Six rather strange “English” things

Six "English keys", according to the Spanish

It has been awhile since I’ve done a language list. I’ve had this at the back of my mind this list for some time. My father, who teaches French cultural studies at the University of Toronto, often does an exercise at the beginning of his course where he asks students to make a list of all the expressions with French in them (e.g. French toast, French kiss etc) and uses that as a starting point for examining attitudes towards the French in the English language.

For us as English teachers, what does English give us? Here are six “English” things, taken from three different languages that I think are curious.

1 An English rose (from the English language) not the name of a flower, this is an expression used to describe an attractive English woman with “an appearance traditionally thought to be typical of English women”. What could THAT mean? It makes me think of a pale-skinned rather fragile kind of person (maybe a bit like Keira Knightley in Atonement?).

2 An English muffin (from North American English) This is a kind of round, toasted bread thing. A bit like a crumpet, but more doughy. I can’t really explain it. It’s good for breakfast. I have not heard the expression in British English.

3 An English rubber (from French “capote anglaise”) the French slang for a condom. Could also be translated as an English hood or bonnet. Now, what does THAT say about the English from the French point of view?

4 To disappear like the English – (from French “filer à l’anglaise”) a French expression meaning to run away or disappear discreetly without telling anyone. To slope off or sneak off I guess.

5 An English key ( from Spanish llave inglesa) – A wrench. I don’t see what is English about this piece of hardware but there you go.

6 An English letter – (from Spanish letra inglesa) A sort of handwriting, a bit like italics but in a thicker font.

Now, I’m really interested. I speak French and Spanish, but are there any expressions in other languages that contain the word “English” and refer to something that does not necessarily have anything to do with England? Please post a comment and share.

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Published in: on May 4, 2010 at 8:58 am  Comments (59)  
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Six best movie-clips never to use in language teaching

Warning, use these clips at your own risk!

I’m pleased to announce the first REPEAT OFFENDER here at Six Things, none other than the great Pete Sharma. I think this is a post that Pete has been meaning to get off his chest for some time, and what a treat. Here is a full multimedia collection of celluloid moments not to be used in ELT, selected by self-confessed movie-buff Pete Sharma. Enjoy!

(1) Film: Witness

Starring: Harrison Ford

Teaching point: non-verbal communication

The little Amish boy uncurls his finger and points at the photo of the cop. Harrison Ford moves slowly across to him. This powerful spine-chilling “J’accuse” moment, conveyed (crucially) without words, is totally comprehensible to absolute beginners. Indeed, the whole film is largely comprehensible to lower level learners, and a great way to tune them in successfully to the punishing authenticity that is film. Incidentally, I have actually used this clip to demo NVC (non-verbal communication) on a native speaker communication skills course.

(2) Shirley Valentine

Starring: Pauline Collins

Teaching point: Simple present with adjectives of frequency

My whole life I have done the daily routine class with students, thinking: “When do I ever, in reality, explain my daily routine?” Then, I’m watching Shirley Valentine and suddenly, shocked to find egg and chips on his plate, not steak, Joe says:

Joe: “It’s Thursday. We have steak on Thursday. We always have steak on Thursday.”

Shirley: “We’re having egg and chips for a change. You like egg and chips.”

Joe: “On a Tuesday. I like egg and chips on a Tuesday”. (Priceless). “Today is Thursday.”

Shirley: “Well pretend it’s a Tuesday.”(!!)

Joe: “Where’s me steak?”

Shirley: “I gi’e it the dog!”

Not only that, he enunciates slowly and clearly, so angry is he. I want to round off all my present simple classes with this clip! Alas, I could not find it on youtube but it’s worth getting the whole film just for this dialogue!

(3) Film: High Fidelity

Starring: John Cusack, Jack Black

Teaching point: Yet

Rob (actor John Cusack) in romantic agony questions the meaning of yet: What did Laura mean last night when she said, “I haven’t slept with him yet.” Yet! What does “yet” mean anyway? It means you’re gonna do it, doesn’t it? Or does it? We then get the rest of the great clip above. Gets to the very heart of language drilling: a real world take on asking a question to which you know the answer, but you ask anyway – just to practice!

(4) Film: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Starring: Steve Martin

Language point: The language of complaining

Coming from an indirect culture, many is the hotel I’ve been in and tiptoed down to complain that the TV is broken. “Excuse me, er, sorry to bother you but, and I’m sure it must be my fault, I’m afraid the TV is……..” Inside of me is a Steve Martin trying to emerge. Here he is, complaining that his hire car isn’t in its bay, a scene which starts off like any other customer service dialogue. Warning: you will hear the F word a LOT in this clip!

Never has the gap between ELT dialogue and the silver screen been wider. Student task: redraft this conversation to make it, er, more polite.

(5) Film: It’s a wonderful life

Starring: James Stewart

Teaching point: conditional type 3

When alien Mork comes to earth in the old US series Mork and Mindy, it transpires all the English he learnt was from transmissions of television shows. Wow. A dream scenario! No teachers, just students totally immersed in a world of film. No need to teach Conditional Type three, then. Just show that last 20 minutes of It’s  a wonderful Life and have your learners report back. Most everything they explain will use the target  structure! We all know the ending: “Every man on that transport died! Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry. You see, George, you really had a wonderful life.”

So, if George hadn’t been born…well, you get the picture (pun intended). Cue summarising Back to the Future and a host of films on time-travel…….

(6) Film: Double Indemnity

Starring: Edward G. Robinson

Teaching point: ESP – lexis

The fabulously named Barton Keyes (Edward G.) works in insurance. Norton, Keyes’s boss, has just tried, unsuccessfully, to convince a client that her husband’s death was a suicide. It’s the words and the incredible speed of delivery that makes this speech so magnetic. Anyone for a gap-fill?

“Come now, you’ve never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why they’ve got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by colour, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by “types” of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from “steamboats”. But, Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record, there’s not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. {..} We’re sunk, and we’ll have to pay through the nose, and you know it”.

I’ve waited all my TEFL life to use this dialogue with a student. Before I die, I just want to teach an actuary in order to use it. How sad is that?

Published in: on February 16, 2010 at 8:06 am  Comments (17)  
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Six things teachers always say

Insert what you always say here.

This is a post I have been meaning to do for some time. What words and phrases do we always use as teachers?

1. OK

Perhaps not so unusual as it is supposed to be the most frequent discourse marker in the English language (for a humorous take on the various uses of OK, see here)

2. Right

Again, this is a typical teacher “signalling” device. I use this all the time, I must confess.

3. Very good

A common and useful form of praise from the teacher, or is it? According to research by Jean Wong and Hansun Zhang Waring in the United States, the highly frequent use of ‘very good’ by teachers may not always be indicative of positive feedback and in fact may inhibit learning opportunitites (see ELTJ volume 63/3 July 2009)

4. Today we’re going to…

Many English classes around the world begin very much with these words I think. Not much of a problem unless it ends up being a rather long tedious ramble that takes up the first quarter of the class.

5. Quiet please!

Well, teachers of business executives perhaps not but I’d be willing to bet that this phrase gets a lot of usage in young learner classrooms (or a close equivalent)

6. (open your books to) Page … please

I’ve given whole workshops devoted to finding alternatives to saying this in class. This common phrase can be quite a killjoy, especially if they are the first words out of a teacher’s mouth at the beginning of class.

There are two good ways to find out if you are overusing a certain word or phrase. One is to record yourself over a series of classes and watch. The second is to ask your cheekiest student to do an imitation of you. I am not sure which is more painful!

What word or words do you overuse? Post a comment.

Published in: on January 30, 2010 at 8:56 am  Comments (48)  
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Six despised bits of grammar

SMASH THE PRESENT PERFECT CONTINUOUS!

Teachers and students just love to hate grammar. Over the years that I’ve taught and observed others teaching I think that there are certain grammar points that are more hated than others. Here are six of the most generally despised and despicable grammar points, in my humble opinion.

1 Have got This isn’t hard to explain in terms of what it means, or even really how it’s formed. No, the problem is when you have to teach it. I always hated spending time on have got with beginner students after they had done to be and then come to present simple and have to re-explain yet another way of making negatives and questions. And THEN when the verb have came up in present simple as in have a shower, have a nap it just got more and more complicated! Fortunately, the order of grammar points is changing in many books (including my own) and have got can come later. Beginners can get by perfectly well with a simple have to talk about possession.

2 Present simple Third person s. Again, not hard to explain and not hard to understand (although I did once witness a teacher get in a terrible muddle trying to say why 3rd person singular took an ‘s’ in the present simple; the teacher said it was “because it feels kind of plural but isn’t really plural” – leaving me and the students completely flabbergasted). So why is this hated? Obviously because students keep forgetting it, and you begin to think you could spend half your teaching life simply correcting this point. In fact, this grammar point is so hated that some have suggested we could do away with altogether in an English as a Lingua Franca approach. You know, take it out and stage a public execution. Another explanation given for the constant recurring error is that it’s simply acquired later. But it’s still an important one, that I think we all love to hate.

3 Present perfect. God I sometimes hate the present perfect. It’s pretty rare to find an equivalent in other languages so it makes teaching the meaning and use of this tense often a bit of a problem. And it can be difficult to write material for too if you want to include real people. How many materials writers have done something using a real person to illustrate present perfect and then hope and pray that the person doesn’t go and die or do something horrible?

4 Present perfect continuous. This is the tense that actually prompted this blogpost. Of all the grammar points that are criticized or used to trash grammar, this is the most often quoted. I have no proof, but I also suspect that “bloody” is a pretty strong collocate with present perfect continuous. This is a despised tense because it can be hard to find lots of authentic and natural examples, it’s got all the problems of present perfect plus an –ing form thrown in and finally it’s not even that frequent. Actually I almost feel a bit sorry for the present perfect continuous. Can we all be a little less horrible about it for a while perhaps?

5 Question tags If getting the auxiliary and the negative/affirmative thing right wasn’t hard enough we also have the whole business of the pronunciation of this grammar point and the whole “are you really asking or are you just checking” thing which can easily get spun into a long-winded explanation. I think that this is another one that some have suggested be eliminated from English teaching, replacing it with an all-purpose tag like innit which kind of horrifies me. I don’t think I’ve ever said innit. Ever.

6 Any grammar point the teacher doesn’t understand. Worse than all of these are the grammar points that teachers themselves are unsure of. I saw a teacher literally have a breakdown in our staffroom because she didn’t know anything about what clauses (e.g. I think what you need is a nice cold drink) and it was in the unit of her CAE coursebook that she had to teach that day. For many native English-speaker teachers especially the lack of knowledge of their own grammar is cause for great anxiety and fear. And, as we all know, fear can lead to hatred.

Well, that’s quite enough from me. What do you think? Are there other grammar points you feel are, rightly or wrongly, generally despised, looked down on or kicked about a bit? Post a comment.

Published in: on November 23, 2009 at 10:57 am  Comments (30)  
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Six internet acronyms your learners really ought to know

Dude-WTF-LG

Here’s another language list I’ve been meaning to do for some time now. As I am spending more and more time online and doing things like twittering and online chatting or moderating of courses, I find I am forced to use more and more abbreviations and acronyms in my writing. I also come across them a lot more, even when communicating with people whose first language isn’t necessarily English. Could online communication be one future component of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)? Should we start talking about ILF (internet lingua franca)? Whatever the take on those bigger questions, to start with here are six acronyms that I believe are pretty important for learners to know as they navigate the www.

1. lol and variations. This is one of the most common acronyms in online communication. People on the net laugh a lot, it seems. They don’t simply laugh either (l). They’re laughing out loud (lol), or they’re rolling on the floor laughing (rotfl), or they’re laughing their arses/asses off (lmao). I’ve even seen rotflmao, for really funny things.

2. IMO and variations. With the rise of blogging and microblogging everybody has an opinion and wants to share it. However, to make it clear that it is just an opinion we might add in my opinion (IMO) afterwards. If what we are saying is potentially face-threatening we could make it a humble opinion (IMHO). For example, “Lindsay, your book looks really boring IMHO”. Or if we really feel like stirring things up or adding humour we can say in my arrogant opinion (IMAO). Dunno why, but I almost always see this in uppercase letters.

3. brb. Don’t you hate it when you’re in the middle of a really good chat or tweet conversation and the outside world rudely butts in (e.g. having to go off to class, or go to the bathroom). This is when you need to tell people you’ll be right back (brb). Useful to buy time too.

4. ttyl, cu. Two common sign off acronyms are talk to you later (ttyl) or see you (cu). Really clever internet folk do things like cul8r but I always think this is a bit like showing off.

5. btw. Good for adding something extra to a conversation or tweet, by the way (btw) is another one I see an awful lot.

6. omg and other expressions of alarm. The internet can be a shocking place, we may see or read shocking things. This is when it’s a good time to say oh my god (omg). You may want to shout it (OMG!) or really yell it (OMG!!!!!!) but someone told me if you do this too much people will think you are a fifteen year old Lady Gaga fan or something like that. Occasionally you will see something that confounds, annoys or enrages you. And an omg just doesn’t cut it for those situations. No, here you need a what the f*#k (wtf). This is also often shouted (WTF!)

I know, I know, there are hundreds of others that I have probably shamefully overlooked. But I had to stick to six. So, if there is a glaring omission from my list, why not add a comment? What acronyms do you think your learners should know for online communication?

Published in: on October 18, 2009 at 6:50 pm  Comments (12)  
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