Sunday 26 May 2013

26 IATEFL correspondents ask...

Most readers of this blog will not know that yesterday I took part in a webinar for the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL), an organization of which I am proud to be the current patron. It was the first of their new series of webinars, to be held at intervals, and in my case it took the form of a general Q & A. Several people asked questions in advance, and I responded to these during the 45 minutes. There was then a 15-minute period in which people could send in their questions live. I managed to deal with a few in the time available, but most remained forlornly on the waiting list. I therefore give brief responses to these below, reproduced exactly as submitted (you have to forgive the typos and at times odd constructions, as people are typing at top speed on such occasions). My answers are not full explorations of an issue (as I like to do on this blog), but off-the-cuff short responses in the manner of a live exchange. Some of them follow up points made in the webinar, so the comments may not always be clear to people who were not there. But using my blog seemed the only way to provide individuals with an immediate response.

And to those IATEFLers whose questions are not here: as I said in the webinar, I can't answer questions where I have no experience - those asking about teaching methods, for example, or asking me to comment on policies in individual countries.

1. Suchismita: how can i make it little easy for a student for whom english is a 3rd language to feel that learning english will not be that difficult?
Not a question for me, really. IATEFL has SIGs which focus on this kind of thing. But the first step must surely be to establish communicative needs and areas of learner interest, and introduce relevant language. The short-messaging services, such as texting and tweeting, also tend to use simpler constructions and vocabulary, and have the advantage of being 'cool'.

2. Tatiana Ivanova: What is the most difficult thing about the English language you had to explain to students?
I can't think of anything that really stands out. There are different kinds of difficulty. For example, in pronunciation, explaining what is going on in intonation etc depends on whether the students have a good ear. If they do, no problem; if they don't, problem. And because it is difficult to transcribe, it is difficult to 'see' what is going on. In orthography, it's really hard to show the system behind spelling irregularity without getting bogged down in detail (see my Spell It Out for an approach). Some people are naturally good spellers; some aren't. In grammar ... probably the semantics of model verbs.

3. Olga Kuznetsova: What is the role of pronunciation in the way a person speaks the words of a language?
Not sure exactly what you have in mind, but one way of looking at this is to note that pronunciation has more than one role. It acts to identify words and it acts to link words together in connected speech. A dictionary pronunciation captures the former, along with variants. No dictionary captures the latter, which involves taking into account the interaction between segmental (vowel and consonant) and nonsegmental (intonation, rhythm, etc) phonology. For example, it isn't enough to know that 'and' reduces to 'n' in expressions like 'fish and chips'; one has to say it at an appropriate speed and rhythm.

4. Arthur Edgar E. Smith: How have you managed to get the motivation, time and energy to research, write and publish so many books (over 100) and articles in a widening field of English Language Studies and Linguistics besides your onerous academic and social responsibilities?
Well, I don't have the academic ones. Indeed, the reason I left the full-time academic world back in 1984, to become an 'independent scholar', was to give myself time to write. You can read the full story in my autobiographical memoir, Just a Phrase I'm Going Through. The short answer, then, is 'it's what I do'. The long answer would focus on various things, such as the nature of the subject, language (which is always offering new topics to write about), and above all the support of Hilary, who somehow manages to handle all the administration of our business while maintaining her own writing (you can see news of her new children's novel on my website).

5. Riaz Hussain: Mr, David Crystal i am Riaz Hussain From Pakistan, and i just did master in English literature, Now either i want to get TEFL or PGD in linguistic, i can't decided my self, what do you think which is essential to be a better Teacher of English, i am puzzled now which one i get, eiher if i get TEFL WHY or i get Linguistic Why, which one build my career and to be the best, i hope sir, I must enjoy your Lecture on mention time. Good Luck
If you're planning to be a full-time teacher, then you need much more than a linguistics background, and you should get as much TEFL training inside you as you can. If you are more a researcher by inclination, then developing a sophisticated linguistic skill-set would be good. If you do both, you have the best of both worlds, but few people have the time (or money)!

6. joel: As a coach of 2nd language learners of English listening and pronunciation improvement I’m experimenting with an “ear training” approach, analogous to the way that fledgling, non-note reading music self-learners teach themselves to play their instrument. The language self-learners teach themselves to play the “music” of English on their “instrument” which is their aural perception/oral production feedback loop. Using a small digital voice recorder, the learners: 1. Listen several times to a short, simple sentence recorded by a model speaker; 2. Record the same sentence next to the model sentence; 3. Listen repeatedly for the differences between their speech and the model speech; 4. Re-record the sentence again, next to the model sentence, striving to get their pronunciation closer to the model speaker; 5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 many times; 6. Repeat steps 1 to 5 with several subsequent short, simple sentences.
I did something similar myself in the days when I taught phonetics classes. The problem with self-tuition is whether the learners are able to judge when they are 'closer to the model speaker'. I found they needed a lot of help. Some felt they'd 'got it' when they plainly hadn't. And some kept going at it when they plainly had. A development of this approach would be to have software which would do the 'identifying' task automatically - rating how close you are. I don't know if any such software exists.

7. How did language start? (don't know who asked this question)
Nobody knows. There are various views. One is that there was a single source out of which all languages developed (a monogenetic hypothesis). Another is that it started simultaneously in different parts of the world, as a particular evolutionary stage was reached (a polygenetic hypothesis).

8 Marjorie Rosenberg, Austria: How did Yiddish get status?
The status of a language is always related to the power of its speakers, which can mean different things at different times - military, political, industrial, technological, economic, cultural, religious... In the case of Yiddish, religious power is the preeminent factor, being so closely tied up with Ashkenazi Judaism. As Dovid Katz puts it, in his marvellous Words on Fire: the Unfinished Story of Yiddish, Yiddish is 'irreplaceable as the spoken realm of traditional Jewish spirit, culture, and mentality'.

9 Rachel: How has the increase of multilingualism affected children's literacy? Is learning to read and write more difficult for bilingual children? Do they mix the languages? Especially those that have different alphabets.
There are too many individual differences to make it easy to generalize. I have seen kids whose literacy has been enhanced by their bilinguality; and the opposite. It also depends on the age of the kids, the character of their bilingualism, and the kind of education they are getting. There is bound to be mixing, as there is in spoken language, but this resolves over time. My grandson is growing up in Amsterdam with Dutch as his first language in school and English as his first language at home. He is only seven, so there is a great deal of interference going on right now; but this won't be there for long. Just naming the letters of the alphabet caused a problem, for example, as they are pronounced differently in English and Dutch. His mum had to keep saying 'English a' or 'Dutch a', and the like, to get him through this stage. Maintaining a steady reading and writing experience in both languages will be the critical factor.

10 Brahim Ait Hammou: what decisions, besides the political one, does it take for a country to really move a language from a dialect situation to a full language status? I have seen cases where a language is considered "official" in the constitution; yet, it's still deliberately restricted in use.
I don't like to generalize, because situations vary greatly. But if we take Welsh in Wales as a case in point, what it took to get it to its present recognized state was two kinds of political movement: 'bottom-up' activism on the part of ordinary people who wanted to keep the language alive; and 'top-down' support from the national government, which introruced Language Acts, fostered TV broadcasting in Welsh, and so on. The third factor was economic: it costs money to support a multilingual policy - not huge amounts, but enough to often make implementation of an official policy a problem, especially in these cash-strapped days.

11 Gopal Prasad Bashyal - Nepal: Language and power connected. What shuld the powerless ones do to preserve their language? As far as possible, become part of the international community which privileges language diversity. Is a country a signatory to one of the various conventions safeguarding languages? Let one of the widely read online outlets know of what is going on (such as the Foundation for Endangered Languages in the UK). Use the Internet as much as possible. Above all, be proud of what the language represents, and try to institutionalise that pride in the form of literature, folklore, and other cultural activities. People in power will listen if there are economic benefits to be obtained - and a strong economic case can be made for the preservation of linguistic diversity. I live just a few miles down the road from the longest place-name in the UK, which is in Welsh, and every day hundreds of tourists visit the place just to read it and be photographed by it. Some days you can't get into the car park for the tourist buses. Just one example.

12 @heikephilp, Belgium: I just wonder why two people who understand each other's language tend to speak only one language?
Because identity is the driving force. There are always two factors underlying language use: intelligibility (to understand each other) and identity (to show who we are). And of the two, it is the latter which carries the greater emotional force. People will march, riot, and even die for their linguistic identity, as we have often seen.

13 Laxman Gnawali: The "Did you spot the gorrilla?" test claims that knowing more than one language makes our mind better at discriminating the facts. Is that proven otherwise?
The early 20th-century view that monolinguals always perform better than bilinguals was totally wrong, as the comparisons didn't control for age, sex, socioeconomic background, educational environment, or even the language ability of the people they were comparing. All the recent research I know shows that bilingual people come out better in all sorts of cognitive ways. You need to follow this up with a specialist, so go to Francois Grosjean's blog, which also deals with the question (from Claire Hart) of the meaning of bilingualism.

14 Rachel: Does bilingualism refer more to the spoken word than the written?
No. All four mediums are involved: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. And signing, of course, in the context of deafness. Fluency levels vary in respect of all four. There is no single measure of bilingualism.

15 Vinaya Kumari: what is the use of english language in business in developing countriers like libya?
The answer depends entirely on the nature of the development. As businesses develop a more international outlook, involving languages other than their own, the need for a lingua franca quickly becomes evident. The lingua franca could be anything - in some parts of the world, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Swahili, and other languages are useful lingua francas. But English is currently the one that gives the greatest access to the international business community, and I don't see any change in this role taking place in the foreseeable future.

16 Csilla Jaray-Benn, France: What's your view on whether English linguistically is adapted to be a global language? There is a whole debate about this in France and many say that it is not....
I don't know the debate you mean, and am not sure what exactly you mean by 'adapted'. But one of the big contrasts between French and English is the lack of anything remotely resembling an Academy in the latter. English has been allowed to adapt to the different cultural situations in which it finds itself, to meet local needs, without any attempt to control it from a central source. The interesting question, which we touched on briefly in the webinar, is how far these local adaptations will go, and whether any of them will influence the character of a putative 'world standard spoken English'. If you mean by adapted 'suitable', then it isn't a useful question, for two billion people have decided to use it in this way, so they have evidently found it so. The proof of the pudding, to adapt the old proverb, is in the speaking.

17 21685: Are African languages really an endangered species?
Depends where you mean. A large number of African languages (see the online figures at Ethnologue) are spoken by very small numbers, and several have died out in recent years, such as the example I cite of Kasabe (Cameroon) at the beginning of my Language Death. On the other hand, there are plenty left! There are still more languages spoken in Africa than anywhere else on the planet.

18 21685: English in Nigeria larely stifles the indigneous languages. Is there any way out? Nkem Okoh
See my response to 12 above. There is now a large literature showing various 'ways out' - that is, policies and strategies which can help to preserve and revitalize indigenous languages, in the face of a dominant language. Take a look at the FEL website and see whether a similar thing could be set up in Nigeria. Or perhaps something is already in place, but just not widely known. Linguists at Nigerian universities would be aware.

19 Eric Ekembe Enongene: Is your identity necessarily tempered with if you speak someone else's language or variety?
Not unless you want it to be. Some people who aspire to be 'citizens of the world' do end up with multiple identities, as they travel around, and their total personality is different from what it was - but they are happy about that. For the most part, what I see (and have experienced myself) is that the learning of a new language doesn't alter a source identity one bit. I have many friends who are as fluent in English as it is possible to get yet they remain resolutely Swedish, Dutch, or whatever.

20 Mike Hanacek (Austria): What I'm trying to say regarding deaf mutes is: what language do they use?
Few deaf people are actually mute. That is one of the myths. We find all possibilities. Many deaf people acquire excellent levels of spoken language. Many have poor spoken language. Many use one of the natural sign languages, such as British Sign Language or American Sign Language (which are not mutually intelligible, by the way). And some use one of the many artificial sign languages which have been invented for educational purposes (such as the Paget-Gorman Sign System in the UK). Many deaf people are multilingual, in exactly the same way as hearing people are.

21 Yulia Sergaeva: New words appear in English almost every day, especially now when many web resources encourage PC users to coin words. My question to Prof.Crystal and others is - in case of several coinages to nominate the same thing/concept, what linguistic and extralinguistic factors will help a new word to win in this "competition"? Why do some neologisms stay in language, while others are rejected?
That is one of the great mysteries, which has always been the case in the history of language. What was it that led discordant to survive from the 17th century when over a dozen other variants, such as discordable, discordic, and discordous, didn't? Many factors are involved, such as: use by a famous person (such as Shakespeare), use in an influential text (such as the Bible), euphony (some words sounding nicer than others), and avoidance of a clash with an already-existing similar-sounding word. Most neologisms disappear. Of the new words that came into English during the 1970s, for example, only about a quarter are still in use today.

22 Djalal Tebib (Algeria): Can multilingualism turn out to be a “linguistic schizophrenia”?
Not unless there are schizophrenic tendencies in place for other reasons. There is a huge myth abroad among monolingual people, that the brain cannot cope with multilingualism - that learning a new language threatens the quality of the one already there because there is limited brain space. The reality is that the brain can cope with an indefinitely large number of languages. With over 100 billion neurons available, a language takes up a relatively small amount of space (with just a few dozen sounds, a few thousand grammatical constructions, and a few tens of thousand words).

23 Vinaya Kumari: zainab Al oujali. An asistant lecturer / faculty of Arts and Scinece Ajdabia. Which is it better to teach students \word-sress during the initial stages or the final stages of their language stages? I can't comment on teaching strategies, as I have no experience of them. But, unless one is teaching only the written language, I don't see how one can acquire a word without its associated stress pattern. Remember too that stress isn't simply a phonetic phenomenon. It can make semantic contrasts (as in record vs record), relate words (as in poetry), underscore sentence patterns, and so on. It plays an important psycholinguistic role. If you've ever had a word 'on the tip of your tongue', you may not recall the vowels and consonants in it, but you'll probably recall the stress pattern.

24 Laxmi Prasad Ojha: How serious the governments in the developing countries are about the language shift and change?
I see huge variation. Everyone recognizes it, of course, as it is one of the most obvious facts of linguistic life. But governments respond to it in various ways. A distinction has to be drawn between policies relating to languages and policies relating to an individual language. Most countries are now aware of the issues surrounding language shift - such as in relation to minority languages or to the loss of functions within a language (eg English being used in higher education at the expense of the indigenous language). How serious they are about dealing with the problems depends largely on the state of the economy. In relation to individual languages, at one extreme we see an attempt at centralized control, as in the various Academies; at the other, we see a totally laissez-faire attitude. In between, various kinds of ad hoc policy-making in response to popular mood (such as measures to deal with English loanwords).

25 Marija Liudvika Drazdauskiene, Lithuania/Poland: I would appreciate hearing from you whether investigation of idiom in American spoken English compared with the idiom of spoken British English would be of any general interest?
It would. It's been a remarkably neglected field, when one takes into account all the regional variations in both countries, as well as indigenous variations (eg the Celtic languages in the UK), ethnic variations (such as immigrants), and the whole range of figurative expression (metaphors, proverbs, similes). Gunnel Tottie's Introduction to American English has an interesting chapter on metaphors in US English, which illustrates the point.

26 Cristiane Corsetti, Brazil: Within a pragmatic perspective addressing the use competent, what does conversational competence in L2 encompass, in your opinion Professor?
I don't think it's possible to make a generalization, as everything depends (from a pragmatic point of view) on what choices you need to make, on the intentions behind those choices, and the effects that the choices convey. Some settings require a very limited competence; others require a great deal. I once met a beggar child whose total vocabulary was less than a dozen words (as far as I could judge), and whose grammar was limited to a couple of constructions; but that was all he needed. Once upon a time, my total conversational competence in Latin was restricted to the utterances I needed in order to serve Mass. Because I left Wales before I was a teenager, there are areas of conversational competence in Welsh that I cannot handle (such as formal interviews, which require a kind of intellectual sentence connectivity that I never learned), whereas my 'domestic' Welsh is fine. There may also be a mismatch between one's level of comprehension competence and one's production competence. One understands more than one speaks, usually, though that depends on the personality factors of the person one is talking to (such as speed of speech, regional accent, shared knowledge of subject matter, and so on). A pragmatic perspective is essential here, as with so many other areas of language analysis.


hitman said...

Many thanks.

Roseli Serra said...

Thank you so much for sharing.

David Crosbie said...

On difficulties in grammar, I'd say articles are much harder to explain — but only to speakers of languages that lack them. Even here, the difficulties come later. But the difference between Past Simple and Present Perfect is difficult for pretty well any learners and the difficulties start early.

Of course, some things are so difficulty and of so limited a use to non-advanced students that it can be better not to bother explaining. This could, on occasion, be true of the semantics of modals.

Hardest of all is the interface between vocabulary and grammar. Should we attempt to explain the choices to hospital but to the clinic? At what point do useful generalisations become burdonsome lists?

DC said...

I wasn't thinking of an ELT context in relation to Q2 above - that's for others to say. I was thinking back over my time as a university teacher, where I never had much of a problem explaining what the article system was all about (as long as one relates it to the general category of determiners), or tenses, but modal semantics always seemed to cause problems, especially when one started going into epistemic meanings and the like.

David Crosbie said...

I can't remember the name of the university lecturer who first taught me about modals, but I'll be ever thankful for one of his examples: The French will have been having a holiday yesterday..

Debris said...

I am very happy to have attended the Webinar, yet I am sorry not to have asked a question in advance as my question on the Webinar screen seems to have been lost. I am especially gratefull for your comment "Hardest of all is the interface between vocabulary and grammar". I have done some research into semantic links in English collocations and I intend to continue. I wonder what specifically might be of interest while studying the idiom of British and American conversation. I would be grateful to know when there will be another opportunity of a similar seminar. Thank you very much. Marija Liudvika Drazdauskiene (A rwsident of Vilnius, Lithuania, teaching in Warsaw, Poland)

Unknown said...

Thanks for the webinar!
On bilingualism:
I have three kids growing up in a bi/(tri)-lingual setting French outside and French-English (and occasionally Welsh) at home. They are all at different levels of competence in English. The two elder ones are boys (20, 18) and they speak English like good L2 learners. My third is a girl (14) and is L1 perfect in both Fr and Eng. (gender? number 3 child? different intelligence? all of the above? none?bad parenting?) They ALL, when tired, conjugate English verbs à la française and vice-versa ( or for fun). Little ideosynchratic dialects...

DC said...

IATEFL seminars will be at regular intervals. Keep an eye on their site for details.

For collocations, the new Longman Collocations Dictionary is just out. Very useful resource.

Unknown said...

Indeed, the Longman Collocations Dictionary and Thesaurus is a true gem of English lexicography. The companion website is even better (and fuller).

Cris Corsetti said...

Dear Professor Crystal,

Thank you very much for your view on conversational competence. I am currently writing my doctoral thesis on conversational competence in L2 and I also place it within a pragmatic domain, based on your definition of Pragmatics. I am revisiting the construct "conversational competence" and detailing its facets: the management of discourse, the management of interaction and of face and the negotiation of meaning.

Best regards
Cristiane Corsetti

Jean Lockwood said...

Hi, Professor Crystal! This looks like an interesting webinar. I'm always on a lookout for TEFL webinars like yours. My question is what do you think would be another alternative for English as a universal language? Thanks for sharing your comprehensive answers.

DC said...

The global (or international) status of a language depends entirely on the power of the people who speak it - 'power' here meaning political, military, scientific, technical, economic, cultural, religious... So questions about future alternative global languages are really questions about the future power relations among the countries of the world - and here your guess is as good as mine. In a thousand years time, after all, we may all be speaking an alien tongue from some other galaxy!