Friday, February 29, 2008

A couple of interesting things from the Language Hat:

Language Hat blasts National Grammar Day, which is March 4th, of all days. The Linguist community is more or less united against people who play the role of the old English teacher, correcting every errant apostrophe, so you see words like "annoying" associated with people who, on March Fourth and other days, will send out notes correcting everyone. But I have another gripe. These guys, the NGD people, have a great list of grammar blogs- people who know its from it's, so to speak. But their webmaster traps you in the NGD blog...I hate people who frame you and don't let their links carry you to where they say they this the fear of spambots that I've noticed at Language Hat? entry with 70 comments, one by yours truly. I can't help but get involved in such discussions. One part of me would still love to be a linguist, getting into huge & endless discussions about personal pronouns- this one set off by a "Dear Abby" column.


Monday, February 25, 2008

a most singular weblog

CESL students often put their weblog on the main CESL system, though we tell them to set up their own passwords, and make their own weblog private, with a private log-on and private password. But recently a CESL student put a very unusual twist on a common mistake.

Rather than using the e-mail address log=in and post to a main CESL Newstalk weblog, he left off the -s and ended up starting a weblog at What is unusual about this is that first, he had to start a whole new account, and second, two other students followed him and posted their articles at his weblog!

So now, we have this kind of alternative, hidden universe, not connected (linked) to the rest of us except by this post, and, if I hadn't lucked out and heard about it, these poor students would never get credit for any of their hard work.

The plural -s is a slippery fellow, but he causes a lot of trouble sometimes!

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Krashen 2 me

I've been rereading a book that I reviewed a while ago; the review appears here:

Leverett (2003). Review of Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures, by Stephen Krashen,
TESL-EJ, vol. 7, no. 2, Sept.

but I have much more to say about it, four and a half years later. I'm about to embark on a project that uses Krashen's work as a starting point, and I have to decide whether to base it on him and his hypotheses, or just base it on my own, weaving him and his ideas into it. He is an interesting guy in the world of language acquisition, and I have a lot of respect for him, partly because he watched teachers and learners carefully for years, and based his observations on the same kinds of things we teachers experience continually. He is lambasted regularly by researchers who denounce his hypotheses as unprovable, and I'll leave that one alone until I can either attempt to prove one, restate one so that it can be proven, or dismiss it as irrelevant altogether. But there's more to it than that, even. He rose in prominence at a time when one dared not challenge Chomsky, and Chomsky was wrong about a number of things, in my book. Here are some of my observations on rereading this small volume.

1. He apparently started a major argument on the value of teaching discreet grammatical points; he has long maintained that this is worthless, since we can raise students' conscious awareness of rules, but only temporarily, and even then only at huge cost. Much of the book he addresses to reviewing the studies of people who tried to fight him on this; this was what some have called a "noticing" group of studies, basically trying to prove that, if you point out grammatical forms to students, and make sure they "notice," they'll do better on tests and ultimately will acquire those forms. Of all the things he said and did, this may have been the biggest, if only because hours and hours of studies have now been wrapped up in this argument. But I'm getting a little impatient with the argument in general, both sides, for reasons I've yet to put carefully into words.

2. One stores one's conscious learned knowledge in a Monitor, which has a capital M like the Civil War Battleship. However, he also uses Monitor as a verb, in which situation it is also capitalized; we Monitor our own output, but we climb upon our capital M's to do it. Actually I think he's making more out of this than necessary. We listen to ourselves, yes. Do you Mind?

3. Then there's the LAD, language acquisition device, a term coined by Chomsky who maintains a genetic disposition to language, through this genetic little device that we all carry around, that just acquires language for us, like magic, thus separating us from animals who don't have the same genetic makeup. I'm a little impatient with this device too. I'd like to see if maybe WalMart can sell me a couple of them, maybe I'll turn them around on resale.

4. Affective filter. Here's my problem with the filter. Supposedly it keeps stuff from coming in, when you're feeling anxious, unhappy, upset, distracted, etc. That's what a filter does. But we're talking about acquisition here. My feeling is that anxiety, unhappiness, distraction, etc. mess up the process in two different ways, and neither of them have to do with input. First is when you lose faith or desire to acquire the language, you lose motivation, and it's hard to wake up in the morning and consciously commit yourself to knowing the language better. You are, after all, taking on a second, and foreign, identity, and at our core we rebel against this. But this doesn't affect our input, or how much we understand of what we hear or read. It can affect how much we try to decode, but that's slightly different. Second, improving one's language is basically experimental- it takes time, energy, noticing, deliberate and proactive as a process. Kind of like choosing a new, faster route to work, and seeing if taking the tollway will cut off five minutes of one's commute. But one doesn't do this when one is late, harried, anxious, upset, or in any way distracted. On those days, like Monday for example, one sticks to the usual route, and grips the wheel with severe resolution, which is actually counterproductive, as we well know. Affective factors are important- don't get me wrong. But it's not a filter...

5. i +1. Here's what bothers me about this. Teachers worldwide have loved this since its inception. It basically says you have to give a student language at the exact level of their learning, plus a little bit. So that they can use what they already know, to figure out one thing at a time. Makes sense, yes? In fact I've made a living spotting appropriate level of materials for students; even today, I feel confident that I can spot level pretty quickly and do well with it.

So here's what bothers me. This i +1 terminology makes it sound like language is a system of abstract theoretical formulae, concepts which must be deeply meditated upon and ingested carefully, one before the other. But it's not. It's basically linear, very simple, though the stunning variety and complex interplay of rules throws people off every time. Sure, there is some embedding of sentences- relative clauses fit into basic sentences, sometimes several times within a single sentence- so therefore, for example, one would have to learn a basic sentence, before one could look at relative clauses. But this isn't deep conceptual stuff. When I was in college, we were on the block plan; we studied only one subject for an entire month. Sciences hated it. They said, you had to spend time to learn these concepts, and you couldn't build on them because you were in such a hurry, you had to move on to another concept before a student had really taken in the first one. But the language people didn't share that kind of frustration. We learned Russian very well (I studied Russian in two of the coldest months in Iowa history, much like Feb. 2008 has been for Carbondale)...the i + 1 terminology gives us the impression that one has to master concepts to get to a level, then move on. I'd like to get at what one really has to do, to move on in any language. I think there are levels, natural plateaus. I don't think they are conceptual, though. I think they're simple, like paths through the forest. One has to be comfortable with them, before one understands them, let alone takes them. But this is much more of a linear process than the terminology would imply.

6. Finally (and this goes back to the beginning), I have lost the page, but Krashen at one point admits that adults learning a second language occasionally need to have some grammar points explained to them. Or, at least he admits that this is acceptable in the context of a language classroom, an appropriate thing for a teacher to do. Students ask, we answer, that's ok. Maybe he published this entire book, so that he could bury that one little concession, deep on some page where I was unable to find it again after I went back looking for it. Yet first time through, it hit me, even in passing, like a red neon EAT sign in the Mojave desert. Of course! They ask because they need to know. We answer because we know they're sincere and they need to know (not because we really believe that we know all the answers)...

This is just the beginning, by the way. More to come.

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teaching e-mail

Emmerson, P. (2004). email English. Oxford, UK: Macmillan.

Pretty simple reference. This is a book used to teach e-mail expressions, etc., probably a big hit in Business English classes where there is some urgency to get students to be able to function in practical situations.

So why don't we feel the same urgency? My students often use e-mail to send excuses- they are sick, or can't come to class, etc. Most of these are fine, though few are perfect. But I often notice how little experience they've had with this, and how quickly it shows. My approach is experiential: I'd like to just be using it as a medium more than I do. But, one has to set this stuff up, start an e-mail group or a listserv, etc.

It's worth pursuing...nothing could be more valuable, in preparing our students for their futures.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

more articles
Portnoy Zheng
Jeff Jarvis- Speaking in tongues vs. nytimes
Blogs vs. N.Y. Times- an interesting bet

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

to read when i get a minute

Eisenberg, A. (2008, Feb. 18). Learning from a native speaker, without leaving home. New York Times. Accessed 2-08.

Info World. (2008, Feb). Crackpot tech: Virtual worlds. Accessed 2-08.

Science Daily. (2008, Feb. 17). No easy answers in evolution of human language. Accessed 2-08.

Stevens, V. (2008, Feb. 4). All I know about blogging and microblogging. adVanceducation. Accessed 2-08.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

primacy of oral language

In graduate school a moment came and passed when the entire class, except for me, agreed that oral language was first; it preceded written language; it was there in almost every case, though only some languages were written, and in general, the written alphabetics corresponded to sounds, which then corresponded to meaning- writing went through sound, which was more basic, on its way to what it represented.

Now, many years later, I'm searching for where exactly any linguistics book discussed this. If I remember correctly, my entire class agreed with this general principle; the teacher thought I was a nut to question it, or to not see the obvious. I couldn't marshal my argument quickly enough, and the moment passed.

What I would like to have said, is that I'm not sure I see why it has to be that way. Sure, maybe most languages started out oral, with spoken words representing ideas, a set of oral symbols that everyone understood; then some got a written set of symbols superimposed on that set of symbols, so that in most cases, oral was first, oral was basic. Notable exceptions were deaf languages that sprung up in deaf communities; and, maybe, heiroglyphics. Is it possible that people skipped the oral stage? Or did the pictures first? Or, that in some cases, the mind does not take the familiar route, or the one that we would expect applies to all situations? I suspect it's possible, because, a symbol is a symbol, and people are willing to do what's easiest. And, basically, that's why 99% of the time, they follow the usual pattern, and sometimes they don't.

More about this later, I hope.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Parsley & Sagebrush Band

Tip Top Tap & Tavern
Cobden Illinois
Friday, Feb. 15 8-12 pm
See you there!


ice storm cometh

The campus and southern Illinois are gripped in an ice storm that is in its second day; though SIUC is open after a day off, there are many who are not coming to class, or having problems with the ice in general. Without commenting on that (yet), I'm posting to say: when I get a break, I write. Here is the latest:

For my upcoming TESOL presentation, Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, this is one I'm proud of:

Leverett, T. (2008). Communicative competence in the digital era. Part of Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing-IS, TESOL, New York City, April.

Here are two more in a general series on the communicative era, Krashen, language learning, etc.

Leverett, T. (2008). Communicative theory rocks the late 20th century. Unpublished manuscript. Available

Leverett, T. (2008). Grammar wars. Unpublished manuscript. Available

Bibliographies laughably inaccurate; not finished. As usual, comments welcome...enjoy!

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Friday, February 08, 2008

tom sawyer and the fence

SIUC students largely ignored a survey on plagiarism here that was offered by national expert Don McCabe, whom I went to see, brieflly, yesterday. I sat in the back, as I knew I had to leave early, to talk to a student who had requested a meeting. I can verify that this article reported accurately what he said; nobody knows why they chose to ignore the survey. It was pointed out that he is, after all, asking them to report honestly on dishonesty. He also pointed out that IP addresses make the concept of "anonymity" in these online surveys obsolete these days. Yet SIUC students still gave him about a tenth of the response that students at other schools gave him; the faculty, on the other hand, was about consistent with other schools.

The talk was well attended, but mostly by faculty, people like me, possibly, who teach about plagiarism, or others who keep the fires of interest burning. The way I teach it, to internationals who freely admit that it's common and even required in their countries, makes the plagiarism he talks about almost inconceivable. Yet I knew he was right about several things: it's an entirely different world from when he started studying the issue, in 1990. The cut-and-paste web makes the borders of personal expression permeable, words, pictures and ideas batted around like so many marbles on a wooden porch, with a few arguments breaking out occasionally over a "cat's eye."

He'd heard the word "whitewash" as a cynical characterization of what he was doing, and a possible reason for being cold-shouldered by students. I saw no evidence that his visit was an attempt to cover over anything, though I have no idea of how the pr of these things actually works. We came, we listened (at least for a while), and I, for one, found Dr. McCabe to be refreshing, honest, interesting, and knowledgable. Yet he left town not knowing one thing: how SIUC students were really feeling about the issue. Whatever doubts he carries about all the real data he has collected on the issue, at least that's better than no data at all.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Big Apple for the teachers

Today is noteworthy for several reasons, besides being payday. You may have noticed that I've renamed this blog- partly because of a general trend of using my formal name (Thomas) with all my esl-related work, and with more of my life in general. People still call me Tom, of course, and I don't want that to change- yet I find that when I sign things, and when I present myself to the world, in particular the esl world- I'm more often using Thomas. And I'm trying to give the blog a general makeover- partly because I'm going to start using it to present a consistent philosophy about language learning and teaching that I've been propagating through my writing. I actually got started writing, and got into the habit, by blogging- and because that was deliberately informal, I used small letters, and used "tom"...well, things change, and this just did. More changes on their way.

But the point of this post is this. Recently an siuc grad became incoming president of the TESOL organization, at the same time the huge TESOL Convention is planning for its upcoming bash in none other than New York City. As a regular presenter I've been looking forward to this one, wishing I could plan my presentations a little more or better, but also somewhat awed by the fact that I'm off to the big apple itself to do this. It better be good! This also will be in April, and, as we know, April rocks! But it's also gotten me to mull over what this convention has meant to me over the years, and, what the organization itself has meant. I hope to do a series on this, if I can come up with enough useful to say: I think TESOL and its members need to speak up a little, I'm just a little shy. I'm getting over it though. My sister, a musician who actually lives there, has performed the Empire State Building, if I'm not mistaken. The Sheraton may be the closest I get to going uptown, playing the Garden myself. But, in its own kind of way, going to New York is also like coming home. This is because going there involves going through, or at least flying over, all of the places where I grew up: Ohio, Pennsylvania, western New York state; that busy, windy, polluted kind of feeling gives me a kind of excitement, a foot on the gas that I have only rarely experienced since I moved out here to the wide-open, hilly river valleys something like thirty years ago....I'm inclined to take my banjo, but the darned case doesn't stay shut, and there's way too much trouble in the airports these days. Forgive the ramble....I'll bring details; I hope to meet up with old friends there, and hope, also, to have time to at least say hello.

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