The Politecnico University in Milano, Italy, has decided that it will teach all of its classes in English. As you might imagine, this has caused controversy.
As European (and other) universities attract a student body from various countries, there is something of a trend to teach classes in English. Montclair State University, for example, has been teaching in Graz, Austria and several cities in China and Korea for several years, and that program is expanding. Montclair State is sending professors to these universities to teach the professors who will be teaching their courses in English, in all disciplines.
A couple of blog posts ago, I presented some cockamamie sentences from my students. The sentences suggested to me that the students did not have a handle on the rules for constructing sentences. They confused spoken English with written English, but the sentences cited would not be used in spoken English. This baffled, and still baffles, me. If they do not know the rules, then they should be depending upon their ears to produce correct language, right? Yet I receive so many muddled sentences that they would never use in conversation that it seems they don’t have confidence in their ears either. They are flailing around, tacking together sentences out of available material without any feeling of mastery. Is the language changing so fast that we are not sure what is correct any more? Or is it a question of poor pedagogy? (Some of it is due to lazy proofreading, but if that were the only problem, then it would be easy to fix, and they have great difficulty rewriting these sentences so they are clear.)
Here are some examples of out-of-control prepositions. The questionable prepositions are in italics.
1. Even with my grandpa’s life was on the line, he refused to give up what he loved, and continued to eat greasy foods, continued to play golf, and continued to keep up the large property that he lived at with my grandma.
2. I kept in contact with some of the individuals with whom I had a strong attraction to.
3. I felt bad in which she does also have a job she attends every morning.
The last sentence is not a single preposition, but an ungainly and incorrectly used prepositional phrase. The student could not explain this odd usage, which the class felt was incorrect, and I imagine he sensed something was needed, pulled a preposition out of the grab bag, and completed the prepositional phrase with a randomly chosen which.
Exercise: Choose awkward, ungainly, or incorrect sentences from student work, and ask the class to rewrite them. This is drudgery and should be done in small doses. It seems to me that the groups of sentences presented in a single day should be examples of a single syntactical problem. This way, the guiding linguistic principle can be introduced and applied.
Years ago, a friend said he thought that young people today were blurring the distinction between real and virtual relationships. I said that was ridiculous, that human beings would always need the sights, smells, and touch of other human beings. A relationship based on language alone would never prove gratifying.
Now I wonder. My students recently had to write an essay on “love and marriage,” using a set of poems and stories, and the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. They were also allowed to use outside sources, personal anecdotes, the results of small polls they devised, etc.
Three essays used news reports about professional celebrity Kim Kardashian’s recent marriage to Kris Humphries as a source, informing me why she got married in the first place, and why they divorced after a couple of months.
There are, of course, several reasons why these are inadequate sources for any academic work. Pygmalion (as opposed to news reports about Kim Kardashian) follows a relationship through many ups and downs, and in different social environments, involving family members, friends, professional concerns, etc. One can develop an opinion as to why things turned out as they did. Poems, too, condense profound issues through intense use of language and symbols, etc.
I pointed out to my classes that the Kim Kardashian they had met in the magazines in the supermarket was no more a real person than Eliza Doolittle. The students have allowed the daily drip drip drip of Kim Kardashian to invade their systems, giving the illusion of reality. They confused literary art with commercial endeavors – selling magazines, that is.
I asked my classes if an online relationship, in which one person has never met the other, could ever be defined as a romantic relationship. This is not as simple a question as one might think. When I was single, about five years ago, I had a long and frequent email correspondence with a married man. He wrote to me of his marital and professional problems, his plans for the future, his deepest thoughts and feelings. At 2:00 am one morning he was writing me a long email when his wife passed silently behind him, barefoot, going to the bathroom; he had not heard her coming. The thought that his wife might see his email to me frightened him out of writing for several weeks. Was our relationship adultery, or betrayal of his marriage? He was quite sure that, whatever it was, his wife would have been upset.
So the line between real and virtual is not so clear sometimes, but academia is one place where a bright line can be drawn. The uncheckable, semi-fantastical world of celebrity publicity and cannot be used as an academic source. If the world of online relationships is included in an essay, it should be approached with care, as we have not yet gotten our moral arms around the online world. We do our students a favor if we draw the line clearly between virtual and real, and may be doing the world a favor if we draw them into a substantive discussion of the new set of morals and behavioral norms which the online world has drawn us into.
Exercise: There are daily examples of online experiences and celebrity publicity which can be discussed. Perhaps students could be enticed into providing a moral parsing for the close but virtual relationship I had with a total stranger online. Was he betraying his marriage vows? If you are brave enough, you might venture into the influential world of online pornography — according to news reports, online pornography has changed the expectations and sexual practices of especially men.
A second semester college student included this language in the third, and final, draft of her essay on “love and marriage.” I like many other people are surprised by the amount of time couples stay together. Not to mention adopting a child.
After the final drafts had been turned in, I culled 22 similarly flawed sentences from 20 of the 35 writers in my two classes, and passed out a paper listing them to the class. The sentence above was the first example.
Everyone was uneasy with the language – something was wrong, but they couldn’t identify the problem(s).
My advice is always to begin by identifying the subject and verb (and object(s), if applicable), so that one gets a feeling of how the sentence is anchored. The first student was flustered and nervous when I asked her what the verb was. She could not produce an answer, so I gave her a hint. “It’s the most common verb in the English language.” When people was not correct, she offered surprised and then like. Then she gave up.
The rest of the class was equally perplexed. They studied the sentence, but were unable to come up with the verb.
I asked one of the students to read the sentence aloud, and after doing so, he suggested that there should be commas around like many people. This was progress. It sequestered superfluous words and made the subject and verb more easy to see, so he suggested that are was the verb, which was obviously an incorrect form, and then moved to am. The core of the sentence is I am surprised.
That was a good beginning, but there were other problems. The next “sentence” remained, a hulk pulling the energy of the first sentence into a dark hole. Not to mention adopting a child, wasn’t clear, they decided.
We fiddled with it. Was it supposed to be …number of times couples stay together, not to mention adopt a child? (This would raise the issue of parallelism, as stay and adopt should appear in the same form, since they would be a compound verb.) Was it supposed to be …amount of time couples stay together, and also the frequency with which they adopt children?
Only the author could have clarified the meaning, but I insisted on keeping all sentences anonymous.
I made it clear to the class that, in my opinion, it was not their fault that they had not been taught in high school even the most basic rules about constructing a sentence. They have been left to depend only on what the language sounds like, and the glut of awkward, ungrammatical, or unexpressive sentences produced suggests that this method is not effective.
In the single sentence above, a student has evidenced lack of knowledge about 1) the difference between a noun, a verb, and an adjective, 2) the subject-verb agreement which binds sentences together, 3) the use of parallel forms, and 3) the purpose of commas.
The next series of blog posts will present more of their sentences.
Exercise: Cull incorrect, unclear, or awkward sentences from student work, keeping the writers anonymous. It is important that these sentences be from the students’ own work, because they remember their mental processes in dealing with the assignment. Even if they don’t know who wrote the sentence, they know it was one of their own, and that makes a difference.
I have just learned about a very interesting tool/game for learning new languages. Here’s a synopsis, copied from a LinkedIn contact:
“Language Hunters (http://www.languagehunters.org/) is a not-for-profit organization in Portland, Oregon that utilizes a fun, collaborative and communal accelerated learning tool in the form of an interactive game, utilizing sign language, to learn and teach any language. It is proving to be very successful.”
Their introductory videos show a simple system, which includes some sign language, which can be done in groups or in pairs. As I interpret it, this system encourages fluency and ease of speaking as well as vocabulary and grammar enrichment. It is worth looking into if you are interested in learning a new language or are teaching a language class.
Exercise: For people learning a new language, some of the game-like exercises introduced in the videos could be very effective. I am not teaching an ESL class right now, so I have not tried these exercises out in real life, but they look effective.
A recent article in The New York Times, “My Life’s Sentences,” by the author Jhumpa Lahiri, mentioned one of her favorite sentences. It is in the short story Araby, by James Joyce: “The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” Since we had just read this story in class, I shared the sentence, noting that authors play with language, craft it carefully, and gain the same kind of pleasure as a sculptor does working in her medium. The students dutifully took in my comment, but it was my challenge to have them experience an author’s playfulness and pleasure when playing with language, not just tell them about other people’s pleasure.
When my class read another short story, A Rose for Emily, by William Faulkner, I asked them to identify their favorite language bit – it could be a sentence, a phrase, a character’s name, or any other fragment of the story. The results were interesting and fun. Still, they needed to create something themselves, so we did the exercise below, which seemed to hit the spot.
Exercise: Arrange the class in groups of three or four, and ask them to create character names. What would be a scary character’s name, a funny one’s, a loving nanny or crusty grandfather’s name? What would be your name for the family’s summer home in the mountains? On the shore? Somewhere else? The first name they came up with was Tracy Pickle, which tickled me.
An extra twist to this exercise could be investigating the languages and cultures which the names came from. Tracy Pickle seems in the Dickens tradition, but Swami Aroundaboutananda is Indian perhaps.