Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Authentic Materials

Books, articles, websites, interactive media … there is so much material out there! The question is … how do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

When it comes to learning English as a second language (ESL), most students turn to worksheets, study guides, readings with comprehension questions they find on the web and ‘how to speak English’ videos on youtube. Is that you?

No doubt you are interested in learning new words. For me, learning a new word is like finding money on the street. The chances of finding a lucky treasure like that on an ESL page are pretty limited, especially if you are at an intermediate level or above.

Authentic materials (those created for native speakers) are the way to go.

You might be thinking that this kind of material is very difficult … that’s the point! The greater the challenge the sweeter the victory.

When you read, listen or watch it’s important that you develop strategies for managing new vocabulary without panicking. Remember, a native speaker doesn’t understand everything that they hear or read either but they don’t freak out when that happens.

If you came across a word or phrase in your first language that is unfamiliar to you, what would you do? First you would likely try to extrapolate some meaning from the context. If this doesn’t satisfy you, you might consult a dictionary. Or perhaps you jot down the word to investigate later. Whatever your process is, reproduce it when examining authentic second language material.

And with this last piece of what I hope is useful advice, I bid you adeu dear friend. I am going to take a little rest from this blog. Perhaps you will see me again on these pages, or perhaps somewhere else. 

Yours faithfully,

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Who Am I?

Originally hwa ( also hwá, hwone, hwæne, hwæt, hwæs, hwám, hwæm, hwy, or hwon … your guess at pronunciation is as good as mine), the oldest word in the English language is who, reportedly in existence for 20,000 years. Going into the last stretch of the Stone Age and prior to the advent of agriculture, the first English utterance was a question.

Now fast forward to right here and now. After all this time, we really only have three uses for who.

  1. Asking the question ‘what person or people?’
    • Who did you meet at the conference?
  2. To refer to someone or a group of people that have already been mentioned
    • Those are the clients who first trusted in us.
  3. In an old adage that explains what will happen to someone if they do something
    • Good things happen to he who waits.

If we are exceedingly confused, aggravated or incredulous, we often intensify the question with euphemistic blasphemy or a cultural reference: Who - in creation - in the hell - in Sam Hill - in tarnation - in blue blazes - in thunderation - did you meet at the conference?

If we feel that someone is acting out of their station, we say, ‘who do you think you are?’ if you want to question someone’s authority, you can say ‘says who?’ That might show them who’s boss. ‘Who do you think you’re kidding?’ tells the listener that you caught them in a lie. ‘Who knows?’ indicates that the answer is a mystery to humankind. ‘Who would’ve thunk …’ is another way to say that you are surprised at the information. And of course, a list of ‘who’s who’ tells us who the important people are.

Now I know you’re just itching to talk to someone to practice speaking, but who? Mosey on over to the facebook group and go to the ‘wanna chew the fat?’ thread. There you will find speaking partners.

Yours truly,

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Crutch Words

Words vs. Silence. When speaking to a North American, you know the words will win. We just can’t stand silence. It’s unthinkable to enter an elevator without acknowledging the others’ presence with a little small talk. In 1976 anthropologist Edward T. Hall put a name to this familiar face and dubbed it a low-context culture.

In a nutshell, the difference between a high or low context culture is that the latter relies on words to communicate whereas the former leans on the cultural understanding that is shared between the speakers. Fewer words are necessary in a high-context culture (Spanish for example) as the literal meaning of each word is less important than the context.

We anglos don’t, however, always know what to say. Whereas a person from a high-context culture might look up to the ceiling while contemplating their answer (something that, by the way, makes North Americans very nervous), an American, Canadian, British, Australian or New Zealander will fill the gap with what we call crutches.

“I was like, talking to him when he like, all of a sudden told me he was like, being promoted to CFO.”

“I literally called him a thousand times today.”

“So basically, we’re in this for the long haul.”

Crutch words don’t often add meaning to your message and sometimes even subtract veracity from our statement as in literally. If the above example were true, the speaker would have spent over 8 hours on the phone calling one person repeatedly.

I suggest you do not attempt to pick up these tics. Like is considered especially lazy and quite inappropriate in an adult’s speech. I do however invite you to investigate more crutch words that native speakers use and how to interpret them. It’s important because basically, we use them a lot.

With fondness,