?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

ESL Follies

 One of the many things I do in RL is run a class in English as a 2nd language for our post-docs, graduate students and (occasionally) new staff at the research institute where I am on the faculty.  The class had its very first meeting today, and it was pretty amusing.  I have seven 'students', 5 Chinese (from 4 different areas of China), one Indian from Bengal and one Georgian (the former Soviet Republic, not our southern State).  ::gratuitous cracks about how they don't speak English there either will be dealt with by the loss of House Points and detention with Flich::  :-)   I am to help them with their comprehension and pronunciation, and help them delve the mysteries of English grammar.  In order to be able to attend, their spoken English must be judged as 'poor' by their P.I. or the Office of Education.  Keep in mind that these people all passed their TOEFL exam.

And how did I end up doing this, well you may ask, as I am (to paraphrase Dr. McCoy) dammit Jim, a scientist, not an English professor?   No good deed goes unpunished, apparently.  I'm chair of our departmental post-doc seminar committee (that sounds impressive, but it's one of those jobs that gets given to the jr. staff because it's a pain), and I have made a habit of having a debriefing after each person's talk, going over what worked, what didn't and how the presentation could be improved.  I've also been known to do the same for post-docs about to go out and give a job seminar.  For foreign post-docs (which, sadly, now comprise the majority), this includes help with their English.  News of this filtered up the food chain, and the Institute Chair (who happens to have someone in his lab who is now taking the course)  thought it would be a grand idea to offer help with English to the wider Institute community, and, since I was already doing this (sort of) for my department, and since I'm not teaching this year otherwise (having been given a sabbatical because of my illness),  wouldn't I consider doing this while they decide whether it would be a good idea to hire an actual teacher of English (and oh, BTW isn't it time for your mid-term review soon)?  Yep, that's right: blackmail.  Academia - what's not to like?  ::snort::

So here are these poor people, expecting someone who actually knows how to teach English and getting someone who has a great deal of enthusiasm for the subject, but no clue how to start.  I spent a lot of time going over ESL websites, combing the library for ideas and working feverishly to try to put something together that seems coherent and won't be a waste of anyone's time, but still feels as if it's been thrown together from five feet away.  Ugh.  Class seemed to go OK today, but then the Georgian student threw me for a loop (note to self: add 'threw me for a loop' to list of idiomatic expressions).  "Something I am confused over," he said.  "If plural of mouse is mice and plural of louse is lice, why is not plural of house hice?"  Ideas, anyone?
 

Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
atdelphi
Sep. 29th, 2010 10:44 pm (UTC)
Oh boy, this is why English is so...interesting to teach as a second language. I don't have much practical advice, but if you want to forestall the many future questions of "why does this conjugate this way but this conjugates that way," it wouldn't hurt to talk just briefly about the whole thing of how English started out as a collection of Germanic dialects and then, through cultural influence and military invasion, came to take on parts of Latin, Norse, and French. From there, some words regularised and some didn't, and in addition the Great Vowel Shift of the 15th to 18th century made some spellings redundant or counter-intuitive.

So in short, students, "This word conjugates/declines/is pronounced/is spelled this way because it is, and we all just have to deal with it, I'm afraid."
albalark
Sep. 30th, 2010 02:47 pm (UTC)
That's pretty much what did - lol! I hemmed and hawed and said something like, "Well, in English rules are made only to be broken at the earliest opportunity, and there are some things we'll just have to memorize."

English started out as a collection of Germanic dialects and then, through cultural influence and military invasion, came to take on parts of Latin, Norse, and French. From there, some words regularised and some didn't, and in addition the Great Vowel Shift of the 15th to 18th century made some spellings redundant or counter-intuitive.

::is in awe of your etymological knowledge:: Thanks for your help, Delphi!
atdelphi
Sep. 30th, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC)
Minored in Linguistics. :-D I have no teaching experience besides putting together a slightly pointed house style guide for my boss, but if you run into any nitpicky English questions, I'm always happy to dust off the textbooks and help.
rexluscus
Sep. 30th, 2010 03:07 am (UTC)
The short answer is that Old English was an inflected language with gendered nouns, so you formed the plurals differently depending on what declension and gender the noun belonged to. OE declension is really complicated and I don't get it at all, but I looked these words up, and 'mouse' and 'louse' are both feminine while 'house' is neuter, so that might explain it. This book is also telling me that that the 'mouse/mice' formation is due to i-mutation, but I don't know the conditions under which that happens.

In general, these sorts of incoherencies are usually caused by words that look similar superficially actually deriving from words from different languages, and bringing remnants of that language's morphology along with them. But even then, you get cases where a word is borrowed from some other language but then inflected by analogy with a pre-existing English word - so you can't count on the borrowed words to behave in a uniform fashion either.

Short answer: English vocabulary contains so many borrowed words and English grammar itself has been so transformed by its infusion by other languages that it no longer has a regular morphology - irregularity is the rule, as it were. So, as Delphi said, words are like that just because. :)
albalark
Sep. 30th, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC)
OMG, Rex - you didn't have to go hunting for me, but bless you for doing so!! All of this stuff I *don't* know, just makes it increasingly clear to me that I'm about as qualified to do this as I am to do surgery (though one hopes the outcome of English Teaching Without A License will be less gory ::g::). Thanks again for coming to the rescue! ::smishes::
kellychambliss
Sep. 30th, 2010 05:17 am (UTC)
I can't add much to Delphi's and Rexluscus's answers -- "because English is a hybrid language with many competing influences that lead to all sorts of inconsistencies" is pretty much it.

My partner started her professional life as a licensed architect and then switched careers when she realized that an architect working in someone else's office spends much more time fighting with contractors than doing actual design work. She retrained as an ESL teacher, and I know what a demanding job it is. That you're doing it as an "extra" assignment when it's not even your field. . .wow. I'm seriously impressed, and I want to smack your Chair upside the head (to use an expression from that non-Russian Georgia) for asking you. I think you're being taken advantage of, but I'm sure the students are grateful. (Sadly, passing TOEFL doesn't always mean much.)

Having attended one of the few graduate English programs that still required two semesters of Anglo-Saxon, I can attest to its complications. But I really enjoyed it. Reading Old English poems in the original was worth the trouble (not that I remember much of it now, of course; Victorianists don't often have to brush up their Old English.)
albalark
Sep. 30th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
I want to smack your Chair upside the head (to use an expression from that non-Russian Georgia) for asking you. I think you're being taken advantage of, but I'm sure the students are grateful.

You might have to wait in line! :-D As annoyed as I was (and I really felt as if I couldn't say no), my department chair was livid. His bragging about our seminar program is, he thinks, what got this started, so he feels guilty. "I wish you'd told him to come to me," he said. "I'd have told him to bugger off." Now, imagine a tall, distinguished-looking 60-something Indian gentleman saying "bugger off" in Oxford-inflected Hindi-accented English, and you'll probably be tempted to do what I nearly did, which was giggle out loud in a most unprofessional manner. ::ggg::
The worst part of this is that I suspect that the Institute Chair would never have had the idea to do this if he hadn't had someone in his own lab who has difficulties with English.

She retrained as an ESL teacher, and I know what a demanding job it is.

She has my deep and abiding respect, let me tell you. My main concern is serving the students well, when I am *clearly* unqualified to do this, and the students have such widely disparate needs. The one who has the best command of English is my Bengali student, but while her written English is extremely good (better than most of our native speakers, I am sad to say), her spoken English, while grammatically correct, is quite difficult to understand because of her accent and the speed at which she speaks. One of my Chinese students is similar (she comes from Shanghai, and a Chinese colleague tells me that most Chinese don't understand *Chinese* when spoken in the Shanghai dialect). The others are at varying places when it comes to their understanding of English, and need help mostly through practice, imo, except for one of the Chinese students who really needs a lot more help than I will be able to give him (I am suspecting that he either crammed and then forgot everything when he took his TOEFL or hired someone to take it for him). He really is lost and has a very difficult time even forming sentences on paper. I think I'm going to ask our Education Department to refer him to a formal ESL course at the University we're affiliated with.

They certainly all seem enthusiastic and ready to learn, and that makes any teacher's task easier. I don't mind the work, just the sneaking feeling that I'm cheating them. They deserve a teacher who knows what s/he's doing, so I'm hoping that next term they'll hire a certified ESL teacher. That's certainly what I intend to recommend to our Institute Council.

Edited at 2010-09-30 03:59 pm (UTC)
therealsnape
Sep. 30th, 2010 05:47 am (UTC)
This might console one of the more advanced ones. Explains nothing, but they'll know they're not the only ones:

ONLY THE ENGLISH COULD HAVE INVENTED THIS LANGUAGE

We'll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men,
Then shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then one may be that, and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!

Let's face it - English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger;
neither apple nor pine in pineapple.
English muffins weren't invented in England ..
We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes,
we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square,
and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing,
grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham?
Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend.
If you have a bunch of odds and ends
and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?
Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speaking English
should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.

In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?
We ship by truck but send cargo by ship.
We have noses that run and feet that smell.
We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway.
And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same,
while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language
in which your house can burn up as it burns
down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out,
and in which an alarm goes off by going on.

And, in closing, if Father is Pop, how come Mother's not Mop?

I would like to add that if people from Polland are called Poles,
people from Holland should be holes and the Germans Germs.


And my own explanation for the inconsistencies and exceptions in languages (I teach French and Dutch SL) depend on the level of the student: sometimes I really explain how a thing happened diachronistically (if the student would really understand and be interested), and sometimes I explain that exceptions were created so that language teachers may earn their wages.
albalark
Sep. 30th, 2010 03:55 pm (UTC)
That poem, TRS, is a bloody *masterpiece*!!! I have printed it out and have posted it on my wall - it just really made my morning. :-D I'll probably pass it out at our next session, too.

Tu es trop formidable, mon amie! Merci beaucoup!
therealsnape
Sep. 30th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC)
De rien, c'est un vrai plaisir!
Says The Hole (while grinning in a very flattered way at your icon).
therealsnape
Sep. 30th, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
You don't think I wrote it, I hope? I got it from an English friend, and spread it to a few dear flisties. So *not worthy* applies to me, if you thought I'm the genius ...
dickgloucester
Sep. 30th, 2010 08:05 am (UTC)
The answer to this one is: because it is. English is a language made up of more exceptions than rules.

I can give you the titles of various resource books which might help you. (I'm a qualified ESL teacher. Not that I enjoy doing it.)
albalark
Sep. 30th, 2010 04:14 pm (UTC)
The answer to this one is: because it is.

I feel like such *Mom* when I say it, though! ::g::

I can give you the titles of various resource books which might help you. (I'm a qualified ESL teacher. Not that I enjoy doing it.)

Thanks, Dicky! If I run into another problem, I will certainly give you a shout. Having someone who knows what they're doing to consult is very reassuring. :-) I hope you are feeling better today!
::hugs::

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )