Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Teachers are Cool

They are cool when they are as good as Taylor Mali.

Slam poet, stand-up comic and experienced teacher Taylor Mali puts a smile on your face and reminds us why good teachers are so important.

Here's a sample of his wit

entitled "What does a teacher make?"

And there's much more on his homepage

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Daniel Everett: Don't Sleep, There are Snakes

What's not to like? A passionate description of an exotic culture. Wild jungle, wild animals and wild times. Stories of learning by an 'educated' white guy from 'uneducated' natives. And as if that wasn't enough - there's enough fieldwork data to severely rock Chomskian linguistics to the core.

Dan Everett spent 20 years or more living with the Pirahã on the banks of the Madeira river in the Amazonian rainforest. His mission – in more ways than one – was to learn the language of these ‘primitive’ people in order to translate the bible into their language so they could be converted – presumably into ‘civilised’ people who fear and worship God. As Dan learned more about the Pirahã, anthropology and linguistics it became clear to him why his mission was pointless. The ‘primitive’ Pirahã, it seems, have a core value which dictates a large part of their lives: they are pure empiricists. They do not believe anything that they have not witnessed themselves – or, at a stretch, what is reported by a reliable witness. So, when Dan the missionary is asked how he knows Jesus, the good book just doesn’t cut it with these people. Apparently, these primitive people do not believe when someone tells them about what someone wrote down thousands of years about someone else they had never met in another language in another country. Funny that – well, funny that we should believe it. In fact, they do not believe in any mythical metaphysical explanation for why we were put on earth. They just get on with it.

So, why is that important for linguistics? Bear with me for a moment. According to the generative school of linguistics, created by Noam Chomsky over 50 years ago, language is pre-wired into human brains. Chomsky and his followers, including Pinker, have spent enormous time, energy and research dollars trying to prove exactly what it is that unites ALL human languages – if language is innate, as they claim, one would expect to find a wide range of common features across all languages past and present. Well, it seems that they have only been able to find one common feature – it’s called recursion. Recursion is generally agreed to cover aspects of language which repeat themselves inside themselves. A great example is (This is the cat that chased the mouse that ate the malt that stood in) ‘The house that Jack built’. We see here how a structure in language can repeat itself inside itself – in English this can be accomplished using relative clauses – presumably ad infinitum. We can also see how, using conjunctions for example, clauses can be added to each other, and added to each other, and added to each other, and added to each other… etc. So, let’s get back to Everett. What Everett found that has upset generative grammarians is that the Pirahã language appears to have no recursion at all. There is no embedding of ideas inside other ideas. There is no joining of sentences to make longer sentences. Each idea is separate and self-complete. This claim, and the claim that the Pirahã cultural value of empiricism affects their language as well as their culture, has been tested by other anthropologists and linguists. In general, they confirm Everett’s analysis.

Just as in horticulture, the Amazon rainforest has provided us with an exotic species that turns our understanding of medicine, biology or horticulture on its head. In this case, an Amazonian culture and language has demanded that the inductive-driven linguistics of the late 20th Century rethink its fundamental principles. If recursion is the only factor common to all human languages, and recursion is not common to one language, then there is no common factor and so the assumption that humans come ‘pre-loaded’ with language can no longer stand the weight of evidence.

There is one thing that I do not like about the stories that Everett provides. It seems tragic that anyone wanting to become a missionary, even in the 20th-21st centuries, is provided with all the necessary resources to live with an indigenous group of people. Meanwhile, anthropologists and linguistic anthropologists can barely find the money to study language groups in their own countries. The happy ending for us (but not for Dan, who is now divorced from his missionary wife) is that Everett makes the transition from missionary to linguist and anthropologist as a consequence of his encounters with the Pirahã.

Thanks to Phyllis & Alistair Burns who gave me the book for Christmas.
Another lazy cut'n'paste review from my Goodreads site

Noam Chomsky & His Dog Predicate

This is a great comic strip based on the fact that Noam Chomsky is probably the most well-known 'dissident' US academic (he actually disagrees with the government and isn't afraid to say so) through the publication of books such as 'Manufacturing Consent' & 'Hegemony or Survival'*. There is almost no mention of linguistics in the comic (the one below being a notable exception).

The link takes you to the full list of Chomsky's adventures. Hope you enjoy them. I hope Noam enjoys them too.

*I've always thought it is no coincidence that the father of generative linguistics makes no reference at all to linguistics in his version of critical discourse analysis. I am forced to conclude that generative linguistics is unable to explain exactly the language that Chomsky identifies that is used by the media and the US government to manipulate power relations. Meanwhile, functional schools of linguistics have made great progress in identifying exactly how language works to perpetuate unequal power relations.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Real Phrasal Verbs


The following extract from the local rag offers a range of phrasal verbs in context. There's such a range of verb and particle here it is almost impossible to classify each one.

Let's start with 'make up' on its own:
Make up: K by Beverley Knight

I was into make-up at such a young age. Mum never wore much make-up so I think I made up for it.

Make-up, a noun probably derived from the phrasal verb make up, is used here in the same breath as make up for something.
The individual meanings of these two phrasal verbs are very different, but they each offer a chance for us to try and understand the use(s) of the particle "up".
Kiss and make up

As if that wasn't enough, Beverely Knight (for it is she) reportedly continues:

From about 12 or 13 I wanted to have a full face of make-up on and it never went down too well with her. I just found I had a knack for applying it and I ended up the girl who did everyone's make-up before we went out.

We have, in context and in order, the following verbs and particles:
have something on
go down well with something
end up
go out

Oh, that would go down well with some tortilla chips
As in all cases, no matter how you may wish to categorise them, the key is to see what meaning the particle contributes, before looking at how that meaning is modified by the verb.

Acknowledgment: K. Crane. 2010. A Knight in Beverley Hills. Tabloid, Gulf News, Jan 10, 2010, p.9

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

THE Linguistics Joke

From a linguistics lecture:

Lecturer: In general, when it comes to negation, languages, or more precisely dialects and registers of languages, tend to fall into two groups. On the one hand we find those languages which employ more than one negative to emphasise negativity. And on the other hand we find those languages, dialects and registers that follow the rules of logic so that a second negative cancels out the first. So we have languages where two positives make a positive, two negatives make a negative, and languages where two negatives make a positive. But we have never come across a language where two positives make a negative. Ha, ha, ha.
From the back of the room comes a voice: Yea, right.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Real Passive

It's difficult to find real examples of very low frequency passive forms - by definition. So here's one I heard recently that was produced perfectly naturally,in context, in a Sky News report:

it was highlighted to police that in this house dangerous dogs had been being bred.

Sky News 30 Nov 09

Say it aloud, as a news reporter, to get the right sound.
The corpus linguist's best friend, Google, offers 5 more examples, using bred, and the WebCorp Web Concordancer and Collocation extractor really only offers "for" to the right as a significant collocation.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


What is the definition of a drill?

A device for boring

Monday, January 11, 2010


Moodle is an open-source application designed to facilitate online learning. You can download everything you need in one go from the main Moodle site, but its always better if you can get some technical assistance so you do not have make your own computer double up as the server for your site.

Originally based on WebCT, Moodle has been further developed by the online community. A wide range of tools are available for use in education in 45,000+ sites in 209 countries.
Moodle LMS (Learning Management System) offers tools for: Delivery, Reporting, Communications, Collaboration & Assessment. (All SCORM compatible - see this guide).
Moodle 2.0 due out soon.
Roles: Administrator, Teacher, Student, Guest, Parent with different permissions.
Reports on classes, students (e.g. for activities carried out), activities (e.g. who has completed) & others.

Within a few hours I was able to set up a course with a wide range of resources, but I have tried it out before and I used to use WebCT a lot. I look forward to learning more about the productivity tools on offer.

Thanks to for today's presentation.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dave Willis: Rules, Patterns and Words

Dave Willis (2003) Rules, Patterns and Words - Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching (Cambridge University Press)

In case you missed it, the last 20 years has seen a debate raging about the relative value of grammar and vocabulary in language teaching. Some say you can make sense with the right vocabulary and no grammar in a foreign language better than you can make sense with the right grammar and no vocabulary. To assume that you can have one without the other is, of course, nonsense, but to assume that patterns can only be found in grammar is also denying learners the chance to start creating their own meanings.

What we need is someone who can keep the new clean baby, whilst throwing out the dirty old bathwater. If an over-emphasis on verb-based grammar (derived from 40-year old morphology studies) is the bathwater and the generative power of lexical patterns is the baby, then Dave Willis is our man. Like any good teacher, Willis is not really interested in the debate itself. What he wants to know is: How will it help us as language teachers, and how will it help language learners?

So what right does Dave Willis have to tell us language teachers that we need to look at language more from the lexical side of things than we have in the past? Dave Willis was a language teacher for many years, he worked with the COBUILD team from very early on, had access to most of the new ideas that were being produced from that research and then produced (with Jane Willis) the first language course to be based on a lexical rather than a grammatical description - the COBUILD English Language Course (which, incidentally, was also the first to use a task-based methodology throughout). Pretty good credentials, if you ask me.

But does this book rest on what was? No. This is an entirely new approach - a new thesis that moves us beyond Willis' 'The Lexical Syllabus' (click to access downloadable version) and into a much more classroom-friendly approach, but does not ignore the traditional calls for some grammar teaching. The book not only offers a fresh description of language for language teachers, it is also full of sensible ways to pass on these ideas to students and help them with the task of language learning.

It is extremely rare for me to read an EFL book from cover to cover, but I could not put this one down. It reads well, and should sound true to most language teachers. If you want to find out how best to help language learners deal with grammar and lexis, look no further than this book.

This is another lazy cut and paste from my site.
You can learn more about Dave (and Jane) Willis at

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Gerald Edelman: Wider than the Sky

G. Edelman (2004) Wider than the Sky - The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (Yale University Press)
Google Books

This is probably one of the most important books that I have read in the last few years. It is an easy read and very thought-provoking. Highly recommended.

This is a synopsis and some notes and quotes from 'Wider than the Sky'.
Edelman's work on both researching and describing neuroanatomy has significantly changed the way we see how the brain works. It is not too difficult to follow and should be enough to rock subjects like psychology to the core as they seem happy to proceed on the delusion that there is some kind of metaphysical (i.e. non-physical) mind that bears no resemblance to the brain. With people such as Edelman and Maturana and Varela on the case, metaphysical approaches to the mind should soon be a thing of the past (wishful thinking!!)

Re-entry within the dynamic core of the brain allows for primary consciousness: mediation of value-category memory (originating in bodily experiences, and thru re-entry can be re-enacted with or without motor function at any time) and perceptual categorisation (the here and now of sorting perception into different objects).
Higher-Order consciousness = re-entrant circuits mediating between primary consciousness and semantic capability. Symbolic nature of semantic dissociation between symbol and meaning combined with the flexibility of manipulating these symbols thru syntax releases the consciousness from the “remembered present” and thru these re-entrant circuits enables remembered past, imagined past and future, and planned future.

“although the conscious process involves representation, the neural substrate of consciousness is non-representational” (104)

“mental images arise in a primary-consciousness scene largely by the same neural processes by which direct perceptual images arise. One relies on memory, the other on signals from without.” (105)
[it is thru re-entry that these processes are so similar]

This view rejects the notion of computation and the idea that there is a “language of thought.” Meaning is not identical to mental representation. Instead it arises as a result of the play between value systems, varying environmental cues, learning, and non-representational memory. (105)
[also Thibault Jnl of Prag.]

“…much of cognitive psychology is ill-founded. There are no functional states that can be uniquely equated with defined or coded computational states in individual brains and no process that can be equated with the execution of algorithms. Instead, there is an enormously rich set of selectional repertoires of neuronal groups whose degenerate responses can, by selection, accommodate the open-ended richness of environmental input, individual history and individual variation. Intentionality and will, in this view, both depend on local contexts in the environment, the body and the brain, but they can selectively arise only through such interactions and not as precisely defined computations.” (111)
[embodied and grounded!!]

Constructivist brain:
“Filling in of the blind spot, the phenomena of apparent motion, and gestalt phenomena can all be explained in terms of temporal synchrony in re-entrant circuits. The same is true of time, of succession and of duration. The re-entrant brain combines concepts and percepts with memory and new input to make a coherent picture at all costs.” (124)
e.g. saccades: eye movements are erratic, with the eye ‘jumping’ to a new point of focus, often as a result of peripheral vision, and then resting. Our experience of vision, however, is one of a smooth transition from one scene to the next.

”Given the continual sensorimotor signals arising from the body, subjectivity is a baseline event that is never extinguished in the normal life of conscious individuals. But there is no need for an inner observer or a “central I” – in James’s words, “the thoughts themselves are the thinker”.” (134)

Higher order consciousness may be considered as a trade-off of absolute precision for rich imaginative possibilities. (135)

The pervasive presence of degeneracy in biological systems is particularly noticeable in neural systems, and it exists to a high degree in the rentrant selective circuits of the conscious brain. In certain circumstances, natural languages gain as much strength from ambiguity as they do under other circumstances through the power of logical definition. Association and metaphor are powerful accompaniments of (135) conscious experience even at early stages, and they flower withy linguistic experience. (136)

…the study of consciousness must recognize the first-person, or subjective, point of view. (140)

Consciousness is a property of neural processes and cannot itself act causally in the world. (141)

Whether in the dreams of REM sleep, or in imagery, or even in perceptual categorization, a variety of sensory, motor, and higher-order conceptual processes are constantly in play… in visual imagery, the same reentrant circuits used in direct perception are reengaged but without the more precise constraints of signals from without. In REM sleep, the brain truly speaks to itself in a special conscious state – one constrained neither by outside sensory input nor by the tasks of motor output. (144)

I also posted this on my pages.

When you speak, my brain speaks your speech for me

Okay, so what is a functional linguist doing reading Current Biology?
Not a lot, of course, but you find inspiration in the strangest of places. In a recent article, "The Motor Somatotopy of Speech Perception", D’Ausilio, Pulvermüller, Salmas, Bufalari, Begliomini, and Fadiga point out that our concept of perception of speech sounds - often considered a fairly passive process of understanding the inputs we all receive from the environment - needs revising. According to their very careful research, when we listen to someone speaking to us, we do much more than try to work out what they are saying. It seems that we are very active in the process. This may not come as a surprise to a lot of people - especially language teachers - but just how active has perhaps not been realised before. (Some people of course are not particularly pleased to hear these results, though). What D'Ausilio and colleagues have discovered is that, more than likely, as we listen, our brains implement the motor programs that are required to produce the speech we are listening to. That is, to put it simply, as you speak my brain is doing everything except physically articulate the words you are speaking. The time saved by not actually articulating and physically producing the sounds is roughly equivalent to the time necessary to comprehend speech. This suggests that a major part of the listening skill is speaking. Although this development is based on a very cognitive and neurological part of the comprehension process, it is similar to theories of understanding developed by the 'mirror neuron' theorists, such as Arbib and Rizzolatti. That is, the process of communication is not a simple one of Sender-Medium-Receiver. We are constantly in the process of making meaning, as we listen, as we speak, as we write and as we read. Listeners and readers do not play the role of trying to make their thoughts match those of the speaker or writer. They make their own meanings that, because of the conventions of the socially accepted rules of a language, bear resemblances to the meanings that the language producer was attempting to make.

The full article is available to subscribers at


You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think.

Dorothy Parker

He who laughs last

...laughs lastest

(Thanks to Ritchie Stevenson)

Say it out loud and it gets better!!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Top Tech Tip

I have recently been converted to Google Wave.

I am a beta user, and have been very impressed.
If you have used Microsoft's OneNote, you will be familiar with multi-media documents that contain text, pictures, video, other documents, sound clips etc. Google Wave is like that, with drag-and-drop ease, except it is online, so you can access it from anywhere. And not just you. Wave is designed to be a multi-author tool. When you start a Wave you can invite others to join in (and they can invite others, too). So it is ideal for collaboration, either synchronously or asynchronously. Seriously, don't knock it til you've tried it. Just like when gmail started, though, you need to get invited to start a Wave. Or you can be joined on a wave, and then you're in.
As with most technological innovations, there are a range of pedagogical applications that can be imagined. Clearly, there are dangers of plagiarism. But you only need to be concerned about this if the individual is the only concept that your pedagogical system can tolerate. Google Wave was made for group work. (It should also provide a major boost for research groups - particularly as many of these are geographically dispersed these days.) When the product is the result of collaboration, the Wave offers ease and power. Try it.
Ride the Wave!

There's a lot more info here - a 1 hour-plus video
and here - a much shorter video.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Go for the jugular

Start as you mean to go on...
The first topic of discussion for this blog about LLL starts with the sentence.
The sentence was mainly created in the minds of language theorists for the benefit of teachers and linguists.
To be more specific, the sentence can only operate in the context of modern writing, especially writing with punctuation marks. Sentences are literally defined by punctuation and commas. However, we never speak full stops or commas. That means that before we wrote language down, before we used punctuation, we never had full stops or commas because we never say them. This means we did not have the concept of a sentence before we wrote language down.

Of course, it may be that we did not discover sentences until later, but when we look at how we speak and how we write we find that language is structured quite differently. Write down a natural conversation and try to work out where to put the full stops. In a lot of cases, it is almost impossible to decide what a sentence is, in the traditional sense that we are to write, Some linguists like to imagine that the written form of the language is the true or 'pure' form and that spoken language is generally a degenerate form. However, the opposite must be true as (phylogenetically) all human cultures have developed some form of spoken language, but not all have written forms, and not all forms of written language construct sentences defined by punctuation. Further, (ontogenetically) we all speak before we write - and not all of us manage to write.
In short, linguists are obsessed with the written form - see Per Linell's book "The Written Language Bias in Linguistics" for more detail.
If we look at the history of the written form of the English language (and most western European scripts) we can trace the beginnings of punctuation to a corresponding shift to silent reading.
That is, punctuation is designed to help readers so that they can read silently rather than having to read aloud. In earlier centuries, western European written scripts were a string of continuous letters, known from antiquity as scriptura continua.
The only way that people knew how to read at that time as aloud. Our image of "murmuring monks" is derived from the practice that without voicing the script, the scribes in ancient monasteries could not make any sense of what they were copying. Paul Saenger has looked at this in great detail in his book published by Stanford University Press.
To be continued...

Lets' get this blogging started

I've resisted this long, but with tweets twittering and texts smsing (or sms txting) perhaps it's time to join the "blurt your brains into cyberspace" brigade.

Expect to see musings, ponderings, panderings and a few flames on the issues of Language, Learning, Linguistics and combinations thereof over the coming months & years