Things you were taught at school that are wrong


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Misty Adoniou, University of Canberra

Do you remember being taught you should never start your sentences with “And” or “But”?

What if I told you that your teachers were wrong and there are lots of other so-called grammar rules that we’ve probably been getting wrong in our English classrooms for years?

How did grammar rules come about?

To understand why we’ve been getting it wrong, we need to know a little about the history of grammar teaching.

Grammar is how we organise our sentences in order to communicate meaning to others.

Those who say there is one correct way to organise a sentence are called prescriptivists. Prescriptivist grammarians prescribe how sentences must be structured.

Prescriptivists had their day in the sun in the 18th century. As books became more accessible to the everyday person, prescriptivists wrote the first grammar books to tell everyone how they must write.

These self-appointed guardians of the language just made up grammar rules for English, and put them in books that they sold. It was a way of ensuring that literacy stayed out of reach of the working classes.

They took their newly concocted rules from Latin. This was, presumably, to keep literate English out of reach of anyone who wasn’t rich or posh enough to attend a grammar school, which was a school where you were taught Latin.

And yes, that is the origin of today’s grammar schools.

The other camp of grammarians are the descriptivists. They write grammar guides that describe how English is used by different people, and for different purposes. They recognise that language isn’t static, and it isn’t one-size-fits-all.

1. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction

Let’s start with the grammatical sin I have already committed in this article. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction.

Obviously you can, because I did. And I expect I will do it again before the end of this article. There, I knew I would!

Those who say it is always incorrect to start a sentence with a conjunction, like “and” or “but”, sit in the prescriptivist camp.

However, according to the descriptivists, at this point in our linguistic history,
it is fine to start a sentence with a conjunction in an op-ed article like this, or in a novel or a poem.

It is less acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction in an academic journal article, or in an essay for my son’s high school economics teacher, as it turns out. But times are changing.

2. You can’t end a sentence with a preposition

Well, in Latin you can’t. In English you can, and we do all the time.

Admittedly a lot of the younger generation don’t even know what a preposition is, so this rule is already obsolete. But let’s have a look at it anyway, for old time’s sake.

According to this rule, it is wrong to say “Who did you go to the movies with?”

Instead, the prescriptivists would have me say “With whom did you go to the movies?”

I’m saving that structure for when I’m making polite chat with the Queen on my next visit to the palace.

That’s not a sarcastic comment, just a fanciful one. I’m glad I know how to structure my sentences for different audiences. It is a powerful tool. It means I usually feel comfortable in whatever social circumstances I find myself in, and I can change my writing style according to purpose and audience.

That is why we should teach grammar in schools. We need to give our children a full repertoire of language so that they can make grammatical choices that will allow them to speak and write for a wide range of audiences.

3. Put a comma when you need to take a breath

It’s a novel idea, synchronising your writing with your breathing, but the two have nothing to do with one another and if this is the instruction we give our children, it is little wonder commas are so poorly used.

Punctuation is a minefield and I don’t want to risk blowing up the internet. So here is a basic description of what commas do, and read this for a more comprehensive guide.

Commas provide demarcation between like grammatical structures. When adjectives, nouns, phrases or clauses are butting up against each other in a sentence, we separate them with a comma. That’s why I put commas between the three nouns and the two clauses in that last sentence.

Commas also provide demarcation for words, phrases or clauses that are embedded in a sentence for effect. The sentence would still be a sentence even if we took those words away. See, for example, the use of commas in this sentence.

4. To make your writing more descriptive, use more adjectives

American writer Mark Twain had it right.

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.”

If you want your writing to be more descriptive, play with your sentence structure.

Consider this sentence from Liz Lofthouse’s beautiful children’s book Ziba came on a boat. It comes at a key turning point in the book, the story of a refugee’s escape.

“Clutching her mother’s hand, Ziba ran on and on, through the night, far away from the madness until there was only darkness and quiet.”

A beautifully descriptive sentence, and not an adjective in sight.

5. Adverbs are the words that end in ‘ly’

Lots of adverbs end in “ly”, but lots don’t.

Adverbs give more information about verbs. They tell us when, where, how and why the verb happened. So that means words like “tomorrow”, “there” and “deep” can be adverbs.

I say they can be adverbs because, actually, a word is just a word. It becomes an adverb, or a noun, or an adjective, or a verb when it is doing that job in a sentence.

Deep into the night, and the word deep is an adverb. Down a deep, dark hole and it is an adjective. When I dive into the deep, it is doing the work of a noun.

Time to take those word lists of adjectives, verbs and nouns off the classroom walls.

Time, also, to ditch those old Englishmen who wrote a grammar for their times, not ours.

If you want to understand what our language can do and how to use it well, read widely, think deeply and listen carefully. And remember, neither time nor language stands still – for any of us.

The Conversation

Misty Adoniou, Associate Professor in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why it’s hard for adults to learn a second language


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Brianna Yamasaki, University of Washington

As a young adult in college, I decided to learn Japanese. My father’s family is from Japan, and I wanted to travel there someday.

However, many of my classmates and I found it difficult to learn a language in adulthood. We struggled to connect new sounds and a dramatically different writing system to the familiar objects around us.

It wasn’t so for everyone. There were some students in our class who were able to acquire the new language much more easily than others.

So, what makes some individuals “good language learners?” And do such individuals have a “second language aptitude?”

What we know about second language aptitude

Past research on second language aptitude has focused on how people perceive sounds in a particular language and on more general cognitive processes such as memory and learning abilities. Most of this work has used paper-and-pencil and computerized tests to determine language-learning abilities and predict future learning.

Researchers have also studied brain activity as a way of measuring linguistic and cognitive abilities. However, much less is known about how brain activity predicts second language learning.

Is there a way to predict the aptitude of second language learning?

How does brain activity change while learning languages?
Brain image via www.shutterstock.com

In a recently published study, Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, and I explored how brain activity recorded at rest – while a person is relaxed with their eyes closed – could predict the rate at which a second language is learned among adults who spoke only one language.

Studying the resting brain

Resting brain activity is thought to reflect the organization of the brain and it has been linked to intelligence, or the general ability used to reason and problem-solve.

We measured brain activity obtained from a “resting state” to predict individual differences in the ability to learn a second language in adulthood.

To do that, we recorded five minutes of eyes-closed resting-state electroencephalography, a method that detects electrical activity in the brain, in young adults. We also collected two hours of paper-and-pencil and computerized tasks.

We then had 19 participants complete eight weeks of French language training using a computer program. This software was developed by the U.S. armed forces with the goal of getting military personnel functionally proficient in a language as quickly as possible.

The software combined reading, listening and speaking practice with game-like virtual reality scenarios. Participants moved through the content in levels organized around different goals, such as being able to communicate with a virtual cab driver by finding out if the driver was available, telling the driver where their bags were and thanking the driver.

Here’s a video demonstration:

Nineteen adult participants (18-31 years of age) completed two 30-minute training sessions per week for a total of 16 sessions. After each training session, we recorded the level that each participant had reached. At the end of the experiment, we used that level information to calculate each individual’s learning rate across the eight-week training.

As expected, there was large variability in the learning rate, with the best learner moving through the program more than twice as quickly as the slowest learner. Our goal was to figure out which (if any) of the measures recorded initially predicted those differences.

A new brain measure for language aptitude

When we correlated our measures with learning rate, we found that patterns of brain activity that have been linked to linguistic processes predicted how easily people could learn a second language.

Patterns of activity over the right side of the brain predicted upwards of 60 percent of the differences in second language learning across individuals. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that the right half of the brain is more frequently used with a second language.

Our results suggest that the majority of the language learning differences between participants could be explained by the way their brain was organized before they even started learning.

Implications for learning a new language

Does this mean that if you, like me, don’t have a “quick second language learning” brain you should forget about learning a second language?

Not quite.

Language learning can depend on many factors.
Child image via www.shutterstock.com

First, it is important to remember that 40 percent of the difference in language learning rate still remains unexplained. Some of this is certainly related to factors like attention and motivation, which are known to be reliable predictors of learning in general, and of second language learning in particular.

Second, we know that people can change their resting-state brain activity. So training may help to shape the brain into a state in which it is more ready to learn. This could be an exciting future research direction.

Second language learning in adulthood is difficult, but the benefits are large for those who, like myself, are motivated by the desire to communicate with others who do not speak their native tongue.

The Conversation

Brianna Yamasaki, Ph.D. Student, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why is English so hard to learn?


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Sean Sutherland, University of Westminster

The prime minister, David Cameron, wants more Muslim women in the UK to be taught English to reduce segregation between different linguistic communities and even limit the lure of extremism.

Most of us who have tried it probably feel that learning a new language is difficult, even if that new language is similar to our own. So how difficult is it to learn English and especially if your first language is quite different?

The difficulty of learning a new language will depend on how similar that language is to one you already know. Despite English speakers often rating certain languages as being particularly difficult – languages such as French, which indicate the gender of nouns with articles like le and la, and the Chinese writing system – there are similarities between these languages.

If you were to learn French you’d immediately recognise many words, because the English equivalents have French Latin roots, such as ballet or amiable. If you were to learn Chinese you’d find that its grammar is similar to English in many ways – for example each Chinese sentence has a subject, a predicate and an object (though an English speaker would most likely find learning French easier than Chinese).

The most difficulty arises when people learn English when they don’t have the advantage of sharing many borrowed words or grammatical patterns with English. This will include speakers of Arabic, Urdu and Bengali – three of the most common languages spoken by Muslim immigrants in Britain.

Baffling spellings

In my experience, the most common complaint language learners make about English is that the spelling of words often has little or nothing to do with their pronunciation. It’s easy enough to teach someone how to write the letter “a”, for example, but then they must be taught that its pronunciation changes in words like hat, hate and father. In oak it isn’t pronounced at all.

Compare this to the simplicity of Spanish, a language in which an “a” and other vowels rarely change pronunciation from word to word.

Laugh is pronounced larf but the similar-sounding half is not written haugh – but of course there are regional differences in accent too. Like the “l” in half, there are silent letters sprinkled throughout English words: the “k” in knife and knead, the “s” in island, the “p” in receipt, and so on.

A recent poem of unknown origin, a favourite of English language teachers who want to amuse their students, contains tongue twisters such as:

I take it you already know

of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble, but not you

on hiccough, thorough, slough and through.

Another area of difficulty that learners of English often comment on is the prevalence of irregular past verbs in English. It’s simple enough to remember that the past tense of walk is
walked, shout is shouted and pick is picked.

But what about all the irregular verbs, like hit, read and think? For hit, the past tense looks and sounds the same as the present tense. For read, the past tense looks the same, but is pronounced differently. For think, the past tense thought involves substantial change to both the spelling and the pronunciation.

There’s not always a pattern to many of these irregular verbs. For verbs ending with “ink” we have “think/thought”, but another irregular pattern “drink/drank” and a regular pattern “wink/winked”. English has several hundred such irregular verbs for learners to look forward to memorising, and many of them are very frequently used: be, get, have, see, eat, and so on.

Being polite

A delicate difficulty concerns how English speakers show politeness. Some languages have quite clear ways for their users to do this. In French you can use the pronoun vous instead of tu to be polite.

Not as easy as it looks.
banlon1964/flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND

English only has you, so that doesn’t work. In Japanese you can substitute polite forms of words, so that although kuu, taberu and meshiagaru all mean “eat” in Japanese, the longer words are more polite.

In English we can use longer words: “Would you like to consume nourishment?” instead of “Would you like to eat?” – but it doesn’t sound polite, rather a bit awkward.

There are less obvious ways of marking politeness in English: use a question (“Could you pass the … ” instead of “Pass the …”), express some doubt (“I don’t suppose you could … ”) and apologise, even for small requests (“Sorry to bother you, but …”).

If subtleties aren’t mastered then otherwise-fluent learners of English (or any other language) – even if they don’t intend to be impolite – may unintentionally appear rude.

So spare a thought for those picking up an English textbook for the first time – mastering the quirks of the language is tough (pronounced tuff).

The Conversation

Sean Sutherland, Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics, University of Westminster

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The BEBC Review Panel have given their insight into Ready for First, the new third edition Student’s Book


Ready for First Student’s Book third edition helps to prepare young adult students in training for the Cambridge FCE exam. This book is specifically used for the 2015 First(FCE) exam.

                     

Title: Ready for First Third Edition Student’s Book

Author: Roy Norris

Publisher: Macmillan 

Reviewed by: Alex Warren, Academic Director, British Study Centres, Bournemouth        

© Copyright BEBC REVIEW PANEL 2014 – this review may be reproduced but only with this acknowledgement

 Criterion  Grade: 5/4/3/2/1          Comments:  (5 being the highest grade and 1 the lowest)
Originality         4 When a coursebook hits a 3rd edition, you know that it has to be doing something right. This new edition of Ready… has been updated in line with the 2015 revisions of the exam, though in practice these changes have had little impact on the actual content of the exam or FCE coursebooks. As such, this is very much an update rather than a book that has had a radical overhaul. That said, there is plenty of new material spread across the units – indeed the vast majority of the reading texts, audio and Use of English activities are brand new – while many of the writing and vocabulary tasks have been reworked and reinvigorated. It retains all of the features from previous editions yet it does so while simultaneously feeling fresh. Among these are different tip boxes giving advice to the students, as well as the supplementary Ready For… sections presenting each of the papers in detail.

Where the course has been developed is with the addition of an online component, accessed through the Macmillan Practice Online (MPO) portal. Here the students are able to download the audio for the book and complete full online tests. From a teaching point of view, it also contains video of the Speaking exam, which is always a useful teaching tool in preparing the students in what to expect.

Practicality          5 In preparing students for the FCE exam, Ready… leaves no stone unturned. Each of the 14 topic-based units is well organised and deals with a task type from each of the exam papers as well as having a concerted Language Focus sections dealing with the grammar. This is dealt with well, generally integrated with a text or listening script, and with an inductive methodology. This is then put into the context of the exam through appropriate Use of English tasks. Similarly, there is also a concerted vocabulary focus in each unit, be it developing vocabulary connected to the topic of the unit, phrasal verbs or word-building. As such, each unit covers all the skills and a thorough mix of systems, all the while building student confidence. However, the key to any exam based coursebook is practice of exam tasks, on which Ready…does not err, with every unit ending with a two page review including Use of English and Writing tasks.

Whilst it is primarily a coursebook for the classroom, there is no reason why students couldn’t use it for self-study should they need to. The language focus sections and grammar reference give more than enough support and along with the answer key and the online accessible audio, means that it could be used independently of a classroom environment, if so desired.

With all this taken into consideration it would be fair to say that it is a very practical coursebook for students and teachers alike.

Presentation          4 All the while the information is presented in a visually stimulating fashion, with plenty of colour photos and animations to help motivate the more visual students, especially in regards Speaking Parts 2 and 3. The overall design is good – it’s well organised and there is plenty of signposting along the way, ensuring students know what they will be doing and how it relates to the exam. It also makes good use of colour shading, mind maps and boxes to divide the pages up into more manageable bite sized chunks, so the student never feels overwhelmed with the amount of information. In this respect the design is an aid to student learning.
Overall rating                                   4.5        
What outstanding strengths/ weaknesses do you feel this title possesses?

The course is exceptionally thorough, covering every exam paper in real detail as well as covering the necessary grammar and vocabulary in real depth.

On which courses do you envisage being able to use this material?

Due to the wealth of material available it would suit any FCE course, though maybe there’s too much for an intensive 4 week summer course.

© Copyright BEBC REVIEW PANEL 2014 – this review may be reproduced but only with this acknowledgement