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Post-Holiday Link Roundup

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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.

Getting on the Same Page: Book Gifts for Friends and Family

Is it just me, or do friends, family members, and random strangers sometimes make strange assumptions about us once we become English teachers? They may think we support English-only policies, are ashamed of our first languages if we are multilingual, are constantly judging them on their use of English, etc. They may resent us for the positions they assume we take, or they may take those positions ourselves and expect us to join them. This can get pretty awkward at the dinner table. Even if it doesn’t get that far, people often have really strange ideas about English and English teaching (I know I had a few myself before actually starting to study for my certification and MA).

Here are a few last-minute holiday gift suggestions that can introduce the way linguists and language pedagogy specialists think about language to non-specialists in a readable–maybe even enjoyable–way.

Language Myths is a bit of a Linguistics FAQ or “Mythbusters: Linguistics Edition!” in book form, with articles on different topics by different linguists. This is really great for addressing those long-held, “commonsense” beliefs that most people have about language, and can really clear the way for meaningful conversations with your friends and family. Essays in it include “Double Negatives Are Illogical,” “TV Makes People Sound the Same,” “Black Children are Verbally Deprived,” “America is Ruining the English Language,” “Some Languages are Spoken More Quickly Than Others,” and lots more. It’s meant for intelligent laypeople. Most of the topics will be familiar to you; my TESOL coursework covered most of the topics (but not every point). I don’t totally agree with everything that every author writes, and the readability/interestingness varies, but that’s the nature of an anthology like this. I wish they’d publish a sequel, but at any rate, highly recommended.

The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left, by the outstanding linguist David Crystal. This book uses both history and analysis to show why people who are truly educated about linguistics are rarely the same people frothing in the opinion pages about the decline of English. He has a distinctly British viewpoint (Strunk and White barely make an appearance) and makes a couple of errors regarding American usage, but nearly all of his points apply to American English-language punditry as well as British. Without resorting to Language Log (which I love, but is a little too in-depth for casual readers), this book can explain to your friends and family why you may not be a fan of the English “experts,” like the late William Safire, whose cranky and usually wrong-headed pronouncements they probably expect you to endorse. If you read it, you’ll probably learn a lot too–I didn’t realize how many centuries these specific patterns of nitpicking and name-calling had been going on, or how broadminded Shakespeare was about regional dialects of English compared to other writers!

For people with more specific interests:

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English is an extremely interesting history of how English wound up in its rather odd condition. It’s sometimes a bit rambling and repetitive (it seems to be based on lectures), but still fascinating. Of course, speculation about the origins of English are open for debate, but McWhorter’s theories make a lot of sense. He has an interesting perspective because of his academic background, specializing in the study of creole formation, which I think may help him approach the apparent conflicts and paradoxes in the early history of English in a more fruitful way. And, of course, he has the necessary academic/linguistic chops that popular writers like Bill Bryson are lacking, so he doesn’t repeat unfounded nonsense about other languages in order to prove English’s uniqueness. (I don’t recommend giving anyone The Mother Tongue, because it’s full of things that are not just academic speculation, but outright falsehoods and inaccuracies.) Highly recommended, but not for readers without an interest in the history of English.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is one of the only usage guides recommended by the folks over at Language Log. It’s descriptive, not prescriptive; it tells you what the rule is and what people actually usually do and why. It has plenty of real examples, not made-up sentences, and discusses controversial usages and discrepancies between US and British tendencies. (Note the 5-star review by Geoff Pullum if you click through to the Amazon page–that’s the linguist Geoff Pullum.) Handy for teachers and non-teachers alike. Note: this is mostly for looking up words that tend to cause grammar, spelling, or other usage problems; it’s not a general grammar or writing guide.

All of the above good books for ESL and EFL teachers too, of course–you’ll just be more familiar with the background info, and maybe a little impatient when some of the authors use simplified vocabulary to avoid using technical jargon.

I’ll add all of these to the Bookstore link on the right so that you can find them later.

(Sorry for the lateness of this post–I had my own holiday gift-giving time crunch!)

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.

A Silly Joke

Here’s a silly old language-related joke, which I suppose many younger students wouldn’t even get (not that I’ve ever sent a telegram):

A dog goes to a telegraph office and dictates the following message to the clerk: “Woof woof woof woof woof woof woof.”
“That’s seven words,” says the clerk. “You get eight for the same price, so do you want to add another ‘woof’?”
“Certainly not,” says the dog “Then it wouldn’t make any sense!”

Ha, ha … well, this is funny (marginally) because it gets at certain sociolinguistic realities: behaving as though an unfamiliar language is nonsense, not realizing that an unfamiliar language may carry meaning in an unfamiliar encoding (like tones in Chinese), offering help that isn’t actually helpful due to intercultural ignorance, etc.

Typing IPA


Here’s an easy way to type those International Phonetic Alphabet symbols that aren’t included on a standard keyboard:, which lets you just click to enter the symbols in a text box. You can even format what you type. This is particularly useful if you can’t install an IPA palette/virtual keyboard on a work computer and still need to enter IPA. Hat-tip to EFL Geek!

If you need a more long-term solution, checking Google for your operating system’s name + “typing IPA” should turn up something. In NeoOffice for OS X, I can get to IPA symbols by just going to Insert -> Special Character -> IPA Extensions, and other Mac applications have IPA under Special Characters -> Phonetic Symbols. You don’t need to install anything for this, although it’s not the most efficient way to enter symbols since you need to click for each one.

(While doing that I noticed that I can also go to Insert -> Special Character -> By Radical and see a list of Chinese characters sorted by radical, with English names for the radicals. Uh, awesome! Embroidery! Frog! Flute! Excuse me, I’ll be geeking out over this for the next 15 minutes.)

Open Mailing Lists

I’ve had a request for a post on the topic of free, open mailing lists (MLs). Many teachers are not members of organizations such as TESOL, for one reason or another, and so don’t have access to the MLs and online discussion groups provided by these organizations. MLs can be extremely useful–you get new ideas, colleagues to help you when you have a question, and sympathy when you have problems, without the cost of going to a conference or joining an organization. Everyone should join at least one or two MLs! So, here are some that don’t require any kind of paid membership–all are free. (This list does NOT include everything! If you know of a particularly good mailing list that isn’t included, please leave a comment.)

Many MLs function as discussion groups that allow for all members the ML to ask questions, give their opinions, etc.

One-way mailing lists are like newsletters: sent out for you to read, not as a forum for discussion. However, you can often respond or ask questions by e-mailing the author directly.

  • Tomorrow’s Professor, hosted at Stanford, sends out posts twice a week on a variety of general academic topics. Many posts relate specifically to American higher education, but others are relevant to any kind of educational or educational leadership situation. (They’ve recently added a Tomorrow’s Professor Blog where discussion can take place.)
  • World Wide Words is a newsletter-style ML about the history and usage of English. Not strictly relevant to teaching, but fun for language-lovers.

Mailing lists used to be more popular than they are now in these days of blogs and RSS, but not everyone is familiar with how they work. Here’s a little information to help you get started or improve your ML experience.

Continue reading Open Mailing Lists

Blogroll: Language Log

I’d like to introduce some of the links in my blogroll, the list on the right of blogs and blog-like websites. One with which you’re probably already familiar is Language Log. It’s so well known that I hesitated to write about it, but if you haven’t seen it, you’re really missing out. Most–not all, but most–of the TESOL professionals I know really enjoy playing with, learning about, and arguing over language. Language Log is a wonderful source for all of those activities. It’s a collective blog written by a group of distinguished authors, including Geoffrey K. Pullum. Most are linguists, and they bring a charming combination of academic expertise and honest crankiness to their posts.

Language Log is straightforwardly descriptivist. The writers talk about language as it is used, not as it is imagined to be. If you cling to particular rules from Strunk and White in the face of centuries of usage evidence, you may very well find yourself offended. Other than that, though, I think there’s something from everyone, from very abstract linguistic theory to amusing yet practical notions such as the Cupertino effect.

The Cupertino effect is a great example of how Language Log is more than just brain candy–I have actually used this notion to great effect with the students I tutored at CSUEB. The Cupertino effect is what happens with users are too submissive or too inattentive to their spellcheck programs. Sometimes a word that has a spelling error or a typo (cooperatino) is interpreted by the software as most likely to be another word entirely (Cupertino), even when human users might think that the intended word (cooperation) is much closer to the misspelling and should have come up. As a result, UN documents are full of bizarre references to Cupertino, the small California town where Apple, the manufacturer of the laptop I’m typing on, is headquartered.

Telling this story sometimes really makes it clear to students that they absolutely cannot rely on spellcheck to suggest the right answer every time, and that they must look at the suggested replacements and actively choose the right one. Just telling them “Don’t rely on spellcheck!” doesn’t seem to work very well, but based on repeated sessions with the same students, telling them the Cupertino effect story does work.

Language Log also does a wonderful job of deconstructing language myths, bringing your attention to funny comic strips, and challenging the conventional wisdom. Occasionally, they’re saucy or rude, but I usually love them all the more for that (even though I don’t always agree with them). Still, I guess the first Cupertino effect post is my favorite Language Log post, because it’s been so useful to me. What’s yours?

If you’re new to Language Log and want to catch up, it’s been around for so long that it can be daunting to dig through. Check out the Categories section on the bottom right for some of their most important topics.