Teaching English as a Second Language
At the end of every semester, students are asked to write a reflection. For the first freshman course, it is to reflect on one of the principles of good writing they learned, and in the second freshman course, they are to reflect on something they read which touched or interested them.
Marios was in the second semester course, and he wrote, “Four months ago [at the beginning of the semester] it took me less than a minute to read a short poem in English, now it takes me five to ten minutes to read the same poem.” How wonderful!
Scads of wonderful writers have commented on the nature of poetry, but Marios seems to be following the thoughts of Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” It takes time to lift the veil, time to let the beauty and uniqueness of the offering sink in.
The poet W. H. Auden wrote, “’Why do you want to write poetry?’ If the young man answers, ‘I have important things I want to say,’ then he is not a poet. If he answers, ‘I like hanging around words listening to what they say,’ then maybe he is going to be a poet.” Marios commented on this, too. “…now I understand that each word has its own deeper meaning and all the words put together are like a picture. A poet can give the meaning of his point in just a few sentences.” He carried his new appreciation into his native language, Greek, saying that while he “used to only take the general meaning out of [poems written in Greek], they are now more understandable for me.”
This translated into his learning how to “give meaning to my essays,” with an expanded vocabulary and better organization.
Ahhh. I wonder what Marios is doing now. I am satisfied, though, because he learned, and enriched his life.
Research has shown (as if we needed much research to know this!) that some students process questions slower than others. This may be for a variety of reasons, among them that the student may be an introvert or shy, or may be a detailed thinker who wants to pause over certain parts of a question before giving an answer, or maybe the student wants to pose some interior counterarguments before answering. There are minds that barge ahead at 80 miles and hour, and others which cruise at 35.
For this reason, a teacher should always leave breathing room for answers and points of view to develop. Even rapid-fire thinkers will appreciate the stress-free, tranquil atmosphere of a moderated pace.
Leaving an even longer time to respond would be a good idea in many situations in a classroom. Let’s say you pose the question, “Are good manners important?” when discussing Huckleberry Finn’s objections to Miss Watson. That answer requires some thought and requiring an instant answer would guaranty a superficial discussion.
EXERCISE: After posing a meaty question or introducing a poem or story, leave an extended period for reflection and meditation. Not every such period need be the same. Here are variations:
Allow the students to refer to their books during the period, as long as they are quiet
Allow the students to take notes or make lists
Turn off the lights so they can meditate quietly on the issue for a given period, perhaps 3-5 minutes.
If reflecting on a poem (it would have to short-ish), have each student, or a selected group of students, read it aloud so that everyone can hear it read at least six times, with a pause between readers. Then turn off the lights and allow 2-3 minutes of meditation.
My friend Pamela Satran has a delightful blog called Nameberry which is a treasure trove about peoples’ first names, in American culture. As illustrated below, it would be of limited use elsewhere.
When my children were born, their father didn’t want any of the usual names and, since he was Australian, went searching in an aboriginal dictionary for inspiration. My son’s name is a variation on an aboriginal word for “fire” and my daughter’s name means “traveler.” You can make up a child’s name in America (the kids were born in America – it would be interesting to know what they thought in Australia) without being considered strange.
People in Iceland don’t have the same free-wheeling attitude. Here’s the Icelandic point of view, as expressed in a recent news release:
A 15-year-old Icelandic girl has won the right to use the name given her by her mother, after a court battle against the authorities.
Blaer Bjarkardottir will now be able to use her first name, which means “light breeze”, officially.
Icelandic authorities had objected, saying it was not a proper feminine name.
The country has very strict laws on names which must fit Icelandic grammar and pronunciation rules”.
My former Chinese students tried to instruct me regarding Chinese first names, which come last. The first name, linearly, is the family name. Wang Zixiang’s “first name” is Zixiang. His family name is Wang. His sister (if Chinese children had sisters) might be named Wang Xiaobin.
This was just the beginning of their attempts to explain their names to me. Each family names their child for a hope they have for it; like “learned scholar” or “much gold.” Chinese words are made up of many layers, and name words are no exception. Without further study of Chinese, I cannot claim to understand the interaction of the layers.
The North Koreans obviously have some variation on the same protocols, because the recent grandfather-son-grandson trio of rulers have been named Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jung-un, with the family name coming first.
I ran across men named Lovemore and Givemore in Zimbabwe, and the name of the president of one African country is Goodluck. Givemore hinted that his name came from “Christianity.” These are names in English, but there are no English prime ministers or American presidents named “Givemore.”
Once again, we see how language is arbitrary, reflecting customs and beliefs of various cultures. The Icelanders feel strongly enough about their cultural choices to have a court case over a girl’s name.
My linguistics background is particularly useful when teaching my Stevens Institute of Technology class of 14 Chinese, 1 Saudi, and 1 Iranian graduate students. The class is called English Communication because the arriving students have studied English for years and could not be called Second Language Learners. They arrive in the U.S. for a year or two of study thinking they speak English, and then cannot understand their professor or anybody else. It is shocking and depressing.
Never have I so appreciated my class in Phonology. I now am able, for example, to tell my students that the difference (when spoken) between “meat” and “mead” lies not in the “t” and the “d,” but in the length of the vowel. I can show them how to position the tongue and the lips to make a “v” or an “l” (the bugabears of Chinese speakers).
Nothing surprised me as much as what one Chinese student told me during an individual conference. He said that at times when I cannot understand a student, the other Chinese students can. For example, one student kept talking about a “garment,” and I could not understand her — until she added the “v,” making is “government.” The other Chinese students could understand her. There is no substitute for experience with native speakers. If Chinese English-speakers only talk with other Chinese English-speakers, they will just invent their own language, not learn English. That is what has happened with my students.
A hint: Of course, nothing speeds up learning English better than an American girlfriend, but if you can figure out ways of laughing in class, that’s second best. Laughter frees the spirit and routs nervousness almost as well as sex. (Don’t tell anyone I said that.)
A common mistake made by my students is using “everyday” instead of “every day.” One (everyday) is an adjective, as in “That is an everyday concern of mine.” The other is a noun modified by an adjective, as in “Every day I brush my teeth.”
I thought my analysis was undeniably correct until I landed on the website www.grammar.net and found the following sentence: “Although ending a sentence with a preposition is considered incorrect, these constructions are used everyday.” This is a GRAMMAR website, and they used “everyday” incorrectly. How can I object when my students make the same mistake? I can, but it is an uphill fight.
Just one example? Oh no. What about the use of apostrophes to make plurals? In the popular textbook A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, the section on apostrophes states, “Do not use an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation.” According to this textbook, used in college classrooms across the country, G.M.O., an abbreviation, should be written G.M.O.s. But a recent New York Times (9/16/2012) article by Mark Bittman is entitled G.M.O.’s: Let’s Label ‘Em, defying the rules in my textbook.
Back to Grammar.net, a graphically enhanced website which comes up near the top of list on an Internet search for “grammar.” The blogpost on that site with the “everyday” error was written by “Victoria,” a mysterious creature about whom no information was available other than her purported name (is it really a “she?” or could this be Victor or Viktor in female guise?). It would (being at the top of the Internet search) be a place my students might land, and could they not raise this usage as an objection to my correction of their “everydays?” No. It does not meet the criteria for academic sourcing which I enforce in my class. In order to use a website as a source, it must be from a trusted organization, not creatures like “Victoria,” and should have an academic sponsor or some expert backing. Digging a little deeper into the “About Us” section reveals that the website is linked to “SpellChecker.net” which sells two products named SCAYT and WSC. This is, in other words, a commercial organization, and not a reliable source.
So what’s a teacher to do? Neither the solid The New York Times nor the shaky grammar.net support her. She is beginning to doubt the reliability of popular textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference, and has long ago despaired of using The Elements of Style because “style” has changed over the years. Article one, page one, on the possessive apostrophe, declares that we should write “Burns’s poems” and “Charles’s friend,” but it wouldn’t take long to find a New York Times or New Yorker article which blew that one out of the water. The universal book at Montclair State this year was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Flyers about appearance of Lacks’s (according to The Elements of Style) son announced that “Lacks’ son” would appear at a symposium there.
I don’t despair. I come back to a point I have made many times before – our language is changing quickly, unreliably, unpredictably, constantly. There. I broke first rule of Stephen King, stated over and over again in his masterful book On Writing, “Avoid adverbs!”
I am teaching a class of Chinese students (plus one Saudi Arabian and one Iranian). They are graduate students who have all studied English for many years, and perhaps were under the impression that they spoke English when they arrived on our shores. They were rudely greeted by professors who gave incomprehensible lectures, and the general public which insisted in speaking fast and incomprehensibly as. All of us who have studied second, third, and fourth languages know the feeling.
I was working with them on a minimal pair yesterday, “t” and “d”. One is voiced, and one is voiceless, but the mouth is in basically the same position to make both sounds, and these two sounds are common to most languages, though they may be pronounced slightly differently.
I gave them a list of words beginning with either “t” or “d” — tap, drive, trunk, tender, television, dare, dumb, etc. They got those very well.
We moved on to words which have the “t” or “d” in the middle — better, bidder, writer, rider, letter. They discovered that the t’s in the middle of words were actually pronounced “d” if they were between two voiced sounds, such as vowels. They tended to give full value to the “t,” which was not how Americans speak. There is not enough time to withdraw from a voiced sound, d, speak a competing voiceless sound, t, and then return to a voiced “d.”
The most important difference between “writer” and “rider,” however, is a slightly lengthened preceding vowel (a diphthong)– “raaaiider” and “wraider.” This was very hard for them to catch, and they didn’t do so well on this one, but we practiced it and perhaps their ears have gotten more attuned to the differences.
Then we went on to t’s and d’s at the end of the word — hat, had, shot, set, part, hard, wend, bend, cart. (It is always good to include a word like “wend” which the students would probably not know so that they do not follow expectations, but rather pure sound.) The success rate for this pattern was also pretty low.
The difference between the final “d” and the final “t” is barely perceptible, and slight lengthening of the “e” sound in “wend” as compared to “went” is very sophisticated phonology and probably will not be achieved by a speaker of English as a second language. We are not talking high tech phonology here, but the ear of the second language speaker. Once again, the actual sounds made at the end of these words are barely different from each other — both the “d” and the “t” are swallowed. It’s almost as if the speaker is saying, “I’ve given you enough information on the front end — you have to figure out how it ends.” Since there is no voiced vowel following the final “t” or “d” there is no need to voice it if it stands alone so it sort of disappears into thin air.
This is just single word listening. It got REALLY interesting when we put words together!
My friend Lillian is a Chinese-American chef who has been living in China for the past few years. She has seen more of the country than most native Chinese as she has traveled from restaurant to restaurant, market to market, farm to farm, tea plantation to tea plantation. She is planning to write a book about China’s various farms (which I can’t wait to read.)
Last week she came to lunch on one of her whirlwind visits to New York, and she brought along a 15-year-old Chinese young woman, Yen, who is on her way to Pittsburgh to begin high school. She will live with 15 other young Chinese women, at least during her first year. We batted around this decision — was it best to live with other Chinese students, or should she jump head first into English? Her English was pretty good, but she had only been here for three days and was struggling to understand English spoken at our natural pace.
She picked at her lunch. There was no rice (I have since learned that I should ALWAYS serve rice to Chinese guests), but she soldiered her way through a popover, a roast beef sandwich which Lillian had picked up at a delicatessen, and a salad. I know enough about Chinese visitors to know that American food tastes bland almost to the point of being inedible sometimes, so I offered her some of the fruit salad, which she hadn’t touched yet. It consisted of small pieces of cantaloupe, raspberries, and blueberries.
I offered her a small piece of canteloupe which she regarded in the same way that I would look at the Chinese delicacy, fish eyes. But she ate it. ”It’s sweet,” she said, surprised. Then she tried the raspberry. “It’s — how do I say this — it’s, um, sour,” she said.
If a Chinese person doesn’t know what canteloupe is, you can assume similar distance between our ways and every other aspect of Chinese culture, including our language. You’ll have to go easy on your assumption that your Chinese guest will know how to greet a host and how to thank a host, how to shake hands, how to cross a street (the Chinese are astounded that cars stop for pedestrians, but might misjudge driver behavior and get in some trouble). Most young Chinese have never cleaned their room, washed their clothes, or cooked a meal for themselves. Their parents take care of all that so the children can study hard. My daughter teaches pre-school, and a two-and-a-half-year-old Chinese boy came to the school for the first time the other day who didn’t know how to use a fork or a spoon. His grandmother had always fed him.
Yen has had her first piece of canteloupe and her first raspberry. So far so good. She’ll have countless other sweet and sour experiences here in America. I wish her well. Now I would like to hear about the experiences of at least 15 young Americans who are studying in China.
My French textbook, French Reference Grammar (1993), has an index entry for the “conditional,” and in the section devoted to it, calls it “the mood of verbs tied to a condition.” My Greek grammar, Greek: A Comprehensive Grammar of the Modern Language (1997) also has a section on the conditional mood. My English grammar, Discovering Grammar: An Introduction to English Sentence Structure (2000) does not have a listing for the conditional in the index, including the “conditional” forms in the section on “modals” instead. However it is phrased (and perhaps the re-phrasing adds to the confusion), this form is used to express complex thoughts, and my students do not know how to use it.
Modals express possibility, permission, volition, necessity, and other conditions which express far more than a simple action. There is the old chestnut “can/may I do something?” with “can” implying physical ability, and “may” implying that you have permission to do it. The modals bring into play our imaginations and predictions, and often embody opposites. “Should I leave the room?” suggests that there is a reason why you should not leave the room. Perhaps Mary may arrive while you are absent, or maybe there is a gunman standing in the hall, or maybe the room is on fire. In each case, you are questioning your decision to leave the room because there are reasons for and against.
“Will you come to the party with me?” requires the other person to guess what he or she will be doing at some point in the future. He or she is only expressing an intention. Even if the answer is “Yes,” it still might not happen – there might be a hurricane, or one of you might get sick, or the party might be cancelled. It is quite a different animal from the simple past tense, “You came to the party with me.” That happened, and no further analysis is required.
There are usually two parts in a conditional sentence, and in English the present tense is matched to the future (If he wants to, he will come), the past tense (although the action doesn’t occur in the past) is matched to the would form (If he wanted to, he would come), and the past perfect goes with the would have form (If he had wanted to, he would have come.) There are permutations, of course, but my students don’t know how to use even the easiest ones. They struggle to express complex situations, and usually do not succeed in creating graceful sentences. Here are some examples:
The life cycle moves on so that everyone could enjoy what the earth has to give him or her.
It seemed as though I’ll never write my best seller,
This is when I realized I have gotten myself into this mess.
All I could notice was how red his face is getting.
I couldn’t possibly have both of them as my boyfriend. It will mentally and emotionally harm me and the guys.
These sentences should have been expressed this way:
The life cycle moves on so that everyone can enjoy…
It seemed as though I would never write…
This was when I realized I had gotten myself into this mess.
All I could notice was how red his face was getting.
I couldn’t possibly have both of them as my boyfriend. It would …..
Without the conditional, these sentences depend heavily on the reader’s ingenuity to make sense.
Sports announcers have produced another variation on the conditional. Here is a recent gem from Ron Darling, commenting on a Mets game in May, 2012:
He throws a knuckle ball curve on the third strike, that guy was not there.
This convention has become so common in baseball that fans understand it. They have just seen the action on the field on their television screens, so they can scramble together Darling’s meaning. I also remember sentences like, “That ball goes one inch higher, it’s a home run.” It’s almost as if baseball grammar were different from the rest of the world’s, but from my students’ sentences, I conclude that the rules for the conditional are collapsing everywhere.
Darling’s sentence would have been a lot clearer if he had said, “If he had thrown a knuckle curve ball on the third strike, that guy would not be there.” That is a sentence of 18 words, versus the confusing sentence, which only has 15. Perhaps this is a case of the language trying to simplify, economize, be more efficient. Languages do that all the time. Some of the efforts work, and some don’t.
These changes in the conditional are not adding anything to the language – they are confusing us, breaking up timelines and removing the “possibility, permission, volition, necessity,” elements of the sentence. Since there is no replacement for these forms, omitting them causes only confusion.
There are several ways to approach this, but perhaps the most efficient first attack should be aimed at improving fluency with the basic forms. Choose sentences from student papers which use the conditional correctly, ask all the students to express the sentences in the two other tenses.
If he wants to, he will come
If he wanted to, he would come
If he had wanted to, he would have come.
One of the cardinal virtues of good writing is clarity, and proper use of verb tenses is crucial to clarity. Since most students have never been informed of their purpose, or form, they trudge around in a swamp of verb tenses, using them arbitrarily without controlling them.
The past perfect (the “had + past participle” form of the verb), for example, is disappearing. Going extinct. Dying out. This form is used to show a sequence of events, and without it, the events are not clearly lined up. In my view, it is indispensable to clear writing, and should not be an endangered form.
Textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference and The Everyday Writer have one-sentence explanations and single examples of the past perfect. The paltry online exercises they offer are, in my opinion, useless. I presume (and I might be wrong) that they subscribe to the commonly held philosophy that native speakers pick up these forms without formal instruction. Since my students make a terrible mess of verb tenses, this philosophy has not produced clarity in either the students’ minds or in their work.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) has online exercises in tense consistency (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/exercises/2/22/) which include a couple of examples of the past perfect.
Without the past perfect, the timeline often dissolves. Here are two sentences which would have been clearer if the student had used the past perfect.
I was shocked and hurt when my uncle died. Would I have responded better if I was told that he was going to die?
I assumed it was all over since a week already passed.
Note how much clearer the sentences are when the past perfect is used:
Would I have responded better if I had been told he was going to die?
I assumed it was all over since a week had already passed.
There is another clue that students have not been properly introduced to the past perfect – they sometimes use it without the context of a previous event. Here are two sentences where the past perfect is inappropriate:
The sweet moment between Helen and her son had put a smile on my face.
I had seen him yesterday.
The simple past should have been used, indicating this this was a one-time event, unconnected to any other event:
The sweet moment between Helen and her son put a smile on my face.
I saw him yesterday.
By the time students are in college, it is very late to establish new verb patterns. The student’s instincts have already become malformed. I find that no matter how many times I mention the function and form of the past perfect, this mistake recurs. They understand the logic of the past perfect, but it takes a while for them to master it.
Exercise: Though verb tense habits are, in my experience, hard to rearrange, you can have the students complete the Purdue exercises, and make up some of your own. They can either be the fill-in-the-blanks or the yes-no type, where the student indicates whether the verb tense is correctly or incorrectly used.
Of particular value are both correct and incorrect sentences culled from your students’ work, which can be presented for evaluation.
Several previous posts have discussed grammatical problems occurring in my classes this past semester. In the previous post, I discussed mismatched Subjects and Verbs when a clause intervened. This post addresses a similar error pattern, only this time the intervening language consists of prepositional phrases. Here are some examples from my students’ papers:
The effects [of this argument] sustains through time without any apologies.
Since the reality [of living life] [without any regrets] are extremely slim, some regrets are inevitable.
In Robert Frost’s poem, Away, illuminates this fact by saying “I leave behind/Good friends in town, /Let them get well-wined/And go lie down” (Frost).
With playing soccer and also studying at school sets me up for either path I would like to take in my life.
In the first two examples, there is a prepositional phrase (in brackets) between the Subject and the Verb. If the students had been aware that of and in were prepositions, and if they had known how to identify a Prepositional Phrase, they might have caught the errors.
In the previous post, I speculated that perhaps English verb forms were simplifying, as has happened in the past. These two sentences suggest something else — it seems to me that my students have been betrayed by their instincts. English speakers instinctively form sentences using an S-V-O pattern. The verbs (sustains and are) agree with the misleading nouns (argument and regrets) which immediately precede them – the S-V pattern. The actual Subjects are both singular and plural (reality and effects), and seem irrelevant to the writer, as neither one agrees with its Verb.
The last two sentences seem an anomaly, but since there are two sentences using the same pattern, from two different students, I wonder. In the first, the Subject (poem) agrees with the Verb (illuminates), but the preposition in has been added at the beginning of the sentence, making poem the Object in a Prepositional Phrase, and thus ineligible as the Subject, as a noun cannot have dual roles in a sentence. In the last sentence, the compound Subject (playing and studying) does not agree with the Verb (sets up). In this sentence the student makes the Subject the Object of a Preposition, and thus ineligible to be the Subject, and also has the Verb agree with the noun immediately preceding it.
Mistakes like these lead me to believe that students see sentences as masses of undifferentiated words. They do not realize that though in is a “small word,” it has leverage and weight, and influences the words around it.
I am an amateur singer, and my teachers and choir directors often say that we should not sing note by note, but phrase by phrase. Language is the same. Sentences are not constructed word by word, but unit by unit. If students can see the units, sentences are less complex. The first sentence, for example, doesn’t consist of 11 words, but of 5 units; the Subject (the effects), the Verb (sustains), and three Prepositional Phrases (of this argument, through time, without any apologies). If they could see this construction, perhaps they would not be so daunted.
There will be one more post on Subject-Verb agreement.
Exercise: As with the previous post — have students identify and bring to class examples of faulty sentences which they hear in person or on television, or read in magazines or newspapers.