The elves on our doorstep

September 20, 2012

So who really needs to learn English? Maybe the native speakers according to an article I came across this summer in the Irish Times. The report begins with a recent call for Irish business students and executives to learn foreign languages and in particular languages to cover the Brazilian, Chinese and Russian markets. Compare this to the French, German and Spanish traditionally taught and leaarned in schools.

The author continues, however, to point out that while this array of languages is daunting for a native English speaker, the reality is that non-English speakeers have it much simpler: they only have to think about learning English as it is clearly the international language of commerce. He even quotes the numerous companies that have made English their language of senior management including Siemens of Germany, Ericsson of Sweden and Lafarge of France. In other words, we return to the idea that there is a reason why native English speakers often do not study and learn foreign languages: it isn’t necessary.

But, here comes the twist and one which I think is very valid. As teachers we know the problem, we have seen it in action but it is nice to see it put forward as an argument in an Irish newspaper: the fact of the matter is that non-native English speakers can communicate much better with each other than with native speakers (and statistically will actually have more dealings with non-natives than native speakers). The article discusses the multiple reasons for this including over reliance on phrasal verbs, idioms and overly complex expressions. This is compounded, of course, by the fact that most native speakers do not speak foreign languages and are therefore completely unaware of the complexities involved.

The conclusion is simple and pointed out clearly in the article: rather than studying various foreign languages native English speaking executives need to study their own language and learn how make more comprehensible to non-native speakers.  Native speakers need to speak English as a Lingua Franca!

Original article in English:

Very Handy!

June 11, 2012

Well known material writers Mark Handcock and Annie McDonald have launched their new website at Wonderfully clean and easy to use, the site has lots to browse through from articles and talks from the authors to what is promising to be an interesting blog. For working teachers perhaps the most interesting section at the moment is the Materials area. Here, there is a rapidly  growing number of detailed lesson plans and ideas organised by content, age and European Framework levels. A great resource and one well worth checking out and returning to.

The elves at the door

June 6, 2012

Here is a great story although not sure exactly what it tells us of modern times, in a linguistic sense. Have you heard of the Queen’s English Society? It’s intention is essentially to keep the language pure in a somewhat conservative and occasionally controversial way. Easy to make fun of on one level but I find their guides to punctuation actually quite clear and occasionally useful. The story, however, is that the society is folding: it has been killed off by twitter the papers claim. This, I suspect, is more to make headlines than a realistic analysis of the society’s demise.  You only have to look at David Crystal’s blog to get a glimpse into how vibrant a language can be, or perhaps, as clearly demonstrated by English, has to be in order to survive, develop and expand. English has being doing that for centuries so any attempt to hold it back had to fail perhaps. I don’t think it is all down to twitter: people have been writing notes and puns in 140 characters for a long time! It has much more to do with English expanding around the world and allowing no boundaries to hold it back. This is English as a Lingua Franca … if not the barbarians maybe the elves are pounding at the gate!

One version of the story is here:

As an interesting counter-point El Pais has an article today on how Facebook and other social networks are showing the first signs of slowing down with people beginning to spend less time on them. Will that have an impact on language? Will we all cease to speak if we haven’t Facebook? Don’t think so.  Don’t think the fate of languages are decided yet by social networks.

The Dark side … may the force find us

April 23, 2012

English is growing at the rate of 8,500 words a year. What is more, there may be now a million words in English, far more than any standard dictionary contains: more than half the language in use is “dark matter” which effectively avoids dictionaries. These are just two of recent conclusions from a study by physicists (yes!) of the Google collection of scanned books. The study is being called the first study in the new field of Culturomics. Read the complete article at:

Far older but perhaps related is the concept of Zipf’s law which states: “that given some corpus of natural language utterances, the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. Thus the most frequent word will occur approximately twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, etc.” The quote is taken from’s_law but do search Google for more information.

So, what does it all mean for us teachers in the classroom? Well, the old chestnut that the language and vocabulary found in textbooks is incredibly limiting as, perhaps, are the language tasks we ask students to complete. Back to Dogme perhaps on one level but it has to be Dogme including the wider world: will students needs alone guide them to exploring all that dark matter out there? What is the role of the teacher in introducing our students to the dark side?

Chattering charts

March 7, 2012

Here is another fun google tool which allows you to search a corpus and compare frequency of usage, not just at the moment but how that statistic has changed over time! Try for say, tell or look forward to, looking forward to and see what happens. Then change the date to an earlier starting point and watch how things may have changed.

Shake it up speare

March 5, 2012

Four short days to the TESOL-SPAIN 2012 convention where David Crystal is one of the plenary speakers and will also be doing a reading of Shakespeare at the opening cocktail. I have followed his blog for a long time but have only recently become acquainted with his website on Shakespeare following an interview on the TESOL-SPAIN website. The shakespeareswords website is absolutely fabulous if you have any interest at all in the man, his work, or simply the English language. Do check it out!

It’s only words

February 15, 2012

I have always been fascinated by dictionaries and how they are compiled and particularly the use of technology in the process. The Macmillan Dictionary blog makes great reading on this front. As an example check out Michael Rundell on the past tense of verbs