Archive for Language teaching and learning

High school language exams in students' native languages

High school principals in the UK are discovering that immigrants can be a very useful resource for them. Schools are rated according to the number of passes their students obtain in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). There are 619,000 immigrants from Poland now living in the country, and Polish is available as a GCSE examination subject.

Polish is now the 5th most popular language to take at GCSE level. And 95% of those taking it gain one of the top 3 of the 9 grades (a much higher percentage than for languages like French or Spanish). Moreover, 97% of those who take Polish score worse on the English Language exam. The inference to draw is clear, and very probably true: schools are pushing Polish native speakers to take the exam, because it pushes up the school's GCSE rating.

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Sedaris endorses compositionality

Thanks to Graeme Forbes for alerting me to this! He has given me permission to post his note to his pro-compositionality friends. [For readers for whom compositionality is a new concept: it's a central tenet of formal semantics, usually credited to Gottlob Frege (but not without some controversy): The meaning of the whole is a function of the meaning of the parts and of the way they are syntactically combined. See, for instance: this introductory handout or the entry on Compositionality in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.]

From Graeme Forbes:

You may have already seen this, but in case not, here's an excerpt from an article in the current New Yorker, "Easy, Tiger", by David Sedaris (July 11/18 2011, p.40). It's an entertaining piece about how he "mastered" Mandarin, Japanese and German with the aid of tourist-courses on his iPod, including one from a company called Pimsleur. The "Easy, Tiger" alludes to a phrase in the section on romance in the Mandarin course. Or was it the German course? Surely not!

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IELTS: The test that sets the standard?

Here's a case that  I'm hoping will turn out to be an epic example of journalistic misunderstanding.  Because the alternative is that the International English Language Testing System is a really, really bad way to measure English language proficiency.  And that would be a shame, because IELTS, a product of University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations and the British Council, is pretty much the standard English proficiency test outside the U.S.

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Language tests for immigrants in Canada

According to Nicholas Keung, "All immigrants face mandatory language test", The Star, 7/20/2010:

Born and raised in New York, Dodi Robbins graduated from Harvard University and has been practising law for 13 years.

Her first language is English. Yet like all other skilled immigrants applying to settle in Canada, the American corporate lawyer must now take a language test to prove her English is good enough to settle here.

“I was outraged, insulted and floored,” said Robbins, who obtained her law degree at Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School in New York. A mother of two, she has been working in Toronto on a work permit for four years as compliance and regulations counsel for an international financial services company.

“I almost fell off the chair. I’ve been practising law here for years and I have to prove my proficiency in English?”

Last month Ottawa made its language proficiency test mandatory for all skilled immigrant applicants, including native English and French speakers. The so-called “ministerial instructions” stipulate officials are not to process applications without language test results, starting June 26.

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Removing teachers with "accented" speech?

It's been widely reported that the Arizona Department of Education has begun working to remove teachers whose English-language skills are viewed as inadequate. According to press reports, the evaluators aim (among other things) to remove teachers with "accents", which probably means Spanish accents in most cases. Casey Stegall, "Arizona Seeks to Reassign Heavily Accented Teachers", Fox News 5/22/2010, wrote:

After passing the nation's toughest state immigration enforcement law, Arizona's school officials are now cracking down on teachers with heavy accents.

The Arizona Department of Education is sending evaluators to audit teachers and their English speaking skills to make sure districts are complying with state and federal laws.

Teachers who are not fluent in English, who make grammatical errors while speaking or who have heavy accents will be temporarily reassigned.

"As you expect science teachers to know science, math teachers to know math, you expect a teacher who is teaching the kids English to know English," said Tom Home, state superintendent of public instruction.

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Fanboys: the techie put-down and the bogus acro-mnemonic

In my latest Word Routes column on the Visual Thesaurus, I take a look at Harry McCracken's excellent historical analysis of the word fanboy, from something of an in-joke among underground cartoonists in the '70s to an all-purpose techie put-down in the '00s. I throw into the mix the acronymic mnemonic FANBOYS, standing for for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so, a list that is supposed to constitute a class of "coordinating conjunctions" that pattern alike. Geoff Pullum has already noted the bogosity of this list here, and my column relies on further dismantling of the FANBOYS myth by Brett Reynolds of English, Jack and Karl Hagen of Polysyllabic. My final question:

What I'm wondering is, could there have been any cross-pollination between the grammatical mnemonic and the fanboys of comics, science fiction, and the like? If teachers of English composition were keeping FANBOY(S) alive as an acronym in the '50s and '60s, perhaps that had an indirect effect on those underground cartoonists who started using it in the '70s. That's assuming they were paying attention during their language-arts classes and not just reading comic books!

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Deciphering the Rising Sun

Following up on earlier LL posts about language training in the U.S. military (e.g. "The interpreter shortage", 10/17/2005; "Linguistics in 1940", 3/11/2007) Jim Gordon sent a pointer to Roger Dingman's Deciphering the Rising Sun: Navy and Marine Corps Codebreakers, Translators and Interpreters in the Pacific War, Naval Institute Press, 2009. From a review by Ian Nish at the Japan Society:

Professor Dingman has based this enlightening study on extended interviews with former officers in the US Navy and Marine Corps who are now in their upper 80s. But he has also made much use of the unpublished memoirs to be found in the Navy Language School Collection in the Norlin Library, University of Colorado at Boulder where they were trained. It is a tribute to the US government – and the British for that matter – that they appreciated the importance of training linguists during the Asia-Pacific war and had the foresight to recruit and train personnel not of Japanese ancestry to study the Japanese language with a view to serving as language officers. Dingman concludes that it was a successful experiment and draws a painful parallel with the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq:

“In June 2002 America teetered on the cusp of a war in Iraq that has lasted longer than the titanic struggle which the World War II language officers fought… It led to swift military victory, but true peace has proven elusive in the disastrously mismanaged, occupation that followed… those in our armed forces charged with carrying out their orders lacked knowledge of Iraq’s history and culture and of the language of its people. (pp. 249-50)”

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Eleven mistakes about grammar mistakes

The Apple is a site "where teachers meet and learn". It has a page where teachers can supposedly learn from "11 Grammar Mistakes to Avoid". And guess what: as Steve Jones has pointed out to Language Log, not a single one of these alleged grammar mistakes is both (a) genuinely relevant to English grammar and (b) actually a mistake. It is truly extraordinary what garbage teachers are exposed to when it comes to matters of how to describe what is and what is not grammatical in Standard English.

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David Foster Wallace Grammar Challenge Challenged

Jason Kottke links to a "Grammar Challenge" devised by David Foster Wallace and posted by a student of Wallace's, Amy McDaniel. What's noteworthy is that Kottke reports getting 0/10. Kottke is a thoughtful, creative English prose stylist, and Wallace thought that these questions were basic ones that should be taught in any undergraduate class. Kottke seems to think the problem lies with him. I take a different view: this test is useless. Just imagine a chemistry quiz that accomplished working chemists could not pass. What would you make of such a quiz? I myself would question its author's competence at devising chemistry quizzes.

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Interesting sentences

My waggish friend Steven Levine sent me, a little while back, a page from a grade school workbook on writing (I don't know which one, nor do I much care; this page is a not at all remarkable instance of the workbook genre). Here's the text of exercise 125, "Interesting Sentences":

A good sentence should be interesting.

"I have a dog" is not a good sentence with which to begin a story. [Note the very formal fronted preposition; no stranded prepositions! Possibly the writer of this sentence genuinely believes that "preposition at end" is ungrammatical, or maybe the writer is just trying to model "the best grammar" for the kids.] If you are writing a story about your dog that was lost, it would be better to begin the story, "Last week my dog Shep ran away from home."

Can you change the following sentences into interesting sentences? [Note that this is an instruction to change the sentences, not an actual question.]

The sentences are:

1. I have a bicycle.
2. Charlie has a goat.
3. I have a dress.
4. Brother gave me a wagon.
5. I have a pony.
6. My shoes are new.

(and there's a line at the end labeled: My score……………….)

There's a lot that could be said about this exercise, but here are a few observations.

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More on syllables

Not surprisingly, my post on /men tuh list/ yesterday was not well received. I tossed it out, stirred the pot, and it bubbled up. Many readers, some angry, have written me to tell me how utterly wrong my syllabification was. I fully agree.  But that wasn’t what I wanted to communicate. I don’t really care how Mentalist syllabifies the name of that TV program. My point, obviously made too obscurely, or too subtly, or too ineptly, had nothing to do with the phonological property of a word. It had to do with children learning how to read. Language Log readers set me straight, but also they were unanimous in saying that the phonologically correct division of mentalist produces two words totally unrelated to the meaning of that word, men and list. I could be very wrong (not unusual for me), but when children find these two unrelated words in mentalist as they try to split the word into phonologically accurate syllables, the result seems counterproductive to the process of learning to read. As heretical as this may sound, I suspect that sometimes a correct analysis of something can actually hinder rather than help children learn new tasks.

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Men tuh list

A new cop show called Mentalist has been one of the big hits of this season’s television fare. It features Simon Baker as a former fortune teller turned honest by renouncing his former fraudulent practice and now working with an unlikely bunch of California Bureau of Investigation officers to catch the bad guys. What caught my eye, however, was the title of the show, which is broken into what the writers believe to be the syllables of Mentalist:

/’men – tuh—list/    noun

Okay, the second syllable is actually /t / plus schwa, but I don’t have a keyboard with a schwa, so you understand what I mean by the /-uh/.

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Is there a classroom after the classroom is gone?

Reporting from the geriatric desk at Language Log Plaza: I retired from the classroom almost 13 years ago and I sometimes miss teaching linguistics to my students. I’ve continued to consult with lawyers on their criminal and civil law cases and I still write articles and books, but I’ve found that I rather miss my daily contact with students. So, in an effort to keep some kind of contact alive, I set up my website in such a way that if people who want access to some of my papers on it, they first have to email me and tell me something about themselves and why they want access to this material.

Even when the information they give me is minimal, I usually give them my password anyway. We often have two or three email exchanges about their questions, but most of the time I never hear from them again. Once in a while I actually get an opportunity to teach that is more than simply giving them access to my published papers. One example of this bears some amplification. Here’s the story.

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