Monday, June 9, 2014

Video Illustrating Multiple Meanings

There's a new post at my sister blog Picturing English which has a link to a great video. It has been linked multiple times, but apparently is a creation of RadioLabs. You can also find this same video and a worksheet here at EFL Classroom 2.0 .  In the version at EFL Classroom 2.0, the owner of the site modified the original video slightly to eliminate what he considered images inappropriate for school-age children, such as the raised middle finger drawn on a whiteboard. That image is included in the original form at the Picturing English site, so you have a choice of video versions.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Spanish words that have no English equivalence

As an ESL (English as a second language) instructor, I often tell my students to avoid using translating dictionaries and to try understanding new English words by learning synonyms, paying attention to context, and by listening to or reading lots of examples from native speakers.

The Huffington Post recently came out with a list of Spanish words for which there may be no single comparable English word.  Since I'm not bilingual, I can only trust that the translations to English are as close as possible to the meaning of the words in Spanish. As with English, the main problem of providing a single definition for these Spanish words is that other meanings are possible, e.g., sobremesa (could be a tablecloth or dessert). The most common usage of a word is usually the only one provided in paperback translating dictionaries. Even when searching online for definitions in English, there are many dictionaries and definitions to choose from. Language is very much a reflection of culture (previously touched on here), so it's not surprising that there may be no single word equivalence between languages. Translation always requires interpretation of one culture's vocabulary into the standard of another. If Facebook is any indicator of how far we have to go with translating apps, we still have a looong way to go with non-European languages such as Arabic, Korean, and Japanese.  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Teaching Sarcasm in English

When teaching intermediate-level students how to become better listeners, we often advise them to listen for differences in intonation or word choice that might signal meanings that are different from the dictionary definition of the words themselves. Learning to make inferences or to infer meaning from the way people express themselves in a foreign language can be daunting.

Some of my students who don't recognize the word sarcasm have difficulties understanding it from a written definition, so besides using examples from their textbook, Listening Power 3, I offer them some free online examples linked to my wiki. It is helpful for students to be able to listen to audio tracks or video examples outside of class.

The first one here is from the BBC's Learning English website. It gives a student some insight into English or British culture and a few audio examples of what sarcasm sounds like. The next is a link to a popular American TV series called The Big Bang Theory (TBBT). In this segment of an episode, one of the main characters Sheldon is trying to learn what sarcasm is. This video clip reinforces the explanation given by the BBC.

Personally, I'm not a fan of sarcasm as it was not part of my personal background. I didn't encounter it much until I was in high school. As explained in the BBC Learning English track, not every culture uses sarcasm as a form of humor. When dealing with non-native speakers, especially, but also with native speakers of English who you don't know well, be careful about using sarcasm. If the person you are interacting with doesn't know that you're being ironic or sarcastic, (s)he could misunderstand you and be hurt by your words. Sarcasm when aimed at a person unfamiliar with this form of communication can feel like an insult or a put down.