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By coincidence, the Oxford Dictionaries blog just added a post about Tumblr English. It’s useful if you’ve just gotten started and feel confused by the jargon. I take issue with one premise of the post:

Before you start your own blog, review some important features you need to know

I believe that most people learn how to use tech tools better when they just start using them. If you read everything you need to know about it first, it a) won’t make sense, because it’s virtually context free, and b) may intimidate you into never trying it. I started Tumblr without knowing most of these words, and so can you. However, you’ll have more fun if you learn the jargon–even if you don’t use most of it yourself–eventually.

If you’ve started to use Tumblr but don’t feel comfortable yet, check out the post! And yes, the Oxford University Press is on Tumblr.


Check out the promising new magazine, Babel, written by linguists for non-specialists. I’ve read a bit of the first issue and I thought it was at a fairly nice level–new ideas if you haven’t had any linguistics classes at all; not too challenging if you have, but still plenty of interest. There are some great people on board. I wouldn’t have heard of it if it hadn’t been for David Crystal’s blog post about it, due to being fairly absent from Twitter. (Thank goodness for Google Reader.)

For now, you can read the first issue of Babel online or download it. It has a very wide range of topics, including an article on xenolinguistics from someone who definitely knows his sf.

They were just looking for book reviewers via their Twitter account, too, if you’re interested (I probably don’t have quite enough of a linguistics background, alas, and there’s that appalling parentheses addiction, too).

Post-Holiday Link Roundup

I wasn’t able to post here during the holidays, but I was somewhat active on Twitter. Here are a few links that I shared that may be of interest to you, rewritten a bit for context and easier clicking.

Words about Words

“Euphemism” is a pretty big word, but it’s so useful that it’s part of a set of words I generally wind up teaching to my students if they’re at least intermediate level. These “words about words” belong to a vocabulary set that’s above or outside of the level of the other words they know. However, I think these words make it easier to talk about English and in English with them. (For that matter, they can explain terms from their own languages better in English once they learn these words.) These words save time once the students know them. I think my students find these words useful, because they use them back to me and go right to “Ah, okay!” when I use them for explanations.

Of course, I mostly work with adults in a one-on-one setting where I can judge their readiness and comprehension individually, so I’m not sure that these would be suitable for a group or younger students. If you’ve successfully used these kinds of words or similar words with a class or with K-12 students, I’d love to hear about it.

Here are some of the terms I use:

  • Euphemism: This is especially useful when students are reading news articles, which are full of phrases like “passed away” and “had an affair,” but generally it’s useful for a variety of words.
  • Jargon: Sometimes I need to explain that a word has limited use outside of certain occupations, and “jargon” does the trick. It’s especially useful with Japanese students, because several English loan words that are used as ordinary words in Japanese are considered jargon in English (such as “LOHAS,” marketing jargon). Students generally love this word, and I think it’s their favorite and most-retained of this set, although I think “connotation” is the most important.
  • Connotation: Eventually you have to explain to a student why a word (like “foreigner” or “fat” or “childish”) isn’t appropriate even though it means exactly what they think it means, or why their electronic dictionary is not their best friend. The concept of connotations versus basic meanings is really useful (I usually use “childish” vs. “childlike” as an example), and I show them how a good learner’s dictionary includes connotations and can save them from embarrassment. And no, I don’t teach “denotation”; it’s not very useful by itself.
  • Root, prefix, and suffix: Powerful vocabulary-building terms that are a real revelation to students who haven’t learned them. These are very interesting to Chinese- and Japanese-background students, who can draw parallels between roots and radicals (basic components) of Chinese characters (hanzi/kanji), and Japanese students can connect suffixes with okurigana. Since many European languages share roots with English, students from those language backgrounds may already be familiar with these terms.
  • Abbreviation, short for, and acronym: These all come in handy not just when explaining slang and abbreviated speech, but also when explaining why lexemes that Korean and Japanese students perceive as English loanwords (like “aircon” and “OL”) are not comprehensible or acceptable in English. And no, I do not get into the difference between an initialism and an acronym–99% of native English speakers neither know nor care about the difference.
  • Genre: Not in the linguistics sense, but mostly in the fiction sense–I wind up teaching this word because it’s useful for getting students started with extensive reading and listening. An important note here is that genres are differently divided, different genres do and don’t exist, and individual works are categorized differently within different cultures. This goes for everything from comic books to music, so it helps to familiarize your students with descriptions of genres in whatever medium, plus give well-known examples of that genre.
  • Intensifier: I hesitated over teaching this one because it’s linguistics jargon itself, but it’s better than saying “it doesn’t really mean anything” over and over again for the prepositions in some phrases, the funny use of words like “insanely” and “ridiculously” to expand the already large class of words that mean “very,” and so on. Lots of languages already have a large class of intensifiers, so once you explain the idea of “words that reinforce the meaning,” this seems to be a good hook for students. But you must include the caveat that 99% of other English speakers will have no idea what an intensifier is.
  • Collocation: Another one that I warn students about, because ordinary English speakers don’t know it. Teaching them about the idea of collocations is more important for raising language awareness than for talking about grammar, but I think it’s a useful idea. Get students to be aware of “words that hang out with other words” so that they can build their vocabulary in chunks.

I’m probably forgetting some, but I think those are the ones I use most frequently.

I introduce each word by saying that it will make it easier for us to talk about language, although the word itself is an advanced word. This makes some students a little worried, but most students are intrigued or excited. Of course, this assumes that the students already know the parts of speech and that you’ve already negotiated a common ground on anything with multiple names like “present continuous”/”present progressive” (argh!). However, much to my surprise, there’s a sort of middle ground between the parts of speech and the above special language, a sort of forgotten realm that many students have never learned…

This neglected area is somewhere between grammar and culture, and contains really useful, fairly basic words that are apparently not frequently taught in many EFL curricula. I had been using the word “rude” in explanations with some early students and language partners for quite some time before one of them let me know that she had no idea what it meant. When I checked with the others, they didn’t know it either. Oops.

Here are some of these basic sociolinguistic terms that every student should know, but many haven’t had a chance to learn:

  • Polite: This is essential, right? You need to be able to explain polite language and behavior.
  • Rude: Some students knew polite, but virtually none knew “rude.” Some words are more than not polite; they’re rude. In order to understand the difference, students should know this word.
  • Formal and casual: As students start to learn enough English to handle different registers and connotations, they need to know the difference between formal and casual speech. However, there’s a tendency among many students to equate “casual” and “rude,” so it’s useful to make sure they also know the next two words…
  • Friendly and unfriendly: So that you can explain when “casual” would equal “friendly” and “formal” would be “unfriendly,” such as with classmates and so on.

These can involve value judgments, so I have to tread carefully here. But I think it’s important, and it also opens things up for students to tell you about their language, and ask how they can sound more friendly or more formal if they feel a need to.

What do you think? Too much peripheral vocabulary? Did I leave some important ones out? Is there a better way to go about this? Am I projecting too much about the way I learn onto my students? Some certainly take to it more than others, and those are the ones where I return to it more often. So I think there are students for whom this clicks.

(EDIT: Oooh, I forgot one–pun! It’s the only way to explain so many brand names, movie names, strange lines from TV shows, lyrics, and so on.)

Quote of the Day

Union Jack

Non-British English-speakers, I have a weapon for you:

Language … cannot become bastardized in any country where intelligence is active and where there is no obstacle to progress.
It will change, yes, and by changing, it will simply follow the current formed by the passing of time, which is revolutionary and irresistible.”

This was quoted in a paper called “Total Spanish: The Politics of a Pan-Hispanic Grammar,” by José del Valle, in the May 2009 PMLA, but the person who wrote it is Juan María Gutiérrez of Argentina. He was thinking of South American Spanish in relation to Spain, but it applies equally well to English spoken outside of the United Kingdom. (The phrase I removed was “closely related to ideas”, which was set off by commas.)

Yes, I do sometimes get tired of “jokes” by British folks about other people’s native English. It’s such a kneejerk response for a handful of British people that I have a few friends whom I try not to remind that I (an American) teach English for a living. These jokes are sometimes funny and harmless, but often they betray a lack of knowledge about the history of English (even within England), let alone any grasp of how languages grow and change. Of course, your really snarky “friends” will then get on you about whether your country has any active intelligence, but at that point they’ve probably proven themselves to be actively hostile rather than just kidding around.

But this quote is a double-edged sword: if you use it to defend your North American, Australian, or similar English, then you need to keep it in mind when you encounter Indian English, Singaporean English, Filipino English, and all of the other native Englishes in the world.

P. S. If you’re a British person who doesn’t do this to your other-English-speaking friends, then please accept my gratitude, as well my apologies for all the times “English” gets equated with “American”. I know that’s obnoxious and wrong, whether it occurs in person or in default software settings, and I’m sure that’s the source of some of the soreness!

Temporary Free Journal Access

I received this message on the AAAL mailing list, and as it says “free free to forward to colleagues,” I believe it should be okay to post it here. (If not, I’ll be happy to take it down.)

Here’s the message:

“Get acquainted with SAGE’s journals in Languages and Linguistics now during our free online access period. We are currently offering free full-text access to the following 14 journals until 30th September 2009.
Child Language Teaching and Therapy
Discourse & Communication
Discourse & Society
Discourse Studies
First Language
International Journal of Bilingualism
Language and Literature
Language and Speech
Language Testing
Language Teaching Research
Journal of Commonwealth Literature
Journal of English Linguistics
RELC Journal
Second Language Research

Register here.”

This is a rare opportunity to gain access to these peer-reviewed journals, so I suggest that you check it out. Institutions and libraries who don’t currently subscribe should also go take a good look, too–in this economy it’s important to make sure that your limited subscription money is going to the most useful places possible.

Simpsons Linguistics

Sometimes a single-link post is worth it: Over at HeiDeas, “Beyond beyond beyond beyond ‘Beyond embiggens and cromulent’” is Heidi Harley’s fifth annual collection of linguistics jokes culled from The Simpsons, TV’s richest trove of wordplay and jokes about language! (well, other than QI, I suppose, and more prolific anyway.) The best part of these posts is that she identifies the linguistic topic with which the writers are playing, whether it’s “semantic bleaching” or “locative denominal verbs with telic particles” (errrr…). Yes, in googling what’s going on here, you’re probably going to increase your linguistic chops as well. I know I have some reading to do. Conveniently, the post contains links to the four previous editions.

2009 Linguistic Institute

If you are or could be in the San Francisco Bay Area this summer, check out the 2009 Linguistic Institute. It’s going to be hosted at UC Berkeley and sounds really amazing. Geoffrey K. Pullum will be giving a 3-week course on English grammar, and there are all kinds of fascinating courses on language contact, language acquisition, etc. I live just a BART ride away from Berkeley and I would really love to go, but I won’t be there because I can’t possibly afford to attend it. (Berkeley’s summer sessions are notoriously expensive.) However, if you’re a student or a member of the Linguistic Society of America, or if you just have a lot more money than I do, it’s worth looking into. It sounds like a wonderful set of experiences, and is probably also a great thing to do if you need to strengthen your linguistics background before applying to grad school.

Have you ever been to the Linguistic Institute? If so, I’d love to hear about it!

Delightful Lexicography

I think a lot of people have already seen this video from last year, but if you haven’t, it’s well worth it! Erin McKean is a lexicographer who gives an entertaining and surprisingly funny overview of the descriptivist (as opposed to prescriptivist) approach to dictionaries and lexicography. It’s made for non-linguists, so it’s a good one to show to your non-TESOL friends and family who may be still stuck on the notion that “it’s not a word if it’s not in the dictionary.”