Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Oxford Learner's Thesaurus

Up until now, there have only been two thesauri (or thesauruses if you prefer) for learners of English: The Longman Language Activator and The American Heritage Thesaurus for Learners of English. Now Oxford has brought a new volume to market, and a lovely addition it is.

The Oxford Learner's Thesaurus is aimed at upper-level language learners (CEF B2 and up), as it should be. I've said before that lower-level students should concentrate on the core vocabulary and not tear off willy nilly into the outback of English esoterica. In fact, the same could be said of upper-level students and a lot of native speakers of English, a reality that the folks at Oxford seem to have grasped well.

Rather than trying to be comprehensive, the Oxford Learner's Thesaurus focuses on being useful. You begin by looking up a word in the index. The entry for conquer, for example, looks like this:
conquer verb
  • INVADE (conquer a country)
  • OVERCOME (conquer your fear)
  • SUCCEED (conquer the US market)
From there, you decide which sense of conquer you're interested in and proceed to the relevant main entry. If we choose overcome, we find the following synonyms listed: overcome, get over sth, control, bring/get/keep sth under control, beat, conquer. From these six choices, all but two words are in the most common 1,000 words of English, overcome being at the 3k level and conquer being at the 6k level: all useful words. Notice also that although the headword is listed first, the other words are listed from most to least frequent.

In contrast, Roget's II: The New Thesaurus (third ed.) gives us: beat, best, conquer, master, prevail against, rout, subdue, subjugate, surmount, triumph over, vanquish, worst, overcome for the following frequency distribution:
  • BNC-1,000 against beat best over worst
  • BNC-2,000 master
  • BNC-3,000 overcome
  • BNC-5,000 triumph
  • BNC-6,000 conquer prevail
  • BNC-10,000 subdue subjugate surmount
  • BNC-13,000 rout vanquish
Master could usefully be added to the Oxford entry, and perhaps triumph, but the others I believe we can safely do without.

Next, Oxford gives a brief simple explanation of the meaning of the group followed by patterns and collocations. I'm not big on teachers spending a lot of time on collocations--there's too much other more common vocabulary to learn (see here)--but presenting them here, where a student has chosen to look a word up, is more than just appropriate; it's downright helpful. Finally, we get a definition of each word with example sentences.

Other information includes: register (from slang to formal), dialect (AmE, BrE, etc.), genre (business, fiction, etc.) and more. This is the type of information a student needs to choose the right word rather than just a different one.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


English Teachers in Japan is a mostly eponymous group (I say mostly because there are some members like me who aren't in Japan) that runs a mailing list with over 5,000 members. Since the list was started over eight years ago, I think it fitting to note that I have posted 808 messages, for an average of 101 a year. I hope you find something useful there.

What you trade and what you get

Trading places with your students is good experience for any language teacher. A good long trade really is the best: the kind where you go and live in a country where they don't speak your language and you try to fumble along in theirs. You get the triumphs of hearing yourself say something for the first time or finally being able to trap a word that had been as elusive as a deer fly, but you also get the embarrassment of relying on childishly simply observations because you simply can't express the more profound thoughts slamming around inside your brain looking for an escape vehicle; you go through the tedium of memorizing all the vocabulary and the endlessly incomprehensible irregular features; and you face the frustration of not being able to get what you want because nobody understands you. It's a humbling experience.

But that's just in one particular language. John Kuhlman has traded into a situation where he is "exactly like a Spanish speaker or a Chinese speaker in a room full of English speakers... If I’m in a room for a cocktail party," he says, "I can hear everything, but I can’t understand a word. So I’m pretty good at understanding their problem. I’ve got empathy, sympathy, patience." And that's exactly what a good (language) teacher needs, though I don't think I'd want to trade my hearing to get it as Kuhlman has. In a lovely NY Times piece on Kuhlman, Samuel G. Freedman brings us the voices of his students:

“He has more calm, more patience with me,”
“When not understand, he explain to me. He’s nice people.”
“He have a lot of passion. He like to listen to any question. I have find he’s very friendly.”

In the same piece, Freedman observes the trades that so many of our students have made:

"Fate also moved his students here. They were drawn by jobs in the factories and the fields, trading their own sacrifice for their children’s American future."

This reminded me of a passage from On the Road:

"They had come down from the back mountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer, and they never dreamed the sadness and the poor broken delusion of it."

But it also reminded me of a post I wrote back in January. At that time, I discovered that most people say, "not at the cost of (bad thing)" where the bad thing is a noun but "not at the cost of (good thing)" where the good thing is a gerund-participle. It seems I had been using the gerund-participle pattern with nouns.

Now, here we have Freedman making a similar switch. Notice that if I trade comfort for patience, I lose the comfort but I get patience in return. In the quote above, however, Freedman has the language learners trading their sacrifice for their children's future. Of course, he intends us to understand that they have taken on sacrifice, not lost it. And that's just how we interpret it. I'll wager that out of the thousands of people who read that article, not more than two or three will find his formulation strange, and that none of those who do so will find it at all confusing.

The possibilities of language really are astounding. And we would be fools to trade those possibilities for the poor broken delusion hiding behind the false certainty of prescriptive conformity.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Determined to get into the OED

For some time there was a fair bit of debate over at en.wiktionary about whether to list words such as all, most, every, this, etc. as adjectives or determiners. (It seems that I have finally succeeded in having them all accepted as determiners, though it hasn't gone to a vote.) One of the arguments against was that other dictionaries, including the OED don't use determiner as a class of words.

Well, it does now. I just discovered by chance that a number of words in the March 2008 draft revisions happen to fall into this category. The entry for many, for instance, is as follows:

A. adj. (determiner). Designating a large (indefinite) number.
The word retains a more generally adjectival character (‘numerous’) when used predicatively (senses A. 1c, A. 2c) or after another determiner (e.g. ‘my many lives’). 1. Used distributively with a singular noun or pronoun (formerly sometimes with plural concord).

Much is the same, while other entries, such as every from the 1989 edition, are not marked as determiners.

Now, I'd just go ahead and take that old adj. out of there, but change is slow and I think the OED deserves kudos for going this far.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Early English in Japaneses Schools

A while ago, Tom Merner wrote,

"The implementation of mandatory English in the 5th and 6th grades of elementary schools in Japan is just one part of the revision of the Course of Studies (Gakushu Shidou Youryou), which normally takes place once in ten years in Japan. The revised Course of Studies has been officially released on March 28th and it has been announced that this new Course of Studies (for elementary school) will be implemented in April, Heisei 23 (2011) . The Ministry of Education normally sets a two year transition period for schools to prepare for the changes, which has also been announced for the upcoming revision. As a result, schools can start making changes (e.g. starting English in the 5th and 6th grades) from April 2009. This may be why you are hearing different dates from different sources. Another possibility is that different local BOEs making decisions for increasing the number of hours of English in their areas in order to start the preparations early. This is also possible because English Activities is already part of Sogotekina Gakushu no Jikan and schools are left to decide the number of hours they plan to provide each year.

For a source of the official announcement, you can read the Education Minister's official statement concerning the implementation of the revised Course of Studies" (only provided in Japanese). [Brett: yes, the last course of study wasn't officially translated until a good year or so after it came into effect. At the time, my translation was the only one available to most English teachers.]

Now it seems that the government's attempts to do this on the cheap are not getting much buy-in from the public. The Daily Yomiuri notes that a survey had "70 percent of the respondents saying professional English teachers are needed to ensure the language is taught effectively.... and and 58 percent said they wanted native English speakers to teach at primary schools. On the other hand, less than 20 percent of respondents supported measures the Education, Science and Technology Ministry is considering introducing, such as educational CDs and DVDs and English-speaking volunteers who would act in a supporting role."

In a wealthy country like Japan, I agree with the parents, but in poorer countries, I think a good deal could be achieved with graded readers, CDs, and a little training for the teachers.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Said determinative

Said is most commonly the past tense of say, but as a past participle, it became used in legal writing to refer to something that was mentioned previously (also aforesaid). Gradually, this became an adjective:
It is therefore ordered and adjudged that the said, William Jefferson Clinton, be and he hereby is acquitted of the charges in the said articles.

Although it is positively commonplace for words to change their meaning, often expanding into other categories (e.g., verbing), it is much less common that they change categories completely, and quite rare for them to move into one of the so-called "closed classes". That, however, appears to be what said is doing. Though British usage overwhelmingly favours said as an adjective, American usage tends to do away with the article the:

  • Soon he made out a round door no higher than a child of three, and no wider than said child lying sideways.

  • You'll recall taking a letter in which I accepted a position on the Laningham commission? Well, I received word in return inviting me to the first meeting of said commission today at four.

In such cases, said has been reanalysed as a determinative, though admittedly a marginal one. Most members of this class function readily in partitive constructions:

  • some of the water
  • many of the people
  • each of the books

Said, of course, does not.

Now, I'm not claiming that this is all that new. It could have been around for a few hundred years even. But most grammars and dictionaries, including the OED, give only examples as adjective. Nor am I claiming that the determinative is completely driving out the adjective for everyone who uses it. For me, however, coming across this issue being discussed on the English Wiktionary was a bit of a shock because I had never realised that anybody said the said.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


My own sense of podcast as a verb matches that of Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English
Main Entry: podcast
Part of Speech: v
Definition: to deliver a Web-based audio broadcast via an RSS feed over the Internet to subscribers

That is to say, it is analogous to broadcast. Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC's afternoon arts program 'Q', however, has a very different sense in mind when he says (and he says it almost daily), "you can podcast the show at, the letter q." Here, he means that you can download the podcast, subscribe to it, or listen to it online (or perhaps he means all three. I'm not really sure.) But whichever it is, I don't think I'd ever heard or seen podcast used in that way elsewhere.

Which is not to say that it isn't. In fact, there are a few web pages (but a very few it seems) that have exactly the same sense as Ghomeshi's, including this from the BBC:

  • We're off air now, but you can podcast the programme here.
...and this one from the ABC (as in Australia).
  • Podcasting is like radio, only not. It's a way of publishing sound files using the internet and playing them back with an MP3 player. This empowers the listener - enabling each of us to choose when and where we listen. Jackie May reports.

    Program Transcript

    Richard Aedy: From next week, listeners like you can Podcast selected Radio National programs. Podcasting, they tell me, is radio without the radio, but how does it work? Jackie May decided to find out.

So, three of the major national English-language broadcasters (or at least a few members of their ranks) seem to believe that podcast can mean something like "listen to an audio file." This, despite the fact that ABC's use is in opposition to its own definition provided but a paragraph earlier. And, of course, it's hard to see how cast, meaning throw, fits with this inward-bound meaning, but let's not get too caught up in the etymological fallacy. Suffice it to say, I don't think these folk would accept "the listener can broadcast the program by tuning in on the radio."

For the time being, it seems that this catching sense of podcast hasn't quite caught on. But then again, being somewhat heterodox is what Q's all about, isn't it?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Commas, Turning Up, Everywhere

Via The Onion

April 25, 2008 | Issue 44•17

WASHINGTON—In the midst of a crisis that may have reached a breaking, point Tuesday afternoon, linguists, and grammarians, everywhere say they are baffled, by the sudden and seemingly random, appearance of commas, in our nation's sentences. The epidemic of errant punctuation has spread, like wildfire, since signs of the epidemic first, appeared in a Washington Post article, on Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben, Bernanke. "This, is an unsettling trend," columnist William Sa,fire, told reporters. "We're seeing a collapse of the grammatical rules that have, held, the English language, together for, centuries." Experts warn, that if this same, phenomenon, should occur with ellipses…