A web site for the developing language teacher

June 2005 - issue 6/05


Welcome to the June Newsletter

On the Merriam-Webster Dictionary site:

What's Your Favorite Word (That's Not in the Dictionary)?

What a lovely bunch of vocabularians (persons who make up new words) you are! Lasterday (refers to any day before today) we squinched (action required to fit something into a space that is slightly too small) a schmiglet (a small unit of measurement) of your awesomtastic (so wonderful the words just meld in your mouth) one-of-a-kind entries into this space in preparation for today's Top Ten reveal. With so many chizzy (awesome, super, happening) creations to choose from, we admit to becoming a bit flusterpated (a state of being flustered that's so intense, one's actions and words become bound up) and fahoodled (confused, esp. when trying to think of too many things at once). We craughed (to cry and laugh simultaneously), we troddled (to wander around without knowing of doing so), and finally decided to use the schwack (a large amount) of multiple entries received as the basis for the Top Ten-this is, let's not forget, all about favoritism.

From the thousands of submissions we received, here, then, are the ten words (not in the dictionary) entered the most often:

Top Ten Favorite Words (Not in the Dictionary)

1. ginormous (adj): bigger than gigantic and bigger than enormous

2. confuzzled (adj): confused and puzzled at the same time

3. woot (interj): an exclamation of joy or excitement

4. chillax (v): chill out/relax, hang out with friends

5. cognitive displaysia (n): the feeling you have before you even leave the house that you are going to forget something and not remember it until you're on the highway

6. gription (n): the purchase gained by friction: "My car needs new tires because the old ones have lost their gription."

7. phonecrastinate (v): to put off answering the phone until caller ID displays the incoming name and number

8. slickery (adj): having a surface that is wet and icy

9. snirt (n): snow that is dirty, often seen by the side of roads and parking lots that have been plowed

10. lingweenie (n): a person incapable of producing neologisms

This month Mark Lowe continues with the third of his series of articles with a look at 'Is Grammar Innate?', Sara Hannam joins us for the first time to explain 'The Chinese Student Learning English in Greece: The Meeting of Three Cultures' & Adam Simpson ' returns with a look at 'Task Based Learning for Newcomers'. There is also a brief review of 'Lessons From Nothing' plus the usual sections with lots of links to follow up. Hope you find them all interesting.

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Happy teaching.



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Is Grammar Innate? by Mark Lowe

This article aims to solve an EFL puzzle through philosophical analysis. The puzzle is Chomsky's theory of innate grammar: is it true or not? The answer to this puzzle has important consequences for language teaching it tells us whether we should teach language cognitively through understanding, or whether we should teach it intuitively through helping students to pick up language as young children do. To help solve this puzzle, I draw on the ideas of four philosophers: Ayer, Popper, Wittgenstein and Searle. Let us start with a recap of Chomsky's theory:

'The fact that all normal children can readily acquire the language of the community in which they grow up, without special instructors and on the basis of very imperfect and degenerate stimuli, and further that children can learn certain sorts of language such as are exemplified by natural human languages, but cannot learn other sorts of logically possible languages, provides overwhelming evidence that each normal child contains in some unknown way in his or her brain an innate language acquisition device (LAD), and this LAD consists at least in part of a set of deep unconscious grammar rules'. (Searle: The Rediscovery of the Mind, Chapter 10)

This theory has very significant implications for language teachers. If grammar is innate, it develops naturally, like the limbs on a body or the petals on a flower. There is therefore no need to teach grammar. Our task as teachers is simply to provide the right conditions and the right diet, and the grammar will grow of its own accord, like teeth. The innate grammar theory provides theoretical support for teaching methods based on acquisition rather than learning. It provides a rationale for the so-called Natural Approach and for other humanistic methods. It has long been widely accepted in our profession as true: it has long been part of the received wisdom of language teaching and applied linguistics.

But in the last few years, many people have begun to have reservations about the theory. Some reservations are on practical grounds (eg the methods derived from the theory do not seem to work very well, and many excellent teachers find other methods more effective). Other reservations are on theoretical grounds (eg the theory is confused - the evidence does not seem to hold water, etc). Bad jokes have gone the rounds. 'You can't find Chomsky's books in the library? Try the fiction section.' As a teacher and director of studies, I want to be sure that the methods I use, and the methods I encourage my teachers to use, are coherent and based on sound theory. I look to philosophy to clarify the issues and to distinguish valid from invalid reasoning. I look to philosophy to help determine whether grammar is innate or not. Philosophers have raised several objections to innate mental phenomena. The debate is as old as Plato and Aristotle. Locke and Hume argued strongly against: Kant argued interestingly in favour, with his mental categories. In our time, three powerful objections have been expressed. The first stems from positivist philosophy: what is true must be verifiable, or it must in principle be falsifiable (in Popper's variant of positivism). The second derives from Wittgenstein's language philosophy: what is true must be free of distortions caused by language muddles, and consistent with our understanding of the nature of language and the mind. The third comes from the philosophy of John Searle: a theory of language must not only be free of linguistic distortions, but must also be consistent with what we know about the working of the brain. Let us consider these objections in turn.

In Language, Truth and Logic, A.J.Ayer distilled the Vienna Circle's positivist doctrine on scientific method: a scientific theory is valid if and only if it can be verified by empirical evidence. In his The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper proposed a generally accepted variant of this doctrine: a hypothesis is valid if and only if it can in principle be falsified by empirical evidence. On both counts the innate grammar theory is invalid, because there is no evidence that can either verify or falsify it - because there is no test that could prove the existence of non-existence of innate grammar rules in the brain. Since the theory does not follow the criteria for a scientific hypothesis, it is therefore not a valid theory. Positivists maintain that it is a metaphysical chimera.

In addition, and as John Searle (among others) argues, there is abundant evidence to support alternative theories of language development. For instance, in his classic study of child language development Learning How to Mean, Halliday does not need to posit innate grammar to explain what happens when a child develops language. His young son Nigel starts with one-word utterances- (Mum, cock-a-doodle-do, jam), moves on to two-word utterances (more jam,go walk) and then produces three-word utterances (Let's go walk, and I want Bartok - Nigel's enchantingly Hallidayan way of demanding to hear music). Halliday explains the stages of Nigel's language development by the functional need to communicate, by imitation of and extrapolation from models he hears, by his parents' encouragement, and by what is known of the workings of the human brain. The innate grammar hypothesis is not cited: it would be redundant. In his Introduction to Functional Grammar, Halliday offers a detailed theory of language based on the same principles. Again, no innate grammar is required to explain language or language development in this study. Language develops not in accordance with alleged abstract rules of grammar hard-wired into the brain, but through pragmatic responses to practical needs. Language development follows the same principles as evolution: no separate edifice of theory is needed to explain it.

The innate grammar hypothesis also begs the question. In other words, it rephrases a mystery (how do children acquire languages?) as a solution (children learn languages by means of a black box called the LAD). We do not know how the black box works: we have no understanding of what goes on inside it. Genuine scientific theories explain the unknown in terms of the known. Either what is large is explained in terms of what is small (for instance, matter in terms of atoms and molecules, or brain activity in terms of synapses and connections), or a mystery is explained in terms of a generally accepted theory, such as gravity or evolution. The innate grammar hypothesis does neither. The 'solution' is as mysterious as the puzzle it seeks to explain, and is therefore not a genuine solution.

To view the article


The Chinese Student Learning English in Greece: The Meeting of
Three Cultures by Sara Hannam

BANA = Britain, Australia and North America as used by Holliday (1994a)
CA = The Communicative Approach
EAP = English for Academic Purposes

A New Trend
The last five years has seen a rapid increase in the number of Chinese learners coming to Greece to study English. Since China opened its doors to Western investment, English has become the official international language of communication. Due to the population size, Chinese people now constitute the largest population of language learners in the world today - a conservative 1995 estimate put the figure at 200 million (Cortazzi & Jin 1996: 178). This development has led to a significant increase in the number of Chinese people traveling abroad to study, most choosing to go to BANA countries, which are generally considered more prestigious. It has also led to an increase in students searching for BANA educational opportunities in non-BANA countries; one such country is Greece. tudents usually come here to study at an institution that is affiliated to a BANA University and offers accredited under-graduate or post-graduate degree opportunities - English often forms part of those studies. This throws up an exciting new research environment which needs immediate exploration as 'we lack the data for the range of social settings in which English is carried out around the world' (Holliday 1994b: 11).

Why Choose Greece?
My research found that students chose to come and study in Greece for one of the following reasons:

Preferring Greece and the Greek way of life - finding the life style more familiar than that found in BANA countries

Wanting to be in a country that has a deeper understanding and practical connection to the field of leisure and tourism - particularly with a view to the 2008 Olympics and the Greek experience in 2004

There are a scarcity of places in BANA countries

It is financially easier to live in Greece than a BANA country

Students perceived that it is easier to obtain a visa to be a student in Greece than in a BANA country

Language Learning in China
Being able to use English in China is now seen as 'an essential tool in changing the core of the country's economic system' (Burnaby and Sun 1998: 221). This means that English has gradually become part of the secondary school curriculum - classes usually comprise 60+ students. Knowledge of English also acts as a screening devise for scarce university places and high levels of anxiety have been identified with 'passing' English examinations (Yan and Chow: 2002). This mirrors similar concerns expressed by Prodromou (1995) regarding the continual testing of English present in the Greek system. Almost all English teaching practitioners in China are Chinese, partly due to China's insistence on 'preserving its own cultural integrity in spite of interest in communicating with the West' (Burnaby & Sun 1998: 233). This is a divergence from the Greek reality which, until relatively recently with the development of the KPG state school examination, was saturated with externally developed testing products. Historically in Greece, great value has been placed on the presence of a 'native speaker' teacher of English to promote the standard of the service offered in Greek language schools. The last and most important point that needs to be made in relation to the environment in China is the reason why most people learn English. It is for the purpose of performing work- related tasks such as reading and translating technical articles (ibid). It is not, in many cases, for the purposes of oral communication, a reality that should be borne in mind when considering potential problems in the classroom.

To view the article


Task Based Learning for Newcomers by Adam Simpson

This text serves as an introduction to teachers curious about the phenomenon of task based learning, and is of particular relevance to those at the post CELTA stage wishing to expand their knowledge of the profession. Its purpose is to provide a basic definition of this particular methodology, to give a brief contrast to other methodologies, and also to indicate its pros and cons.

1. Introduction
At the outset of my teaching career, I readily adopted what little teaching methodology I was aware of to my classroom practice. As with most new teachers fresh from the CELTA course, my lessons followed the PPP (presentation, practice, production) model, or slight variations thereof. However, as my teaching quickly developed on a steep learning curve, so did my awareness of other methodological possibilities, and also the shortcomings of the method I had thus far applied. Nevertheless, I persisted with this method. Whilst the PPP method offered a comfortable and safe framework (1) for me as a newly qualified teacher, I nevertheless soon realised that i) it is important to meet the specific needs of ones learners, and ii) an authentic context will enhance the learning experience. A failure to deliver on both of these counts is one of the major reasons why the PPP method is criticised. This is also the reason why I have chosen to examine an alternative to this model: Task-based learning.

To view the article


Thanks to Mark, Sara & Adam.


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Interesting stuff for the younger learner.
Newsweek for teenagers - readings & discussions.
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Conversation Questions for the ESL/EFL Classroom
The Thinking Approach (TA) to language teaching aims at an integrated development of both language and thinking skills of learners. The TA project is concerned with the development of educational technologies necessary for this kind of teaching and mechanisms of implementing these technologies with various groups of learners. Rather than merely encouraging thinking, the TA offers certain models for effective thinking - universal and domain independent tools which facilitate the process of finding solutions in problematic situations. The tools originate from the General Theory of Powerful Thinking (OTSM) based on the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ). In the TA classroom students are encouraged to apply these models when looking for solutions. As a result, learning becomes more challenging, but also much more motivating. Moreover, language itself is transformed from being just a passive means into an object of exploration.
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Resources for primary:

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Some days to plan your lessons around in June:

6th - D-Day
20th  - United Nations World Refugee Day
21st - Summer Solstice (& Dec 21st)
27th - Happy Birthday, "Happy Birthday"
Wimbledon begins

To see the list of Days

Wikipedia's excellent focus on days of the year:
Some holiday origins.

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New recommended book - 'Lessons From 'Nothing' by Bruce Marsland

The review begins:
'Lessons From 'Nothing'  is an extremely practical book from the stable of Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers. In this high tech day & age it is refreshing to come across a book that describes itself as a 'sourcebook of ELT exercises & activities which do not require extensive resources or facilities'. The book is designed with the 'limited-resource situation' in mind but all can apply to normal teaching situations. Don't you get tired of photocopying stuff & seeing students bogged down with copies that they'll never look at again?

To read the review

To buy this from
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