Monday, January 29, 2007

The stormy history of English and French

All my students have heard me talk about a book that I think everyone learning English or French should read. It's called "honni Soit Qui Mal Y Pense" by a great linguist, Henriette Walter.

It's the history of the two languages and how they developed in relation to each other. I've been criticised in the past for saying that English is just a dialect of French, it isn't, I know, but French has had such a profound impact on English that it is important to be aware of it. You will find it so much easier to retain and recall words if you know that they are simply modified French words.

Walter's attitude is refreshing - nowhere does she complain about the amount of English words used in French today, rather, she celebrates the cultural and linguistic exchange that has taken place for over a thousand years.

I don't really like it when I hear French people say "sur-booké" or "faire un meeting", but that's life - just like in English we still say "coup d'état" or "chic". Our ability to communicate ideas can only improve by having so many more words to use!

If you are French and want to know more about your language and English, buy this book. It's a pity it doesn't exist in English, but even if your French is not so good, you will find tons of interesting stuff about word origins etc.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Thoughts on "The Lexical Approach"

When I studied to become an English teacher, one of my instructors talked about a book that had had a considerable impact on the world of EFL. Called "The Lexical Approach", this book by Michael Lewis challenges a lot of the conventional wisdom in English language teaching.
Lewis summarises the book himself with the statement that "language is grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar." What does this rather obscure sentence mean? Basically that the language came first, and grammar is our attempt to find order in language. If this is the case, then it is wrong to start with grammar and expect our students to "fill the gaps" by adding vocabulary.
Think of it: if you did stupid exercises in your French class like "où est le singe?" - "le singe est dans l'arbre" (where is the monkey? - the monkey is in the tree) you will see that Lewis is right - we don't need possible sentences, but probable ones.
In class I still hear students say "my tailor is rich". Why? Because they learned it in school, and never having found an opportunity to use it a real context, they just say it to me like it's part of an interesting conversation.
The Lexical Approach can make depressing reading if you are really gung-ho on grammar bashing - but never fear - he does recommend drilling, lexical drilling, that is, which can be rather fun with the right groups.
I bought the book just after my CELTA course, which wasn't the best time - it left me a bit confused about what makes a good EFL teacher. But if you have been teaching for a while, it's well worth a look.