Monday, June 28, 2010

Romance Novels and Second Language Learning

This past spring several new students arrived from Haiti with proficiency in French as well as limited knowledge of English. My limited French was barely passable even though I'd studied French from 3rd grade to 12th. Not ever having practiced using French in any situation - reading, writing and conversational - my skills deteriorated from lack of use. In order to jumpstart what I knew I had stored in my brain, I asked friends for any type of French literature and was given a romance Harlequinn novel, originally written in English but translated to French, to read. What I immediately noticed was that certain words and phrases repeated themselves throughout the story, for example I quickly relearned sourire which means smile and souhait which means a wish. Then there is soupcon which means suspicion. You can see the pattern. With the constant exposure to the same words, I was able to more quickly learn forgotten or new vocabulary words. Not only was repetitive vocabulary helpful but so were the cognates - words that are similar in sound and spelling in both languages. For example: interrogea meaning to interrogate - as in a cheating partner or verifier, to verify - again, as in a cheating partner. The problem with reading of course is the lack of 2 way dialogue needed to practice conversations in order to build fluency in French. One way to practice conversational French is to convince a friend who is not only suspicious of their cheating partner but also fluent in French and willing to discuss their experiences using the Romance Novel vocabulary. One example from that diaglogue might be: Je voudrai interrogea es verifier avec un sourire avec un ami....or maybe not. Then after having mastered romantic situations in French, I'll be able to apply my new language skills to other conversations and situations.
In terms of ESL, or learning any new language, repetitive vocabulary is necessary and using cognates (sometimes in the home language) can also be helpful (of course try to avoid false cognates which sound similar but have completely different meanings). Finding appropriate, and interesting, materials is also key; sometimes these materials might not be what we are used to. Although The Boston Globe may be more responsible Harlequinn might be more back to Tel Qu'en mon Souvenir!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Small People

The following excerpt is taken from The Huffington Post, June 17, 2010

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg gave a press conference after BP's four hour meeting with Obama at the White House. During his statement, he disputed the claim the the oil giant didn't care about gulf residents, stating that BP cares about "small people." English is a second language for Svanberg, who is Swedish, but reporters took note of his demeaning phrasing, and shouted questions about what he meant after he spoke, which he did not answer.
The exact quote was:
"we care about the small people. I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies or greedy companies that don't care, but that is not the case at BP. We care about the small people."

Classic ESL error in pragmatics. Yes, we can certainly describe people as small in stature but using the word small as an adjective when not talking about stature assumes one is greater than the other – a George Orwell “Animal Farm” if you will. There is one idea everyone agrees upon as one of the major tenents of the U.S.A. democratic system and that is that everyone is created equal. As an ESL learner, Svanberg might have considered running his statement past a native language speaker – anyone would do – who would have understood the significance of “small people”. Grammatically correct, small as the adjective in front of the noun people, but so very wrong when discussing a large multi-national corporation caring for “the common folk”. Svanberg should have paid a little more attention to President Obama’s speeches: “the common folk”, or even “Joe the plumber” would have been a better choice of words.