Archive for Language teaching and learning

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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U.S. college language enrollments

There's a fact-and-graph-packed post over at Pinyin News on "US post-secondary enrollments in foreign languages and the position of Mandarin". The post's "basic points up front":

  • Spanish has more enrollments than all other foreign languages put together.
  • By far the biggest enrollment boom since 1990 has not been for Mandarin but for American Sign Language.
  • The boom in enrollments in Arabic also surpasses that for Mandarin.
  • Mandarin is indeed growing in popularity — but in recent years only at the undergraduate level.
  • Japanese continues to be more popular than Mandarin, though by an ever-smaller margin.
  • Mandarin is the seventh most studied foreign language in U.S. post-secondary schools, behind Spanish (which leads Mandarin by a ratio of 16:1), French, German, American Sign Language, Italian, and Japanese.
  • Relatively speaking, enrollments in foreign languages are much lower than they were 30 years ago.

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Why isn't English a Bar Mitzvah language?

In response to my post on the relative difficulty of learning to read in English ("Ghoti and choughs again", 8/16/2008), Mark Seidenberg sent a note raising an interesting question about the relationship between writing systems and the morphology of the languages they represent:

It is my informal observation that the shallow orthographies are associated with languages that have relatively complex morphology (inflectional and/or derivational). Classic examples would be Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Finnish and German (though of course these languages aren't all morphologically complex in the same way). I mean complex relative to other languages like English. The deep orthographies are associated with languages such as English and Chinese, which have relatively simple morphological systems. Perhaps this observation is correct (though mixed systems such as Japanese present a potential challenge); perhaps your readers would be able to generate counterexamples. Still, if the general trend holds, the question would then be why properties of the writing system trade off against properties of the language.

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Ghoti and choughs again

English is not the worst imaginable choice as a medium of international communication — Chinese would be worse, among a few others. But on the whole, it's seriously bad luck for the human species that English happened to hit the linguistic jackpot. The problem is not the English language itself, which I love dearly and would otherwise be happy to recommend to others. The problem is the way that English is written, which is really, really hard to learn, in comparison to most other languages with an alphabetic writing system.

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At the recent Acoustics 2008 meeting, I heard a presentation that reminded me of a mystery that I've been wondering about for nearly two decades. The paper presented was Maria Uther et al., "Training of English vowel perception by Finnish speakers to focus on spectral rather than durational cues", JASA 123(5):3566, 2008. And the mystery is why HVPT — a simple, quick, and inexpensive technique for helping adults to learn the sounds of new languages — is not widely used.

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Phrasebook pronunciation, or, kawnbyang der tahng dewr ler vwahyazh

Apparently Mark and I overlapped in Paris! Who knew. I was there for une journée d'études for the CNRS project Temptypac, which was fun and interesting, plus of course being in Paris is always superbe…

My French is up to most basic communication needs, but my husband's isn't, so we shopped around a bit for a phrasebook to help him maximize touristic enjoyment while I linguistified. We found four suitable candidate pocket phrasebooks. One cost 5 euros rather than 7. It also happened to be the one that included the all-important phrase, "Je voudrais cinq tranches de jambon, s'il vous plaît", without which phrase one cannot navigate Paris at all. But the main deciding factor for us, besides the extremely valuable euros, was the pronunciation guides.

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Twenty selected Coalface errors

Those who have read about the great Queensland grammar scandal about the "Coalface" teachers' guide and the ensuing coverup and counterattack may have wondered just what the crucial errors of grammatical analysis were, because the press coverage mentioned only a scant half-dozen. I thought Language Log readers might like to see fuller details in browsable form (Huddleston's full presentation in PDF format is available here). Below I give a terse listing of twenty sample errors in Lenore Ferguson's first two articles in the "Grammar at the Coalface" series (the listing is not exhaustive).

How important these are depends on how seriously you take grammar as a subject. It's true that linguistics is not like earthquake engineering — if someone misclassifies a word or botches a definition, nobody dies; but on the other hand getting factual claims right is part of the job description for scholars and teachers. From the point of view of the public controversy, however, the relevant question is just how many of these blunders could conceivably be dismissed in the way Lenore Ferguson and Gary Collins have tried to dismiss them: as (1) minor errors of typing or formatting, or (2) mere "matters of opinion", or (3) simple terminological differences, or (4) substantive differences between one theory and another. There is not a single one. Which means the blustering ETAQ responses are entirely dishonest. Where anything to do with "functional grammar" is relevant at all, Ferguson has generally either contradicted its tenets or contradicted herself. Here is the select list of 20 particularly clear errors:

  1. Won't in The small boy won't eat his lunch called an adverb. (It's an auxiliary verb.)

  2. Capable of in The small boy is capable of eating his lunch called an adverb. (Not a grammatical unit; it's an adjective followed by a preposition.)

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ETAQ strikes baq: more from Queensland

The editor of a journal for teachers sets out to write and publish some helpful materials for those teaching grammar "at the coalface" (a worryingly dark metaphor for what it must be like in classrooms these days!). After publication she finds that she has made so many gross mistakes that the material is worse than useless. One can sympathize with someone in such a position. It is the position Dr Lenore Ferguson managed to put herself in about a year ago when she started publishing a series of articles on elementary English grammar, under the title "Grammar at the coalface", in Words’worth, the journal of the English Teachers' Association of Queensland (ETAQ) — see this Language Log post.

It is certainly sad to see good intentions going so far awry. Rodney Huddleston thought that too, which is why his initial efforts at suggesting that her errors needed correction were polite and tentative. I could even understand it if Dr Ferguson initially hoped that she might be able to just minimize her errors or cover them up. However, my sympathy for her and her association has diminished as the days have gone by. ETAQ has started to strike back, and its defensive manoeuvers have headed rapidly toward outright dishonesty. Various rhetorical strategies are being deployed, but frankness and attention to the evidence are not among them.

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How the Romans invented grammar

It's not only in the United States that linguists have failed in their responsibility to educate the public. As Geoff Pullum explained yesterday, the English Teachers Association of Queensland (Australia) recently published a teachers' guide to grammar that was "full of utter howlers". And some of the discussion of the controversy is not much better. For example, Graham Young wrote today in a blog post at the National Forum ("Grammar's taught to grammarians", 6/14/2008):

The Romans, driven I suspect by their infatuation with standardisation (which palls in comparison to ours, but they caught the disease first), invented grammar. It didn't exist before them, people just spoke languages.

This short passage contains several implicit indictments of my profession's educational failures.

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Queensland grammar brouhaha

A major grammar brouhaha exploded in Australia today, launched in the country's major newspaper The Australian under the headline Grammar guide for English teachers 'full of basic errors':

A TEACHERS' guide to grammar circulated by the English Teachers Association of Queensland is riddled with basic errors, leading an internationally respected linguistics professor to describe it as "the worst published material on English grammar" he has seen.

A series of articles on grammar published in the ETAQ's journal intended as a teaching resource is striking for its confusion of the parts of speech, incorrectly labelling nouns as adjectives, verbs as adverbs and phrases as verbs.

Here's the rest of the story.

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How to learn to read Chinese

The hardest part of learning Chinese is mastering the thousands of characters that are necessary for full literacy.  The spoken language, in contrast, is relatively easy to acquire.  A good teacher who employs benign pedagogical methods can have students conversing quite fluently within a year or two.  By “benign pedagogical methods” I mean focusing on pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and patterns (phrases, clauses, sentences – through build-up drills, substitution drills, etc.).  Unfortunately, all too many Chinese language teachers crush the enthusiasm and the confidence of beginning and intermediate students by requiring that – almost from the start – they arbitrarily learn dozens or scores of characters every month.

From the very beginning of my own Chinese language learning experience nearly forty years ago, I have staunchly opposed this over-emphasis on brute force memorization of characters.  Rather, I advocate what I call “learning like a baby” as much as possible.  Namely, let students naturally become familiar and comfortable with the basic expressions, structures, and intonations of the language.  After acquiring this solid foundation, then gradually introduce characters in a systematic fashion, one that is directly linked to words and expressions, not as isolated morphosyllables.

Unfortunately, most of us are adults or teenagers (post-puberty, at any rate) before we embark on our Chinese language learning quest.  Furthermore, we do not live in a Chinese language environment, so that makes it all the harder to “learn like a baby.”  As we say in Mandarin, ZE(N)3ME BAN4? (“What to do?”)

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