How to Learn a Language

learningIn the field of second language acquisition, Stephen Krashen is something of a guru and leading light. For whatever reason, this four year old piece from the Washington Post popped up on my news feed today, a response from Krashen to someone else’s explanation of how to learn languages. The person he’s refuting, a certain Andrew Eil, claimed that he learned to speak four language through ‘boot camp’ style, intense grammar and vocab study with forced production.

Not so, Krashen proclaims. What’s actually needed is not grammar and vocab study – that’s not how we learn our native tongues, after all – or uncomfortable speaking. No, the answer is “comprehensible input”, namely reading and listening. The more we take in and understand, the better our overall grasp of the language will become. We need to internalize rules, not have them fed to us.

What do you think? Is Krashen right? Is Eil? Neither, both, something in between?

“I feel like” and the battle of generations

ifeellikeThere is nothing quite so traditional as the elders of a community complaining about the way young people speak. It’s the hobby of the aged, dating back probably to the dawn of language. No doubt there were silverbacked proto-humans grumbling about how the young proto-humans didn’t grunt the way they were supposed and how the language was deteriorating.

It’s such a tired critique. A cursory understanding of how language words would teach these pundits that language doesn’t – more-or-less can’t – deteriorate. It can change, yes, and evolve, but it’s always forward, never backwards.

A few generations ago, it was quite common to say “The house is building.” meaning that “The house is being built.” Today, we would find that construction hard to decipher and erroneous. Heck, English used to have gendered nouns! Thank the universe that it ‘deteriorated’ away from that!

Try to go back and read English texts from the 17th century. A fair bit of the language used would be tedious, awkward, or indecipherable to most readers today. Why? Because language evolves, natch. Had the pundits in any era had their way, we’d still be speaking Proto-Indo-European with its vast array of strong verbs.

For one contemporary example of this phenomenon, check out Molly Worthen’s New York Times article about millennials’ love for the phrase “I feel like…” and how it’s the embodiment of  everything that’s wrong with that cohort. Then, you can read this post from NPR’s Geoff Nunberg about why the phrase  is not anything to get worked up about.

Like Apples and Pommes


Found on Facebook.

In Defense of the Singular, Genderless ‘They’

They has a long and noble history in English, going back to  at least the 1200s in writing and certainly much further back in the spoken tongue. And as early as the time of Chaucer, they was used to denote a singular person. Shakespeare used it that way too. More recently, the American Dialect Society has given their imprimatur to singular they.

Just as singular they is  finally starting to get its fair shakes, a new use is arising: the genderless pronoun. Read more about that here:  ‘They’: the singular pronoun that could solve sexism in English | Books | The Guardian

The Case of the Promiscuous S

The words island and isle are not cognate. Really.

Island derives from an Old English word, iegland. lostislandpostcard

Isle, by contrast, is from Old French, probably an evolution of the Latin insula. It was only later, well after the Norman invasion of England, that people got confused by the two and the s snuck away from isle and stowed away on island.

That was kind of promiscuous. It also hooked up with the Old French word ele – bird’s wing, side of a ship, ultimately from Latin ala/axilla/axis – and gave us the modern English word aisle. Again, because people got confused. I blame our public schools…


What about Spelling?

A few days ago, one of those incessantly appearing Facebook quizzes caught my eye. “Can you spell the 25 most commonly missed [sic] words in English?” Well, it turns out I could in all by one case: noticeable was the noticeable mistake (I mis-clicked on another one, but I’m not counting that). I will quietly await the accolades a 2nd place finish deserves.

1066 A.D. The Battle of Hastings – This is why spelling sucks.

The quiz got me thinking: To what degree should spelling be emphasized in the ESL classroom? On the one hand, our learners need to be able to communicate competently, and spelling is undoubtedly a part of competence. On the other hand, English be crazy, yo. The time and resources we must muster for this task may outweigh the benefits of having impeccable spelling. Especially in the age of spellcheckers and emojis and text-speak, standard spelling (to whatever degree that is even a thing), it could be argued, is something of a deprecated skillset.

englishistoughConsider the second sentence in this popular meme. Through, tough, thorough, thought, and though all share ough in their spellings, but the sounds produced by those same letters vary.

  • through : ˈthrü
  • tough : ˈtəf
  • thorough : ˈthər-(ˌ)ō
  • thought : ˈthȯt
  • though : ˈthō

This may be an extreme example, but you can easily come up with many more: do and no, cow and bow (like a ribbon), and knead and bread are some more examples. It’s pretty clear that English is not a phonetic language. Our 26 letters corresponds to roughly 44 phonemes which are, in turn, represented by a staggering 250 different spellings (source).

The reasons why English is this way are legion; if you’re interested in that, check out the podcast series History of English, or read something like The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson. Suffice it to say, the many different tributaries that fed into the language in its formative centuries played a big role here, and no king or queen of England ever decreed a standardization of the language. By the time critics and academics realized that this would be useful, it was too late: the language had spread too far to try to impose order.

English is the wild love child of old Germanic, Anglo dialects, Norman French, and several other sources, and it roots show. On top of that, no one agreed how to spell things, and different monks and scriveners wrote words in the ways they thought they sounded, which naturally varied around the British Isles. Eventually, spelling finally began to settle into something like what we have now, with popular forms getting added to the dictionaries and school books, leaving English with quite a mess of its phonemes as depicted by the alphabet. As an interesting bit of trivia, outside of English-speaking countries, spelling bees are rare. Since most major languages have clearer relationships between their phonemes and spellings, there isn’t much challenge in spelling words correctly.

So, given the challenges of English spelling, is it worth devoting time and energy on in ESL? Maybe. Probably. Consider this passage from Why Teach Spelling?:

Investing instructional time in spelling can be profitable if the English language
is not treated as a haphazard writing system that can only be learned through
rote memorization. Students need to be taught how to learn and remember the
spellings of the words. This can be accomplished through:

* explicit instruction in phoneme-grapheme correspondences, phonemic
patterns in letter sequences or syllables, rules for joining syllables
or adding morphemes, elements of morpheme preservation in word
formation, and strategies for encoding irregular words;

* careful selection of spelling words that capitalize on students’
developing knowledge of the underlying structures of words; and

* repeated and cumulative practice in coordinating phonemic,
orthographic, and morphemic knowledge with immediate error correction.

Accurate spelling is a laudable goal, and not only because poor spelling is often
interpreted as a sign of laziness or a lack of intelligence (vos Savant, 2000).
The authentic benefit of being a strong speller, however, goes
beyond the superficial. A skilled speller is a stronger reader and writer. A
teacher can have confidence in affording spelling significant time and space in
the literacy curriculum.

There is value in being a good speller. Research generally shows that good spelling is associated with and may even encourage good reading and writing. It’s not a waste of time, assuming you do it effectively. But, how do we teach spelling in an effective way? We’ll explore that in another post. Same bat-channel, same bat-time.

In the meantime, what do you do about spelling in your ESL classes? How much time do you spend on it as a separate skill/sub-skill? How you found any effective methods or resources related to spelling? Please share!

You Need to Study Your Grammar, Son

Quick. What’s the third conditional? Mixed conditional? Is there even something called zero conditional? What’s the difference between present perfect and present perfect progressive, and why can’t you use the progressive in this case but you can in the other one?

zoidberggrammarbadIf you’re a native speaker, you likely haven’t studied grammar from an academic point of view since 8th grade. And unless you majored in linguistics, you might not even know what nominative, dative, and subjunctive mean, let alone how they might relate to English language instruction.

Before I began teaching ESL, I thought of myself as a knowledgeable, highly-literate person. I had impeccable grammar and my the sophistication of vocabulary made men nod in respect and ladies swoon with desire. Yet, within the first week of teaching 1st and 2nd graders, I realized that my intuitive ability to use English well did not translate into a technical understanding of how English works. If we ever talked about the different conditionals in school, I have no memory of it.

I remember once, very early on, a Korean 3rd grader asked me when we should say “the” with a short ‘e’ sound and when was should say it with a long ‘e’. I was like, “LOL WUT?” I desperately needed to bone up on my technical knowledge, and quick.

Somewhat indirectly, I learned a great deal about the foundational components of language and important notions of grammar from the collected works of Stephen Pinker, the famed MIT linguist. His classic The Language Instinct is highly worth reading, as is his most recent tome, The Sense of Style, which bills itself as a writer’s guide, but it much more than that. Another great author in this context is Bill Bryson whose The Mother Tongue and Dictionary of Troublesome Words are fantastic and useful reads for English teachers. Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves is another fun, enlightening read.

Podcast’s were crucial in my late-game grammar education. Early on, I discovered Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s podcast. Her show’s range from simplistic questions like a student might have to more in-depth discussions of esoteric topics. Other great linguistic podcasts that I recommend are Lexicon Valley and the History of English.

There are, of course, a vast sea of websites for reviewing grammar. The ones I used years ago have mostly been lost to the fogs of time, and the ones you can google today are as good or better than what has come before. Purdue’s OWL, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, is fantastic. Here are a few others to consider:

If you have any resources that you find particularly helpful, please share!

TED Tips for Learning Languages

school-1063556_640Culled from translators volunteering their talents to help the TED Open Translate Project, these suggestions could be useful to share with your students…or for your own learning. Maybe you can think of some ways to integrate some of their ideas into your own classrooms.

A sample from the article:

7.  Do not worry about making mistakes. One of the most common barriers to conversing in a new language is the fear of making mistakes. But native speakers are like doting parents: any attempt from you to communicate in their language is objective proof that you are a gifted genius. They’ll appreciate your effort and even help you. Nervous about holding a conversation with a peer? Try testing your language skills with someone a little younger. “I was stoked when I was chatting with an Italian toddler and realized we had the same level of Italian,” recalls German translator Judith Matz. And be patient. The more you speak, the closer you’ll get to the elusive ideal of “native-like fluency.” And to talking to people your own age.

How to learn a new language: 7 tips from TED Translators

The Singular “They”

Down with the generic ‘he’. Down with ‘he or she’ and ‘s/he’. Long live the singular ‘they’! This change cannot become standard soon enough. I mean, we use the singular ‘you’ for the plural as well, so what’s the issue, eh?

NPR agrees.


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