Friday, April 04, 2014

Cultural flexibility presentation

Leverett, T. (2014). Cultural flexibility as a characteristic of good language learners. Third Annual AL/SL Conference on Language Learning and Teaching, Texas Tech University, April.

Gave this presentation today, and got lots of input. The handout will follow, as will links to several things I've written about it. I'm a little slow in getting it all online, but will, all in good time.

The essence of it is, when you fill a classroom with well-motivated adults wanting to learn a second language, their own native culture will be an impediment to their learning, and will provide variation in learners. For example, those from languages without article systems will find our article system pointless and ridiculous, and will have trouble learning it, whereas those from Spanish or Portuguese backgrounds, for example, will have the mental framework and will have already accepted the principle of such a system. People spoke of things in language that were hard to swallow: An old Chinese man spoke of how he couldn't get over English's failure to distinguish kinds of cousins (mother's side? father's side? male? female? older? younger? etc.). An American woman learning Arabic spoke of the way the language pulled you into the religion and she had trouble with that. One Chinese woman pointed out that she herself had reservations about acquiring such expressions as "bless you" which seem overtly Christian. The trouble we have in just adapting an entire system is often internal resistance to the culturally unpalatable demands of the new situation.

More on this later. It was to some degree unfinished business; I taught ESL for 28 years, and now am seeing the top end of it, people who are almost fluent. How can I look back at the whole process, and dispense wisdom from what I've seen? Basically, everyone was motivated, at least on the first day. Everyone had a memory and a working mental apparatus, with the slight exception of a few that were missing a switch here or there. So what remained, and why did people learn languages at different rates? This presentation attempts to get at the answer.

A good discussion occurred about the passive voice. A claim was made earlier in the day that active was more basic than passive, thus bound to be acquired earlier; that would be more natural, that would be as it was meant to be. There is a natural order to these structures, this speaker said, and we learn them in order.

Alas, but my presentation points out the ways we don't learn them in order, or, we take that order in our own hands, and impose our own order on the system, and acquire any feature only when we're ready. Thus it would be possible for a person to acquire articles first, or last, depending on their inclination, but more important, with passives, it would be theoretically possible for a person to deliberately acquire passive and passive only, since it is not required to know active before one knows passive, or to "enter" the cognitive sphere through the active voice. Is it? That, I think, would be my more fundamental research question.

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Cultural Flexibility

I've written a little about this before, but I'm about to begin a serious inquiry and have lots of preliminary thoughts to put down before I start.

First, I was heavily influenced by a book on motivation that I reviewed for TESL-EJ. To me the essence of the book, my walk-away tip, was that motivation, or pure desire to learn a language, wasn't worth anything until it could be translated into measurable outcomes. For example, you would like your language class more if you were motivated to learn a language, and this could be measured, simply by asking you if you liked to go to that class. You would do more studying of that language, because your motivation had been converted, so to speak, into the juice that ran the engine, and that juice was measurable, in the sense that if you did more than you used to, or more than the next guy, you were clearly more motivated. Your motivation had converted successfully into useful, measurable units of juice.

Now I didn't quite buy this at the time, and I still have trouble with it, a little, because in fact I believe you can really want something and still be unable to convert it, and then, in that case, what do you call the desire? You can be crying inside to learn a language and still be unable to sit in a class, for example, or learn your vocabulary words. Ah, but skip that argument. When it comes to cultural flexibility, the problem is the same, but it's much more fun to worry about. For example, some things about a language are more unpalatable than others. And, that unpalatable-ness (unpalatability?) can be measured, right? So, you learn to use a, an, or the, but you never quite bought into the idea that you should have to be bothered with such a thing. This would be unpalatable, and your cultural ability to bite the bullet, or just say to yourself, look, this is something I have to learn for cultural reasons, is going to determine your success. If you are stubborn in the sense that your feeling about the unpalatability of that characteristic of language is stronger than your cultural need to fit in, get along, do as everyone is doing, you will have more trouble with getting your articles right, and this will be one of the last features that you master.

Now, in the world of features, first, there are several kinds. There are unpalatable sounds, (like th) which can be distinguished from sounds that are merely difficult to make (zh as in measure). AE as in bat or hat is another example; it may sound unpleasant, or you may know that people in England don't have to bother with it, or are able to make it in a slightly less offensive way. Sometimes the grammar, as in a/an/the/0, is routine, and you'll bump into it twice per sentence; other times it's a little more rare. Sometimes you can get away with errors a lot longer in certain areas, than in others, because certain mistakes are more repairable on the part of the listener (or the reader as the case may be). So errors or features have characteristics of their own: frequency, importance, etc. that influence the necessity of learning them first, later, or not at all.

In Korean you actually speak a different language to people who are older than you, people who are the same age or level as you, people who are below you, and children; this fundamental division of the human race before one opens one's mouth is unpalatable to democratic Americans who basically use the same language for everyone, and are proud of it, although sometimes they're fooling themselves. Nevertheless one would have to admit that this is a fundamental characteristic of the Korean language; you won't go far if you don't master it. You'll be corrected in a fundamental kind of way, and that's because you have violated a very important rule. That's not to say this can't be done; English speakers eliminated the thee/you distinction at one time, but it could be called a social revolution and was no small deal. What I'm saying is that features of a language can be foundational, or more of whatever the opposite of foundational would be.

Now I'm inclined to say that one of the primary considerations here is that often what we are watching here is subconscious. People detest the a/an/the situation because it seems so trivial, yet they know it causes problems, and they have trouble integrating the awareness into their systems so as to correct the problem. When it is subconscious, I like to bring it to the front and ask them about it. For example, I have high-level students who never make a th correctly and I know they can do it, so I'm in the habit of asking them if it's just too embarrassing to stick their tongue out in public, and are they really unable to do that just because they are stubbornly cultural about doing something that, back in their home culture, one would never do. By the way, I feel this way about walking around someone's house in my socks; I really don't want to do it. I kind of feel like feet stink, especially when they're in socks, and it's better just to keep one's shoes on, as dirty and muddy as they might be. But the question of cultural flexibility is simple: how much are you willing to give up, just because you know that it's what is done, it's what this culture has decided is necessary, it's what you do to become "fluent"?

What I am trying to prove is that, first, the sense of discomfort you feel with customs (like leaving one's shoes at the threshold, or sticking one's tongue out to make a th) can be measured. Your cultural flexibility, therefore, can also be measured. We should be able to predict how well you will do with learning a language by measuring your cultural flexibility, in the same way that if we could measure the size of your memory, or your ability in retrieving what you want out of it, we could measure your success in mastering vocabulary. These are characteristics that make good language learners. Pure intelligence, I am convinced, is not really one of them, because we are not really talking about rocket science, as puzzling as another language's grammar may seem. It is not made to be too complex for the average person to figure out...on the contrary, languages must be accessible, or they would be virtually useless. That doesn't mean they're easy, though. Geniuses have trouble with them. And I intend to get to the bottom of what is most difficult in mastery of them.

Here are some research questions that I would like to explore, refine, and/or answer:
1. Language features clearly can come in different kinds: grammatical or phonological, to start with. But what about semantic? Are there more? What am I missing?
2. So we test you, and determine that you are quite stubborn, unwilling to stick your tongue out, so to speak, so you are doomed to years of trouble mastering any given language that requires this or that cultural concession. Are you doomed to failure because of your basic nature, or can you actually teach yourself to be more flexible? I suspect the latter. I suspect that it is difficult, but it is the key to language learning.
3. OK, so we set about making subconscious problems conscious; for example, I point out that the reason you are having such trouble with a/an/the/0 is that deep down, you feel that it's a pile of horse pucky and you shouldn't have to be bothered with such triviality. You readily agree, and now realize why you've had such trouble for so many years mastering such a trivial feature. Does your awareness of your own feelings help you master the problem? Is this a useful teaching tool? I can ask everyone about the relative unpalatability of various features of English or the language that they are embarking upon learning, but will that matter?

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a pleasant story

The presenter was a woman, a Chinese surgeon. Her job was to present about superstitions or cultural beliefs, so she chose to tell us about Chinese numbers and what they meant to Chinese. Eight was prosperity in a financial kind of way, she said, but eighteen was not lucky at all; in the same way American hospitals skipped the thirteenth floor, Chinese hospitals sometimes skipped the eighteenth. Many numbers had positive connotations, but four was particularly bad, being associated with death, due partly to the way it sounded.

So then, having described the lucky characteristics of numbers like one, two, five and eight, she showed us her phone number, which was filled up with all the good ones and in particular four eights at the end. Now I may have copied this down in my notes, but I felt embarrassed about copying a woman's phone number, and besides that, it was quite long, much longer than ours tend to be, a string of maybe thirteen or fourteen numbers, all lucky ones of course, not a four in the bunch. They all ran together, and weren't put in groups like ours are, area code, prefix, etc., just fourteen lucky numbers in a row. She explained that the four at the end could be interpreted as her future, thus all eights at the end would indicate a very prosperous future. Happiness and good luck, of course, filled the early parts of the number and were more likely to represent all the good stuff that would take place before that prosperity arrived.

So, at the end, we all had a lot of questions and two boys in the front got into a discussion that I didn't catch, because I was in the back. But finally I asked her: How did she rate such a great phone number? I'm a surgeon, she said, and I did an operation on a guy, and he gave me that phone number as a gift.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Five-Second Rule

Pick it up!

Available at Amazon
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Monday, December 09, 2013

thee, thou, thy and thine

After I'd studied "y'all" for a while I turned my attention to thee, thou, thy and thine. Most people have at least a basic background on them. They used to be informal ways of addressing people, used for friends and equals, similar to German "du" and Spanish "tu". Then Quakers mucked everything up by calling everyone by thee, thou, etc. and refusing to grant preferred status to the higher-ups, like tax collectors and royalty. THEN to avoid sounding like Quakers, English speaking society decided to just call everyone you etc., without regard to status. So what happened to thee, thou, thy and thine? Several things. First, they went out of common use; they were common in certain Quaker areas and Quaker communities for a while, and in some British dialects, such as Yorkshire and near Lancashire, but they have begun to fade, even there, recently.

Now this story gets interesting in several ways. First is, what little usage they have today, could basically be called "put-on religious" or "put-on Quaker." If you want to sound old, or hopelessly out of date, or rigid or moralistic in the sense that people see old Quakers, you might want to use them. People generally have lost track of the grammatical difference between "thee" and "thou" so they might use "thee" in subject position, or less frequently, "thou" in object position, incorrectly. They don't have a very clear sense of their grammatical sense, except possibly in the places where they were really used daily.

Then, I asked the Quakers what they thought of so-called "plain speaking" could it be that, if it's called plain speaking, it's really only used in a "put on" way? Quakers are by nature opposed to pretentiousness, thus they shun such things as creating an in-group, putting on airs of any kind, or trying to "sound" as if they were something they're not. So, are these words doomed? Yes, in the Quaker community anyway. If they sound put-on, Quakers aren't going to use them. Period.

Such it is that the opposite has evolved from what was, at one time, "plain speaking." If it is no longer plain, it is on its way out, and if any group chooses to start using it on a day-to-day basis, to create an ingroup, religious or not, or for any other reason, I'd like to know. It's a system, and, without wanting exactly to go back to the days of King James, I really would like to know how it sounds in an everyday kind of way.

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I just had another experience which I would assume is common to ESL teachers: you teach an entire semester, and at the end of it, in that busy rush and exchange of e-mails with students, you realize that, as high level as they may be, and focused on whatever the class covered (in this case writing), they still don't know how to write a proper e-mail, or how to address a teacher properly. This infuriates me, because they are often highly competent in their own fields, if not others, and pretty good at English overall. But they can't address a teacher?

My idea is to reorganize all my teaching, all teaching, according to the functional value of things that they need to know. If I had done this, I would have made sure they sent 6-10 e-mails during the term, since being able to send an e-mail to a teacher is far more important than writing a good bibliography. I would have pounded it into them so that every student in that class knew how to write an e-mail. I would have made them address me so often that they would think twice before addressing me the wrong way.

In grammar, a good example is questions. Questions are hard, grammatically; we might put them late in a curriculum and I've seen them overlooked. But, from a functional standpoint, they're essential. I have high-level students who are uncomfortable asking for things. Why? Because they know their grammar may be wrong? Somebody should put questions first in the curriculum. Ram it down their throats. Make sure that, no matter what level they are (above 0), they know how to ask for a bathroom. Especially in an emergency.

In the old days, functionalism meant setting up lessons on ordering in a restaurant, or making a phone call. But I had some students who said, essentially, they never went to a restaurant, period. In a way I'm saying, take the things that are essential; rate them high; organize curricula around them; don't let anyone get far without knowing how to function in a basic way.

In a sense we can see the culture as a big blanket that covers the language. If you have no sense of the culture, the language to some degree won't get you very far. For example, if you don't know how to shake hands, or how to address someone, every interaction gets off to a bad start, and the subtle effects of being outside the culture or being inappropriate tend to overshadow all the good stuff or the human natural tendency to give you a break for being an outsider. In the same way, people who are trying to learn pronunciation are sometimes hampered by the fact that the very way you hold your mouth - its tension, its setting, etc., influences every sound - so that if you are too tense nobody can understand you no matter how well you make the words...neofunctionalism is my way of saying, if people can't walk out my classroom door and address someone, or ask a question, then maybe I've failed them in a fundamental way and should rethink my priorities. It doesn't matter to me as much if they can't tip at the restaurant, that's further down the list, because my priorities start with the stuff that's most essential for their survival and which should be clear to them, life is really easier for you if you learn this stuff.

Krashen used to say that basic social interaction, the oral kind, was the foundation of language skills and thus should be taught until it's mastered, before one attempts reading and then, later, writing. This was what he was after too, the idea that once a student understood and could respond appropriately to the teacher, then serious class-learning of such things as reading could commence, not before...Today's world is much more writing-oriented, with so much business happening by e-mail, etc. Sometimes I think the best thing I could do with these high-level students (powerhouse readers, adequate writers, clueless listeners) is to separate them into an immersion experience where, when it was over, they could at least ask for help in any area, they thought in English often, they were used to addressing people; they spoke up often to get what they need, etc. Concentration on immersion/needs/questions first. If they walk out of your classroom and know how to get stuff, they'll probably be ok.

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Friday, November 01, 2013

international education at tech

Texas Tech has never gone out of its way to attract internationals, but like most universities, it attracts a fair number anyway. They like Texas: it's sunny, friendly, warm, reasonably-priced in terms of living expenses, and diverse enough to make them not stand out too harshly as they go around town.

But the story is a little unbalanced. Tech has 1700 internationals, depending on how you count them; out of 1400 on this campus, over 80% are graduates; only 260 are undergraduates. Unlike UT-Austin, Texas A & M, or Univ. of Houston, all in the top 25 for serving internationals nationwide, Tech has gone down; whereas internationals were 6.7% in 2011, 4.7% in 2012, down 30%, and no telling what they are now, in 2013. Tech's overall retention rate is 80%, which is pretty good, but with internationals their goal is to reach 70%, which appears to show a difference, if I am reading the right numbers in the right way. My guess is that our 260 undergraduates are struggling. In many departments they say, sink or swim, we aren't set up to accommodate you well.

This highlights a huge difference between Tech and, say, Texas A & M, where internationalism is a well-established part of the culture. People come and stay to places like A & M because there is an established community, and people have seen internationals before, and know how to deal with them. It's a little harder in Lubbock, which is much more provincial.

A little over a year ago, Tech lost its Intensive English Program to ELS, a private storefront school in downtown Lubbock. ELS has branches in various places, such as Houston, some well-established, but because it's not part of Tech, many internationals were dismayed by this switch and aren't sure that ELS can train them appropriately for success at Tech. One disgruntled student wrote a "Google review":
ELS Lubbock center is very bad for to many reasons, First, the final SSP/LS exam is not from the book you study before its very hard to pass, because you didn't study SSP book and test you for same thing did not study it . second, the the teachers is not ready to teach us, and didn't have any expensive. next, its very expansive 1730 a month ? for what for all that money . last thing, if you are from muslim you have hard mistreatment. I would not advise anyone to a join ELS Lubbock center
You expect a certain amount of disgruntlement anyway, but you would hope this storefront would be integrating students into Tech life, able to show them the student culture. In fact, they do go to pumpkin patches, or volleyball games, or whatever they can. I'm not disparaging them; they are doing their best. Their website tries hard to show that. Conditional admission into TTU says to some degree, that they are part of the culture, they are accepted, Tech likes them. There are only about 60, though. They hope to climb over a hundred; they hope to get Tech over 2000, in the next four years. Good luck!

Out of Texas Tech's 34,000 students, less than 1% come from over 500 miles away, and that number includes students from Brownsville, TX, and Port Arthur, TX, both over 500 miles away. Tech is not used to attracting students from Louisiana or Illinois, much less China or India. It could. The President recently expressed commitment to the idea. He might, in fact, commit the university to trying to recruit, which is a complicated business, but which is possible. Where would he look? I have no idea, but I have suggestions: Vietnam, China, Brazil, South America, Korea.

What constitutes adequate support for these students? Mainly, they like to have others from their same country around, so that they have someone to celebrate the major holidays with. To that end we should support the student groups and associations that already exist, and encourage others to form. Some universities make separate freshman writing courses for internationals, or provide writing assistance. We have a center where they support internationals, take care of their visas, etc. I'd like to see those numbers go up; it would be good for Tech, and good for Lubbock. Here are some more questions I have:

1. Will it really be possible for a storefront IEP to deliver to Texas Tech a rise in enrollment, as promised, or will we continue to flounder, as we have been? What's the secret to attracting them here; what can we promise them that will work?

2. Are students as well prepared, after a year or so of education off campus, as they were in the floundering IEP that was on campus, before it gave up the ghost & closed down 15 months ago? That IEP was unable to do the paperwork necessary for accreditation, and just closed instead; I've never been satisfied with the story, but that's what I know. I also don't know which IEP, that one or ELS, would be more responsible for our present retention figures. I assume this stuff is tracked.

3. Presently our 1400 students are from about 100 countries, starting with India (34%), China (16%), and Korea. Where else? How does the present (60) population at ELS compare to the TTU other words, what kinds of students will ELS be feeding into TTU in the coming years? Of course I'm more interested in their general preparedness than their countries of origin, but I might have to know the latter to make some stereotyped guesses about the former.

4. Presumably our biggest supply of internationals is coming in through the graduate school, and they already have pretty good English, pretty well prepared for their graduate study. These grad programs are doing their own recruiting, I'd guess. So what are they saying? How are they doing this? How does this recruiting system work?

At a time when international enrollment is at an all-time high in US universities (USC has over 7,000), TTU appears to be missing the boat, but not too concerned about it. They've set out as a goal, to do something about this, and I'm sure they're trying. I'm actually very curious about how it will all work. As far as I can tell, it's one step backward for every step forward.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

instant karma

When I was in graduate school, all teaching methods that involved instant feedback were out. If you were to jump on a student for pronouncing "three" as "tree," for example, he would stammer, make the correct "three" word again, lose his train of thought (not to mention his confidence), etc. Theory favored the affective side of it: let him speak as much as he is capable of speaking; let him string entire sentences together; correct him later, if at all, privately, and let him know that his pronunciation and/or grammar are impeding meaning, or should be worked on before the others. Naturally, those that impede meaning are more urgent than those that don't. Also, we are well aware that with much feedback in general, there is not a direct relationship between what you tell them to work on, and what actually gets improved on the following day. They like feedback, and appreciate it, and are especially grateful to know when it is responsible for their grade's being a little lower than they'd like, but, even when they apply themselves to changing their pronunciation or grammar, often they can't, at least not right away. Or, they will change it on a prepared speech, but immediately get thrown off when asked a question or expected to produce language spontaneously.

Now I am in a situation where I am teaching high-level learners; grammar and pronunciation are sometimes an issue, but usually not. The issue for them is often lack of tone, poor tone, long thought groups or poorly broken up thought groups, lack of prominence or no stress on important words. Tone, I think, is extremely important. They drift into a monotone, and people fall asleep, losing not only the information but also a sense of how important it is. Tone doesn't come naturally to speakers of other languages. They're head is full with creating sentences, recalling what they meant to say, making correct pronunciation (which, as I've said, is not bad at this level.

But a graduate student, A.H., has taken to giving them instant feedback on their DI (discourse intonation), mostly with their permission, and her partner, R.R., now jumps right in there beside her. They'll stop a student in the middle of the second sentence and say, "No tone!" or "Why are you using a rising tone? Are you unsure of yourself?" or perhaps, "Mind your prominence! Stress on the important words!"

Students, as I've said, liked this, and agreed to it willingly at first. They needed to know their faults and the sooner the better, they figured, even at the expense of obviously losing their train of thought, getting rattled in front of a crowd, etc. Generally they would be teaching in front of their peers. Generally their presentation was limited - maybe ten minutes at most. Generally they would stumble upon being corrected, but get back on their feet fairly quickly. Sometimes the fault that was pointed out would be corrected in what they produced after the feedback. In those cases, we could say it was a success. They were directed to mind an aspect of their DI (often one they weren't paying attention to); they would mind it; they would improve, and presumably they would learn the skill of considering DI simultaneously with the other things they were trying to juggle.

I stuck to my traditional method, which was to point out their weaknesses on a grading sheet, to be given them after (well after) their presentation, which often pointed out both DI weaknesses and traditional, pronunciation/grammar problems. My theory was that private, separated feedback could be handled more rationally later, could be separated from the plain view of peers, and allow their immediate observations more room to develop as they were speaking.

The instant feedback system had several negative consequences. One is interesting and worth noting. One poor girl, frustrated at being criticized for lack of tone, had adopted an uptalk kind of style. This actually is quite common. Students hear others doing it, and adopt it, and notice that they do better with uptalk than with nothing. I actually encourage it, although I know it's rather grating to the ears of a native speaker, it makes us say, "you're from the valley?" or "you're asking me?" or some such. But it is a tone, developmental as it is, and it helps them begin to hear them, hear their consequences, etc. So A.H. jumps on her for her uptalk, and says, basically, "You're giving out your syllabus (true). You're telling them how you're going to grade them (also true)...and you make it a question? WHY are you using uptalk?" The poor girl, flustered, starts over again. She realizes the feedback is intended to help her, she's not overwhelmingly embarrassed. But she really doesn't know how to vary her tones, or she would have done it. She is more embarrassed by not being able to make what she wants, than just being mistaken.

And this, in general, is probably the biggest problem. Tone becomes fluent in developmental increments, which are now disrupted, and not allowed to be half-perfect. If she develops a fear of uptalk, or picks up the disparagement on the part of native speakers in the room, she goes back to monotone. The disruption of the process sets back the entire thing, and, as a result, she can't use varying tones at all until she is entirely ready to make them all right.

I have often pointed out this tendency in the development of grammatical structures, for example, present perfect continuous. A student, in trying to say "I have been going to the Rec Center" says instead "I have been go to the Rec Center," producing an intermediate, developmental form. The computer tells them that's bad, go back to square one, or, the student is corrected and set back by an aggressive grammar-cop type of ESL teacher, who jumps on him, marks him down, publicly shames him, or whatever. Bottom line: avoid that structure altogether. Avoid trying it, avoid developing it, avoid putting it out there. Correction can have an opposite effect of stifling ordinary natural developmental progress. And it certainly doesn't reward experimentation, the risk-taking required to master anything.

These may be the traditional arguments against all feedback, and they remind me a bit of the writing "Error correction wars" in which some theorists argued strenuously against all error correction, and even those who were in favor of it were reduced to saying how much and how strenuously they would couch it in positive terms, save it until the end, devalue it or absorb it into larger meaning-expression issues. That kind of feedback, in writing, was out and was staying out as far as I could tell, last I checked. Those who wanted to know principal from principle were left looking online for one of those online proofreaders.

I should mention, by the way, that A.H. and R.R. tried to set up a study; they asked students how they felt; they tried to determine whether this method worked, and how students actually felt about it. While getting accurate results on its efficacy may be extremely difficult, the controlled environment under which they asked students their true opinions might yield interesting results; I'll keep you posted.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013

keep calm y'all

I have a couple of grad. assistants working for me who teach often. Today I said to them, I have a bone to pick with y'all. As I watch you, I've noticed that you use "y'all" sometimes to address the class. But other times you use "you guys". And you NEVER use "you" to refer to the class. What's up with that?

They admitted, they were avoiding "you". You grow up in Texas schools, they said, if a teacher addresses the class as "y'all", everything's fine. If the principal addresses the class as "y'all", everything is fine. If anyone uses "you" everything is NOT FINE.

So they are avoiding it at all costs. It sounds rude, short, uncaring, harsh.

Now they are well aware of the problems of "y'all" sounding hick, sounding southern, being too informal, etc. They are also well aware of the problem I told them, that even we northerners were beginning to give up on "you guys" because it only referred to half the class at any given time, and the other half was bound to be offended.

But in the north, "you" as plural is not really marked one way or the other. It's not rude, it's not formal, it's not really a problem, using it with a class, using it with friends, using it with anyone. The only problem with it is that it isn't really clear; it can refer to one person or many.

They have many ways to refer to one or many down here. "Y'all" can be used for one or many, but is used for one mostly when you don't know that one, or it is an older person, or you have to assume that the person has family or people around that you don't know about. Waitresses use "y'all" for singular; they're allowed. They have to be polite to everyone. They don't have time to sit and decide whether you are one or many. "Y'all" in that context generally refers to "you and yours" and is remarkably similar to some other languages that essentially use you-plural in polite situations. So in fact "y'all" can and does act as both singular and plural in all kinds of situations, making it as ambiguous, in number (sometimes), as "you" is up north.

But one teacher pointed out something else. There is actually a "clipped y'all" which sounds more like "yaw" or "yuh". It's singular "y'all". Even though there is a plural y'all, all-a-y'all, it's actually a quite complicated situation, and it has more to do with politeness, which always matters, than true number, which is a fluid concept (since not knowing whether someone has family, is the same as assuming that they do, and you just don't know it). We northerners shake our heads at the concept that "it's not about number."

About this "yaw" or "yuh" - I have heard it. I'll keep my ears out for it again. There aren't so many people you can even ask, as they aren't always all that aware of how they speak or why; they misreport, or give questionable data. Doesn't matter. If you live here a while, I figure, you get the hang of it. People are friendly. They like to talk.

So I told them, well, there's always "you folks" or "you lot" - I doubt they're going to go with the Pittsburgh "you'ns" or the bronx "youse" which I once, by the way, heard in Alton, IL. These are similarly marked. There's a whole lot of us who have trouble with all the options. Now that I'm Texan, I'll start having trouble with "you", because I'll begin to hear it the way they hear it - too formal, too rude. One doesn't want people thinking one doesn't care.

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