J is for Jokes

15 03 2015

laugh_and_be_merry_smallThe polemical Slovenian cultural critic and philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently published a book of jokes designed, in the words of the blurb, to ‘provide an index to certain philosophical, political, and sexual themes that preoccupy him’.

This got me thinking about our own field, and the illustrative jokes that I often weave into talks — none of them as incisive, as witty or as racy as Žižek’s, I fear — but perhaps worth sharing, nevertheless, not least for the light they might shed on various aspects of language and of language learning. Here is a selection.

Firstly, then: jokes about language:

  1. Semantics

Adam (naming the animals): And finally, that is a hippopotamus.
Eve: Why is it called a hippopotamus?
Adam: Because it looks like a hippopotamus, silly!

I like this one because (for me) it pokes fun at the notion that we are hard-wired with the mental representations of the things we refer to when we use language – what has been called ‘mentalese’. That is to say, the concept HIPPOPOTAMUS pre-exists our actual encounter with a real one in the wild and is a precondition for our being able to name it. As Jerry Fodor puts it, ‘One cannot learn a language unless one has a language.’ Of course, none of the proponents of mentalese – Fodor included  – would go so far as to suggest that the word itself (i.e. ‘hippopotamus’) is part of our DNA, but the idea that you wouldn’t be able to think about a hippopotamus without your having been pre-programmed to do so seems equally implausible.

On a more mundane level, the joke also captures a particular mindset displayed by some (not very good) teachers that assumes that English words are self-explanatory, and often takes the form of exchanges like this:

Student (baffled by unfamiliar word in text): What means ‘hippopotamus’?
Teacher: A hippopotamus?  A hippopotamus is, erm, a hippopotamus.

  1. Pragmatics

Man (on park bench to woman, admiring the dog at her feet): Does your dog bite?
Woman: No.
(Man pats dog and is bitten).
Man: I thought you said your dog didn’t bite!
Woman: It’s not my dog.

A perfect illustration of the flouting of Grice’s ‘maxim of quantity’: ‘Make your contribution just as informative as required.’

  1. Prescriptivism

I love anything that takes the mickey out of the grammar police:

A Texan was visiting Harvard University, and was lost. He stopped a student and asked, “Do you know where the library is at?” “I sure do,” replied the student, “But, you know, you’re not supposed to end sentences with prepositions.” “Oh, ok,” said the Texan, “Do you know where the library is at, asshole?”

  1. tell a jokePrecriptivism AND pragmatics

A linguistics professor was lecturing his class the other day. “In English,” he said, “a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.”
A voice from the back of the room retorted, “Yeah, right.”

Which reminds me that I’ve yet to see a corpus-based study of the not totally unusual discourse marker and turn initiator: ‘Yeah. No.’

As in:

Half past six? It’ll all be finished by then will it?
Erm yeah no. Say seven o’clock anyway…

Carol’s having one, did you know?
Yeah no yes well, she told us when she’s a– (unclear) having one…

(from the British National Corpus)

  1. Miscommunication

The following joke was told to me at primary school when I had no idea where Wembley was, but for some odd reason it made a lasting impression.

There are three hearing-challenged men on a train. (It wasn’t ‘hearing-challenged’ when I was at school, of course).

1st man: Is this Wembley?
2nd: No, it’s Thursday.
3rd: So am I. Let’s have a drink.

What I loved (and still love) about this joke is that none of the men is aware that they’ve misheard the other: an instance of misunderstanding, rather than partial understanding, where, in the words of people who study these things, ‘the interlocutor who misunderstands is not aware of it’2.  I suspect that this kind of misunderstanding between second language users occurs more often than we think, and is possibly a characteristic of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) communication — which may, in turn, account for the impression given in the literature that ELF interactions are invariably successful. The reality is that no one realizes that they have been misunderstood.

  1. Classroom talk

english_made_funny_smallMisunderstandings occur between teachers and learners too, of course, as in this joke:

Teacher: What is the outside layer of a tree trunk composed of? Jimmy?
Jimmy: Dunno.
Teacher: BARK, Jimmy, BARK!
Jimmy: Woof woof. Woof woof.

I’ve witnessed similar interactional cross-purposes during classroom observations, where the teacher’s real question has been misconstrued as a display question – as in this (real) example:

Teacher: How was your weekend?
Student: Fantastic – I won the lottery!
Teacher: Wow! How much did you win?
Student: I didn’t. It was just a sentence.

  1. Language acquisition

Doctor: What’s the matter?
Patient: I’ve got a pain in my kidley.
Doctor: You mean kidney.
Patient: That’s what I said, diddle I?

Failure to register the non-target-like nature of one’s own interlanguage is a characteristic of both first and second language acquisition. The child and the learner – like the patient – can hear and recognize the target pronunciation, but can’t hear themselves not achieving it. Which suggests that there is more to pronunciation teaching than simply ear-training and imitating models: you have to be able to hear yourself.

  1. Real-time processing

A French scholar has been awarded a prestigious prize in the US. Not being an English speaker, he follows the advice of his colleagues by repeatedly practising ‘Thank you very much’ – but without the tell-tale ‘z’ so typical of French speakers. ‘THHHHank you very much… THHHHank you very much’ – day and night, even using a mirror to monitor the position of his tongue. On the fateful day, he walks up to the podium to receive the prize, and says: ‘MerTHHHHHi beaucoup.’

Moral: if you don’t practise in ‘real operating conditions’, you might as well not practice at all. Or, as Gatbonton and Segalowitz (1988: 486) put it ‘the [practice] activity should be designed to allow learners to experience some of the normal psychological pressures felt by people engaged in real communication.’

  1. Multilingualism

A mouse is in his mouse hole and he wants to go out to get something to eat, but he’s afraid there might be a big cat outside, so he puts his ear by the opening and all he hears is “Bow Wow” so he thinks, “Well, there can’t be a cat out there because there’s a big old dog”, so he goes out of his mouse hole and is promptly caught and eaten by a cat, who licks his lips and says “It’s good to be bilingual !!”

Which makes a nice story, but I suspect that even a mouse would be able to tell a non-native barker from a native one.

_______

1 cited in Evans, V. 2014. The Language Myth: Why language is not an instinct. Cambridge University Press.

2 Weigand, 1999 – quoted in House, J., Kasper, G., & Ross, S. (eds) 2003. Misunderstandings in Social Life: Discourse approaches to problematic talk. London: Pearson.





P is for Pedagogic grammar

24 02 2013

Palmer happy etcHow do you write a pedagogic grammar?  Or, more realistically, how do you judge the worth of one that has already been written?

This is a task I regularly set my MA TESOL students, i.e. to put a teacher’s or learner’s grammar of their choice to the test, and to come up with a set of criteria for evaluating pedagogic grammars in general.

The criteria that result almost always involve issues of accessibility. How easy is it to find what you want? How clearly is it organized and signposted? How clear are the explanations? and so on.

Accessibility is a real issue. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the students who have little or no ELT background find performing even simple research tasks incredibly difficult. Asked to rule on the grammaticality of I’m lovin’ it, for example, one student failed to locate the distinction between stative and dynamic verbs in Parrott (2000), even though these are listed in the index (which, admittedly, is at the front of the book, not the back). Others, using Swan (2005) found what they were looking for but only if they knew what they were looking for: if they didn’t know the relevant grammatical labels they got endlessly sidetracked.Palmer grammar

Even knowing the labels is not necessarily any guarantee of success: in reviewing a recent grammar (Carter et al, 2011), I was directed by the index entry for phrasal verbs to the article on prepositional phrases, only to be told that phrasal verbs are filed under Verbs: multi-word verbs – the equivalent of two clicks on a website. More frustrating still, to answer the question ‘Is I’m loving it grammatical?’, I drew blanks at each of these search words: dynamic, stative, progressive, continuous, aspect, love, like. I finally ran the answer to ground in the entry Present simple or present continuous? (Why, I wonder, is this aspect distinction referenced only for present tenses?)

Palmer participlesApart from being accessible, a pedagogic grammar has to be reliable. That is to say, we need to be able to trust its explanations. This doesn’t mean to say that we have to be told the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s a pedagogic grammar, not a linguist’s grammar, after all. But we needn’t have to accept half-truths. Nor untruths.

The accuracy of the grammars that my students choose to evaluate  (including some very dodgy websites) they tend to take on trust. But should they?

For a start, it’s important to know just how prescriptive the grammar is. Many pedagogic grammars are cagey about this, claiming to be purely descriptive. Leech (1989: ix), for example, says, of his own grammar, ‘Where a form is considered right by some native speakers and wrong by others, we point this out without being prescriptive’. However, this ‘pointing out’ often takes the form of a warning, e.g. ‘Be careful about using like instead of as…’

The Cambridge grammar that I reviewed makes its stance very clear: ‘Learners of English should use the standard forms of the language in most situations’ (Carter et al. 2011: 3). This is only to be expected, since this is a pedagogic grammar – one that models the target language for the learner, rather than one that describes its infinite variety for the specialist. Modeling implies some consensus as to what is being modeled, consensus implies norms, and norms imply a degree of prescriptivism, although of the norm-describing, rather than the norm-enforcing, kind, one would hope.palmer connectives

The distinction between norm-describing and norm-enforcing gets dangerously elided, however, when rules are prefaced by ‘we always…’ or ‘we never…’ For instance, in Carter et al. we find (with reference to the aforementioned multi-word verbs): ‘If the object is a personal pronoun (me, you, him, us, etc.), we always put the pronoun before the particle’ (p. 547). Or, ‘We don’t use the continuous form with verbs of mental processes’ (p. 417).  Apart from causing us to wonder who this imperious ‘we’ is, both statements can be refuted by a quick search in a corpus. A little hedging (generally, seldom, etc) would have been both less incriminating and more accurate.

The problem is not so much that these statements are inaccurate (and, admittedly, the counter-examples are few and far between): it’s that they are not explanatory. There is a reason that the pronoun is rarely given end-weight in phrasal verb constructions, and that is because it seldom encodes new information. And the reason that continuous forms are less often used with mental process verbs is that states of knowledge tend not to be dynamic or evolving (a core meaning of progressive aspect) — you either love something or you don’t.  What would it have cost to include explanations like these? Offering an insight into the reasons underlying the rules might better prepare users to deal with ‘exceptions’ (e.g. I’m lovin’ it!), as well as equipping them with the means to fine-tune their meanings in speaking and writing.Palmer prepositions01

But it’s only a pedagogic grammar, you protest.  Language learners don’t want choices; they want rules.  Maybe.  But to my mind ‘pedagogic’ implies something more than simply stating rules (that would be a pedantic grammar, perhaps). Pedagogic implies that the grammar is somehow learning-oriented: a pedagogic grammar is one that the user not only consults, but can learn something from. As Larsen-Freeman (2003, p. 50) puts it, ‘To my way of thinking, it is important  for learners not only to know the rules, but also to know why they exist … what I call the “reasons” underlying the rules’.

As an instance of an explanatory approach, observe how Leech (1989: 394, emphasis added) both mitigates the force of a rule, and takes the time to add a reason:

Verbs not normally taking the Progressive.

Be careful with verbs of the kinds outlined in 3a-3f below. They usually do not have a Progressive form, because they describe a state.

So, my criteria for a pedagogic grammar: accessibility, reliability, and ‘explainability’. What are yours?

References:

Palmer auxiliariesCarter, R., McCarthy, M., Mark, G., & O’Keeffe, A. (2011) English Grammar Today: An A-Z of spoken and written grammar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2003) Teaching language: From Grammar to Grammaring. Boston: Heinle.

Leech, G. (1989) An A-Z of English Grammar and Usage. London: Edward Arnold.

Parrott, M. (2000) Grammar for English Language Teachers, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M. (2005) Practical English Usage (3rd edn). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Palmer, H.E. (1938) The New Method Grammar, London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Parts of this blog post first appeared in a review of Carter, et al. (2011), in the ELT Journal, 66/2, April 2012.





P is for Prescriptive

2 10 2011

I’m puzzled why my MA students have so much trouble getting their heads around the prescriptive- descriptive distinction. But, then, they’re probably puzzled as to why I think it matters so much.

Some defining might be in order. To quote from An A-Z of ELT, “If a prescriptive grammar is about how people should speak, a descriptive one is about how people do speak”.  Thus,  a prescriptivist will argue that taller than me is wrong, and that, for various abstruse reasons, it should be taller than I.  A descriptive grammar would simply state (as does the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Biber, et al. 1999, p. 336) that, after as and than, “both nominative and accusative forms occur”, and that the accusative forms (e.g. taller than me) “are predominant…especially in conversation”. So, while prescriptivism is about opinions, descriptivism claims to be about facts.

Why do I think that the distinction matters? Well, because a lot of trainees, coming to ELT fresh, tend to associate grammar teaching with the kind of ‘good style guide’ grammar that they got at school. They think grammar teaching is going to be all about not starting sentences with ‘And’ or not ending them with a preposition. They may mistakenly see themselves as part of this tradition – as guardians of the cultural legacy enshrined as ‘proper English’.  They may have been indoctrinated into the view that “students should be taught that correct speaking is evidence of culture; and that in order to speak correctly they must master the rules that govern the use of the language” (from an editorial in The Detroit Free Press, 1928, quoted in Fries, 1940).

However, this is not the problem with my students. Quite the opposite. The problem is that they come to associate all rules with prescriptivism. Thus, the rule that “to form the past tense of regular verbs, you add –ed to the base form of the verb” is considered prescriptive – simply because it’s a rule.

But this is to confuse rules-as-regularities with rules-as-regulations.  Adding –ed is something we regularly do; saying taller than I is something we don’t do regularly, but which (according to prescriptivists) we ought to. Theirs is an attempt to regulate language use.

There’s an added problem, however, and that is: are student grammars really that descriptive? After all, the so-called pedagogic grammar – which purports to be a sub-set of the rules of descriptive grammar – is by definition selective. It selects some usages and ignores others. And the usages it selects are those that are considered standard – or the norm.  But a norm is only a norm because it has been accepted by a speech community as such. It has been validated.  What the grammar describes is what the speech community prescribes. As Cameron (1995) argues, “there is no escape from normativity”.

Moreover, in order to obviate the messiness of exceptions, pedagogic grammars tend to be more assertive than they need to be – often at the cost of accuracy. Rather than stating rules, they issue edicts.   (Perhaps they should be called ‘pedantic grammars’).  So we get:

Some verbs are used only in simple tenses. For example,  “You cannot say ‘I am knowing’. You can only say I know. (Murphy, 1985, p. 6)

And they use the ‘we’ word a lot, too. So you get:

We can make negative sentences with nobody, nothing… With these words, we do not use not…:

He said nothing. (NOT He didn’t say nothing)

(Swan & Walter, 2001, p. 114).

Who is this we? At times, it starts to sound a little like the royal we. It starts to sound very prescriptive. No wonder my students get confused.

Not just my students – there is a strong sense generally that description = good; prescription = bad. Nevertheless, there is one area of language teaching where most teachers are happy to be prescriptive, and that is vocabulary. We regularly caution students not to use words that are considered offensive or vulgar, even if they are commonly used by native-speakers. Dictionaries do the same. They shamelessly prescribe. And, because of this, they are excellent sources for tracking shifts in cultural values. Consider the two entries (below) from the first edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1948) and the same entries from the 6th edition (2000).

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

This should serve to remind us that, as Cameron (op. cit) puts it, “we are all of us closet prescriptivists”.  As she explains:

I have never met anyone who did not subscribe, in one way or another, to the belief that language can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, more or less ‘elegant’ or ‘effective’ or ‘appropriate’.  Of course, there is massive disagreement about what values to espouse, and how to define them.  Yet however people may pick and choose, it is rare to find anyone rejecting altogether the idea that there is some legitimate authority in language’ (p.9).

References:

Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Longman.

Cameron, D. 1995. Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Fries, C. C. 1940. American English Grammar. Tokyo: Maruzen.

Murphy, R. 1985. English Grammar in Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M., and Walter, C. 2001. The Good Grammar Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.