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Monthly Archives: June 2007

>David Henry – International Language Center, Autonomous University of Guadalajara, San Antonio TX USA

My first encounter with English language sound peculiarities came in my youth when my family lived in the mountains of Maryland and cousins came to visit from Pennsylvania. I remember that for them the vowel sound in “roof” was that in “book” rather than that of “boot.” Much later in life, thinking about the African-American dialect, I discovered the work of William Labov at the University of Pennsylvania who has created a map, “The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, phonology and sound change.” It was much too complex for my modest needs, but may be of interest to some on this list. ( )

Talking with a speech language pathologist in Pittsburgh, I was surprised when she asked me which African American English dialect in Pittsburgh I was interested in. There were, she told me, three. Pittsburgh’s African American population has immigrated from three different parts of the country.

So much for rules! We can analyze distinct populations, but we always come up against environment, both in the sense of the area of the country we’re talking about and with reference to the neighborhood vowel and consonant sounds find themselves in in different words. I hadn’t even thought about the effect of /s/ in words like “listen” which Dr. Bland draws our attention to.

While it is true that education has some effect on pronunciation, it seems to me that educated people are different in that they have the luxury of being able to code-switch: they are able to use both what they imagine “proper” English pronunciation to be and the down-and-dirty pronunciation most of us use in rapid and informal speech–just as many African-Americans can switch from African American English to Standard American English (whatever on earth that is).

While I suggest that students listen to National Public Radio to help with their various needs, I’m aware that they will hear brilliant astrophysicists, celebrated cardiologists, distinguished professors of this or that including Nobel Prize winners say something like: ‘This book represents years of research by Professor Jones and I’ and my favorite: ‘This is Public Radio In’ernational.’ So, educated in what?

Comments by listers demolish the myth that there is a firm set of rules for pronunciation or any firm basis for being “schoolmarmish.” Bottom line is preparing students to listen and speak at two levels as each of us understands those two levels so that students won’t be confused when they hear Elvis Presley sing: “I wanchyu, I needzyu.” Students pay my school, the In’ernashionul Laengwidge Cen’er, to help them cope with life as strangers in a strange language, and to do that in a limited amount of time. Disappearing /t/, reductions including schwa, assimilation, and vowel sound differences are facts of life in North American English. All who have responded, while giving different weight to “high” and “low” forms, agree that students need to be aware of pronunciation possibilities.


>By YD Chen

I am a Chinese teacher of English and I have taught English as a foreign language at high school, a teacher’s college and currently at a technology college.

Traditionally, Chinese students tend to consider their teachers the main source of learning, which, to a great extent, results from the philosophical foundation for education in China laid by Confucius, one of the greatest thinkers in ancient China. Even today, no one can deny his unparalleled contribution to Chinese education. Many of his wise sayings and maxims still govern the behaviour of learners in China.

Take TEFL (Teaching English as Foreign Language) for example, students are still accustomed to speech dominated education by a teacher-centred, book-centred, grammar-translation method and an emphasis on rote memory. There is little student initiative and, if any at all, little student-student interaction.

Teachers who are keen on spoonfeeding their students generally receive higher appreciation than teachers who are not. Any attempt from a teacher for simulated interactions such as games, roleplays, talk-based communicative activities, i.e., pair/ group/team work, risks resistance or even resentment from the students. The students tend to associate games and communicative activities in class with entertainment and, exclusively and accordingly, are skeptical of the use of games as
learning tools.

To make things worse, there are students who may go so far as to distinguish “good teachers” from “bad ones” solely by how many pages they can cover in their notebooks. Teachers who advocate communicative approach to teaching English are likely, though unfairly, to be considered lazy or irresponsible by some students.

On the other hand, a fairly large number of Chinese teachers of English play a crucial part in the current situation of TEFL. Although China has been on the way of opening to the outside world and many foreign experts in English teaching are increasingly available, many of these newly-arrived teachers are engaged in training Chinese foreign language teachers at the tertiary level of Chinese technology specialists.

The bulk of the English teaching is still conducted by Chinese teachers, mostly trained in a traditional way, the majority of whom have never been outside of China or talked to a native speaker. Owing to a lack of English proficiency themselves, some Chinese teachers find it a painful step to adjust to different teaching techniques and, therefore, are usually unprepared when difficulties crop up in the course of teaching.

Consequently, they often give up and resort to using outdated methods in the work. Some Chinese teachers are concerned about being unable to answer spontaneously questions about English, sociolinguistics, or culture as they arise from interactions in the classroom. It is not rare to hear teachers complain: “I can only teach English for the sake of teaching. If I am bombarded with more explanations on language and cultural differences, I may be at a loss.”

Last but not the least, the current CET-4/6 (College English Test Band 4/6), started some ten years ago, has led students to a false belief that written English is more important than spoken English. As a result, it is not unusual to see a holder of band 4/6 certificate very weak in spoken English, so much so that he/she often fails to speak a complete sentence. The two examples given at the beginning provide food
for thoughts, don’t they?

>By Frank Doonan

It is true being able to speak English as a native speaker does not mean you know how to teach. Unfortunately getting your degree in teaching or other related fields does not always qulaify either.

It is true that many teachers come to China and do not take teaching seriously, but on the other hand many Chinese don’t take English teachers seriously regardless of their qualifications.

The original goal of Chiese schools was not necessarily geared to having professional teachers teach English. The system mostly developed based on just having native speakers give Chinese the opportunity to practice oral English. The schools still basically depended on Chinese teachers to continue teaching bad English the wrong way.

I found that the ability to teach English in China is basically learned by teaching English in China. The problems and techniques of teaching in China involves not only teaching, but a culture barrier in learning and teaching methods not learned in schools in western cultures. If you survive the ‘Friendship gauntlet’, ‘Culture shock’ and stay long enough to get some practical experience, then you may be qualified as a English teacher in China regardless of your educational or experience background.

>By Camilla Krueger

My guess is that understanding another culture’s humor rates as a super high-level skill. You almost need to be an “insider” to get the joke. Remember the Far Side cartoon with the moose family that has a collection of human trophy heads hanging on their living room wall? So how are you going to explain that? No, what I mean is, what do you think your Chinese students will come up with?

I’ve never used Far Side cartoons in class, but I have used Calvin and Hobbes in one activity. I selected cartoon strips that I thought would be interesting, xeroxed them, cut them apart and glued them onto cardboard. (This all took a lot of time.) I marked the backs of each group so that I wouldn’t have trouble reassembling the strips. Then I gave one set to each pair of students and asked them first to put the panels in the correct order (not always easy!), and then to work out the meaning.

Turned out there were lots of new words and idioms to explain, and after working all that out the humor didn’t have much of a chance. This was done with second year English majors. In principle I still like the activity, but I need to rethink how
to make it more effective.

>By Tan Chong Ling

I am a chinese and I am bilingual and presently in China.

Many western teachers in China are sincerely trying their best and doing a good job in teaching English .BUT there are also many unqualified ones coming over to teach in China who do not even have proper training in teaching or a major in English or education. They may speak and use the language well but they do not know HOW TO TEACH to the Chinese people as a second language. They do not even understand what Chinese language is and how the Chinese learn their mother tongue.

If they cannot understand the vast liguistic difference and cultural difference between Chinese and English, how on earth would they be able to help the students handle the problems effectively? I think it is both a teaching experience and learning experience for the western teachers coming over to China to teach English. You have to know them, understand them, before you can teach them, right?

Are all the western teachers in China “qualified” to be English teachers? Do they really know how to teach English as a second language in China? Do they understand the Chinese?

I do not claim to know more English than you but as long as I can communicate clearly and concisely my point to anyone in English, I think I have achieved my objective of learning English as a second language . And I did not take any lessons from any Western English teacher – all my English teachers are Asian….

In fact, there is nothing so special being able to use English, it is just another international language..for us to COMMUNICATE.

>By Dick Tibbets – University of Macau, Macau, China

There is no real need for dictionaries in oral work. Although my students are a bit passive, stumbling and slow to respond, there’s still not time to get vocabulary from dictionaries and carry on a conversation. As regards writing, dictionaries rarely give enough information for a learner to take an unknown word and put it to good use. Writers need to learn how to use the vocabulary they already have.

More advanced writers need to widen their vocabulary enormously and to use synonyms and rephrasing of topics as that’s a major part of how native speakers achieve cohesion. I’ve been comparing NS and SLL essays and finding that SLLs rely almost solely on connectives and pronouns while NSs use cohesion of topic to a far greater extent. But dictionaries are not the answer to this problem.

There was an Iranian student in UK whose visa was expiring and wrote to beg for an extension. He wanted to find a more honorific term than ‘Dear Sir’ to address the official he was writing to and searched his English/Farsi dictionary. He showed the letter to my wife before sending it off. She was absolutely gobsmacked. It took a while to sort out just what had happened. He had started the letter ‘Dear Eunuch’.

His dictionary had given this as a term for ‘respected high official’. Could be there’s a Chinese translating dictionary around that might suggest the same?

>By Wu Jun – Luoyang Foreign Languages University, Henan

Why can’t Chinese speak fabulous English? Well, in the past I think some of Chinese did speak good English in church sponsored schools. But these schools were wiped out after Communist Party took power. Then Chinese people learned Russian for over ten years and no English was taught in most schools. After 1978, English was found to be so important as to so many people undertook the task of teaching English even though they used to teach Russian.

As a great nation, China has also produced many many English language experts, or professors or doctors with linguistic, literature or translation degree. They thrive in this country because there is the need to teach so many people. I suspect that they are quite happy with the status quo because more people will spend more time and money on English learning. Some of them just don’t care about how to teach students to learn English, just teach them English: whether their approach is good or not.

I often tell my adult students that they are victims of this Chinese characteristic English language teaching. And in most cases, they agreed.

Personally I don’t want to teach English any more. When there are so many tests that students must take and so many books or experts claiming that they can help them pass the tests, I don’t think I can teach students anything.

>By Dick Tibbets – Macau, China

Most of our students have a monolingual dictionary but a large number do not use it because they cannot understand the meanings given to them when they search for a word. I try to get them to find a monolingual dictionary at their level (see below) but often, as they are studying in an English medium tertiary institution, a dictionary at their level does not carry the vocabulary they need. They have been, for a number of reasons – financial, status etc. placed in an impossible situation and can only cope by using a translation dictionary. I recall my Chinese colleagues in a Hong Kong school used to insist all students used the Oxford Advanced Learners dictionary. But they all used translation dictionaries.

What I now do is to to suggest horses for courses. For comprehension, what students usually need is a quick fix. They need a passive knowledge of a word in order to get through the passage. For this a reasonable electronic dictionary is more or less OK. A paper monolingual dic. like the advanced learners is better, but slower to find a word and understand the meaning, and heavier to cart around.

Yes, you can talk about using context, and we try that first, calling on the dictionary after we’ve finished reading the passage, but guessing from context does not work nearly so well in real texts as it does in the examples carefully chosen for EFL textbooks. Writers for native speaking audiences only add marked context clues when they thing a native speaker might need one. Electronic dictionaries are getting better every year and there are some that do not appear to have any gibber. Some also have an English-English option that students can and do use to get a clearer idea of meaning and usage.

Students will rarely carry a heavy dictionary from class to class, although I see them with economics/maths textbooks three times the weight. This is because although they have lessons every year in school on how to get the best from their dictionary, they find from experience that what they get in practice is not worth the effort of lugging it about. The information it gives takes too long to comprehend in a classroom situation, and 99 times out of a hundred, all they need is a meaning accurate enough to get them through the text they are reading, which, by the way, is just what they get by guessing from context when there really is enough context to guess from.

So the big monolingual dictionary is at home or in the locker for reflection and consolidation of new vocabulary encountered that day.

Mind you, even then I don’t think dictionaries give enough information for a learner to take a word encountered once in class and use it confidently after studying the dictionary meaning and examples. Dictionaries can’t give enough collocations to give a real feel for the new item and can’t go into the statistical nances of usage that are so important. for this one needs a concordancer.

>Jennifer Wallace – Anhui University of Technology, Ma’anshan, Anhui Province, China

I teach college first year/freshmen students, for Oral English classes. I think doing some appropriate post-lesson work is difficult for any oral/speaking/listening class (in my own experience), and I wanted to give my students something to do that would help them develop a routine of systematic lesson review.

After each lesson my students have to write a lesson review, to a specified format. At the beginning of each lesson I collect in either the lesson review for the previous lesson or an absence note. In other words there’s no escape!

In the first week I gave a simple format for doing the lesson review, and as they master this, I’m adding things in. I do look at ALL the lesson reviews and grade them – not on the quality of the English but as a report on the quality of reflection and post-lesson activity on their part. In other words, short but insightful reviews get as good grades as long, but uncritical, reviews. Sometimes I do detailed correction of errors, other weeks I give them all a quick look and a grade.

This is what I told them they must write each week. There are 3 sections.

In part 1 they must describe what we did in the lesson. I asked for a simple list of the activities in the lesson – it’s up to them how much detail they give. I asked them also to list what speaking, listening, reading or writing they did. I hope that in this way it makes them think through any activity from two different angles (i.e. twice through the brain.) I also asked them to list language functions used (they have a big list with examples of language functions from previous lesson activities), any grammar points we spent time on, and new vocabulary. (With luck, that’s three times though the whole shebang.) With the diligent and conscientious students, this tends to run to 2 pages, but some do it as notes and get all that on one side of a piece of paper – which is fine by me. In the second part they must then write about things in the lesson that they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy – both, plus say what things were easy and what was difficult. The last thing I ask them to do it to record the week’s homework plus any other study they chose to do related to our lesson, and to record how much time they spent on it. (And that’s an eye opener!)

This is giving me useful and interesting feedback. For example, for the first time ever mine are working in small groups, allocated according to level (in other words, not with chosen friends). Some have loved this from day one, others are finding it difficult, but are also starting to be critical of group members who don’t pull their weight, and who keep speaking Chinese! (Interestingly, my lowest level groupings are all doing much better this way – positively shining.) It’s giving me excellent feedback on what they find interesting, and they’re becoming more reflective as the weeks go by, so I can understand more about how they experience the lesson.

In other words, without actually planning to get it, I’m now getting good quality feedback each week. And of course I now realise I’ve done it in a way that’s quite acceptable across the cultural divide – they don’t think they’re giving me feedback (most of the time), but the more they write about how they experienced it and what it’s making them think about it all, they’re telling me how successful (or otherwise) each lesson is.

And of course I give them loads of positive feedback. Very few hand in scrappy bits of paper as they see other people given grade A week after week now. I keep explaining that the marks are on the content – that my lesson is not a writing lesson – so I really am happy to give someone grade A for an accurate record of what was covered in the lesson plus some personal comments on it. All this will add up to a sizeable proportion of the 30% coursework mark I have to give them for this course, so it’s a real carrot dangling in front of them.

>By Bob Sasseen

I have been concerned about student passivity, which was a much bigger problem than I expected, no doubt in part due to my own limitations. I wrote this parable to explain to the students and others how it hurt their learning and made me feel as a teacher. I told them it mostly wasn’t their fault and they shouldn’t feel too bad about it, but that if they could work on it, that would help their next teacher and their own learning a lot.

(In the parable, the tests the doctor runs are analogous to the kinds of objective feedback a teacher can get from observing students’ speaking and writing, giving exams, etc. That can go far, but it’s a lot easier to understand the students’ problems if they ask questions when they don’t understand, etc. Fortunately, in teaching there’s nothing really analogous to the patient dying, but it was useful to dramatize the problem and illustrate how if they can describe their difficulties it will help the teacher help them learn much better.)

The Doctor

Once upon a time there was a doctor from a big city who went to a faraway village. He wanted to help the people there, to cure their illnesses and to improve their health. He set up a small hospital, and soon patients from the village started to arrive.

When the first patient entered his office, the doctor asked, “What are your symptoms?” But to his surprise, the patient said nothing. The doctor thought perhaps the patient didn’t understand the question, so he asked “Where does it hurt?” Strangely, the patient still didn’t answer. The doctor said, “Please tell me about your sickness.” To his astonishment, the patient still refused to speak.

The doctor couldn’t see anything wrong with the patient; she wasn’t bleeding, limping, holding her head, or showing any other obvious signs of what the problem could be. So he performed some tests. He tested her reflexes, but they were normal. He took her temperature; it was a little bit high, but not a lot. He took a blood sample and analyzed it. There were a few abnormal features, but nothing that clearly indicated what the problem might be. The doctor was extremely frustrated. He felt that if only the patient would talk to him and describe what she was feeling, he could certainly figure out what the illness was and how to cure it. But with only the inconclusive test results to go on, all he could do was give the patient some antibiotic medicine and tell her to come back if the illness got worse.

A second patient came in. This patient didn’t say anything either, but the doctor knew she must be ill or she wouldn’t have come to see the doctor. Again, he performed some tests, but the results were inconclusive, so he had to make an educated guess about what the problem might be, gave her some medicine, and sent her home.

Almost every patient who came to see him behaved the same way. Sometimes the doctor could figure out the illness from the tests, and sometimes he guessed right, and the patient recovered. Sometimes, even if he couldn’t figure out the problem, the patient got better on her own. But often the patient continued to have the same problem, and it often got worse. Some patients even died.

When a patient died, he performed an autopsy, examining the dead body to figure out why the patient died, and he usually found the cause. Then he knew that this patient must have experienced dizziness and headache, while that one must have experienced pain in her chest and ringing in her ears. If only those patients had been willing to tell me what they were feeling, what problems they were having, the doctor thought to himself, it would have been obvious what their illness was, and I could have cured it easily. What a terrible waste.

The doctor was very frustrated and unhappy. He had come to cure people and improve their health, but because of their mysterious refusal to speak, he was able to do little to help them. He tried everything he could think of, but it was no use. The villagers, too, were frustrated and unhappy. They had had such high hopes that the doctor could help them. But they continued to fall ill, and some of them died.

Feeling very sad, the doctor left the village and returned home to the city. Now and then he would think about his experiences in the village, but he never understood why the people there were unable to tell him about their problems.