Talking about Language

One of the interesting things about learning to become a language teacher is just how much your vocabulary improves. There’s a lot of jargon related to different aspects of language that one doesn’t ordinarily come across in life. So here’s a fairly random sprinkling of some of the more interesting (to me!) words we language teachers learn to use:

Present Perfect Simple: for a lot of English speakers, this tense gives them their first realisation that they don’t know as much about their mother tongue as they’d thought. It looks like this:

subject + have/has + past participle form of verb, e.g.

I’ve lived here for five years.

She’s gone to Spain for a week.

I’ve never seen that film.

It confounds us because sentences in the present perfect tense tend to look like they only refer to the past (I’ll let you ponder over why it is in fact a present tense). It also presents a lot of difficulties for students, partly for the same reason, but also because lots of languages don’t have a direct equivalent, or use the same structure for another purpose (e.g. French).

TTT: teacher-talking time. The general advice new teachers get is to reduce their teacher-talking time, to give students a chance to practise the language, and work collaboratively on figuring it out. However, a lot of students can get the impression that the teacher is not engaged in the lesson if they’re not speaking, and sometimes they just like to hear their teacher talk, especially if they’re interesting. Finding a good balance of TTT and STT (I think you can figure that one out) is a crucial skill for a teacher to learn.

Discourse marker: Ok, right, what this is, is, basically, um, language we use to, well, organise our ideas. They can be words like anyway, or firstly, which give us an indication of the speaker’s attitude, or the sequence of events. Sometimes, they can simply function to, well, give us time to think about what we want to say, and, you know, organise our thoughts. Most of us have particular ones we like to use, even if we’re not aware of them. Mine is Hhm, let me see… I most often use it when I’m regrouping students, and am trying to figure out how best to move them around. Or when I’m pretending to try to figure it out when I’ve actually already planned it out well in advance. For maximum effect, it should be accompanied by some hearty chin stroking. It was only brought to my attention when I asked a teenage student to act as teacher for the first part of the lesson to break up the routine of the group’s four-week stay. He did an uncanny impersonation, and I realised how much  I did it. And I still do it whenever I teach.

Hypernym and Hyponym: one of those situations I like when there’s a very complex-sounding term for something straightfoward. I won’t even bother explaining these terms, as examples should suffice:

Hpyernym: vehicle          Hyponyms: car, aeroplane, bus, van etc.

Hypernym: fruit               Hyponyms: apple, pear, orange, banana etc.

PARSNIP: and sometimes you get a wonderful new meaning for a word. In teaching, PARNSIP is an acronym for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, –Isms, and Pork. Basically, areas to be aware of in terms of cultural sensitivity when teaching or creating teaching materials. This is particularly important for English teaching which often involves international, multi-cultural classes.

Fossilisation: When a student can’t shake a simple error, and continues to make it even when they get to a high level of English. A common example is students forgetting to add an s to third-person singular verbs, mainly because they otherwise don’t have to conjugate verbs in the present tense (e.g. saying He go to the shop, or She live near the school). There are various reasons for fossilation: it could be using a form which exists in the speaker’s native language (like adding an s to adjectives describing plurals), or it could be because the correct form is difficult to hear when native speakers speak (e.g. when students say Is sunny today instead of It’s sunny today.)

Display Question and Referential Question: A display question is one that the teacher knows the answer to, but asks students to get them to practise a certain language form. For example:

Is this a pen?

What colour is the sky?*

A referential question is one we don’t know the answer to. It could simply be asking the students what they did the previous evening at the start of a lesson. Display questions can be useful to get students to use particular language, but can often be artificial and their relevance not obvious for students. The ideal situation would be to use referential questions to practice language. For example, when teaching colours to beginner students, the teacher could ask students what their favourite colours are, or point to colours and ask them if they like them, or how they make them feel. If you want to get students to practice forms for referring to future plans and intentions, then just ask them what they’re doing at the weekend. It engages the students more, and helps them to see the real-life function of the language.

Dangling modifier: Hee hee! Sounds filthy, but is actually quite banal. A modifier is a word or phrase that describes something. If it’s not clear what it refers to, or if there’s simply nothing in the sentence for it to refer to, it’s a dangling modifier. For example:

With a sigh of relief, the door was opened.

Now we can assume here that someone was waiting anxiously for the door to be opened, and breathed a sigh of relief when it was. However, because the sentence doesn’t actually mention the person, it’s not obvious who was sighing. Even worse, the strucure of the sentence makes it look like the door sighed with relief! We can fix the sentence easily:

Jack sighed with relief when the door was opened.

Dangling modifiers are most likely to occur when someone is trying to be poetic, spicing up a straightforward. With a cry of warning, I’ll echo the advice of most great writers: keep it simple!

Sometimes learning to teach is like learning a whole new language. Which now that I think about it, is quite useful for relating to language students…

*the correct answers are… yes it is, and blue.

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