Follow talkclouds on Twitter

Words about Words

If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!

“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.)

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

cm vs. in (what's our problem with A4 anyway?)

cm vs. in (what's our problem with A4 anyway?)

You never know where a one-on-one lesson will wind up. Last week, an attempt to help my youngest student (who’s in high school) get started on a paper wound up with an excursion into the world of open source and alternative software. N-chan’s laptop runs a Japanese operating system and a Japanese word processor, and it’s a bit of a disaster trying to set up papers the way her teacher requires them to be set up. As is to be expected, the teacher is quite rigid about things like spacing (1.5 lines), margins (1 inch), font sizes, etc.

However, N-chan’s word processor is set up for A4 paper and Japanese spacing conventions. We’ve tried to fix things before, and it kind of worked, but not very well. To my surprise, even line spacing is a kind of cultural idiom. In Japan, apparently, it’s done by entering the total number of lines one can fit on a page at that spacing. This makes sense, but our attempts to convert from A4 to 8.5 by 11 and then to 1.5-spacing didn’t work out. Maybe if I could read Japanese better, I could have found a way to switch it to American-style line spacing, but no luck. As a last resort, I suggested downloading the English version of OpenOffice.Org so that she could simply work in English. (I prefer NeoOffice, but she doesn’t have a Mac.) She got permission from her dad to download it and install it, and it seems to be working out OK so far. When she clicked to download it, it detected her Japanese OS, so I first had to force it to download the English version (which it proceeded to automatically download from the “nearest” server at KAIST in Korea! Oops!). Then we had to change its settings to use inches instead of centimeters, again because the installed program detected a Japanese OS. I felt compelled to tell her “Inches are not better than centimeters–actually, centimeters are probably better than inches, but your teacher is going to give you instructions in inches. So we need to use inches.” (When I’m telling a student that she needs to stop using something that she’s used to and start using something else, I feel that it’s critical to point out when it’s NOT because the previous way was wrong.)

After that I showed her where to set up the margins (OOO defaults to .79 inches for some weird reason) and line spacing. Next week I’ll make sure it’s still running smoothly for her, because now that I know there are interesting differences like how line spacing is calculated, I’ve realized it’s not just a matter of looking in the right place to find the setting you need to change. I knew there were vocabulary differences–for example, another N-chan’s father told me that Japanese word processors use a verb that means “paint” rather than “highlight”–but now I’m curious about all the deeper differences.

Anyway, helping students download and set up a free word processor such as OOO or NeoOffice may be a good idea if their native-language version is causing problems with their assignments. Have you ever tried this?

Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

Table of contents for Learning Japanese

  1. Learning Diary: My Language History
  2. Learning Diary: More Language History
  3. Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

A basic principle of any form of teaching is that a teacher should avoid asking students to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. Dr. Sarah Nielsen, the head of my MATESOL program, always put this into practice by joining us during in-class reflective essays. Most models for extensive reading programs similarly encourage the facilitator of the ER session to sit down and read too. With that in mind, and being fairly well convinced of ER’s claims, I set out to find some graded readers for my current target language, Japanese. (See my previous post on tadoku, or extensive reading, in Japan.)

The bad news for me was that there appears to be only one series for Japanese learners, unlike the many that are available for English learners. The series is レベル別日本語多読ライブラリー (Reberu Betsu Nihongo Tadoku Raiburarii, which I’d kind of translate as Leveled Japanese Extensive Reading Library). The good news is that they’re fairly interesting, with a variety of illustrative styles for each little book, and they come with audio. They’re currently up to 3 sets (“volumes”) with several different levels in each set. Each level comprises a slipcase with several thin paperback books inside.

The cover price for the first level set, which is five short books, is 2300 JPY–about $21 USD at the current rate, including an audio CD with all of the stories. I bought it from Kinokuniya in San Jose, though, so the price was $32 plus tax. You can read about the books at the publisher’s website (some English; click around to get to samples) and at the website of the nonprofit group behind the series. (Unfortunately, the English version of the latter is temporarily disabled for Firefox users.) I’m so glad somebody’s working on rectifying this lack of Japanese-learning materials, and I definitely recommend the series.

A few weeks I sat down to read the first book. It’s a couple steps up from “see Jane run,” but not a lot. It’s very simple and (thank goodness) below my level. Even then, I learned a new verb and got some good review on kanji that are rarely put into beginners’ materials. Much to my surprise and amusement, when I got to the end, I suddenly thought “I’ve finished my first book in Japanese!”

Well, that thought is kind of silly–the writing is totally oversimplified and fairly inauthentic, the book is only a few pages long, and it’s easier than what I should be reading anyway. Right? I mean, it’s not even a real book. But, somehow, I still got that brief flash of accomplishment. That’s worth something! That feeling itself is one of the reasons why easy, fun reading can be such a powerful tool for language learners.

Later, I’ll write about my continuing attempts to use the series, and how it’s helping me with both my Japanese and my teaching. So far, I’d say the experiment is a success. However, I wonder what I’m going to do when I run out of books at my level, since there are so few texts available for anyone who’s not already at the high-intermediate level.

Many of you are also language learners, so how about it–do you try to practice what you preach? I know I have clients whose enthusiasm for self-study puts me to shame. I’m trying to be more like them!

Learning Diary: My Language History

Table of contents for Learning Japanese

  1. Learning Diary: My Language History
  2. Learning Diary: More Language History
  3. Learning Diary: Tadoku For Me

Or, “Airing My Dirty Language-Learning Laundry.” I am not an exemplary language student myself. Through what I learned about good pedagogy during my MATESOL program, I concluded that most of my language teachers had not been trained in language pedagogy. However, I know lots of people who have become fluent in another language in far worse situations, so much of the blame should rest with me. I’m sure I’ve gotten some of the details wrong, but while my history of false starts has left me unable to speak anything except English fluently, it has also helped me understand some of the problems that my students have.

Very few American public elementary schools offer foreign language classes. I remember random Spanish lessons during elementary school, and my mom taught me a few words in Spanish. I was interested in languages and was childishly proud of my ability to tell which languages random foreign words came from, but we always lived in linguistically homogeneous environments. I don’t remember having any classmates who had non-English home languages until I got to junior high, when I met LoAn from Vietnam. (For some reason she asked me to help her with her English, so after I finished our tedious typing class assignments–yes, I know, typing class!–I’d type a note to her and drop it in her locker. Did I have “Embryonic ESL Teacher” tattooed on my forehead?)

My junior high in Fayetteville, Arkansas, didn’t offer any full language classes, which is also fairly typical. We could take a half-school-year “mini-course” consisting of a few weeks each in German, French, and Spanish, from the same teacher. We learned basic tourist phrases. I don’t remember anything about Señor Reyes’ methods or how easy or hard it was, but I wasn’t really taken with any of the languages. I didn’t study languages during high school because I decided to do home-schooling with my parents. Neither of them are fluent in another language, but they would have supported me if I’d wanted to get training software and a tutor. I’m not sure why I didn’t…other than that I was used to an English-only environment and had not yet contemplated international travel myself. (All too typical of an American.)

In college, I signed up for Mandarin Chinese. I was studying gongfu (“kung fu”) at the time, but it was a bit of a tossup for me between Chinese and Japanese. I was in an honors program and had scholarships to maintain, so my mother was concerned that I might damage my grades by studying a non-European, and presumably more difficult, language. I stuck to my guns, though. My Chinese teacher was a kind Chinese woman who was trying very hard, but she had no training in teaching languages. She worked from those ancient, terrible, green textbooks that are (I think) officially approved by the People’s Republic of China. Many of my classmates had parents who spoke Chinese, or were native speakers themselves of another Chinese dialect. The rest of us learned painfully, at a snail’s pace, somewhere in the realm of grammar translation. I stuck with it for four years, though the university didn’t support a full set of classes and I probably got the equivalent of two years of instruction. When a Chinese person asked me a question at a class outing, I was paralyzed and couldn’t answer.

Somehow, when I enrolled in my East Asian Studies master’s program, I passed the Chinese placement test with flying colors. This was a fluke; a Taiwanese co-worker of mine had been helping me prep and we had covered some of the exact grammar points that were on the test, which I promptly forgot how to use the next day. I tested out of my language requirement and was assigned to an advanced Chinese class. This class was taught in Chinese. I went to the first day of class and fled it afterward. I couldn’t understand anything the teacher said, nor read anything on the handouts. Language ego sorely bruised, I dropped the class in a panic and was far too embarrassed to sign up for a level below that class. It was a dumb decision, but the feelings I experienced during this incident have really helped me empathize with the panic my students sometimes feel.

Later I applied for a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship to study in Taiwan at Tai Da’s International Chinese Language Program. I got the fellowship and went to Taipei for three months, studying with a mix of college and grad students from all over the world. I had to start over a bit with traditional Chinese characters, but I probably learned more there than I did in my entire previous history. However, that was mostly just from living there, going out, and doing things, I think. Unfortunately, ICLP (at the time) relied largely on the audiolingual method plus the direct method. Classes were taught in Chinese, and we spent long hours nodding off while listening to tapes in the language lab. Readings were terribly dull (focused on politics and economics, as I recall) and no lesson content was ever customized to the students’ interests. Attempts at immersion backfired: Only Mandarin could be spoken in the building, and this was such a psychological strain that all of us reverted to our native languages or English once we got outside. The student teachers were enthusiastic and kind, but they were hampered by outdated methods. I hope the program has modernized in the last few years. At any rate, my memories of studying overseas have been incredibly helpful in helping me empathize and connect with my students, so I’m glad I went.

After taking a leave from that MA program, I began to realize that Chinese was probably not the best language choice for me. I’m a highly visual and textual learner, so the steep learning curve for written Chinese is a major problem for me. I decided to take a Japanese course through UC Berkeley extension and really enjoyed it, although I didn’t retain much due to some health problems. When I later started my MA in TESOL, I took advantage of the unit cap (the point at which you can take extra classes without paying for them, if you’re not an international student–unfair!). I took three quarters of Japanese, which was, shockingly, all that CSUEB offered at the time. The head instructor was terrific. She had a master’s in TJSOL from SFSU, one of the few schools in the US that offers degrees in Japanese language pedagogy. She was full of teaching ideas, from creative mnemonics (which finally let me quickly memorize all the shapes of the two syllable-based writing systems) to the use of TPR. It was the first time in my life I saw TPR “in the wild!” This was the best language-learning experience I’ve ever had, and I was sorely disappointed that I couldn’t take more than one year.

Now I find myself faced with the same problem of self-study that many of my students face. I yearn to express my opinions in Japanese, order food, read books, watch movies, and travel freely in Japan. But … I can’t afford a tutor; I could exchange hours with a student, but I really want somebody who’s had language pedagogy training. I’ve amassed countless Japanese textbooks and guides and programs and audio files, but I rarely use them. I am terrible at forcing myself to sit down with a textbook, and I’m not sure how effective that is, anyway. I’ve been considering taking Japanese classes at a highly regarded community college in my area that offers a full slate of Japanese classes, but my plans for this fall are up in the air (and it’s a long commute). I’ve also toyed with the idea of trying to save up enough to study in Japan, but I don’t want to go to another language school that is unaware of the principles of communicative language teaching. (The Aichi-area institute that is frequently recommended to me looks good in many ways but will only say that they use “the direct method.” The direct method, focusing on instruction in the target language, is insufficient to form an entire pedagogical approach. Even that’s ahead of most of the schools that still dwell in Audiolingual and Grammar-Translation Land, but I keep hoping to find an actual CLT-aware school. If you have any suggestions, please leave me a comment or send me an e-mail!)

Anyway, while I agonize over these choices, I’ve finally found one set of tools that is helpful for a text-oriented person like me. I’ll write about that in a future post, because this one is already far too long.

What’s your language-learning history? Reflecting on mine was a part of my MA program, and I think it’s been very helpful to me in forming my teaching philosophy. It also helps me establish a connection with my students. How about you?

Amazing Online Dictionaries: ALC FTW!

I’m back from my “vacation”–I think I need another one to recover from it. Oh well, on to the topic at hand!

Most EFL and ESL teachers have a few students who rely too heavily on their electronic dictionaries. These dictionaries are limited, and don’t include critical information such as the tone of a word (complimentary? sarcastic? insulting?), formality, etc. Example sentences are usually taken from standard college-level dictionaries, and are context-free, artificial, outdated, and/or too difficult to understand. Slang words, internet jargon, etc., may not be included at all. As a result of these shortcomings, students often do themselves more harm than good when using these dictionaries (much as I used to somehow always pick the most archaic, no-longer-used character out of my dictionary when I was doing my Chinese homework).

Sometimes a dictionary is really necessary, though, because some words are extremely difficult to explain. A client of mine from Japan and an American translator friend alerted me to an amazing online Japanese/English dictionary at ALC. The ALC website offers lots of other things, including Japanese-learning tools, but the dictionary is its “killer app.” Type a word or phrase in the search box toward the top, and click the button just to the right of it.  If you get your query with a red line of text, ALC doesn’t have it, but otherwise, you should get a list of results. If you see a yellow arrow in a blue sphere, that means you can read that example in a longer context such as a short article or dialogue. This is much more useful than the contextless sentences we usually find in learner dictionaries.

The functions and aspects of ALC I use the most are

  • Multiple examples for difficult-to-grasp slang and casual language such as “Guess what?
  • Extended dialogues using the target word, which can be useful for teaching interaction patterns (see this pharmacy dialogue) and simply for context
  • Translations for net slang and other items that don’t occur in standard dictionaries, such as FTW. The entry even notes that it’s often used ironically!

Why is it so good? Well, the source dictionary for ALC is Eijiro, a translator’s dictionary project. Other translators were able to add to and refine its contents in a wiki-like fashion. You can read about it at’s “The Story Behind Eijiro”. Popular though Eijiro may be with professional J<->E translators, the majority of my clients and Japanese friends didn’t know it existed.

I’m not fluent in Japanese yet, so to make sure that the definition I’m pointing at is the correct one, I use the Rikaichan add-on for Firefox to confirm the approximate definition. (Later, I’ll write a post about why I think TESOL professionals should use Firefox. I wrote one around a year ago on “Five Reasons for English Learners to Use Firefox,” but I need to update it for educators and for Firefox 3.)

The biggest drawback of ALC’s dictionary for me is that it’s aimed at Japanese speakers, and it may be hard to use for anyone who’s not fluent in Japanese. Another drawback is that a very small number of the examples contain slight grammatical errors; however, the vast majority of the examples are both accurate and authentic. Most of the errors I’ve seen strike me as the kind that are often written by highly fluent Japanese writers of English, so they’re not critical.

Even if you aren’t able to use ALC yourself, though, I recommend passing it along to your Japanese students, along with a demonstration of why it’s useful.

My question for you is this: Do you know any similarly wonderful online dictionaries for other languages? If so, please leave your recommendation and I’ll compile them into a future post (with credit and a link to your website or blog, naturally!). Much appreciated!

“Tadoku” Means Extensive Reading

TESOL professionals with training in communicative language teaching methods often complain about the state of foreign language teaching in Japan, where grammar-translation, usually called 訳読/yakudoku is still the dominant method. Yakudoku, though, is not the whole picture, even if it sometimes seems that way. In fact, various Japanese groups are working to supplement or replace this outdated way of teaching with more modern teaching approaches.

One technique that has active, passionate supporters in Japan is 多読/tadoku: extensive reading. Extensive reading is something I’ve been very interested in ever since I read Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading (2nd ed.). The research on extensive reading matches my experiences: reading a lot for fun increases your vocabulary, spelling, grammar, and writing skills in your first and subsequent languages. The key for second language learners is that they should read books that are easy to understand, so they can enjoy the story while painlessly acquiring language patterns.

This approach has caught on with many educators around the world. I was really pleased to discover that the Extensive Reading mailing list has several active members who are working in Japan, including both Japanese and non-Japanese educators. There are several good websites in English and in Japanese about ER in Japan, including this overview of ER in Japan by Furukawa Akio.

It was through one of the ER ML members that I found out about 英語多読完全ブックガイド [改訂第2版]/Eigo Tadoku Kanzen Bukkugaido Kaiteigai 2/Complete English Extensive Reading Book Guide. This book has about 12,000 book titles in it, organized in several different ways including level and genre. It’s an amazing resource, and I’m totally appalled that there is no equivalent resource published in English. I’m still learning Japanese, so I can’t take full advantage of this book. However, book titles are given in English, and the reading levels are listed numerically, so the most essential information is understandable. All you need to do is look up the level of a few books with which you’re familiar, check the ra and then you have a baseline for how their system works.

The books selected include Oxford graded readers, children’s classics (from Dahl to Rowling), nonfiction, and some adult fiction. There’s quite a variety represented in the 12,000 titles! Some even have short excerpts exactly as printed in their books, which is a great way to get a feel for a book. Don’t you wish we could get something like this in English? (Publishing companies, are you listening? A translation of this book or a whole new book along similar lines is something that countless English teachers would love to get their hands on!)

I do recommend this book, but with the obvious caveats. I had to buy this book through mail order from the Kinokuniya in San Jose, and it was only cheap by comparison to textbook prices. If you want to get a little more information about the book, let me know in a comment and I’ll try to scan a couple of pages to give you a better idea of what it’s like. I’m currently out of town, so it’ll be a while before I can do that.

(Please let me know if I’ve made any mistakes in the Japanese in this post. More later about how I’m trying to practice what I preach when it comes to my own learning of Japanese!)