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.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Teaching and Mindset Part 2

Teachers also need to get into a growth mindset. That is, we need to focus on our own growth and learning. Sometimes, we are made aware of other strategies for teaching students which are more 'fun' and incorporate more technology. I have done this with my college ESOL students. I get 'stretched' technologically and learn to teach a different skill (beyond English!).

However, after trying out new strategies, I sometimes realize (= learn) that I may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.  I am constantly being torn between doing what my gut instincts tell me to do, such as drill students and do choral pronunciation exercises, not as a steady diet but intermittently. Yet, I know that by current California standards of project-based learning, someone overseeing me for one class session might view such an activity as very old-fashioned or 'old school.'  If they asked me why I did it, however, there would be many sound reasons (pun intended) based on what I've learned from psycholinguistics and from my own personal journeys sampling or studying several foreign languages (Spanish, French, Quechua, Japanese, Arabic, Lingala, German).

The following Op-Ed article last spring from the Opinion section of the Wall Street Journal (May 13-14, 2017 (Saturday and Sunday), page A11, titled "A Polymath Mastered Math - and So Can You" by James Taranto, who interviewed Barbara Oakley) caught my attention as it forced me to rethink some ideas that I'd been forcing myself to give up. My insides were telling me that many of my students had not done the hard foundation-building labor (often repetitious and drill-like) to control English's many irregular verbs and our variety of tenses. Many were not even aware that there were so many identifiable grammatical structures in English. As a long-term ESOL instructor (nearly 20 years), I have recently been informed that grammar can be 'picked up' in the context of reading, by noticing how writers write. That may work for native speakers much better than it works for non-native speakers because native speakers already have some language intuition, but I often hear from my immigrant students that they want more instruction in grammar, not just passive learning.

What struck me a few years ago in 2016 was that some former Swiss students who came back to the U.S.A. to visit - and reconnected with their former ESL instructor (me) - had not lost much of their English skills from eight years earlier. How was it possible that former students who had not been in the USA for nearly a decade nor been required to use English in their jobs could still produce such coherent and accurate English? How could they still correctly form a question in English and ask if they were using correct grammatical construction (they were! - e.g., present perfect, simple past, conditional, and so on)?  Could it be that they drilled it years before we met and drilled again before the Cambridge Exam? They memorized and practiced English for an expensive test that would mean the difference between getting a raise or moving up the job ladder by proving their overall comprehension of the language.

In the Wall Street journal article, the author of Mindshift (Oakley) says, with respect to learning math and science that "The way you learn intensively for a language is very similar to learning well in math and science." Although some believe that practice and repetition kill creativity, Oakley says, "One mistake we make in the school system is we emphasize understanding. But if you don't build those neural circuits with practice, it'll all slip away. You can understand up the wazoo, but it'll just disappear if you're not practicing with it" (quoted by Taranto in WSJ, 5/13/17).

Ms. Oakley comments that "many, if not most," of her engineering colleagues "are from countries that have educational systems completely antithetical to [ours]. In places like China and India, 'practice and repetition and rote and memorization are really important parts of education.'" Oakley also points out that our Western approaches can enhance creativity, but that "Asian approaches ... build solid foundations in the most difficult disciplines like math and science."

This article resonated with my instincts and thoughts about language learning. My own long journey with foreign languages has definitely impacted my English teaching strategies. Now, I am rethinking my own mindset. Is it fixed, or can I continue to grow and change - the same as I ask of my students?

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Teaching and Practicing Growth Mindset and Political Correctness

Since 2015, I've been starting my Advanced ESOL Reading and Writing class with some readings about mindset and a TED video by Carol Dweck.  Why?  I have been frustrated with students who arrive in my class from their previous classes believing that they are "A" students, so everything that they do should have an "A" grade attached to it. First, where does this fixation on grades come from? While adult immigrant students earn credits for their ESOL community college classes, the grades do not impact their college transcripts. In other words, if they do well enough in their ESOL classes to move up to Basic Skills Writing courses, a grade of "C" or better in ESOL will not affect their chances of getting into a four-year degree-granting institution. Second, when there is nothing to lose by earning a passing level grade of "C," why is there still an obsession with grades? Third, if students are supposed to complete certain skills by the time they arrive at the highest level, why are a third of them arriving in the last "advanced" level course without what I expect are the requisite skills? Why do we ESOL professors feel pressured and compelled to move students on to the next level - to pass them because they're immigrants and can't be expected to be as skilled in English as a native speaker? Interestingly, in a class discussion about language and literacy across the world, one of my students said that she thought a big difference between her country (Colombia) and the USA is that in Colombia if a student doesn't reach the required level of skill in Spanish, for example, (s)he will have to repeat the class. No ifs, ands, or buts. They might even have to repeat it twice; it is the same for mathematics and science classes at the middle school level. In that way, it actually means something when students complete middle school. If they don't pass, then they can't go on to high school.

This is a point I need to explore further. There are 'triage' or two-tier apprenticeship vs. academic-track systems in Europe where students who don't have high enough scores on level tests get filtered out as pre-teens or teenagers into so-called apprentice programs (where the focus is on learning blue-collar skills and office/clerical skills for service-oriented professions) rather than academic or science-oriented careers.

When I got exposed to Brainology and the work of Carol Dweck in 2015, I had little idea how well it would work to help my students focus on learning and growing their minds. The concept of the fixed and growth mindsets was revolutionary to me and to my non-native Englsh-speaking adult population. In addition, it was empowering for me and for some of my students.  Since January 2015, I've had a handful of ESOL students who knew they were not going to pass my class who stayed in my course beyond the withdraw deadline (10 weeks of 16 week semester) because they decided that they could improve their essay writing, do advanced-level readings, participate in reading circle discussions or debates, build their knowledge of more advanced grammar structures, and be better prepared to repeat the class the next semester. One student who did this wrote in her portfolio reflection that it was one of the best experiences she had had in ESOL because she wasn't worried about her grade. Instead, she was focused on learning. Wow!

I have continued to use the growth mindset and find that it has worked for me and transformed my way of communicating to my students. This approach to teaching doesn't protect students from getting "D's" in my classes; it means, in my view, that they're not yet ready for the next level. (See Dweck above). I also share my own educational flops in my long journey through a four-year degree at UCLA and two master's degree programs (anthropology and TESOL). I let them know that I don't equate grades with intelligence because when I suffered from "D" grades, I know that I didn't suddenly get dumber. I was over-extended (working, commuting by bus over two hours per day, and emotionally stressed and depressed over a broken relationship). These were not excuses; other factors overpowered my ability to focus on classwork.

Praising effort over grades does not mean that a student should pass a class because they worked hard. Many of my students were hard workers, but they knew that they had not achieved the learning outcomes. Their English "muscles" were not strong enough to perform at the level of a college freshman.

Is it easy not to pass a hard-working ESOL student? No, of course not. However, I wish the previous professor had conveyed the same message to his/her students so that I wouldn't have had to deflate egos and overcome the bad attitudes of students who came with fixed mindsets - and saw anything as difficult as an attempt on the instructor's part to show/prove that they were not very smart. Some students told me that they "knew" all the grammar and passed at an "A" level in the previous course, yet they didn't know basic irregular verb forms (e.g., teach -> "teached") or how to use present perfect or simple past nor did they know that modal verbs are not followed by past tense verb forms (e.g., should "went"). On top of that, several of these same students complained that I should spend more time on basic grammar even though "grammar" was supposedly what "they already knew."

This is not a rant, but a suggestion that adult-level ESOL instructors use concepts from elementary school curricula to enhance their approach to teaching, in general. The Brainology reading for 5th graders in the public school was not too simple for advanced-level ESOL students.  A side benefit one semester was the revelation that one of my students connected to her son because he had studied the same reading. My adult ESOL student was fearful of going back to school, but as her children were out of kindergarten, her husband encouraged her to go to college and to seek a career outside the home. Learning to write in academic English was her first big step.

Just as the debate still sizzles in public schools, I have found that some of my colleagues teaching college-level ESOL courses are caught in a battle over what our purpose is. Is it to help students reach a level of English fluency and accuracy that will allow them to communicate well in a work or business context to colleagues and employees, or is it to equip our students with enough language to be functional, comprehensible, and "good enough" - assuming that they will improve over time with exposure to native English-language speakers?

I am torn between treating my students as I would want to be treated in a foreign country, studying in an academic setting, alongside native-born students.  Would I want to be passed along because it was viewed as not PC (politically correct) to fail me and force me to repeat a course until I had reached a more functional level in the target language in which I needed to express myself? If I continued on in a foreign environment and obtained a degree there, would my degree be worth the same as the native-born student's?  Are we cheapening the value of a UCSD degree by taking on so many non-natives who don't command the language into our degree programs?  Was the professor forced to pass me along because I was foreign-born and working hard to acculturate and learn the local language? Does it degrade the value of a degree from UCLA or UCSD if a non-native speaker receives a degree from one of these prestigious universities and is incomprehensible in English outside of a classroom context? When we discovered that President George W. Bush graduated from Yale University, did we not pause to wonder whether the standards of Yale were as high as we once thought them to be?

Now, in February 2018, I am still puzzled and asking many of the same questions.