This is a pretty fun look at the surprisingly common quote “(Toto,) we’re not in Kansas anymore.”:
It’s pretty current, with lots of things that adult students may have seen (like Sex and the City 2 and Avatar). It has a couple of possibly objectionable scenes, though (mild swearing and what may be a sex scene–it’s a little hard to tell, as it’s waist-up and there’s no nudity). But you can always show just part of a video. It really shows the breadth of the situations in which this phrase is used, and how phrases get turned around and changed. (Notes and sources are here.)
“What are you doing here?” and endless variations, always popping up on Doctor Who (skip if you haven’t watched through the end of 2008 and plan to):
I probably wouldn’t actually use this video unless my students had watched Doctor Who (I know some schools have it in their libraries, though!). It does give an idea of the many ways you can stress the different words in “What are you doing here?” for different meanings, though!
Not very useful, but entertaining–”I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you”:
For those of you who don’t hesitate to teach taboo words, this and its variants really are common:
How many ways can you say “What?” How often is it actually a rising sound? When is it a question, a request for repetition, an expression of disbelief? Let Lost tell you:
“Get out of there!” is a phrase that we use in real life occasionally, not just in movies:
The second half or so has some swearing.
“Sorry I haven’t updated” features ordinary vloggers (video bloggers) of various ages, starting off their vlogs with an apology:
It’s really interesting how different they appear to be, and yet how similar their phrasing is!
There are more out there, and you could probably make some yourself to focus on issues your students have. What other uses might there be, or is this a totally crazy idea…?
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.
This is part of how I use Wikipedia (and part of why the kneejerk brainwashing of students against it is wrong):
You heard about the possible closure of Delicious by Yahoo and then the backpedaling, right? You’d better read this on Yahoo’s “Delicious isn’t dead” statement (basically, the Delicious team was laid off, so plan ahead. The worst part is that either the service will degrade or everyone will scatter to a different service. And I DO NOT LIKE Diigo and its toolbars and disguised links. Hat-tip to @immlass). http://pinboard.in/ (run by some of Delicious’ original people, I think) is on my radar (one-time low fee, like Metafilter.com) to replace Delicious if needed, as is http://xmarks.com. Pinboard connects to Twitter, Instapaper, & Google Reader, so it may be worth $10 (1-time, not/year). Not to mention that actually having a tiny fee may keep it alive and answerable to its users–remember paying for stuff that you liked and valued?
I recommend a good learner’s dictionary (or two), not just for your students but also for you, the instructor. Naturally, you already know the meanings of almost all words that students are likely to ask you about, but the problem is that on-the-spot definitions (and even written ones) sometimes come out in the vein of “Well, it’s a sensation that…uh, a feeling that you get–well, most people get they’re frightened –oh, do you know frightened? I mean scared…and…”
There’s a reason for the profession of lexicography and the existence of special dictionaries! When I use the definitions in learners’ dictionaries to define words that are a little hard to explain, I find that students often understand the words much faster–I neither spend a lot of time confusing them nor do they have to resort to their L1 dictionaries (and they don’t get confused by the circular explanations, academic vocabulary, and obsolete historical definitions in regular English dictionaries).
I make a point of introducing learners’ dictionaries to my students and owning multiple levels of them. I tell my students that sometimes I use them myself to give definitions, because the dictionaries’ explanations are shorter, simpler, and focus on the useful/common meanings of a word. (I also spend time demonstrating how a good learner’s dictionary can save students from other dictionaries’ pitfalls, as the entries should include connotations like “disapproving”, and other features like collocations.) Anyway, I think they understand why I sometimes use these definitions with them. It would certainly be less than ideal if they thought I had to look up English words in the dictionary, but I don’t think any of them have wound up with that impression.
I think it’s useful to look at the different varieties out there to see which ones you prefer. They all have different features and different styles of defining words. Cobuild started out strong (as it was corpus-based) but has fallen behind the others in features and usability; I prefer Longman and Oxford. There’s also a recent Merriam-Webster dictionary, in “essential” and advanced, which I haven’t looked at. They produced the excellent guide to English usage that was recommended by Language Log, though, so it might be excellent. There’s a Cambridge set, as well.
Anyway, you can make use of these definitions online, too, if you’re chatting with students, blogging, or just testing out the dictionaries.
One word I had to define recently was “trawl” (the verb), because I linked some learners to “Japanese Power Blogger Trawls Seoul for Hidden Gems”. Interestingly, at least one of the dictionaries’ definitions precluded the usage in that headline–so it’s good to try several tricky or multifaceted words to find a dictionary that makes sense to you.
(P. S. I think there are some other learners’ dictionaries that I’m not familiar with. If you know of any that you particularly like, please recommend them in the comments!)
“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.)
I really want Wordnik, a new web-based “dictionary,” to work. Although I love an old-fashioned, unabridged, doorstop of a dictionary, traditional dictionaries are not that great for my students. Their examples are archaic and stilted, their definitions use words that are just as difficult as the word being looked up, they include too many almost-never-used synonyms, and they don’t include connotations. Learner’s dictionaries are better–for example, they may note that “childish” is insulting while “childlike” is neutral; they use simple definitions; they highlight most frequently used words in red or blue; they often include collocations such as which prepositions are usually used with a verb; and they use easier/shorter sentences. The definitions are more realistic, too. You’ll note that in the example below, several traditional dictionaries link the word “awesome” with the word “awful.” Really? Now, outside of the Bible or Tolkien, when was the last time you heard or wrote “awesome” and immediately thought “awful”? I wonder. I’m aware of the “awe” connection, but we just don’t use it that way on a day-to-day basis anymore. That’s why the Longman Dictionary of American English (the closest learner’s dictionary) says “very impressive, serious, or difficult” and “(spoken) extremely good.” It doesn’t mention “awful.”
Wordnik looks like it might be even better than learner’s dictionaries, someday, although possibly just for advanced learners. On the FAQ page, it says “Wordnik is based on the principle that people learn words best by seeing them in context.” Ah … hmm … sound familiar, teachers? It pulls examples from novels and Twitter, definitions from several dictionaries (no learner dictionary, alas, since there aren’t any free ones online), images from Flickr (since let’s face it, that’s a much better way to define things like food items, colors, items of clothing, types of buildings, etc.), pronunciation files from American Heritage, and the thing I think is the coolest, statistics. The statistics function really fell down on the first word I put in, “awesome.” Check out the cool timeline under statistics–and notice how it says you might expect to see this word once per year. Hmmm. I don’t think that’s right!
Well, things are still under construction, so the statistics feature has the potential to be cool. When English learners are writing an e-mail or essay and are trying to pick the right new word, one thing that often trips them up is that they inadvertently pick a rare or archaic word, and it sounds out of place. (OK, I do this in Japanese and Chinese too–trying to pick the appropriate word out of an electronic dictionary, in particular, is like throwing darts at a dartboard!) Being able to look at a chart and tell that a word was often used in the 1800s but is rarely used now would be pretty nifty, I think. I hope this function gets up to speed soon.
Another nice function mentioned on the About page is collocations and associated vocabulary: “For instance, cheeseburger, milkshake, and doughnut are not synonyms, but they show up in the same kinds of sentences.” That would be really neat, but if you view the entry for “cheeseburger,” it hasn’t been implemented yet (though a LOLcat does currently appear in the Flickr entries).
Wordnik is collaborative and, since it’s brought to you by a group including Erin McKean, the speaker in the the TED talk on lexicography I linked to previously, they’re not picky about what’s considered a “real word.” If you’d like to contribute, sign up! Otherwise, keep an eye on it and we’ll see how it develops. I’m not going to link to it yet on my blog for students (ReadableBlog), but I’m hopeful–especially if someone can develop a CC-licensed learner’s dictionary. (Maybe I can get a grant…I’d actually really love to work on a project like that.)
If you’re teaching ESL to adults, can discussion of language get you fired?
According to this article, a Northern California ESL teacher was fired because he explained some common swear words to his adult students, including contexts in which you shouldn’t use them, and why it’s important to carefully pronounce the vowel sounds in words like “sheet.”
He was teaching an adult school class, which in this area is part of the K-12 (public school) system, which may have something to do with it. And it’s possible that we haven’t heard the whole story, or what he’s saying happened isn’t accurate.
It certainly sounds like it was badly handled, at best. Any trained ESL teacher is an applied linguist of sorts. Linguists are supposed to be able to talk about language. There is a significant and (usually) clear difference between talking about taboo language and using taboo language, as occasionally pointed out at Language Log. If the instructor’s story is accurate, it should have been clear to the administration that he was talking about taboo language, not using it. (And either way, the students in question are all adults!)
This is not something that most instructors want to build into their curricula, but I think it’s the kind of thing we have an obligation to address, if possible, when students have questions. I think it’s crippling to send language learners out into the world with no understanding of any topic that makes language instructors uncomfortable. Sometimes I have to keep talking even though my face is turning red, but it’s better than causing my students humiliation later!