Sunday, 23 March 2014

Trust us, we know what's best for you.

Language for giving opinions
At a recent BALEAP conference the plenary speaker said something I found was quite startling. She was talking  about the fact we often teach things to students which are not, according to corpus data, representative of natural speech. That is, when we teach students things like 'language for giving opinions' we may present phrases like "I tend to think that..", "I consider..." and ''in my opinion' as a possible ways of alternatives to "I think" despite the fact they are actually vanishingly rare in speech, and are not really alternatives.   

I was worried when she reached her conclusion as it differed from mine, and I was speaking later that day! I had rather foolishly assumed that this meant we should stop teaching language which was unnatural of uncommon and instead focus on more useful, high frequency items. She didn't see it that way. She suggested that international students using odd or uncommon phrases, -especially if they were female, may sound quite 'charming'.
What I heard sounded familiar. I was reminded of my own experiences of learning a foreign language. Learning Japanese in Japan meant I had fairly natural sounding Japanese (brag brag). I only ever heard it from Japanese people speaking and I didn't have a textbook so my only input was them. I would occasionally meet people who studied abroad and would often find their Japanese odd or unnatural. For example, I would say the casual male 俺 ore for 'I' and they would say the more formal 私 watashiI would say "eh, what?" (e? Mou ikkai?) and they would say "I'm sorry but could you please repeat that." (sumimasen ga mou ichido itte kudasai) etc etc. It was really clear to me. The Japanese these people were learning was nothing like the Japanese I was hearing in Japan. 
Sometimes Japanese folks would be surprised and say things like 'foreigners shouldn't use Japanese like that.' or try to persuade me that really 'watashi' was a better choice of personal pronoun marker despite the fact none of the guys I knew used it. 
I'd also often hear 'you don't need to learn that Japanese' from well meaning folk, who no doubt had my best interests at heart. I later found that in 1988, the idea  of creating a 'foreigner Japanese' called Kanyaku nihongo with all the politeness markers removed was funded by the National Language Institute of Japan. This was no doubt to make it easier, for us poor foreigners trying to learn what is, according to many Japanese anyway, the most difficult language on the planet. Now, anyone who knows anything about Japanese can tell you that removing the politeness markers from Japanese is like removing the alcohol from beer. Technically possible but kind of defeating the object.

I found all of this patronising. I didn't want to learn foreigner Japanese I wanted to learn Japanese. Thus my experience leads me to think that students probably don't like being fobbed off with 'pseudo language'. They pay for and expect the real thing. My experience leads me to think this but I'm only one person and I could well be wrong.
It's not fair for me to assume that what I want is what my students want any more than it was fair for those well meaning Japanese folk to decide what I did and didn't need to learn and how I should sound. The danger with experience is always over extrapolation. This worked for me, in this place, at this time, so it must work for everyone.

In the past some teachers told students that they should strive to sound like a native speaker and probably a certain type of native speaker.  Some teachers now tell students not to try to sound like native speakers. In both these cases, the person telling and the person being told, haven't changed.

If student want to sound like their ideal of a native speakers (and many do) then that's fine. If they don't that's fine. It's their money. But even if students aren't interested in sounding like native speakers that's no excuse for us to teach them unnatural language and phrases because it's easier for us to teach like that.  All we are then doing is creating an alternative version of English -not ELF, just a pseudo English bleached and stripped of reality and no one is asking for that, no matter how 'charming' it might be.

Monday, 17 March 2014

A guide to teaching methods part 1: Crazy stupid English

I'm intending to try and catalogue some of the numerous language teaching methods that exist. Please let me know of any you'd like me to focus on.  I'm hoping to expand the list as time goes by. Here's the first one, let me know what you think.

Name: Crazy English (Fengkuang Yingyu)
Creator: Li yan, The Elvis of English
Country of origin: China
Popular in: China
Vintage: Around 1994
Philosophy: "In order to learn English you need to be have to be 110% involved." and "the secret of success is to have [students] continuously paying."
Number of students: 20 million
Research support: None
In a nutshell: listen and repeat drilling on a Chinese scale.  
Anything else:Crazy English involves huge numbers of people shouting at each other in stadium rallies that can reach up to ten thousand people.
Criticism: It's largely unknown outside  China but Kingsley Bolton calls it "Huckster nationalism". Li is charismatic and learnt English in China -not as a rich overseas student which gives him a lot of credibility among the people. He's also unashamedly nationalistic.  Some have described 'crazy English' as being rather cult like and this wasn't helped when as  The shanghai daily reports  in 2007 Li told his female students that if they shaved their heads to show their determination he would let them become his disciples. The New Yorker tells of a student selling blood in order to raise the money for a ticket to attend one of his stadium lessons.
Li's star has perhaps started to fade after it came to light in 2011 that he was a wife beater. His American wife uploaded photos showing the after effects of domestic violence at his hands and wrote that Li had "knocked me to the floor.[...] sat on my back [...] choked my neck with both hands and slammed my head into the floor," "The pair divorced in 2013 but recently Li has been bragging about his exploits saying:

Those who know I hit my wife, raise your hand! I am the spokesperson for domestic abuse!… This is a cultural clash between China and America; it has nothing to do with domestic abuse. One day, the Party and the state will rehabilitate me. I was doing something to educate Americans! My American wife was always criticizing China, accusing our Party of lying. In such a situation, could I not hit her?… Everyday accusing Beijing...She was lucky I could bear it, in America I would have shot her with a gun! (source)

 Nice! Let's hope Crazy English disappears along with its clearly psychopathic creator.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Your getting you're grammars wrong!

People get angry about 'grammar' on the internet. To the extent that memes have sprung up about it.

The scare quotes around 'grammar' are because most of what passes for grammar mistakes are really nothing of the sort. I work with foreign students, helping them get up to speed with English for university courses in the UK. They make real grammar mistakes. Here's an example of what someone without a firm grasp of English grammar sounds like:

'She have no much friend.'

Any one who has taught EFL will tell you that this isn't all that bad either. Learners can come up with some quite impressively bad sentences. At least with this one we can sort of guess of guess what the person is trying to say. That's why I think it's wrong to call something like 'your/you're' a 'grammar' mistake. Native speakers are very unlikely to make what could legitimately be called a 'grammar mistake'. More often than not they are spelling mistakes due to homophones like 'they're/their/there' or 'too/to'. The person knows what they want to say but they don't know how to spell it. Even the cringe inducing 'could of' is a misspelling. In rapid speech 'have' preceded by a consonant (the d of could) will almost always lose its 'h'. Sometimes we'll write this as could've. The problem is that the sounds of 've' /əv/ and 'of' /əv/ are identical. So again, we see homophones causing spelling mistakes.
How do I know that Native speakers are not making 'grammar' mistakes? Consider the following sentence: 
She doesn't have many friends.  

How many grammar rules are in this sentence? In fact there are numerous rules here all of which native speakers manage to observe almost all the time without any problems whatsoever - a feat quite beyond most of my students -even those at quite high levels of proficiency. Hold on, this is going to get complicated.

First the sentence is arranged subject verb object like most English sentences. In Japanese it would be subject object verb as in 'she many friends doesn't have'.  Next there is the fact that the object 'friends' is plural. So the noun has an 's' on the end. It's quite amazing that we don't get this wrong since it's so small and fiddly and also because English has a huge number of irregular plurals (dog dogs, potato potatoes, child children, party parties, mouse, mice, men man, fish fish, wife wives, ox, oxen, datum, data, bus buses, passer-by passers-by, index indices, octopus octopods). The writer also knows that as 'friend' is a countable noun (unlike say rice or coffee) we not only have to add an 's' but we also have to use the word 'many' not 'much'.
I told you this was complicated.
The native speaker also effortlessly manages this most complex of verb situations. the main verb is 'have' but as we are using 3rd person 'she' it changes to 'has'.  However that's not all, as we're using the negative 'not' we need to add 'do support'. Did you know English is one of the only languages to have do support on the planet? Of about 6,000 languages around now, there are only about three with do support and you can speak one of them. You lucky thing!
Back to the sentence. So we're in the middle of negating the verb and you'll notice that all  of the verb information has moved from the 'have' to the vampiric 'do' which has become 'does'. The negative marker 'not' has reduced and been sucked in by the 'do' as well. All bow down to the mighty 'do'.
So there you have it, three paragraphs to describe five words. All of the information I've described about English grammar is contained in a native speaker's head and flows out effortlessly when they speak. In fact, most of them probably couldn't describe these rules if  asked. Sure, some variations may exist ('she don't have many friends') but even these are regular and systematic. That is, no one says 'She have don't many friends' as a matter of course. If anything the 'she don't' is a more regular and logical version (but let's not get into that one).

As Atkinson notes, every native speaker knows more grammar rules than any grammarian has ever been able to codify. Your command of the intricacies of English grammar is so vast and complex it has not yet been fully recorded. Instead of celebrating this incredible fact we get upset when someone spells a word incorrectly and wonder if they don't understand 'grammar' and perhaps if they're stupid. It's a funny old world.
Happy #Grammarday.