grammar Matters

Recently Wall Street Journal (WJ) published an interesting analysis by Redfin and Grammarly on the effects of spelling and grammatical errors on real estate listings. Apparently, "typos and missing commas can slow sales and drag down prices" (WSJ, M12, Friday May 9, 2014).

One of the VPs (vice presidents) at Redfin infers that potential buyers view a realtor who is attentive to the details in his/her real estate listings as someone who will also handle sales carefully. By the same token, a sloppily written listing could signal a "potentially sloppy transaction" (WSJ, M12, May 9, 2014).

For English teachers searching for real-life examples of why grammar matters, this is a great instance of the impact good or poor grammar can have on people's lives in real economic terms.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

"Beat It," "Eat It," and "West Side Story"

To teach students the concept of parody along with count and noncount nouns, students first listened to a young Michael Jackson singing and dancing to "Beat It " (1982) Then they watched Weird Al Yankovic in a video parody called "Eat It" (1984).  Students examined the lyrics (or words) to Weird Al's song, examining nouns for countability. It was difficult at times to understand the food references without knowing brand names such as Captain Crunch, Raisin Bran, and Spam.  Much more could have been done with this song in a literature or reading class, and I hope I'll have a chance to try the materials again with another high intermediate or advanced level group.

***You can also go back in movie history and watch an excerpt from "West Side Story" (1961) which the Michael Jackson dance video seems to parody.  There are other excerpts which seem relevant to "Beat It", such as the scene where Tony tries to break up the fight between two gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The scene parallels Michael Jackson's role in "Beat It," except Michael, of course, is able to get the two gangs to dance out their hostility.