Friday, February 1, 2019

Learning English by Looking at Houses

Now you may be looking at this photo and wondering what kind of real estate this is. Well, it's a hangout for monkeys (this is at the San Diego Zoo in San Diego, CA). Zoo architects put up structures that have the basic elements of a house even though these monkeys have probably never been in a human house. What do you see? A roof, different floors, a wooden frame with no windows, a rope ladder for getting to the second story of the building, and a shady view from the bottom floor of the house. Now you have a little language to start with.

Basic House Vocabulary

Look at the photo above which comes from the Little World website  Little World (Japan) is a special park which displays houses from various parts of the world which were either transported intact from the country of origin or reconstructed using materials from the country of origin. Visitors have the opportunity to go inside the house structures.
Do you see any similarities between this house above and the first one for the monkeys? The roof is the top of the house and protects the people (or monkeys) from rain or too much sunshine. The floor is the flat or horizontal structure on which the inhabitants can stand, lie, groom, play, and place furniture. A house can have more than one floor as the monkey house does. If it does have more than one story (= floor of a building), usually, people have a staircase inside or outside their house to get to the upper level. However, if you build a treehouse for your children, you might use a rope ladder like the one you see in the zoo photo.

Every home has certain basic elements - an entryway or door, walls, a roof (something above your head to keep out the rain and/or sun) and windows or openings to look outside and to let fresh air inside. The photo above of a traditional house from rural Japan shows you what we expect most houses to look like. 

A great way to expand your vocabulary in a foreign language - or even in your native language - is to focus on a topic of interest to you. If you're trying to build useful vocabulary about houses or housing, for example, try the real estate section of any newspaper. You can also go online, of course, and do some virtual house-hunting.  

Monday, January 7, 2019

To teach or not to teach ... 'bad' words

Recently, I viewed a very funny video about the many meanings of 'shit.' Although I have taught such common four letter words in the past, I wondered how my colleagues and friends (native English speakers and non-native English speakers) would respond to a query about teaching 'shit' to my intermediate-level adult students at a community college. Out of 10 people who responded via FB or email, not one of them waivered. They all said, "Yes, you should teach bad words." One even said that it is my 'responsibility' to teach them.

Here's the video. The performer is Finnish and definitely has a great sense of American English. I don't know if he was a comedian in his native country, but he definitely tickles my funny bone.

What do you think?  I did show this video to my students, and most of them (a dozen) enjoyed it. However, a few didn't seem to 'get' it. When you explain humor, it somehow kills it, so I had a brief follow-up reaction/reflection talk, advising caution (especially to the young adult males in my class) when attempting to use this kind of language with native speakers.

I agree it IS my responsibility as an instructor of English to non-native speakers to teach them awareness and self-consciousness when using four-letter words that can be seen as obscene or irreverent. I also want them to understand that context is extremely important - how powerful a definite or indefinite article is in changing the meaning of an expression. As a student of many foreign languages (Spanish, French, Quechua, Japanese, Arabic, Lingala), I find it easy to put myself in the position of my students. I would want to know these words in other languages I have studied to greater or smaller degrees, so that I might understand if someone is insulting or complimenting me.  It is up to each student to take what I've chosen to give, store it in memory, or throw it away.  

Friday, October 5, 2018

The Power of Pronouns

Have you ever thought that your use of pronouns might reflect your level of self-esteem and whether you belong or fit in a group?  Here is a link to a review of James Pennebaker's "The Secret Life of Pronouns." It came from, which is a site you might want to subscribe to. (I think the name of the site captures the essence of it.)

I often start my ESOL classes with a brief review of the eight parts of speech. I am always amazed at how few students understand that our language and dictionaries are made up of words that belong to certain categories of speech. Why do we do that? It is so we can know how to use the vocabulary in a sentence.

What is a pronoun? Simply defined, it is a word that takes the place of a noun (=a word that refers to a person, place, thing, or idea). However, in English, we should not use a pronoun in a sentence unless it is obvious to the reader or listener what noun you are referring to. Here are some examples:

          "She loves to travel overseas."

If you had been talking about Maria previously and said the sentence above, I would assume that you were referring to Maria (="She").

Some languages such as Japanese and Spanish don't require a subject (often played by a noun or pronoun) to start a sentence, so you definitely need to be following the conversation or reading well to understand the subject of a statement.

         "Es muy interesante."  what or who is interesting?

Pronouns are useful, especially to allow us to avoid repeating the same noun:  "When John was at the zoo yesterday, John saw a giraffe."  Better and easier to follow would be to say "When John was at the zoo yesterday, he saw a giraffe."

For more in-depth coverage of Dr. Pennebaker's fascinating perspective on human social interaction and what language tells about our state of being, I recommend this recent 2017 Apple interview.  It will also connect to education and English language learning.