How (not) to test language proficiency

The United States of America has no official language, although English functions as the de facto language of the government and media. This doesn’t mean English is the only language in use. In some regions, Spanish is spoken by the majority. Large cities often have a “Chinatown” area, where Chinese languages dominate.

There are many who view this multilingualism as a problem. Several groups exist to promote and lobby for legislation to make English the only official language of the US. ProEnglish  is one very prominent example. You can read an essay over here outlining their philosophy.
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Grammarly doesn’t understand the subjunctive

A little while ago, someone on Twitter shared a link to a Grammarly blog post on the subjunctive, which I foolishly clicked on. This is not the first time that I’ve talked about Grammarly, and if you read my earlier post it probably won’t surprise you that nobody over there understands what the subjunctive is. Here’s how the blog post starts out:
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It’s OK if you can’t pronounce foreign words

Early in September, Vanessa Ruiz, a news anchor at 12News Arizona, caused a mini-controversy with the way she pronounces Spanish words on air. Ruiz is a native speaker of Spanish, and viewers were getting upset that she rolled her “r” when saying words of Spanish origin. She defended herself by claiming that she was only pronouncing the words “the way they were meant to be said”, although not everyone appreciated this response.
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Bad grammar guides: University edition

As you might know, I like to review grammar books. For this post, I decided to look at the grammar advice offered by university Writing Centres. Virtually all universities have something like this. It’s a place for students who are struggling with assignments such as essays and reports. Generally they’re aimed at first language speakers, but some have ESL support as well.

One thing I found was that a number of writing centres offer little or no grammar advice. Instead, their focus is on topics like how to structure essays, how to write for different academic disciplines, how to do a bibliography, and so on. Some offered almost no online advice at all, and their website was mainly a contact page for students looking for in-person help. This is perfectly acceptable, of course, since that’s what the writing centre is for.

Some, however, offered guides on grammar, and these the ones I’m reviewing here. I picked three universities for this post, and focussed on only one or two issues in each case. This is to keep the post a readable length, and to avoid repeating myself too much. Many of the issues that I’ll discuss were not unique to a single university, and I could easily have picked a different three (although the website design for the University of Calgary is something special).
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Burmese inadequate for the modern world says the New York Times

The New York Times recently published an article about Myanmar’s transition into a more modern state. You can read the article here. The focus is on how the national language, Burmese, is an impediment to the country’s future. (The name of the language is based on “Burma”, the older English name for the country.) The article is full of fallacies, bad arguments, and misinformation that leaves us with the impression that Burmese is linguistically impoverished, and that the speakers of the language have no chance of making it in the modern world. Here’s the opening statement:
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Gerunds: More Interesting Than You Thought

I suppose I should start the post by describing what a gerund is, in order for us all to be on the same page. In extremely non-technical terms, a gerund is a word-type that looks like a verb with an -ing suffix, but also looks like a noun because it can be the subject of a verb. For example, the following sentences contain gerunds (bolded):

Eating is enjoyable.
Reading Chomsky makes my head spin.
I can’t believe Mark’s cheating on the test doesn’t bother you.

These are tricky words to describe, and traditional grammars are often at odds with each other about how to treat them. Some people will tell you these are definitely verbs, but others will insist they are nouns. Some grammarians take a half-way view and say something like “gerunds are verbs that act like nouns”.

It turns out that this is one occasion where I will not be picking apart the traditional view, because things really are messy. Gerunds have weird mixed behaviour that makes them look a little bit like verbs, a little bit like nouns. They also have unique properties of their own that they don’t share with either nouns or verbs.
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Musings on subjects and conjunctions

This issue comes up all the time on grammar blogs and in grammar books: which form of a pronoun should go into conjoined subjects? For example, I want to know which of these to choose:

  • Kimberly and I defended the fort.
  • Kimberly and me defended the fort.

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