Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thanks for your votes!

Top 100 Language Blogs 2009

This blog was nominated for the Top 100 Language Blogs 2009 contest in the category of Language Professionals. Voting for the contest ended a couple of days ago. Click here to see the results. While I didn't make it into the top 20 professionals or the big top 100, I appreciate everyone who voted for me, and I think it's great that is compiling groups of blogs that have interest in language, language teaching, language learning, and so on, and I'm honored to have been nominated! I appreciate my readers (even those of you who skip over the linguistics stuff -- you know who you are *grin*).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Do you think I'm going to fall for this?

Below see the text of an e-mail I got recently. I'd never seen one quite like THIS before...

REFERENCE: SNS/NL/0671341/09


Be informed that my previous mail to you was not responded to. I found it necessary to write you once on the subject matter because of the importantance.

It may interest you to know a comprehensive search revealed your last name to be same with a customer of the SNS Bank (now deceased) whom my bank’s efforts to locate his relatives/family members have been unsuccessful. The benefit from this dormant account worth millions in dollars is awaiting payment to a potential heir/beneficiary.

Putting into consideration this, my job as head of compensation and benefits and the legal requirement of claims like this, your last name can pass for a heir to this huge amount. You need not worry about the legal requirement as you shall be closely guided and directed on this.

Kindly respond with your name as stated in your driver's license or international passport and your direct telephone number to signify interest.

Be advised to keep this very important notice to yourself until advised otherwise

Yours Faithfully,
Chris Veenstra

Seriously, are you kidding me? I especially like the part about how I am supposed to "keep it to myself until advised otherwise"...

A conversation analysis of IM

Just another example of how once you turn the linguistic machinery in your mind on, you can't turn it off...

Some of the important seminal articles in the field of conversation analysis study the structure of telephone conversations. Among the findings of this research are that the beginning of telephone conversations has a slightly different structure from face-to-face conversation. Face-to-face conversation always involves a period of negotiation at the beginning of the conversation where the participants signal their mutual agreement to start the conversation, such as the following:
A: Hello, how are you?
B: Fine. How are you?
A: Good, thanks. How was your weekend?
B: Oh pretty relaxed.
A: Good. So, what's the latest news on the Berman report?
B: Well Berman called yesterday and...

and the conversation on the chosen topic continues on from there. In this conversation, both A and B signal their mutual consent to have a conversation by following the standard moves listed in the first four turns ("Hi, how are you" etc.) In this example, A requests B to have a conversation by initiating this sequence of turns and don't agree to participate in a conversation, the conversation might go like this instead:

A: Hello, how are you?
B: Good. How are you?
A: Good. How was your weekend?
B: Pretty good. Gotta run! See you later!

And in this case the conversation is ended, since B did not indicate agreement with A's request to have a conversation.

Telephone conversations are very similar in their structure, except they are usually missing the first part.
B: Hello?
A: Hiya. How was your weekend?
B: Pretty good. So, what's the latest news on the Berman report?

If you compare the turns in this conversation to the turns in the previous conversation you will notice that the turns are very similar, except appear to be offset. That is, the order of turns seems to be the same except for the first turn is missing. Conversation analysts have identified that the ring of the telephone seems to neatly replace the initial (missing) turn of the conversation:

A: (ring)
B: Hello?
A: Hiya. How was your weekend?
B: Pretty good. So, what's the latest news on the Berman report?

The initial turn of the conversation, then, whether it is a stated "hello" in a face-to-face conversation or the ring of the telephone, serves as a summons to the conversation, an initial request for the conversation to happen. The other participant responds with a series of turns that indicates his/her uptake of the summons and agreement to participate in the conversation. With the conversation fully initiated, the first participant is then available to propose a topic and the conversation will continue.

So far, this has all been summary of some work that has been done by some important researchers in the field of conversation analysis, such as Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson.

With this background in mind, I noticed that when I began a conversation by IM recently, I did not use any conversation initiator. I simply began the conversation with, "I miss you". No "hello" or other standard conversation initiator.

My guess? Since both people have already indicated that they are "online" by means of chat indicators, there is no need for the first part of the chat by which both participants mutually agree that they are willing to have a conversation, since the online indicator takes care of that.

However, I have also noticed that not all IM conversations begin that way. Sometimes they begin with something like "hey" which certainly seems like an initiator. Perhaps in these situations, even though the people are both online, the person still feels a need to verify that a conversation is wanted?

Feel free to respond with your thoughts...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vote for Me!


My blog has been nominated for a contest! I received a comment recently that I was nominated for's Top 100 Language Blogs 2009 under the category "Language Professionals".

To vote for me, click the button at the top of this post and choose the blog "Colorless Green Ideas". To see the list of blogs nominated in my category click here. To see more information about the contest, click here.

I'm not sure what the prize for this contest is, but I assume it's pretty much just bragging rights and maybe I will get to put a cool badge on my blog! Tell your friends!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Why variation across cultures in SLA?

As a student of SLA theory, I think I can summarize a lot of theory and research by making this statement: we don't know what explains the differences in the ways people learn language, although we have a lot of ideas.  I have particularly been thinking about a few of those factors in light of my recent experiences.

This summer I had the opportunity again to visit beautiful Europe, which always helps me to reflect on my experiences both as a language learner.  This year I went straight from the Czech Republic, where proficient English speakers are relatively difficult to find, to Sweden, where speaking advanced English is the norm.

Surely I am not the first person who has wondered: why is it that in two European countries relatively close to each other there is such a noticeable difference in the proficiency of the general population in English?

(At this point I would like to insert the comment that I do not wish to imply by asking this question that people should learn English.  People are free to learn or not learn whatever languages they choose.  Nor am I trying to imply that I think Sweden is better than the Czech Republic somehow -- I have dear friends in both cultures.  In this post I am simply using the two cultures as an example of obvious variation in language learning success on an overall sociocultural level.)

Let's discuss some possibilities:
1. History.
During the communist time, Czechs usually only studied Russian or German at school.  If I recall correctly, the Velvet Revolution that led to the overthrow of communism and, ultimately, return of widespread English teaching to Czechs.  This explains why basically an entire generation of Czech people doesn't speak English, and why the most proficient users of English are likely to be elderly people (who learned it before the communist time) or younger people (who learned it after).

But this can't be the only explanation, because even just looking at the younger people there is a noticeable difference in the language learning success overall between Swedes and Czechs.  While they start learning the language at more or less the same grade in school, many young people in Sweden are highly proficient in English while their Czech counterparts are struggling with beginning-level vocabulary and grammar.

2. Methodology.
It is true that language teaching methods are different in different areas of the world, but I'm not sure that this is the explanation either.  When I first started participating in teacher education workshops in the Czech Republic a few years ago, we inappropriately expected that we would be preaching the merits of communicative language teaching and found ourselves quite humbled when we discovered that our Czech colleagues had heard it all before.  In the Czech schools I have worked in, the teachers have had access to the most updated curricula and texts for English language teaching and have learned current methods at their training colleges.

3. Language/cultural background.
You might think that, perhaps because Swedish is more closely related to English than Czech is, people who already have a background in Swedish would find it easier to learn English.  Research in SLA doesn't seem to support this line of thinking, however.  Studies have shown that, regardless of language background, learners tend to progress through the same stages when learning a new language.  In addition, Swedish and Czech are both Indo-European languages, and therefore neither of them is particularly far from English.

In a more subtle way, however, cultural factors may be at work.  In my experience, Swedes self-identify with Western Europeans and Americans closer than other cultural groups.  It stands to reason then that identifying so closely with native speakers of English in Britain and America may be a cultural reason that Swedish people seem to be more successful at learning English overall.  But can a slight cultural difference (the one between Eastern and Western Europe) be the explanation for such variation in language learning?

4. Exposure.
It does seem more likely that exposure to English is one factor in the differential English-learning success between Swedish and Czech learners.  While both groups have access to plenty of English-speaking television programs, movies, music, etc. in the original language, English seems to have a noticeable presence in Swedish popular culture that Czech does not.  English is more likely to appear on Swedish billboards, t-shirts, and so forth.  In the Czech Republic it is prestigious to have English words on your clothing, but the meaning of these words is apparently not important.  Or at least it seems that way because of the amount of "engrish" that can be observed on clothing in the Czech Republic.  In addition, because the population in general is less proficient in English in CZ, I could argue that people get less exposure to other people speaking English as part of everyday life.  For example, a Swedish friend of mine told me that her parents used to speak English to each other when they didn't want the children to understand what they were saying.  While she did not understand English at that time, she quite possibly picked up some phonotactic information or even rudimentary vocabulary and grammar of English because of that exposure.  Since highly proficient English speakers are still at a premium in the Czech Republic, the overall chance for a person to hear English spoken in or out of the classroom seems less.

5. Attitude/Motivation/Learner Beliefs.
Many Czechs that I have talked to have expressed to me the difficulty they experience in learning English.  It does not surprise me; I understand well that English has many irregularities and grammatical surprises.  In Sweden, however, an English learner is constantly surrounded with other people who use English proficiently, perhaps causing Swedish learners to be more confident in their abilities to learn English in comparison to their Czech counterparts.  Perhaps the fact that everyone else is doing it is the reason that Swedes can do it so well.

6. Strength of need for English as a lingua franca.
Both Czech and Swedish are relatively nonprestigious linguistically, so it stands to reason that the people would need a lingua franca.  German has been an accessible and historical lingua franca for Czechs, while Swedes don't have the same historical background with German speakers.  The area of the Czech Republic where I lived, for example, receives many German-speaking tourists but hardly any American or British tourists.  So perhaps English is not as necessary in the Czech Republic because German is more used.  Personally this point doesn't feel like the explanation to me, and I feel that I hardly know the history of language contact in Sweden well enough to claim that English is more necessary than German there.  Both countries, are, after all, extremely close to Germany.

I give this list as a set of possibilities, believing that some of them are more likely to be the correct explanation than others.  Feel free to add your comments and observations to fill in factors that I may have overlooked.

Lead thou me on...

It's hard to summarize on this blog all the things that have happened in the past few months in my life. I made a third trip to beautiful Europe and enjoyed it thoroughly. I enjoyed it so well that I really didn't want to come home, and if it were a possibility to get a job and not just mooch off of my friend's mom for a place to live, it's possible that I would have stayed. Nevertheless I returned home as planned and have been discharging my responsibilities here and looking for a job. I was really hoping to get the job that I interviewed for in Denmark but was finally informed that the job had been offered to someone else. So in the meantime I am working on my dissertation, looking for another job, and trying to not let my life go stale just because plans didn't work out the way I thought they would.

The whole time I have felt faithful and confident that something good would come along at the right time. I was hoping that this job would lead me to Denmark, where I would meet a nice Danish man and begin the relationship/marriage phase of my life. Obviously that is not going to happen now just as I hoped... but I still have faith that I can be led to something good, if I am paying attention. I know that sometimes in life when I have gone through periods like this it has just been because I had to wait for the timing to be right, and then something really good happened. I feel that this might be one of those periods.

But it doesn't seem right to just put myself on deep freeze waiting for something good to happen. First of all, that is extremely boring and frustrating. Second, I can take advantage of the time to improve myself and get ready for whatever is coming in the future. I am particularly afraid that I might miss the subtle, quiet Divine promptings that are shepherding me in the right direction. I often pray lately that I will be able to pay attention to them.

In the meantime, I have a dissertation to work on and hopefully will be able to start teaching ESL in about a month. I'm even taking a crack at online dating, just as a way to get out of the routine, get out of the house, and meet people.

To see the hymn "Lead, Kindly Light" (the basis for this post's title), please click here. It's one of my favorites.