Monthly Archives: November 2009

Fastererer, bettererer, or wrongererer?

Advertising Copywriters and other Role Models in Language Teaching and Training

Beware: Satire

The other day, I noticed a new advertising campaign by a German airline. Linguistically genetically engineered, or rather maimed adjectives like the ones in the blog title were paraded on posters, which were strategically placed in Hanover’s underground stations and along major roads. Each poster featured a different bastardized, distorted and degenerated adjective in German which was positioned on top of a photograph of a smiling air hostess. I took the liberty of adapting them when I wrote this spoof and needed to come up with their equivalents in English. However, I managed to retain the intended “play” on the last syllables.

On the following day, about at the same time, I noticed a small group of migrants. This is what we call the people pertaining to this group because we do not have immigrants in Germany. They had assembled before one of these posters and were looking reverently upwards at this novel aberration of our language.

Then, the most astonishing thing happened. One of the girls stepped forward, turned around towards her group and began to recite rhythmically the subject matter of their admiration, clapping her hands as if to underline each syllable. All the time, she moved about like a cheerleader, while enunciating each syllable of the adjective of their choice with great precision and no small degree of enthusiasm. WRONG-ER-ER-ER, WRONG-ER-ER-ER, WRONG-ER-ER-ER, the group chimed in, chanting ecstatically with enraptured eyes.

The entire situation somehow reminded me of elocution classes pegged down a few notches. And at the same time, I was thinking of Dr. Joachim Grzega`s novel and daring concept of Basic Global English. Mr Grzega is a German linguist with a mission in that he has, like his copywriting advertising colleagues, maimed and mutilated a language, though in his case it is Standard English – a language which is not his native tongue. His novel and courageous invention is a Simplified-Simple-Speak version of the “Local English, German Version or German Chapter”.

What is most admirable is the fact that Dr. Grzega has boldly reduced Standard English grammar to 20 rules. He did not even bother to ask native speakers of English – the rightful owners of Standard English – whether a non-native speaker of English should be allowed to tamper with one of the most subtle languages of Europe, which has proven to be a tried and tested code of communication. His Basic Global English consists of a vocabulary of some 750 word and a bonus bespoke vocabulary of 250 words, tailored to the individual needs of his pupils. Dr. Grzega reckons that this Simplified-Simple-Speak vocabulary is good enough to explain our present day complex world with. And the perhaps teeny-weeny individual worlds of his learners with the help of the tailor-made 250-word bonus vocabulary. The only good news is that the adjectives used in the caption of this spoof are on his pitiful vocabulary list of 750 words which “BGE speakers” should know. Consequently, learners of Basic Global English and Basic Global Business English will at least be able to read the caption of this blog.

To revert to my small group of enthusiasts, I could not find fault with all this. They were just acting true to fashion. To them, it was good or correct German worthy of becoming part of their active vocabulary. After six months of intensive hypnopaedia – I am being awfully sarcastic here – in a free language course which migrants of German descent receive upon arrival in Germany and after passing a language test prior to being given a visa, many of these migrants can barely bid you good morning in German after completion of said course. A Polish colleague told me ten years ago that at most language schools, learners are advised not to study the language of their new home country but pick up the language “naturally”. This holds also true for present-day languages classes for migrants. If they come across a new word they do not know, they are advised not to consult dictionaries. With time, they will know, they are told. Many migrants I have asked ever since have confirmed this. By implication it means: don’t take the trouble to learn new words; do not enlarge your vocabulary; do not increase your power of thinking.

You are also likely to encounter the all too complacent advice by teachers “Do not worry if you don’t understand a word”, the implication being to take it easy, not to bother to look up words in a dictionary or even dictionaries, not to study how words and phrases operate in their contexts. Try telling that to your young children when they ask you about the meaning of a word when they begin to learn their native tongue. No one would ever dream of doing this. Why is it done when it comes to teaching a foreign language? Has nobody ever realized how incongruous or indeed absurd this instruction is?

In foreign language teaching you may even come across a native speaker of English giving learners expert advice like, for instance, not to bother looking up words but to pick up the language “naturally” without their ever having learnt a foreign language themselves. Likewise, they may never bother to teach words and phrases in a context. “Teaching English in contexts is considered time consuming in pedagogy”, a young teacher-student said in a lecture only two years ago. That is why you still find learners learning single words by heart, perhaps with one sentence to illustrate their meaning. It must be the same method used by Neolithic men when they were building up their vocabulary by looking at cave paintings and learning the animals` names by rote. But one needs more sentences or parts of them to anchor words in the memory, become more fluent and acquire a good grasp of any given language.

As a result, we have migrants living here “abroad” for a decade or two and they still do not know any German at all. Others have a working vocabulary of about 700 words or so and talking to them is a strain on anyone who takes a genuine interest in what is being said. If not and you just nod them off out of politeness, you are behaving “politically correct” but without the slightest genuine exchange of ideas. Is it any wonder that migrants are not fully integrated in our society?

You may even find many migrants who have lived here for 10 or even 20 years and who can barely speak the language but are, nevertheless in a state of blissful incompetence, believing that they do speak the language. Despite the fact that many of them have German colleagues at work and German friends, they have not improved their German one little bit. Watching TV regularly, but passively seems no solution either for most of them. I think it is high time that the fairy tale that one learns a language best by living in the country were put under close scrutiny. This myth will then probably be in tatters: living in a foreign country without getting involved in the language in one way or other does not guarantee success. People who can pick up a language only by ear and do not even need a native speaker spouse or friend they can consult on grammar and the meaning of words are as rare as chess-grandmasters, but the latter have to work very hard and train every day for hours on end in addition to being extremely talented.

Basically, living in the country of one’s choice, together with a multitude of learning aids, provides ample opportunities to learn a language. It would be interesting to find out why most people, migrants and learners of a foreign language alike, manage to communicate only at the “threshold level”. It is small wonder that too many migrants have difficulty in entering the “house” or, in other words, become integrated in society. Very little is known about how “very good” students learn a foreign language. Some of those who managed to acquire good language skills, be it when they lived abroad or in their country of origin, do not talk about it, but from my experience and modest “research”, I can say that most truly advanced students did, in one way or the other, work for it.

Almost 25 years ago there was a passage in a brochure issued by the either Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Science and Technology, I cannot recall exactly which, about prize-winning pupils in the annual foreign languages competition. It innocently stated that nothing at all was known about how those pupils learned their foreign languages, only one thing was certain: not in school. Looking at the latest PISA results, we may deduce that for some reason or other this state of “ignorance” has been perpetuated.

Way back in 1982, I took part in a conversation in which a friend of a friend claimed that he knew someone at a Regional Government Office whose job it was to convert A-Level results to those of 1953 and that a straight “A” achieved in 1982 was a humble “C” in 1953. Not surprisingly, standards have deteriorated further in the intervening 27 years and it would be interesting to know, what an “A” achieved in 2009 is really worth these days. Can one not infer that the poor PISA results German pupils scored did not come as a surprise to the authorities and why corrective action was not taken in time? In my opinion, it was easier to acquiesce in the situation brought about by the unconstrained application of the doctrines of a liberal and permissive society, rather than try to apply higher standards against the opposition of minority groups.

To answer my question in the caption of this satire, whether admen, or more politically correct, adpersons serve as role models in language learning: the answer is a resounding no. However, at least one creative mind of our nation’s best minds – so they say – must feel very proud now. Allegedly, the best psychologists work in PR, marketing and advertising. Had I not known, I would never have guessed. Perhaps the perpetrator of this linguistic crime will be nominated for the next “Advertising Oscar”, which ad people award each other at their annual binge.

There is no trick to being a satirist when you have so many people working for you.

About this posting

This posting is part of a series dedicated to topics dealing with various aspects of the English language which usually get short shrift on the internet and in other publications. It is, in a wider sense, concerned with the English language crumbling into incomprehensibility at alarming speed and how society is influenced by it. How do schools and universities react and in what way is literature affected by all this? Furthermore, how do people working in education and linguistics cope with this avalanche of “Local English neologisms”?

What often sounds like modern Pidgin English can generally be put down to neo-pidginicity. It is an artificially accelerated and manipulated process – or rather linguistic genetic engineering – of attempting to oversimplify Standard English, the result of which is in all cases some sort of Neo Pidgin English or Simplified-Simple-Speak. Four major fields of contact contribute to the gradual encroachment on Standard English: Basic Global English, as advocated by Dr. Joachim Grzega, machine translations of any kind, unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity – being passed off as standard English but in fact written by non-native speakers of English, the acceptance of “Local English” and non-native speakers of English teaching their version of “Local English”. The result of the English “produced” in all these areas of contact is often, at best, a barely elevated Pidgin English.

And to compound matters, Globish appears to become a composite haphazard mixture of all about 180 Local Englishes and may for that very reason not be as easy as some people think once it has evolved into a sub-language of Standard English.

Finally, it would be interesting to see the first book written in Basic Global English, Dr. Joachim Grzega`s novel and daring invention and see in which section bookshops will display such a work of art.

Advertisements

Bane or Boon: Social Work in Teaching Foreign Languages

How do benign teaching methods contribute to learning a foreign language?
Reliance on the elusive spoken word, time-consuming games and teaching techniques peculiar to animators, group discussions unchecked for appropriateness, precision, and clarity, unbridled disregard of error-swapping in peer-editing and group discussions: To come up with a scheme to remedy the current sorry state, a rigorous analysis of what is going on at the receiving end in the teaching process, for instance, recording and analysing classroom activities, may be useful in reassessing the unhappy status quo.


How a failure in communication changed my life

With tongue in cheek, I relish telling this little anecdote about the origin of CTM or Communicative Teaching Method, which has been dogmatically and uncritically applied in teaching foreign languages ever since. I was a contemporary witness when a paradigm change took place and social work was implemented in pedagogy way back in the seventies. To illustrate my point, this is when I became aware of it.
Scottish Peter, as he was nicknamed, was standing before me, bent over with his hands supporting his massive body on his knees. He was swaying from side to side, alternatingly directing first his left ear and then his right ear into the direction of my mouth. All the time, he had a look of utter despair on his face, his eyes fixed onto my lips as if this were to facilitate his comprehension of what I was trying to say. Alas, it was to no avail.

I was trying to pronounce the word “vegetable”, but I must have gotten the IP alphabet symbols wrong when I taught myself some of the rudimentary things about the English language. Not unexpectedly, there were bound to be errors and in this case my pronunciation of the second syllable sounded like “table”, vege-table. No wonder Scottish Peter, who worked as a breakfast and vegetable cook in our small hotel in Guernsey for the summer season, had a hard time understanding me. And being a social worker by profession, he felt it his duty to blame himself for what he thought was his inability to understand my gibberish sort of language, rather than blaming my ignorance and inability to speak understandable, accurate and clear English. But can you actually blame him? He was probably the victim of the theory of CTM, which has, up to now, not been scientifically tested. He was probably thinking all the time when our little communicative comical act was going on that I was an underprivileged victim of society. It never crossed his mind that I might have been just too lazy to learn proper Standard English! Needless to say that this break-down in communication was no isolated incident and I resolved to do something about it to ensure I would always be understood with ease, if that should ever be possible.

At the time, I had little theoretical grounding on phonetics and grammar worth mentioning. My active vocabulary was about 700 words barely enough to engage in simple-speak-small-talk. English people are always polite and tried to make me believe that my English was good, which I knew was not. After my first stay in the UK, I began to work in earnest with authentic material to improve my English in all areas. In short, I began to “study” proper English largely on my own. It was common practice at the time that the native teachers did most of the talking, which suited me well since I was very much interested in “authentic English” and in most cases, I absorbed this as first rate model English like a sponge.

It was the time, when the responsibility for results to be achieved in language- teaching rested solely with the teacher. He was supposed to impart his or her knowledge of his or her language, his or her expertise on synonyms, near synonyms and varied structures, giving many contextual examples. And all of this was done skilfully, professionally and competently with a high degree of enthusiasm, fervour and zeal. I have it on good authority straight from the horse’s mouth that these days, teaching contextual English is considered “time-consuming”. They always handed out copies of the texts so that one was able to work with them at home in one’s own time and do the all-important revisions whenever one wanted to. Some of them had used their teaching material for more than twenty years without detriment to the motivation of their students. With this way of presenting material, I found that the retention rate was high, probably because of the affective element inherent in this teaching technique. Out of about fifteen teachers of English I have had, about four actually possessed those rare qualities. This high-calibre and talented kind of person was appreciated unanimously by all students, even the slow and lazy ones. What was mostly valued by most of us was his or her ability to give explanations eloquently and fit for printing, in short, he and she was a master of his or her language.

Then, there was a major change in teaching of foreign languages. I vividly remember the evening when I had my first encounter with the “Communicative Teaching Method” or CTM, as it was called. It was in one of those language classes for immigrants in South Africa. I had attended the language course for immigrants before and was surprised that we were about 80 people in the class on that evening as opposed to some 20 in previous classes. The new teacher divided the class into groups of four with the air of an expert as if he had had long years of practice in what was to follow. He then went around the class talking briefly to each group. Our group was the last he stopped by and after exchanging a few sentences with each of us he established that our group happened to be the most advanced group in the room. Since I was not interested in statistics and swapping errors with other non-native speakers of English, I stopped going to that class.

Only years later did I find out that the CTM had been introduced worldwide without any shred of scientific evidence as to its efficacy. And I have not seen any comparative long-term scientific studies of any given method combination!

But this was not my last contact with my pedagogic pet peeve. A university lecturer at Hannover University, who had read German at some American university, had been in the country for a number of years, cohabiting with a German woman for some time. Yet, he was unable to speak German; it was rather the gibberish sort – despite all the advantages of living with an educated native speaker, which is particularly conducive to acquiring a foreign tongue.

And he did insist on going by the CTM “Book” in his classes. One day he called to tell me that he had been most astonished to have found more than ninety students in his class at his university course on Shakespeare, and was eager and proud to explain that he had gone by “The Book” by having the students form groups of four and speak to one another in English. All he did was go round, ensuring that only English was spoken, while making sure he did not miss a single table of four.

I suppose that in the not too distant future this sort of hopping from group to group and “listening in” can be taken over by some language-surveillance computer or robot. This device would hover above the participants, the symbolic meaning of hovering being the authority or superior knowledge so badly craved for, ignore the quality of English spoken, emit some encouraging sounds at irregular intervals, tilt its metal head as a sign of attention, extend a pair of metal ears, duly pricked-up – and it could even be programmed to make some nodding movement, indicating approval – and it would not have to be in the right places because nobody would notice or care.

Needless to say that it is S.O.P. (Standard Operating Procedure) with CTM not to interfere, not to correct even bad mistakes and above all, to leave the talking to the group: “active speaking” right from the start. In other words: output without input.

Incidentally, the expression “active speaking” is part of a slogan used by a coaching company in Germany. Ever since I read their ad, I have been wondering what “passive speaking” may be like. “Silence” would be my best guess, also because it is what would be best these days in many cases.

There is no trick to being a satirist if you have so many people working for you.

About this posting

This posting is part of a series dedicated to topics dealing with various aspects of the English language which usually get short shrift on the internet and in other publications. It is, in a wider sense, concerned with the English language crumbling into incomprehensibility at alarming speed and how society is influenced by it. How do schools and universities react and in what way is literature affected by all this? Furthermore, how do people working in education and linguistics cope with this avalanche of “Local English neologisms”?

What often sounds like modern Pidgin English can generally be put down to neo-pidginicity. It is an artificially accelerated and manipulated process – or rather linguistic genetic engineering – of attempting to oversimplify Standard English, the result of which is in all cases some sort of Neo Pidgin English or Simplified-Simple-Speak. Four major fields of contact contribute to the gradual encroachment on Standard English: Basic Global English, as advocated by Dr. Joachim Grzega, machine translations of any kind, unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity – being passed off as standard English but in fact written by non-native speakers of English, the acceptance of “Local English” and non-native speakers of English teaching their version of “Local English”. The result of the English “produced” in all these areas of contact is often, at best, a barely elevated Pidgin English.

And to compound matters, Globish appears to become a composite haphazard mixture of all about 180 Local Englishes and may for that very reason not be as easy as some people think once it has evolved into a sub-language of Standard English.

Finally, it would be interesting to see the first book written in Basic Global English, Dr. Joachim Grzega`s novel and daring invention and see in which section bookshops will display such a work of art