D is for Dictionary

3 12 2017

spanish dictionary(This post was timed to coincide with the most recent update of the Macmillan English Dictionary, and first appeared on the  Macmillan Dictionary blog here.)

I love dictionaries almost as much as I love old coursebooks. I have a two-volume Spanish-English dictionary published in Cadíz in MDCCCLXIII – which I think is 1863. I picked it up for a song in the flea market in Barcelona and it’s in great shape. In the English volume it includes words like duskishly, porterage, and crupper, so I’m not betting on it being of that much use in 2017. Presciently (or perhaps duskishly?) the writer – one Don Mariano Velasquez de la Cadena – comments in the preface:

Language, like dress, is subject to continual change; and many phrases which were deemed elegant two centuries ago are almost unintelligible at the present day, in consequence of being displaced by other [sic] which were then unknown.

This is as true in our own field – applied linguistics and language education – as it is in other specialized fields. It was driven home to me just this week (thanks to a blog post by Richard Smith) as I read a book published exactly 100 years ago, called The Scientific Study and Teaching of Languages, by Harold E. Palmer.

H E Palmer copy

Harold Palmer, circa 1920 (from Smith 1999)

 

Palmer, in case you didn’t know, taught and trained extensively in Japan, and  ‘did more than any other single individual to establish English language teaching (ELT) as an autonomous branch of language education in the first half of the 20th century and to give it the ‘applied linguistic’ direction to which it has remained loyal ever since’ (Smith 1999 p.vii). Reading Palmer, though, is not always easy, as he uses a number of terms which ‘are almost unintelligible at the present day’ (to quote Don Mariano). He refers frequently to ergons, for example, and the science of ergonics. And to morphons and polylogs and the catenizing. Fortunately, Palmer supplies a glossary, which explains that an ergon is ‘any speech unit considered from the point of view of its function or powers of combining with other units’. Morphons are what we might now call morphemes; polylogs are multi-word items, and catenizing is ‘learning to pronounce accurately and rapidly a given succession of sounds’. He uses this last term a lot, since it is an integral part of his methodology, but I am not sure if we have a contemporary equivalent.

Having just completed the second edition of An A – Z of ELT (now The New A to Z of ELT), I am particularly interested in the way terminology shifts, evolves and morphs like this. Over ten years have elapsed between the two editions, and it’s been salutary to see how rapidly some terms lose their currency while new ones are enlisted in response to developments in language description, methodology and second language acquisition theory.

An obvious area of rapid change is in educational technology: even the term educational technology didn’t get an entry in the first edition, where computer assisted language learning (CALL) was made to serve for virtually the whole field. Now there are separate entries for mobile learning, adaptive learning, blended learning, and the flipped classroom –  all new arrivals since 2006.

Another growth area has been in what I loosely call the ‘neoliberal turn’ – that is, the way the discourses of economic neoliberalism have been co-opted to serve the discourses of education, such that words like accountability, outcomes, competencies, granularity and life-skills (or twenty-first century skills) now regularly feature in ELT conference programs. In the entry on life skills, I manage to sneak in the suggestion that there might be something a little bit faddish about this development:

Concepts like communication, learner training and (inter-) cultural awareness have all been central to language teaching methodology for several decades now. The renewed interest in such skills may be an effect of the way education is being shaped to serve the needs of the new, globalized economy, with English playing a central role.

Indeed, by the time the third edition comes out, will granularity seem as dated then as ergons are to us now?

Reference

Smith, R.C. (1999) The writings of Harold E. Palmer: An overview. Tokyo: Hon-no-Tomosha.

Postscript:  This is the 200th post on this blog (see Index) and it’s appropriate that it’s about dictionaries since it was a kind of dictionary (The A – Z of ELT) that was the impetus behind it. At the year’s end, it also seems like a good time to take a break, comfortable in the knowledge that the blog is still very much visited, even during rest periods – if the graphic below, showing average views per day per month, is any guide. It’s also good to know that the website for The New A-Z of ELT is up and running (click on the book cover graphic top right) so if you need your weekly dose of An A -Z, you can always buy the book 😉  See you some time in 2018!average views per day

 

 





C is for Creativity

26 11 2017

I’ve just come back from a conference, the theme of which was creativity – a conference for teachers of Arabic, as it happens. I’m not a speaker of Arabic, much less a teacher. But I have a long association with the Arab world – I calculate I’ve done work in 14 of the 22 states that belong to the Arab League. Moreover, irrespective of the language they are teaching, language teachers share many of the same challenges and experience many of the same successes. For me it is both salutary and enlightening to be able to exchange stories about these challenges and successes. It was appropriate, therefore, that the organization that hosted the conference – in conjunction with the University of Westminster – is an Arabic language school whose mission statement is “We believe language & culture are better shared than taught.”

sharek conference Mahammed Bouabdallah

Sharek Centre Conference at the University of Westminster (photo courtesy Mahammed Bouabdallah)

 

What, then, of creativity? For me, a constant challenge has been trying to balance the twin poles of conformity and creativity. My initial training erred on the side of the former, where language learning was all about conforming to existing patterns and models and where creativity, if it was encouraged at all, seemed seriously constrained.

first things firstSuch a view was enshrined in the first coursebook I ever used, Louis Alexander’s aptly titled First Things First (1967), whose philosophy is laid out in no uncertain terms: ‘The student should be trained to learn by making as few mistakes as possible. He should never be required to do anything which is beyond his capacity… If the student is to make the most of his abilities he must be trained to adopt correct learning habits right from the start’ (Alexander 1967: xii).

This ‘late-stage’ behaviourist credo sat uncomfortably with the Chomskyan view that creativity is the essence of language use: ‘Ordinary linguistic behaviour characteristically involves innovation, formation of new sentences and new patterns in accordance with rules of great abstractness and intricacy’ (1966, quoted in Stern, 1983, p. 300).  And he added, for good measure, that ‘repetition of fixed phrases is a rarity….’ (ibid.)

Corpus linguistics has, of course, shown him to be wildly wrong: a great deal of real language use does in fact consist of fixed phrases – more than 50%, according to some estimates. The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin had long since anticipated this: ‘Our speech, that is, all our utterances (including our creative works), is filled with others’ words, varying degrees of otherness or varying degrees of “our-own-ness”’ (1986: 89).

Language use, it seems, involves an equal measure of conformity and creativity, a tension that finds expression in John Sinclair’s distinction between the ‘idiom principle’ and the ‘open choice principle’. With regard to the former, ‘a language user has available to him or her a large number of semi-preconstructed phrases that constitute single choices, even though they might appear to be analysable into segments’ (Sinclair 1991:110). This contrasts with the ‘open choice principle’, whereby ‘words are treated as independent items of meaning. Each of them represents a separate choice’ (op. cit.: 175).

For Bakhtin, this tension between conformity and creativity was construed as a tug-of-war between centripetal and centrifugal forces.  As Braxley (2013: 15) describes it: ‘On the one hand, centripetal forces play a normative role, ensuring that speakers of the language will be able to understand one another. On the other hand, centrifugal forces keep the language alive and allow for the creation of new genres’. In fact, Bakhtin theorized that these opposing forces could be reconciled, and that conformity, far from being antithetical to creativity, might indeed be a precondition for it. As he put it, ‘The better our command of genres, the more freely we employ them… The more flexibly and precisely we reflect the unrepeatable situation of communication – in a word, the more perfectly we implement our free-speech plan’ (1986:80).

‘The unrepeatable situation of communication’ reminds us that even imitation is a form of creativity, since a copy is never the same as the original. This is well exemplified by the hip-hop practice of sampling, i.e. the re-using of a segment of a recording in the creation of a new composition. Pennycook (2007: 149), writing about ‘transcultural flows’, quotes the musician DJ Spooky who describes sampling as ‘”a new way of doing something that’s been with us for a long time: creating with found objects…”. As he goes on to argue, “creativity rests in how you re-contextualise the previous expressions of others…”’ Pennycook comments that ‘this argument challenges notions of authorship, originality and creativity’ (ibid.)

lost-in-translation-hoffman-eva-paperback-cover-artIndeed, ‘re-contextualising the previous expressions of others’ might serve as a definition of language acquisition. As Eva Hoffman memorably put it, in her memoir of learning English: ‘Since I lack a voice of my own, the voices of others invade me is if I were a silent ventriloquist. They ricochet within me, carrying on conversations, lending me their modulations, intonations, rhythms. I do not yet possess them; they possess me… Eventually, the voices enter me; by assuming them, I gradually make them mine. I am being remade, fragment by fragment, like a patchwork quilt’ (Hoffman 1998: 220).

Sampling and patchwork: two images that neatly capture the intersection between conformity and creativity, and remind us that language learning is a process frequently involving – not just production – but RE-production. As Pennycook (2010) points out, ‘language learning also profoundly involves mimicry, and once we are open to a view of mimicry as an act that changes the original, then the concern that language imitation is stultifying is no longer credible… Language repetitions, imitations and re-localisations as creative acts may be at least as significant for language learning as acts of creative construction or individual difference’ (Pennycook 2010: 139).

All this makes me wonder if I had underestimated the creative potential of the tightly constrained methodology I was initially trained in. And it reminds me of Nora (see N is for Nora) and the way she created her own ‘substitution tables’ as she riffed on newly acquired phrases:

She said me that it wa’ not too raining by she house. She said it wa’ not too raining by she house. She said she not raining by she house.

This is not a million miles from the highly repetitive but undeniably creative word play of a writer like Gertrude Stein (1923):

No sense in no sense innocence of what of not and what of delight. In no sense innocence in no sense and what in delight and not, in no sense innocence in no sense no sense what, in no sense and delight, and in no sense and delight and not in no sense and delight and not, no sense in no sense innocence and delight.

In the end, as Rod Ellis (2016, p. 45) argues, ‘we need to conceive of L2 learners as striving for a balance between creativity and conformity… The task facing the language teacher, then, is to facilitate this process by allowing room for the natural process of creative construction while also facilitating conformity to target-language norms.’

The question, as always, is: How?

References

Alexander, L. G. (1967) New Concept English: First Things First (Teacher’s Book), Harlow: Longman.

Bakhtin,  M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.

Braxley, K. (2013) ‘Mastering academic English: international graduate students’ use of dialogue and speech genres to meet the writing demands of graduate school’ in J.K. Hall, G. Vitanova, and L. Marchenkova (eds) Dialogue with Bakhtin on Second and Foreign Language Learning: New Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 11-32.

Ellis, R. (2016) ‘Creativity and language learning.’ In Jones, R.H. & Richards, J.C. (eds) Creativity in language teaching: perspectives from research and practice. London: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (2007) Global Englishes and transcultural flows. London: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (2010) Language As a Local Practice. London: Routledge.

Sinclair, J. (1991) Corpus, Concordance, Collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stein, G. (1923) ‘Are there Arithmetics?’ in Kostelanetz, R. (ed.) (2002) The Gertrude Stein Reader. New York: Cooper Square Press.

Stern, H.H. (1983) Fundamental concepts of language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Consistent with the principles of sampling and patchwork, some of this post borrows from my preface to Creativity in English Language Teaching, edited by D. Xerri and O. Vassallo ( ElT Council, Malta, 2016).

 





N is for Nora

19 11 2017

anonymous_girl_facebookIn a talk that I do on case studies in second language acquisition, one of the stars of what I call ‘The SLA Hall of Fame’ is Nora. She was one of the five immigrant children that Lily Wong Fillmore observed as they interacted and played with their English-speaking peers at a school in the US in the mid-70s (Wong Fillmore 1979). It’s a study that has deservedly been called ‘seminal’, and I never get tired of re-visiting it – not least because of the way Nora herself comes alive in the transcripts of her emergent L2. (Nora was barely 6 at the time, so would be approaching 50 now – I wonder how she’s getting along?).

The background:  The researcher paired five Spanish-speaking children, newly arrived from Mexico, with five English-speaking ’buddies’ and regularly observed them at play in a well-equipped playroom over three months – the purpose of which was ‘to discover what social processes might be involved when children who need to learn a new language come into contact with those from whom they are to learn it – but with whom they cannot communicate easily’ (p. 205).

Of the five non-English speaking children (three boys and two girls), Nora was the youngest; the eldest was just over 7. None of the children were receiving any formal English instruction during the period of the study. Wong-Fillmore comments that, ‘by the end of 3 months of observations, it became quite clear that there would be enormous differences among the five children in what they would achieve during the study year’ (p. 207). These individual differences were the primary focus of her study. Nevertheless, the children all seemed to share a number of social and cognitive strategies, albeit with varying degrees of success.

These she summarises in the following table – with the proviso that it’s difficult to separate the social from the cognitive, the cognitive being the way that language was enlisted to achieve the social:

Wong Fillmore

What was notable about Wong Fillmore’s study was that it was one of the first SLA studies to foreground the key role played by formulaic language: ‘All five [children] quickly acquired repertoires of expressions which they knew how to use more or less appropriately, and put them to immediate and frequent use… This new material was learnable and memorable by virtue of being embedded in current, interest-holding activities over which the learners had already acquired some mastery, and from which they have already received social rewards’ (p. 211). Typical expressions included:

Lookit. Wait a minute. Lemme see. Gimme. You know what? Shaddup your mouth. Knock it off.

As Wray (2002, p. 170) comments, ‘formulaic sequences are the key to being perceived as belonging, and making yourself understood’.

More interesting still was the way that these memorized strings were, in many cases, reanalysed into their constituents, and hence ‘provided  the data on which the children were to perform their analytical activities in figuring out the structure of the language’ (p.212). This was achieved in part by cognitive strategy #3: Look for recurring parts in the formulas you know. The way that, for example, Nora’s memorized formula How do you do dese? provides the ‘raw material’ for subsequent productivity is summarized in this table (from Ortega 2009):

Ortega on Nora

And it is often by means of language play that control of these formulae is achieved, with gains in both fluency and analysis. Here is Nora’s use of what has subsequently been called ‘private speech’ in which she plays with the pattern by creating her own substitution drill:

She said me that it wa’ not too raining by she house.

She said it wa’ not too raining by she house.

She said she not raining by she house.

Wong Fillmore comments that ‘Nora was especially quick in figuring out which parts of the expressions in her repertory of formulas could be varied, and in analysing them.’

Nora’s ultimate success (she outstripped her peers by the year’s end) was due to other factors too, not least her lack of inhibition in speaking English coupled with (or driven by?) her strong desire to be integrated into the English-speaking group – to the point of even anglicizing the pronunciation of her own name:

(Beginning of the session. As usual, the girls are asked to record the names on the tape-recorder:)

Observer:            Wait – say your name first.

Nora:                     Uh –

Observer:            You forgot?

Nora:                     N – un –

Observer:            What’s your name?

Nora:                     Nora. (English pronunciation – [noɹə])

Observer:            Nora?

Nelia:                    Nora! (Spanish pronunciation – [noɾa])

Nora:                     Nora! (English)

Observer:            Oh!

Nelia:                    Nora. (Spanish)

Observer:            ’Scuse me, Nora. (English)

Nora:                     No – no, but my, my, but my mother tomorrow she’s gonna give me another name, Lora.

Observer:            What? Lora? Is that what your mother’s gonna do, Nora?

Nora:                     Um-hum. Lora.

Observer:            Okay, so you wannabe –

Nora:                     Lora, Lora, not Nora (Spanish). Teacher, teacher, but, but, you can call me, are, by now, Orla.

What fascinates me about this study is that, while notionally about individual differences and learning strategies, it anticipates a number of key developments in SLA theory, notably what Block (2003) calls the ‘social turn’, i.e. a re-orientation towards the view that language learning is not only a cognitive activity but is both socially embedded and socially motivated, a view that, in turn, finds support in sociocultural theories of SLA (e.g. Lantolf 2000). Associated with the social turn is the key role that identity formation plays (e.g. Norton 2013), well-evidenced in the conversation above. And the formative role of formulaic speech that is learned and deployed in contexts of use prefigures both the ‘lexical turn’ (e.g. Nattinger and DeCarrico 1992) and usage-based approaches to SLA (e.g.  Cadierno and Eskildsen 2015). Finally, the playground context is a text-book example of ‘situated learning’ and what Lave and Wenger (1991) call ‘legitimate peripheral participation.’

Given the fact, though, that the study was based on non-instructed learning, the key question (for me, at least) is: How can the kinds of social skills and cognitive strategies that Nora displayed be developed and nourished in a classroom context?

References

Block, D. (2003) The social turn in second language acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Cadierno, T. & Eskildsen, S. W. (Eds) (2015) Usage-based perspectives on language learning. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Lantolf, J.P.  (ed.) (2000) Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nattinger, J.R. & DeCarrico, J.S. (1992) Lexical phrases and language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Norton, B. (2013) Identity and language learning: Extending the conversation (2nd edn). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Ortega, L. (2009) Understanding second language acquisition. London: Hodder.

Wong Fillmore, L. (1979) ‘Individual differences in second language acquisition,’ in Fillmore, C., Kempler, D., & Wang, W. (eds) Individual Differences in Language Ability and Language Behavior, New York: Academic Press. p. 203 – 228.

Wray, A. (2002) Formulaic language and the lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.





S is for Substitution table

12 11 2017

H V GeorgeIn preparing the new edition of An A-Z of ELT, I had a slight altercation with my (wonderful) editor, who – on the basis of readers’ reports – queried my claim (in the first edition) that substitution tables ‘have fallen out of fashion’. She felt that, if anything, they were coming back into fashion, citing examples in a number of coursebooks. I disagreed.

Before I describe how we resolved this argument, a little bit of history.

The use of substitution tables to display the interchangeable items of a grammar pattern have, according to Kelly (1969), been around since the early 1500’s.  Here’s an example from a French course of 1534.substitution table 1534But, of course, they really came into their own with the advent of structuralism – the view that language (and not just language, but any cultural artefact) could be construed as a network of relationships. This view, in turn, goes back to Ferdinand de Saussure, who proposed that there are two ways in which language elements relate to one another: syntagmatically (as chains) and paradigmatically (as slots). Thus, in the table below (from George 1967),  cheaply reproduced is a syntagmatic relation (it forms a chain), while maps, charts, and diagrams share a paradigmatic relation (they fill the same slot).

George 1967 sub tableSubstitution tables, then, nicely display these kinds of relations, and can be used to generate a great many sentences based on a single pattern. As George himself wrote:

‘With these Substitution Tables you can speak and write many thousands of English sentences, without making a single mistake… After you have made a large number of sentences you will find that you have learnt the sentence pattern.’

Accordingly substitution tables featured prominently in materials that subscribed to an audiolingual methodology – i.e. one that was predicated on the belief that language learning involves internalizing the patterns of the language through processes of habit-formation, so that they might be reproduced accurately.

But substitution tables (as we have seen) pre-date audiolingualism. In 1916, Harold Palmer was already singing their praises, recommending that each sentence produced by the substitution table should be ‘examined, recited, translated, retranslated, acted, thought and concretized.’ There are more than enough suggestive ideas in this little (paradigmatic!) list to keep an imaginative teacher busy for many hours of productive classroom time. Let’s see.

Examined? Here’s how H.V. George suggests using his tables (having drawn one on the board or, nowadays, projected it):

‘The teacher starts by reading sentences from the table, choosing items which are easy to follow and reading slowly, but without halting at the columns. When most of the items have been used to the teacher increases the speed of begins to take items from widely separated positions. At this stage the teacher brings out a good student. As the teacher reads, the student points with a ruler at each item in turn. Following is not too easy if speed and range of items increase as the student becomes more proficient. One tries to keep the student under pressure without actually causing them to break down. Of course the other students are watching to see whether he does, and their interest is maintained. One or two students have a turn, then a student may replace the teacher, himself be replaced and so on.

A lively use of the table is for the teacher to point a ruler at one item in one column, at the same time reading aloud an item from another: and pointing to (or naming) a student anywhere in the room; the student having to form a sentence which includes both the spoken item in the one pointed to.’

Recited?  Jazz chants, of course. Substitution tables share some of the characteristics of song and verse: short, repeated lines, with minor changes. Think of

The knee bone connecka to the thigh bone;
The thigh bone connecka to the hip bone…etc

Translated and re-translated? Students in paired groups A and B: each translates sentences from a substitution table and sends them (written or spoken) to the other group, who translate them back again.

Acted? TPR, naturally. A student (silently) chooses a sentence from a substitution table (like the example below) and acts it out: the others guess what it is.

TPR subs table

Thought?  Have students construct their own table out of the jumbled elements (like a jigsaw puzzle), or out of a collection of sentences.

Concretized? Give the students a substitution table and get them to make as many sentences as possible. If this sounds too mechanical, insist they be true sentences. Or, ‘true for your group’.  Then for fun, the activity can be turned on its head, by the substitution of the word ‘false’. Or ‘funny’. Or ‘surreal’. And so on. A competitive element can be added by giving a time-limit: How many true sentences about your group can you produce in three minutes?

Oh – and the argument I had with my editor? It seemed to me that she was conflating substitution tables with tables like this:

fake substitution table

which is not a substitution table at all, in the sense that you can generate new sentences by combining any of its elements: *Who is your sister singer? *Are your favourite married? ???  Moreover, what often look like substitution tables are simply tables of verb paradigms: I am. you are. he/she/it is etc. In the end we compromised, and rather than saying ‘they have fallen out of fashion’, I wrote ‘they are less common nowadays’. And I added, ‘but there are few clearer ways of displaying a structure’s parts, and – with a little ingenuity – they can also provide a model for creativity and personalization.’

References

George, H.V. (1967) 101 Substitution Tables for Students of English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

George, H.V. (1967) 101 Substitution Tables for Students of English: Teachers’ guide and advanced students’ guide. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kelly, L.G. (1969) 25 centuries of language teaching: 500 BC – 1969. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.

Palmer, H.E. (1916) Colloquial English, Part I: 100 Substitution Tables. Cambridge: Heffer.

 





C is for Core vocabulary

5 11 2017

West GSL“Lexis is the core or heart of language”, wrote Michael Lewis  (Lewis, 1993, p. 89). Yes, but which lexis?  Given the hundreds of thousands of words that there are, which ones should we be teaching soonest? Is there a ‘core’ vocabulary? If so, where can we find it? If it is a list, how is it organized? And on what principles of selection is it based?

These questions were prompted by a student on my MA TESOL who asked if the measure of an item’s ‘core-ness’ was simply its frequency. I suspected that there might be more to it than this, and this impelled me to look at the literature on word lists.

The most famous of these, of course, is Michael West’s General Service List (GSL), first published in 1936 and then revised and enlarged in 1953. I am the proud owner of not just one but two copies of West, one of which clearly once belonged to a writer (see pic), who used it to keep within the 3000 word limit imposed by his or her publishers.

Michael West flyleaf.jpgCompiled before the days of digitalized corpora, the GSL was based on a print corpus of up to 5 million words, diligently trawled through by a small army of researchers (‘of high intelligence and especially trained for the task’) for the purposes of establishing frequency counts – not just of individual words but of their different meanings.

But frequency was not the only criterion for inclusion in the GSL. West and his collaborators also assessed whether a word was relatively infrequent but necessary, because it lacked a viable equivalent – ‘vessel’ being one: ‘container’ doesn’t work for ‘blood vessels’, for example.  Conversely, some words may be frequent but unnecessary, because there are adequate non-idiomatic alternatives, i.e. they have cover. Finally, informal and highly emotive words were excluded, on the grounds that they would not be a priority for learners.

In the end the GSL comprised around 2000 word families (but over 4000 different lemmas, i.e. words that have the same stem and are the same part of speech: dance, danced, dancing, but not dancer) and even today, despite its age, the GSL gives a coverage of nearly 85% of the running words in any corpus of non-specialist texts (according to Bresina & Gablasova, 2015 – see below).

Subsequently, Carter (1998) has elaborated on the criteria for what constitutes ‘core-ness’. One is a core word’s capacity to define other words. Hence the words chosen by lexicographers for dictionary definitions are a reliable source of core vocabulary. One such is the Longman Defining Vocabulary (LDV): you can find it at the back of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (my edition is that of 2003) or at a number of websites, including this one.

The publishers comment, ‘The words in the Defining Vocabulary have been carefully chosen to ensure that the definitions are clear and easy to understand, and that the words used in explanations are easier than the words being defined.’

laugh entry GSL

Entry for ‘laugh’ in the GSL

Another test of coreness is superordinateness: ‘Core words have generic rather than specific properties’ (Carter 1998, p. 40). Hence, flower is more core than rose;  tool more core than hammer. For this reason, perhaps, core words are the words writers tend to use when they are writing summaries.

 

Core words are also more likely to have opposites than non-core words: fat vs. thin, laugh vs. cry. But what is the opposite of corpulent, say? Or giggle?

Core words also tend to have a greater range of collocates – compare start vs commence (start work/an argument/a career/a rumour/a conversation etc.) And they have high word-building potential, i.e. they combine productively with other morphemes: startup, headstart, starter, starting line, etc.  Core words are also neutral: they do not have strong emotional associations; they do not index particular cultures (dress vs sari, for example), nor are they specific to certain discourse fields: compare galley, starboard, and below deck  with kitchen, left, and downstairs. (i.e. a nautical discourse vs. a less marked one.)

On this last aspect, an important test of a word’s coreness is not just its overall frequency but its frequency in a wide range of contexts and genres – its dispersion. In a  recent attempt to update the GSL, and to eliminate the subjectivity of West’s criteria, Bresina & Gablasova (2015) tested for the ‘average reduced frequency’ (ARF): ‘ARF is a measure that takes into account both the absolute frequency of a lexical item and its distribution in the corpus… Thus if a word occurs with a relatively high absolute frequency only in a small number of texts, the ARF will be small’ (op. cit, p. 8). Bresina and Gablasova also drew on – not just one corpus – but a range of corpora, including the 12-billion word EnTenTen12 corpus, to produce a New General Service List which, while much trimmer than West’s original (2500 vs. 4000 lemmas), and therefore perhaps more ‘learnable’, still gives a comparable coverage of corpus-based text – around 80%. (The full text of the article, along with the word list itself, can be found here).

More impressive still, and also called a New General Service List, is the one compiled by Browne et al (2013) which, with 2800 lemmas, claims to provide more than 90% coverage of the kinds of general English texts learners are likely to read.

Other potentially useful word lists include The Oxford 3000: ‘a list of the 3000 most important words to learn in English’ – accessible here.  Again, dispersion – not just frequency – has been an important criterion in choosing these: ‘ We include as keywords only those words which are frequent across a range of different types of text. In other words, keywords are both frequent and used in a variety of contexts.’ And the publishers add:

In addition, the list includes some very important words which happen not to be used frequently, even though they are very familiar to most users of English. These include, for example, words for parts of the body, words used in travel, and words which are useful for explaining what you mean when you do not know the exact word for something. These words were identified by consulting a panel of over seventy experts in the fields of teaching and language study.

Inevitably, there is a lot of overlap in these lists (they would hardly be ‘core vocabulary’ lists if there were not) but the differences, more than the similarities, are intriguing – and suggestive, not only of the corpora from which the lists were derived, but also of the criteria for selection, including their intended audience and purpose. To give you a flavor:

Words in West’s GSL not in LDV: plaster, jealous, gay, inch, widow, elephant, cushion, cork, chimney, pupil, quart.

Words in LDV not in GSL: traffic, sexual, oxygen, nasty, infectious, piano, computer, prince.

Words in Oxford 3000 not in either GSL or LDV: fridge, gamble, garbage, grandchild, sleeve, software, vocabulary… Note also that the Oxford 3000 includes phrasal verbs, which are not systematically included in the other lists, e.g. pull apart/ down/ off/ in/ over/ through/ up + pull yourself together.

Of course, the key question is: what do you actually do with these lists? Are they simply guidelines for materials writers and curriculum planners? Or should learners be encouraged to memorize them? In which case, how?

Discuss!

References

Brezina, V. and Gablasova, D. (2015) ‘Is there a core general vocabulary? Introducing the New General Service List,’ Applied Linguistics, 36/1. See also this website: http://corpora.lancs.ac.uk/vocab/index.php

Browne, C., Culligan, B. & Phillips, J. (2013) ‘New General Service List’ http://www.newgeneralservicelist.org/

Carter, R. (1998) Vocabulary: Applied linguistic perspectives (2nd edition) London: Routledge.

Lewis, M. (1993) The lexical approach. Hove: LTP.

West, M. (1953) A general service list of English words. London: Longman.





P is for Phonotactics

29 10 2017
knish 2015

Knish

Why is baseball called be-su-bu-ro in Japanese? Why do most learners say clothiz and not clothes? Why am I called Escott by Spanish speakers and Arabic speakers alike? Why can we say /gz/ when it is the middle of a word (exam) and at the end of a word (dogs) but not at the beginning? (Check a dictionary if you are in any doubt). Why are clash and crash recognizably English words but cnash is not?  Is it because it’s hard to say? Well, not if you can say knish, which – if you live in New York, and like to eat them – you regularly do.  It’s not that we can’t say cnash, cfash or cpash – we just don’t.

Why? The answer is, of course, is to be found in phonotactics, i.e. the study of the sound combinations that are permissible in any given language. (Important note: we are talking about sound combinations – not letter combinations – this is not about spelling).  In Japanese, syllables are limited to a single consonant plus vowel construction (CV), with strong constraints on whether another consonant can be added (CVC). Hence be-su-bu-ro for baseball. And bat-to for bat, and su-to-rai-ku  for strike (Zsiga 2006). As for Escott: Spanish does not allow words to begin with /s/ plus another consonant – hence the insertion of word-initial /ɛ/, which gives *Escott (like escuela, estado, etc) – a process called epenthesis. (Epenthesis accounts for the extra vowel English speakers insert in certain regular past tense combinations: liked, loved, but wanted.)

knish

Shmuck with knish

English allows for many more consonant clusters than, say, Japanese or Hawaiian (with its only 13 phonemes in all), but nothing like some languages, like Russian. According to O’Connor (1973, p. 231) ‘there are 289 initial consonant clusters in Russian as compared with 50 in English.’ English almost makes up for this by allowing many more word-final clusters (think, for example, of sixth and glimpsed – CVCCC and CCVCCCC, respectively) but Russian still has the edge(142 to 130). Of course, these figures don’t exhaust the possibilities that are available in each language: there are 24 consonant sounds in English, so, theoretically, there are 242 two-consonant combinations, and 243 three-consonant combinations. But we use only a tiny fraction of them. And some combinations are only found in borrowings from other languages, like knish and shmuck. (Theoretically, as O’Connor points out, ‘it is possible to imagine two different languages with the same inventory of phonemes but whose phonemes combine together in quite different ways’ [p. 229]. In which case, a phonemic chart on the classroom wall would be of much less use than a chart of all the combinations).

Likewise, there is no theoretical limit as to which consonants can appear at the beginning of a syllable or at the end of it. But, ‘whereas in English all but the consonants /h, ŋ, j and w/ may occur both initially and finally in CVC syllables, i.e. 20 out of the total 24, in Cantonese only 6 out of a total of 20 occur in both positions, since only /p, t, k, m, n, ŋ/ occur in final position, the remainder being confined to initial position’ (O’Connor, p. 232).

It’s this kind of information that is often missing from comparisons of different languages. This was driven home recently as I reviewed a case study assignment that my MA students have been doing, in which they were asked to analyze the pronunciation difficulties of a learner of their choice. What often puzzles them is that the learner might produce a sound correctly in one word, but not in another – in some cases, even leaving it out completely. The answer, of course, is not in phonemics, but in phonotactics: it’s all about where the sound is, and in what combinations. And it is perhaps just as significant a cause of L1 interference as are phonemic differences.  Yet, apart from mentions of consonant clusters, there a few if any references to phonotactics in the pedagogical literature. (In The New A-Z of ELT, phonotactics gets a mention in the entry on consonant clusters, but – note to self! – phonotactics is not just about consonants: it also deals with vowel sequences, and which vowels habitually follow which consonants.)

Phonotactics is also of interest to researchers into language acquisition, since our sensitivity to what sound sequences are permissible in our first language seems to become entrenched at a very early age.  Ellis (2002, p. 149), for example, quotes research that showed ‘that 8-month-old infants exposed for only 2 minutes to unbroken strings of nonsense syllables (e.g., bidakupado) are able to detect the difference between three-syllable sequences that appeared as a unit and sequences that also appeared in their learning set but in random order. These infants achieved this learning on the basis of statistical analysis of phonotactic sequence data, right at the age when their caregivers start to notice systematic evidence of their recognising words.’

piet and knishery

Knishery

Such findings lend support to usage-based theories of language acquisition (e.g. Christiansen and Chater 2016), where sequence processing and learning – not just of sounds but also of lexical and grammatical items – may be the mechanism that drives acquisition. It seems we are genetically programmed to recognize and internalize complex sequences: there is neurobiological evidence, for example, that shows considerable overlap of the mechanisms involved in language learning and the learning of other kinds of sequences, such as musical tunes.  As Ellis (op.cit.), summarizing the evidence, concludes, ‘much of language learning is the gradual strengthening of associations between co-occurring elements of the language and… fluent language performance is the exploitation of this probabilistic knowledge’ (p.173). What starts as phonotactics ends up as collocation, morphology and syntax.

References

Christiansen, M.H. & Chater, N. (2016) Creating language: integrating evolution, acquisition, and processing. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Ellis, N.C. (2002) ‘Frequency effects in language processing: a review with implications for theories of implicit and explicit language acquisition.’ Studies in SLA, 24/2.

O’Connor, J.D. (1973) Phonetics. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Zsiga, E. (2006) ‘The sounds of language,’ in Fasold, R.W. & Connor-Linton, J. (eds) An introduction to language and linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 





E is for ELT in Spain

22 10 2017

 

TESOL Spain 40th anniversary Levy

Thanks to Mark Levy for the pic

Last Friday, at a function at the magnificent Edificio Bellas Artes in Madrid, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of TESOL-Spain, I gave an illustrated talk on the history of English language teaching in Spain. Here is a shortened version of the talk.