Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Star, and its commas, confuse(s)

It's been a busy week here. On Saturday I was in Duke's Epic 8 Hour Relay Series, and then on Sunday my son was in the Kids Of Steel Triathlon. On top of that my computer was in for repairs and there's a conference here starting later today at which I'm presenting a paper and hosting a forum. As Geoffrey Chaucer hath sayd,
"Myn gentil rederes, the joly tyme of Averille and May hath not been of much jolitee to me – in feyth, ich haue had but litel tyme to look upon the newe floures and heere the smale foules doyng their thinge, for cursid busynesse hath fallen a-newe vpon me."
Anyhow, on Monday the Toronto Star rolled out its new format. The text is certainly more readable with larger font and leading. The headlines vary, but are often overbold. Linguistically, what caught my attention was the one on the front page that accompanied a note from the publisher, Jagoda Pike.

The Star, and its mission, evolve

For about half the teachers here in the EAP office, this is fine. For the other half, which includes me, it should be evolves. Fortunately, everybody can see both sides of the argument and before nary a blow could be thrown, everyone agreed that the real problem is those commas.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Bain on prepositions

I think the level of influence that Alexander Bain has managed in exert on how English is taught and analysed is rather underestimated. I've previously discussed him as the earliest known source of the restrictive 'that' rule and of certain practices in rhetoric and composition.

Another first (as far as I can tell) for Bain was the idea that prepositions do not suddenly turn into "conjunctions" when they introduce a clause. On p. 64 of An English Grammar (1863), Bain mentions "prepositions governing clauses". This is the seed of an idea that is taken up by Otto Jesperson in the first quarter of the last century and most recently in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL), which argues against the traditional view that has prepositions hopping from class to class as in the following three sentences:
  1. I stood before the door. (preposition)
  2. I stood before I spoke. (conjunction)
  3. I have stood here before. (adverb)
In fact, argues the CGEL, other word classes are not traditionally limited in this way. Verbs, for example, can license noun phrases, adjectives, prepositional phrases, and finite and non-finite clauses of various descriptions. We don't call it a verb here, an adverb there, and something else entirely for other cases. A verb is a verb regardless of the internal complements that it licenses. Even when a verb is intransitive, we still accept that it is a verb.

Similarly, nouns can stand alone or license a wide range of internal complements; yet we still allow that they are nouns. There is nothing especially confusing about this. The same goes for adjectives. Indeed, it seems far less confusing to be told that prepositions are defined mostly by where they come in the sentence and the type of information they convey, as we do with most other word classes, than to be told that with prepositions the defining property is mainly the constituent that it licenses.

The CGEL continues the argument by pointing out that if it could be shown that there were some other properties that changed when one of these words takes a different complement (or none at all), that would argue for the traditional view, yet this is not the case. For example, the same modifiers are allowed:

I had begun to walk one month before my first birthday.
I had begun to walk one month before I crawled.
I had begun to walk one month before.

I moved straight inside the house.
I moved straight inside.

If it were only a small number of words that straddled the line between prepositions and adverbs, this too would argue against this position. But the overlap is quite considerable and includes everything from core members such as 'in' and 'on' to oddballs like 'apropos' and 'notwithstanding'. Where the majority of the members of a group are falling into two (or three) categories, it seems reasonable to reassess the criteria by which they were assigned.

Even if we do allow for this needlessly strict definition of preposition, why then are we so promiscuous with our characterisation of adverbs? According to the CGEL, while there are instances in which adverbs do function as complements(e.g., "They treated us KINDLY."), generally speaking adverbs functions as adjuncts. There are no ~ly adverbs that can function as a goal complement to replace the prepositions in the following sentences:

They went ABOARD.
Please bring them DOWNSTAIRS.
She came BACK last night.
I can't get it INDOORS.

Nor does 'be' license ~ly adverb complements, though it does license prepositions. Consider, then, the following:

They are aboard.
They are downstairs.
She's back.
It's indoors.

If we accept the traditional view that these are adverbs, what does that say for the traditional characterisation of be complements?

It seems, then, that adverb is simply a label that we give to words that don't fit anywhere else. This is not good scholarship. Pedagogically, the result of accepting a broader definition of prepositions, following Bain, Jesperson, and the CGEL, would be a much simpler, more consistent explanation for students. They would still have to deal with learning which prepositions license which type of complement--and which are intransitive--but they would not be faced with the confusing range of "exceptions".

I can't imagine other disciplines in which, all evidence to the contrary, teachers cleave to the traditional view simply because it is tradition, and Bain's 1863 work isn't exactly fresh. I think we language educators need to realise where we're wrong and accept a better analysis when it presents itself.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Teaching and Learning Vocabulary

The following book review originally appeared in the spring 2007 issue of TESL Canada Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2.

Elfrieda H. Hiebert & Michael L. Kamil (Eds.). Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing scientific research to practice. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. (2005). 273 pages.

Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice (TLV) is aimed at researchers, and graduate students whose focus is children learning to read English as their first language. In fact, the U.S.-based National Reading Panel, whose investigations is largely the impetus for TLV, specifically excluded from its research database studies dealing with “foreign languages or non-English-speaking groups, or… special populations, including second-language learners” (NICHHD, 2000, p 4-16). A quick scan through the references confirms that the same approach is evident in TLV; the major TESL publications and vocabulary researchers are largely overlooked. This gap aside, there is a great deal of valuable research and insight but it all needs to be considered through the lens of an ESL environment.

Interestingly, the findings and recommendations of the various authors across the chapters largely mirror much recent L2 vocabulary literature (e.g., Nation, 2001; Folse, 2004). For instance, like Nation and Folse, TLV argues strongly that direct instruction in vocabulary is needed. Following Zeno, Ivens, Millard, & Duvvuri (1995), it identifies a core set of 5,586 unique word forms that establish the basis for further reading and vocabulary development: almost the same 2,000 high frequency word families promoted in the L2 literature (e.g., Nation, 2001). And it similarly identifies 95% as a vocabulary knowledge threshold below which independent reading is too difficult.

The structure of the book, with each chapter authored by different researchers, leads to some overlap and redundancy. Often, however, this is helpful in reinforcing and recontextualising the information. Unfortunately, inconsistencies, such as widely different estimates of vocabulary sizes do remain and are sometimes hard to reconcile. Part of the problem is that although there are many word counts and frequencies discussed, it is sometimes unclear what is being counted. Word is used variously to mean individual word forms (e.g., run and runs = 2 words) and “word families” (e.g., run, runs, ran, running, & runner = 1 word family) and it is not always clear which meaning is intended. Despite this issue, the text is generally precise and easy to read.

The first section sets out the empirical and theoretical basis for the rest of the book: why vocabulary is important for success in reading, why it needs to be taught directly, and why students need to read extensively. The second section then goes into how this should be realised in the classroom. In particular, the chapter by Stahl provides many techniques that could be used with any ESL class. The third section focuses on which words to teach. It is likely the one with the least direct applicability to ESL contexts although the theoretical basis behind it remains pertinent; focus on the “Goldilocks words”—those not to frequent and not too rare, but just right.

In short, TLV is not the kind of book that belongs on every ESL teacher’s bookshelf but it does fill a gap in the literature, and it does so with much scholarship and perspicuity.

  • Folse, K. S. (2004). Vocabulary myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
  • Nation, I.S.P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction: Reports of the subgroups. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2006 from http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/nrp/upload/report_pdf.pdf
  • Zeno, S. M., Ivens, S. H., Millard, R. T., & Duvvuri, R. (1995). The educator’s word frequency guide. Brewster, NY: Touchstone Applied Science Associates.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Progress on the journalistic front

It's been a while since Russell Smith published anything language-related in the Globe & Mail. But on May 17th he addressed the issue of try and...

I'm very pleased to say, it is a very different approach than he has taken in the past. First, he sets out the alternatives. Then he explores various syntactical variations that argue against the try and... formulation. Next he discusses other verbs that allow the same pattern. This is followed by a historical overview of usage by famous writers and a reference to Fowler's assertion that there may be a subtle difference between try and and try to. Finally, Smith presents his own opinion.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Cliché, that old cliché

Listening to Dr. Fowler's stirring aria about metaphors live and metaphors dead, I was moved to wonder about the origin of the word cliché. The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say,
"1832, borrowing of a technical word from Fr. cliché, printer's jargon for 'stereotype,' supposedly echoic of mould dropping into molten metal, thus pp. of clicher 'to click.' Figurative extension is first attested 1888, following the course of stereotype."
In other words, cliché was a new metaphor in the late 19th century. While it is now dead, there must have been a substantial period during which cliché itself was a cliché.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Fowler's Modern English Opera

CBC's "And sometimes Y" presents "Fowler's Modern English, the opera". The character, Dr. Fowler, sings an aria about dead metaphors ("the only safe metaphor is a dead one"). Listen here.

Friday, May 18, 2007

More TOEFL problems

The L-test list has been buzzing with discussion of the TOEFL imbroglio. Apparently, the problems are not confined to Korea. Similar issues have come up in the US and China and likely other counties too. A little background:

When ETS switched from the paper-based tests to computer-based tests, they were seduced by adaptive test technology. That is, everyone gets a test that is pitched just at their level. This is a good thing. It means test-takers are neither bored nor frustrated with test items that are far below or above their level. It also means that tests are much shorter. At the same time, they moved from paper-based tests that were available only on scheduled dates (I don't remember what the intervals were, perhaps three times a month?) to testing on demand.

What ETS didn't realise was that the combination of testing on demand and adaptive testing would require a crippling number of test items. This decision almost bankrupted ETS.

When they moved to the Internet-based test (iBT), they moved back to regularly scheduled (roughly weekly) tests and to a one-size-fits-all format. Now the problem is that with so many people taking the test at the same time, it is much more demanding on resources. There also seems to have been an dramatic increase in the number of test takers. The result is that there are simply not enough spots available.

It's a little frightening how much power ETS wields and how poorly they've been wielding it. For anyone whose students are trying to get into an English-medium college or university, it is important to keep in mind that there are alternatives to TOEFL, including IELTS, MELAB, CAEL, CanTEST, COPE and others. There's also the Versant test that I posted about previously.

Korean TOEFL shortage

Su-Hyun Lee, writing in the New York Times, has done a good job of reporting on the ongoing South Korean "TOEFL crisis".
"Forget the North Korean nuclear crisis. What has many South Koreans in an uproar these days is the “Toefl crisis.” The Educational Testing Service which administers the test, reduced the number of slots for test-takers. So with demand for the test far outstripping the available slots, and with scalpers demanding exorbitant prices, desperate South Koreans have been hunting for possible test sites from Japan to Southeast Asia, and even Australia.
Travel agencies have begun offering “Toefl tours” that include test preparation courses, a guaranteed test slot and sometimes even a bit of tourism on the side. One test preparation school estimates that about 500 Koreans a month all told travel to other countries to take the test."
While ETS surely deserves some blame for this, much should rest on the national testing fetish. The test is being (mis)used for everything from hiring, to high-school entrance. I'm sure that very few of those responsible for interpreting the tests have read the score user's manual.

I remember when I was teaching in Japan, a culture with a similar test preoccupation, the high school was using the paper-based TOEFL to track learning in their sr. high school students. On a test with a standard error of +/- 15, and a bottom score of 300, our students were averaging about 320. In other words, they were doing little better than guessing. It was a 6-month struggle to get the school to understand how useless and disheartening it was for students to have to take this test. There were also the inevitable test preparation classes which focussed on sample questions. These were so far above the students' level that it was a complete waste of time.

Elsewhere, Korea's Chosun newspaper bemoans the "fact" that Koreans are some of the worst English learners on the planet. How do they know? Just look at the rank of their average TOEFL score.
"According to a report released in 2003 by the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Hong Kong, which provides information on the management environment in East Asia, Korea ranked the lowest among 12 Asian countries when it comes to communication in English. From 2004 to 2005, the TOEFL scores of Korean applicants ranked 93rd among 147 nations. And last September, when a speaking section replaced the grammar component in the TOEFL exams, Korea’s rank dropped to 111th. In the speaking section, Korea ranked almost rock bottom, at 134th."
But if we put two and two together, its not hard to see that in a country where anyone from elementary school students to the local grocery uncle takes the test, you're going to have a lot of very low scores. Consider that South Korea, at about 50 million people [corrected, per comment], appears to have more TOEFL test takers than Japan, a country more than twice the size. They even have more test takers than China.

Clearly, then, the low average test score is not due to a national learning deficit, but to the fact that in more sane situations only people who intend to apply to a post-secondary institution in an English-speaking country and who feel they are likely to get a high mark apply. In other words, it is the result of a serious selection bias.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


I was reading Nonsense Animal Rhymes, a silly and fun--if not really inspired--set of doggerel, to my kids, when the following verse reminded me of a NA/UK difference that hasn't appeared on Separated by a Common Language.
The Insect Race

Ready, steady, off they go!
The beetle's in the lead!
The grasshoppers are gaining,
With a sudden burst of speed.

The worm has turned the corner,
And the crowd begins to clap,
But the spider and the ladybird
Are closing up the gap!
I was aware of ladybird as the British version of ladybug, but I fell to wondering which came first. I finally got around to checking the other day. The Online Etymology Dictionary says, "ladybug (1699; cf. Ger. cognate Marienkäfer) which now is called ladybird beetle (1704) in Britain, through aversion to the word bug, which there has overtones of sodomy."

I don't suppose that's the origin of the phrase 'having a bug up your ass'...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Singing into reading

Andrea Gordon has an article in today's Toronto Star about a new kind of software for struggling readers. The software is described as being karaoke-like.

There were apparently three studies by Susan Homan (and others). I can't track down the actual papers, but Homan has links to three "abstracts" on her site. They're rather more elaborate than your standard abstract, especially the first one, which includes the full data set.

The gains do seem to be impressive, the motivational factors are obvious, and the premise makes sense. The words to the songs are already known or mostly known. As they are recalled, the eyes are being presented with the written version. The brain puts the two together and poof! And you there's all that repetition, but it's fun.

I wonder what kind of songs they use and how this could be adapted to an ESL situation.

I've written Homan asking for copies of the original papers and will report back if there's anything to add.

Friday, May 11, 2007


My wife is Japanese and we use Japanese at home with the kids. Of course, my Japanese isn't always perfect.

Last night, I was telling my 3-year old for the fifth time to drink her milk. When she retorted that she was drinking it, I pointed out that her milk was in one location and she was elsewhere. In Japanese it went like this
gyunyu wa kotchi ni aru kedo kimi wa soko ni aru.
milk (topic) here at is but you (topic) there at is.
Without looking up my 5-year old says「いる」だよ ("iru" da yo). You see, the Japanese copula distinguishes between animate and inanimate objects: ある (aru) for inanimate and いる (iru) for animate. This is the first time, I believe, that my kids have corrected my grammar like that. I'm sure it won't be the last, though.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Funding schools through scams

One big story here for the last couple of days has been the report by People For Education (see here for earlier reports) that shows Ontario's students shilled for their schools to the tune of over $500 million last school year. The possible inequity of richer neighbourhoods providing better funding is getting a lot of play in the media, but the fact that our children are being turned into touts for the fund-raising industry hasn't gotten much attention.

The really scary story, though, is that most of the junk that schools sell to raise funds--things like chocolate covered almonds, cookies, and assorted trinkets that nobody really wants--returns only a tiny fraction of the revenue to schools. Of course, the $500 million is not solely the result of selling $15 billion dollars of chocolates, but if the money all went to the schools instead of 98% of it going to these fund-raising scams, how much cheaper it would all be, and how much less chocolate our overweight society would be fattening itself up with!

Yes, yes, all overly simplistic, I know. But good to get off one's chest all the same.

Significantly impactful incetivisation

Today, Laurel Broten, being interviewed on CBC Toronto's 'Here & Now' about the govenment's lame plan to reduce the number of plastic bags, got my attention when she described her plan as "significantly impactful". She followed this up by talking about the need to "incentivise" consumers.

Both impactful and incentivise are from the early 1970s, but Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage says that a second sighting of incentivise in the wild isn't recorded until the 1980s. By that time we had the even newer but shorter version incent. Neither seem to be particularly common. There are no instances at all of incent, incentivise, or incentivize (or impactful for that matter) in the British national Corpus. Google, on the other hand, has 434,000 hits for the -ize version and another 370,000 for the -ise spelling, while incent trails in total google hits by about 100,000. These usages seem to be ghettoised to the speech of business and political promotional purposes.

As Mr. Verb's tagline says, "Language changes. Deal with it. Revel in it." Somehow, though, I had trouble reveling in Broten's language.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Homework without the tools?

Jan Freeman's column from this weekend is about an assignment for high-school students.
"Their AP English class had read my Word column about the history and uses of tart (both pastry and prostitute) and its various connotations, they said. And now they were supposed to research and write something similar, on a different subject: a short paper comparing two words with overlapping senses, like art and craft, club and gang, labor and work."
Jan concludes by saying how much fun the assignment sounds, and what a delight research is.

Well, yes, if you're interested in it and have been given enough guidance to carry it out. But if either of those conditions haven't been met, it can be pretty awful.

Now, I don't know what instruction this class have been given, but too often I've seen students set loose on a task that seemed obvious to the instructor (sometimes me), but that simply hadn't been well enough thought out. I wonder what I would do if somebody asked me to write a short paper comparing two engine parts with overlapping roles, like the, um, well, I'm sure you can come up with an example.

(BTW, I'm not saying it's a bad assignment. I think I might actually use it myself.)

Happy belated birthday Thomas

The Ridger has a wonderful birthday homage to Thomas Huxley, one of Darwin's friends and staunchest backers. To be honest, I'd never heard of Huxley before, but among other things, he coined the word agnostic.

Don't even mention the word

Citizenship Minister Mike Colle, in response to questions in the Ontario Legislature has been evasive and dishonest all week. But, one of his responses struck me as particularly odd. "The former minister (Klees) was in a government that, if you look through Hansard in their nine years in power, see where they even mention the word newcomers or immigration. It was totally ignored."

So, I did. Here's a typical instance:
Hon Helen Johns (Minister of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation, minister responsible for seniors and women): I'd like to thank the member for Ottawa-Orléans for the question. Ontario welcomes all new Ontarians to its borders, whether they come from another country or from another province. But it's important to recognize that although new Canadians coming to Ontario consist of about 55% of all new Canadians, we only receive 40% of the funds from the federal government for settlement services. Of course, this becomes a substantial problem. If you think about the number of new Ontarians we get in the province, we should be receiving about $134 million from the federal government; as opposed to that, we receive about $100 million. So it's really important that Ontario receive its fair share of the settlement dollars from the federal government, and we're looking forward to being able to work with the federal government to get our fair share.

With that money, we invest in newcomer settlement programs which make sure that newcomers are settled as quickly as they can be into Ontario. We also invest in cultural interpreter programs to make sure that violence against women is minimized, and we help new immigrants-

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Dissembling in English

To be honest, I'm stretching to make this fit into a blog about English and English teaching, but it pissed me off enough that I sent a letter to the editor of our local paper.

On Monday April 30 2007 a letter from Bob Gordanier, Dufferin County beef producer, board director, Ontario Cattlemen's Association was published expressing his "disappointment with an advertisement placed in the Orangeville Banner on April 17 (page 22)." He characterises the advertisement as a kind of 'force-feeding of misleading information'. I hardly see how consumers are being forced to read advertisements in the Banner, but this kind of hyperbole is a good way to start your attack when you really have no substantial points to make. This is but the first of Gordanier's standard rhetorical ploys in his dissembling letter.

He begins his "clarification" by providing nutritional information about lean beef. Ploy number 2: when you have no pertinent information to add to the discussion about the environmental effects of beef, change the topic. He continues along this line by saying that "Canada's Food Guide encourages Canadians to enjoy one to three servings of meat and alternatives, such as lean beef, every day." The implication is that people should eat meat. Yet, Canada's Food Guide explicitly supports a vegetarian diet.

Gordanier "explains" that "livestock production (is) sustainable (humans have been farming animals for 5,000 years, after all)." Ploy number 3: us false analogies. What this argument ignores is the fact that the means of production has changed dramatically. What's more, intensive and unsustainable agricultural practices have been the downfall of numerous civilisations throughout history.

Finally, consider Gordanier's claim that grazing animals "more than doubles the land area that can be used to produce food." Ploy number 4: distract with statistics. The above claim may be technically correct, but consider the difference between doubling the land area that can be used to produce food and doubling the food produced in a given land area. Current agricultural land use could be dramatically cut if livestock farming disappeared. According to the USDA, growing the crops necessary to feed farmed animals requires nearly half of the United States' water supply and 80% of its agricultural land (source). Additionally, animals raised for food in the U.S. consume 90% of the soy crop, 80% of the corn crop, and a total of 70% of its grain. I expect the numbers would be similar in Canada.

The facts remain that, for most Canadians, moving to a vegetarian diet will reduce our environmental impact.

Next week, I think I'll take Gordanier's letter and feed it to my level 6 class to see how far they can go in identifying all the BS.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Clitics and affixes

This afternoon, I caught the last few minutes of CBC's And Sometimes Y, hosted by Russell Smith's. (These half-hour programs on English tend to be much better than Smith's occasional language pieces in the Globe & Mail.) In the bit I caught, author Michael Winter was justifying his abandonment of quotation marks and most apostrophes in his novel (novels?). Smith asked him about his practice of writing don't as dont. He said something to the effect that he just didn't see the point in constantly reminding readers that two words had been sandwiched together.

Indeed, the apostrophe does commonly occur in situations that can be rewritten as two words. But mostly it's there to stand in place of missing letters. It turns out that Winter actually knows this. On his blog, he writes,
"I just decided one day, what's up with this symbol that tells the reader of a contraction. That two words have been sandwiched and a letter or two left out. Why do I have to remind the reader of this grammatical omission."
Still, Winter's characterisation isn't entirely accurate. The fact that something can be decomposed into two words is merely coincidental to the apostrophe. Consider workin', ma'am, and gov't. In most of the seemingly combined words, the apostrophe doesn't even come at the boundary of the two words. It does in can|'t, but not in words like is|n't or does|n't.

I didn't write this to nitpick Winter's minor misstatement (he's got some good points and makes them in an engaging way; you can listen here from about the 20-minute mark.) No, the interesting part of this is that the n't ending on auxiliary verbs isn't really a contraction at all. Rather, it's an inflection.

In contractions, we have constituents, like the 're in we're, that are called clitics. It's often hard to distinguish between clitics and bound morphemes such as -ing, or -tion, but there are a number of good reason (discussed in Pullum & Zwicky, 1983) to argue that the n't ending has become an inflectional affix. I'll look at a few here.
  1. Clitics are promiscuous, attaching to a wide range of words, but affixes are picky and arbitrary.
  2. Phonological and semantic changes in the root are more typical of affixes than of clitics.
First, here are some clitics: 's = is, 're = are, 've = have. These can attach not just to nouns, but to prepositions, verbs, adjectives, even conjunctions:
  • The horse you rode in on's leaving.
  • something specific happening which relates to the press release but's not part of it
Affixes, in contrast, only go with certain classes of words: plural -s only with nouns, -ing only with verbs, and n't only with auxiliary verbs. It won't attach to other verbs (e.g., *maken't). In fact, it won't even attach to all auxiliaries. You find amn't only in certain dialects and *ben't just doesn't work at all.

Second, when the clitics attach, you rarely have to change the pronunciation of your root. For example, you don't get something like I have, changing to *ee've or any other such thing. With affixes, however, you have oddities like won't, don't and ain't.

Perhaps the most relevant point for ESL teachers, is that you can't always just switch a not to an n't. In sentences like the following, the auxiliary simply isn't directly followed by the not.
  • Can you not see what's before your eyes?
  • *Can youn't see what's before your eyes?
  • Can't you see what's before your eyes?
And sometimes even when there is a not right after a verb that can be an auxiliary, the n't chooses to go with the actual auxiliary. (fixed Aug 17, 2008)
  • Could they have not done something else?
  • *Could they haven't done something else?
  • Couldn't they have done something else?
There's more in the paper, but that's enough for now.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Colour perception/discrimination/categorisation

New Scientist Magazine's Roxanne Khamsi reports on a recent study that claims to support the Whorfian hypothesis. The lead author is quoted as saying, "this is the first time that evidence has been offered to show cross-linguistic differences in colour perception in an objective task." That seemed a striking claim to me, so I tried to get a look at the original paper. Unfortunately, it's subscribers only, but here's the abstract (a good summary is here).
English and Russian color terms divide the color spectrum differently. Unlike English, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues ("goluboy") and darker blues ("siniy"). We investigated whether this linguistic difference leads to differences in color discrimination. We tested English and Russian speakers in a speeded color discrimination task using blue stimuli that spanned the siniy/goluboy border. We found that Russian speakers were faster to discriminate two colors when they fell into different linguistic categories in Russian (one siniy and the other goluboy) than when they were from the same linguistic category (both siniy or both goluboy). Moreover, this category advantage was eliminated by a verbal, but not a spatial, dual task. These effects were stronger for difficult discriminations (i.e., when the colors were perceptually close) than for easy discriminations (i.e., when the colors were further apart). English speakers tested on the identical stimuli did not show a category advantage in any of the conditions. These results demonstrate that (i) categories in language affect performance on simple perceptual color tasks and (ii) the effect of language is online (and can be disrupted by verbal interference).
The keywords linked to the article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where the study is published are "categorization | cross-linguistic | Whorf".

So, is perception the same as discrimination / categorisation? When I first read this, I took perception to be sense 3a in Merriam-Webster's, "3 a : awareness of the elements of environment through physical sensation [color perception]". Given this meaning, it strikes me as quite different from discrimination. But according to A Dictionary of Psychology, "In psychology, a distinction is conventionally drawn between sensation , the subjective experience or feeling that results from excitation of sensory receptors, and perception, sensory experience that has been interpreted with reference to its presumed external stimulus object or event."

This choice of a technical sense of the word over the everyday one is probably second nature to the psychologist (just as a lawyer might go for conclusory without knowing that it would mean nothing to most of us), but it might throw off the layperson.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

ESL/ESD funding in Ontario schools

The 2005 Report of the Auditor General of Ontario's had a section dealing with ESL/ELD (English Literacy Development) in our public schools. The summary is reproduced below.
We found that while the Ministry provides school
boards with approximately $225 million a year of
English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) and English-
Literacy-Development (ELD) grants, it had no infor-
mation about whether students whose first lan-
guage is not English were achieving appropriate
proficiency in English. In addition, the Ministry had
no information on how much school boards were
actually spending on ESL/ELD programs. Infor-
mation we received from one board indicated that
more than half of its ESL/ELD funding was spent on
other areas.
This lack of oversight of ESL/ELD program
delivery resulted in some concerns similar to those
raised in our 1993 audit report on Curriculum
Development. Specifically, the considerable discre-
tion that school boards and in some cases individ-
ual schools have with respect to ESL/ELD programs
increases the risks of students with similar needs
being provided with different levels of assistance
depending on which school or board is delivering
the program. In addition, the lack of a centrally co-
ordinated process to develop ongoing training pro-
grams for teachers and various instructional aids
results in under-investment in these areas and may
lead to some duplication of effort by school boards.
In particular, we found that:
• The Ministry had not established a measurable
English-proficiency standard that ESL/ELD stu-
dents should attain before ESL/ELD services are
discontinued. Some teachers we interviewed
were concerned that services to ESL/ELD stu-
dents were discontinued prematurely due to
budget considerations.
• There was a lack of tools to help teachers to
properly assess the starting point and progress
of students in achieving English proficiency and
to determine whether additional assistance was
• Although the Ministry has recommended that
teachers modify the standard curriculum expect-
ations for, and provide accommodations (for
example, extra time on tests) to, ESL/ELD stu-
dents, it did not provide much guidance on
how to adapt the standard curriculum expecta-
tions for students who are learning English. The
lack of guidance has resulted in inconsistent
• Neither report cards nor student records had
sufficient information about modifications to
standard expectations or accommodations pro-
vided to ESL/ELD students. As a result, parents,
principals, and school boards were not in a posi-
tion to evaluate the appropriateness of the modi-
fications and accommodations or their impact
Note the reference to the 1993 report. Anyhow, this time around all would be fixed, according to Dalton McGuinty. In December, 2005, responding to a question from Frank Klees, McGuinty said,
"the Minister of Education did meet with the Auditor General and asked if he might receive specific advice on how we can better track those dollars. We have, moving forward, sweatered (sic) all new ESL funding so that it must be spent on ESL. But we want to make sure now that we are in fact doing the kind of independent tracking that absolutely assures all of us, but especially the parents of children affected, that this money is going to benefit them." (I assume that sweatered is a transcription error and that McGuinty meant something like earmarked.)
Yes, well, in 2006, a report from People for Education (echoing their 2002 report) went like this:
  • "The number of schools with ESL programs has declined from 58% in 1997/98 to 36% in 2005/06.
  • The number of schools with ESL teachers has declined from 41% in 1998/99 to 27% in 2005/06.
  • In schools with ESL students, 51% report this year that they have no ESL teachers, compared to 33% in 1999/00.

The results are even more dramatic in schools in the Greater Toronto Area.

  • 71% of all Ontario’s ESL students are in the GTA.
  • Only 51% of GTA schools have ESL teachers, a decline from 55% last year, and 68% in 1999/00.
  • The percentage of GTA schools with ESL students but no ESL teachers has more than doubled over the last five years—from 16% in 1999/00 to 42% in 2005/06.
  • Despite recent increases in funding for ESL, the number of GTA schools reporting ESL students but no ESL teacher increased from 32% in 2004/05 to 42% in 2005/06.
The report says that school boards are forced to use their ESL funding to cover overall costs for things like teachers’ salaries, school principals and secretaries, and heat and light for their school buildings. It cites figures published on the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) website showing that the TDSB received over $80 million in funding for ESL in 2005/06. Of that, only approximately $35 million actually was spent on ESL programs."
But that was only a few months after the Auditor General's report. No time to actually implement those changes. Surely by they next year though...

So, can you guess the contents of a report released today? I won't even bother posting a summary.

Coincidentally, CBC reported on April 18th that the Ontario government is planning to do something about this issue.

"According to the draft policy obtained by CBC News, ESL funding from the Ministry of Education will be for the "direct benefit" of English language learners.

Education Minister Kathleen Wynne has confirmed the government is developing a new policy for ESL, but wouldn't say whether boards will be forced to allocate ESL grants to those programs. The policy will be put into place in time for the new school year in September."

I wonder if this is the same policy that in 2005 ensured that "all new ESL funding... be spent on ESL". I hope not.