British Council seminar on language learning

June 4, 2014

Yesterday evening I watched a seminar from the British Council on language learning, which took place in Cardiff and was broadcast live on YouTube (video below). There were two talks, each followed by brief Q&As, and both are well worth watching if the topics interest you.

First, Miguel Angel Muñoz explored whether learning a foreign language makes you smarter – and if so, how. He reports on research into the cognitive benefits of bi- and multilingualism, and clears up some of the uncertainty in this area. Miguel wrote a post for the British Council blog which will give you an idea of the content of his talk.

Next, Michael Rundell of Macmillan Dictionary spoke about the difference between real rules and mere usage peeves, and how we should therefore teach grammar. For a flavour, see his excellent related post where, referring to Nevile Gwynne’s championing of pre-modern grammar books, he writes:

It is hard to imagine any other field of study in which a source is recommended precisely because it is out of date.

Here’s a slide from Michael’s presentation. The reference to “Heffer 2014″ will be familiar to anyone who has read my recent posts at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

michael rundell - british council seminars - language learning - using data vs claims

The video is 2½ hours long. If you want to skip around, introductions begin at 3:20, Miguel starts at 7:45, and there’s an interval from 1:02:45 to 1:13:18. Michael’s talk starts (after a technical hitch) at 1:16:15 and ends at 2:20:00, at which point there’s a few minutes of closing remarks.*

It’s almost like being there, except you have to make your own tea.


Other British Council seminars and videos are available here.

* Or there are, if you’re twitchy about it.

Who cares about English?

January 8, 2013

I’ve been meaning to share this for months, and a tweet today by @OxfordWords has prodded me into action. Late last year the British Council and the OED sponsored an expert panel discussion on the state of the English language, titled ‘Who cares about English?

The talk is chaired by John Knagg, head of English research at the British Council. He takes questions from the audience and puts them to panel members John Simpson, chief editor of the OED; Prudence Raper, former honorary secretary of the Queen’s English Society; novelist Romesh Gunesekera; and author and critic Henry Hitchings.

Among the topics covered are language regulation and correctness, change and innovation, history, social media, favourite words, and regional and global varieties of English. The speakers offer insight, learning, and humour, and there is some inevitable (and extreme) peeving from the floor.

You can watch part 1 below, or go here for the full video, which lasts a little over an hour. Enjoy!


C. S. Lewis, language botanist

January 5, 2012

C. S. Lewis received a lot of correspondence from strangers, as you can imagine, and he was very diligent about answering it. I read his Letters to Children yesterday, and on Tumblr posted something he wrote to his godchild about the kinds of things people do.

Below is another passage, this one — as befits the place — having to do with language. It was addressed to “Kathy” and was sent in April 1963:

By the way I also wd. say “I got a book”. But your teacher and I are not “English teachers” in the same sense. She has to put across an idea of what the English language ought to be: I’m concerned entirely with what it is and however it came to be what it is. In fact she is a gardener distinguishing “flowers” from “weeds”; I am a botanist and am interested in both as vegetable organisms.

The gardening analogy reminded me of Otto Jespersen’s description of the language as “like an English park . . . in which you are allowed to walk everywhere according to your own fancy”. But this might give a child the wrong idea.

There is much to admire in the metaphor Lewis uses to convey, without prejudice or guile, the difference in attitudes between Kathy’s teacher and himself.

The Spaceage Portal of Sentence Discovery

November 8, 2011

I received an email lately about an admirable new website, The Spaceage Portal of Sentence Discovery, that stores and classifies examples of “interesting sentence- and paragraph-level patterns, including figures of speech, grammatical-syntactic structures, and other rhetorical devices”.

It was created by David Clark, an English teacher who sees the educational value of collecting and systematically arranging sentences that exemplify these literary-linguistic structures and devices. (The project was also motivated by “unadulterated nerdiness”, something language enthusiasts will identify with.)

The portal offers a great range of categories, both familiar and obscure. Under hyperbole, for example, I found entertaining examples from Angela Carter, Ambrose Bierce, Shakespeare, Flann O’Brien, and others. Imagery, smell has a solitary example from Annie Proulx, so that tag would benefit from readers’ submissions.

To get a feel for how it works, click around and see what happens. If you’re into language and literature, you’re likely to find it fun and edifying. David would love to hear comments and suggestions, and he invites readers to use and share the site and contribute examples to its database. As he says: the bigger it becomes, the more valuable it can be.

Mind your peeves and cures

May 18, 2010

Blog comments don’t usually astonish me. Here’s an exception:

Growing up in the late fifties, I went to primary school in a small village in Co. Mayo and the teacher had her grammatical pet hates – the chief ones were the common “I done it” and “S/he does be/I do be”. Present it in an essay and the offense was actually cut out of the copy and the offender sent out to the garden near the turf shed at the back of the school, with a shovel…I kid you not. Some poor unfortunate classmates found the humiliation of holes on the pages of their copies worse than the burial process. I do be anxious even now, fifty years later when I recall it

There’s a world of difference between advising children to mind their Ps and Qs and sending them outside to bury examples of non-standard expressions in a hole in the ground. The former is essentially figurative and gently instructive; the latter is intensely physical and apparently pathological, a cruel and unusual punishment. In my response I described the teacher as a quintessential peevologist: that is, one who indulges in peevology, albeit an extreme example of the type. These are new terms for an old avocation. Mr. Verb and commenters have outlined how the word peevology came about — from Jan Freeman’s original peeve-ology, based on Ben Zimmer and others’ peeveblogging — while John E. McIntyre has offered a succinct and helpful definition:

peevology (n.) An analysis of faults, often imaginary, in language usage, arbitrarily pronounced by self-anointed experts, the analysis typically revealing rank prejudice and cultural bias.

I suspect that prejudice against the Irish language and its veiled re-emergence in Hiberno-English lay behind the Scissors & Shovel method described above. The methods may have changed but the attitude remains widespread today. We have, for example, what the NY Times described as Twitter scolds: Twitter users who feel compelled to criticise what they perceive as lapses in grammar, spelling, or style — many of which are not lapses at all, or are objectionable only to those determined to find petty fault. Peevologists go straight for the peeve, sometimes at the expense of facts, manners, and context.

But here’s a mild and inoffensive example: last week I wrote whimsically on Twitter that “Om nom nom” was omnomnomatopoeic. Although I don’t broadcast every fanciful portmanteau that occurs to me, I thought omnomnomatopoeic was worth sharing with its potential audience of portmanteauphiles. For the most part the response, where it occurred, was positive, but even the informally well-established “Om nom nom” incurred disapproval:

My request for an explanation went unheeded. Maybe the “travesty!” remark was just a joke — more about that below. (Edit: SpellingPatrol, “Friend to all”, has since unfollowed me. Oh well.)

Adopting a rigid and intolerant position on English usage guarantees frequent indignation. Maybe this is part of what motivates peeving. After all, what would a pedant (or stickler) do if there were nothing to be pedantic about? All that energy needs an outlet. As an editor I find pedantry useful, but only inasmuch as it is soundly and sensibly applied in designated contexts: I decline the indignation, the flaming torch, and the odd and anti-social compulsion to nitpick strangers’ offhand remarks and casual conversations. What pet peeves I have I keep in perspective and adjust according to circumstances and new information. This is not a new concept:

It is not the business of grammar, as some critics seem preposterously to imagine, to give law to the fashions which regulate our speech. On the contrary, from its conformity to these, and from that alone, it derives all its authority and value. (George Campbell, The Philosophy of Rhetoric, 1776)

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