Monday, December 08, 2008

Teaching word origins

some time ago, I recommended a site called developingteachers.com and told you that their weekly email tips were worth reading. Sign up, I'm sure you'll find something interesting to do with your students.

This week's tip, although a good one, could have been developed more fully, especially for those of us who teach English to speakers of Romance languages. We aren't all in Thailand and Japan, you know!

The teaching tip makes the valid point that learning vocabulary can be more interesting for learners if they know something about the origin of the word. I couldn't agree more, as etymology is some that I love - I could spend hours just flicking through a dictionary or my copy of Brewer's Phrase and Fable. The email goes on to give an A to Z of some interesting words and their origins.

My concern is that although word origins are interesting, they won't necessarily help a learner to recall new vocabulary if they don't create a spark that ignites a chain of thoughts leading to the actual word being summoned up.

For example, the first word on the list is 'avocado'. If my French student was looking for this word in English, he might well remember that the origin of this word was 'testicle' in some south American language, but would that help him to remember the word 'avocado' itself?

When I was a child there was a very famous series of television commercials for a type of Vermouth (fortified wine) featuring the British comedian Leonard Rossiter and the even more well-known Joan Collins (of Dynasty). Research showed that although everyone who had seen the commercial could remember how funny it was, even the exact lines of the two actors, very few could remember which drink it was promoting: was it Martini or Cinzano?

The advertisers had neglected the product in favour of a very funny ad. This could happen to a word with a memorable history.

Going back to example of avocado, if your learners are speakers of Romance languages, they will probably recognise that it's also the Spanish word for 'lawyer'. The Spanish colonialists heard an indigenous word that sounded a bit like 'avocado' (not very much like it in reality) and started to use it. When the fruit travelled the Atlantic to Europe, the French heard the Spanish using the word 'avocado' - (lawyer) and translated it to French: 'avocat' (just like English, 'advocate').

Another word on the list was 'umbrella'. Here is the definition:

Umbrella, appeared in English as early as 1609 (in a letter by
John Donne). In the middle of the 18th century the device was
adopted by the philanthropist Jonas Hanway as a protection
against the London rain.


There is no etymology here, just the date that it entered the English language. It would have been more pertinant, perhaps, to mention that umbrella comes from Italian 'ombrello' which relates to 'shade' not rain, and in fact was used to protect against the sun, not the rain. A French speaker would quickly recognise the word 'ombre' (shade or shadow) in his own language from the word umbrella, in fact, an old word for 'parasol' is 'ombrelle'.

The last word that I find could have been exploited more - at least for Europeans - is 'walnut'. I was surprised to discover that it means 'foreign nut'. But I did know that 'Wales' and 'Wallonie', a region in Belgium, are from a word that the Romans used to describe non-Latin speakers, hence foreigners. These words are also related to the French 'Gaul', as the Norman invaders of Britain had a strange way of pronouncing the letter G, it sounded to them like a W.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Hearing Pidgin English

Going back to the exercise, 'word wizard' in the book Keep Talking, I was discussing in class the other day which words they would choose that they consider to be the most important. I started writing them up, and added a few words that would make communicating easier:

that thing
yes/no
up/down
man/woman
big/small
here/there
what/where/when/how/who (not why - it can be too abstract)

The learners contributed things like:

give
work
do
have
go
weekend
love
eat
drink
family etc.

So we had about 35 words on the board, and we started trying to make conversation using 'pidgin English'. The conversation went like this:

What work you do?

I do big work: thing go up: thing go down (they make helicopters!)

Where you go weekend?
I go there: do love woman: go eat drink family.

Doing this is exactly what we are NOT supposed to do in class : lower our level of English to that of the learner, ie speaking pidgin English. But it teaches valuable lessons about English:

1. English is essentially quite a simple, monosyllabic language. With just thirty words, I can something like, 'I do no work', which my learners are surprised to discover is grammatically correct, and certainly not pidgin English.

2. We communicate much more with our gestures, facial expressions and intonation than with words themselves (according to some, only 7% of communication is verbal)

3. Perhaps the most important, that English intonation forces the listener to hear pidgin English, that is, as we 'swallow' almost all 'grammatical' words, like prepositions and articles, the listener only hears the 'meaning' words, like verbs, nouns, adjectives.

To demonstrate this last point, I give the learners some sentences to analyse, for example:

do you want to know what he's going to give me?

which could be pronounced (I never do, of course):

jerwanna know wha(t) izgonna gimme?

Or a little more sensible:

On a clear day, you can see the mountains on the horizon.

I point out that in the real world, the prepositions, articles and auxiliaries are so softly pronounced that one only hears:

clear day see mountains horizon

thus turning a perfectly good sentence into pidgin English.

Go to the pronunciation pages at anglais-facile.com for more information about intonation and articulation in English.