Friday, July 24, 2009

A new word every 98 minutes

New words are coined in English all the time. However, I didn't realize how many until I read this article on the BBC website.

Apparently a new word is created every 98 minutes and there are already one million words in English.

Wow!

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The nature of communication

I have been reading up on linguistics and also reading about different definitions of communication. So far I haven’t found one that I am satisfied with, so I’m going to make my own:

Communication is a tool that we use to interact with the world around us.

When we are babies, we learn to interact with the world around us using our five senses, we see things, hear things, taste things, smell things and touch things. Perhaps communication is a sixth sense (no pun intended). Just as we poke at something with a finger to see how it reacts, we later poke at things with utterances to see how they react. As we grow, utterances become words, words become phrases, phrases become metaphors and so on. Hence when we communicate, we are not sending a message and waiting for a reply, we are sending an action and waiting for a reaction.

Take for example, the angry customer who shouts at the waiter. He isn’t sending a message. He is battering the poor waiter as a release for his frustrations and insecurities. When he sees the waiter react in an ‘appropriate way’, he stops. He then goes on to tell his dinner partners how you have to be tough with ‘these people’. Clearly, this communication is about psychology and status; even about causing pain and hurt.

Okay, from theory to practice. All this is nice, but how is it going to help us teach English? As we know, the communicative method is widely used in language teaching and one of the staples of the communicative method is role play. But how often do we give realistic role play scenarios to our students?
A typical role play may be a customer in a shop and it goes something like this:

Shopkeeper: How may I help you?
Customer: I would like to buy some sausages, please.
Shopkeeper: Certainly. How many would you like to buy…?

This kind of role play teaches communication as a way to send and receive messages. But when I go into a shop, the interaction is something more like the following. (I should add that I live in a country where English is spoken, but as a second language.)

Shopkeeper: (Sees me, recognizes that I am a foreigner, prepares to act accordingly)
Me: (Sizes up shopkeeper, wonder whether shopkeeper can speak good English or whether I should try another language, which would put me at a disadvantage.)
Shopkeeper: Hah? (local way of saying ‘Yes?’)
Me: Do you have sausages? (speaking slowly, still unsure how much English the shopkeeper speaks)
Shopkeeper: Sausages? (in case he heard me incorrectly)
Me: Yes. Four, please. (now confident that shopkeeper can speak English, but thinking to myself ‘this guy isn’t very polite, is he?’)
Shopkeeper: Three dollars. (plops bag on counter, thinks ‘I wonder if he’s American. I don’t like Americans since they invaded Iraq.’)
Me: ‘kay. (I’d usually say thank you, but since this guy is pretty rough and ready, I won’t bother.)

Of course, this is an interaction between a native speaker and a non-native speaker in a country where English is spoken as a second language. You may be thinking that your interactions with shopkeepers are rather different. But the point is that these conversations do not follow ‘textbook English’. So we owe it to our students to make role plays a little deeper. Give the characters some attitude. Put them in a socio-cultural setting. It’s not hard and it may even teach the students extra vocabulary. It will definitely help them to form a link between what they experience in English class and what they experience ‘on the street’.

So that is just one way that we can improve our teaching by taking a more realistic view of communication. Know any more? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Patchwork - ESL Vocab Game

Patchwork is a simple game that is easy to play and suitable for low to intermediate level ESL learners. It is especially suitable for kids....