Tag Archives: english

America’s Secret Slang

If you haven’t seen it yet, America’s Secret Slang, which is produced by the History Channel, is worth checking out.  There are currently 9 episodes available, most of which are 44 minutes long.

I happened to catch this show one day when I was channel surfing and quickly got sucked in.  I haven’t seen all of the episodes, but I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen.  Each episode takes on a general theme and then examines the origin of slang (including idioms) that relate.  Most of the segments include a person-on-the-street segment asking native speakers if they use a slang term (spoiler: they do) and if they know its origin (they usually don’t, but they often try making one up.)  The origin and explanation is then revealed through in an interesting and visual way including animated words and historical re-enactments.

I’ve linked to one episode, above, and the rest are available on the History Channel website and YouTube.  Be aware the the show is rated PG, so you may want to preview episodes before watching them in class or assigning them to your students.  Non-native speakers will appreciate being able to rewind and review the videos online.  They can also turn on captions if they find that helpful.  Overall, the shows are very well made, include a ton of information, and are interesting to native and non-native speakers alike.

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More Reaction GIFs for the ESL Classroom

tom brady no high 5

I’ve written about using reaction GIFs in the classroom before, but a few collections recently caught my eye.  A reaction GIF is a small, animated image that typically summarizes a mood or feeling more quickly or succinctly than words can.  For example, in the image above, quarterback Tom Brady unsuccessfully searches for a teammate to high five.  Many of us can probably relate to this situation; even if you’ve never been left hanging for a high five, this GIF can still be a metaphor for other times in your life in which the people surrounding you are unable or unwilling to share in your excitement.

The following links to Reddit contain a treasure trove of reaction GIFs.  Note that, like anything on the internet, some of the content may not be safe for work (NSFW).  Depending on the student population you work with, you may want to preview this material before you use any of these reaction GIFs in your classroom.  As I wrote in my previous post, these GIFs can serve as excellent starting points for student discussions, writing activities, and more.

If you could sum up your life in a GIF, what would it be? – In this Reddit forum, Redditors post their reaction GIF responses to this question.  As you click through them, you’ll notice themes of self-deprecating humor and a bit of depression becoming the common refrain.  Many of these GIFs summarize a generally frustrated attitude, which can be interesting.

GIFs as comments collection – This is a collection of comment / reaction GIFs.  Many of the posts have links to multiple GIFs.  Lots of general and generic internet forum reactions here.

Retired GIF – This is a subreddit in which Redditors post links to conversation threads in which a GIF has been posted as a response in the “most appropriate context conceivable.”  Each link will take you to the conversation including the GIF and the context in which it was used.  If you’re not familiar with how GIFs are used as part of online discussions, this will get you acquainted very quickly.

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Corpus Tools for English Teachers

typesetting letters for a printing press

I recently attended Ohio University’s annual CALL Conference where I discovered a handful of interesting corpus-based resources worth blogging about.  Most of these come from Chris DiStasio’s presentation “How Corpus-based Tools Can Benefit Your ESL Classroom” and from my subsequent exploration of them.

Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) – COCA is a huge (450 million words and counting) balanced corpus to which 20 million words have been added since 1990.  The interface takes some getting used to, but it is quite powerful.  You can search for frequency of words, frequency of collocates, structures based on part-of-speech, and much, much more.  One of the instructors in the highest level of our program asks his students to do searches based on the words in their vocabulary book.  From the collocates, they can identify the most frequent prototype strings or chunks.  These often sound far more native-like than what students (and in many cases, vocabulary textbook authors) come up with.  If you haven’t yet, take a few minutes (or hours) and explore COCA.

Word and Phrase.info – This site, which Chris shared in his presentation, at first seems to be the COCA corpus with a simplified interface.  But in addition to being a simpler way to query the COCA corpus, texts can be uploaded and analyzed based on the use of high frequency words (the 500 most frequent, the next 2500 most frequent, the least frequent, and “academic” words — a note on this last set is below) each of which is then linked to examples in the COCA corpus.  This can be a very useful tool for students who want a quick snapshot of how their writing compares to a target sample.  For example, if they aspire to be published in a given academic journal, they can upload an article (or several articles form that journal) and compare the analysis to their own writing.  As with the COCA interface, there are lots of other features that warrant further exploration.

Academic Vocabulary Lists – My curiosity about what Word and Phrase.info defined as an “academic” word led me to this site, which describes how the Academic Vocabulary List (AVL) was created.  Like the Academic Word List (AWL) that April Coxhead developed in 2000, the AVL is a corpus-based list of vocabulary words that appear with higher frequency in academic texts.  In both cases, high frequency words are first omitted leaving only academic words.  But whereas Coxhead built her own 3.5 million-word academic corpus an omitted the General Service List (GSL), a list that has been around since 1953, the AVL is based entirely on the 120 million-word academic portion of the COCA corpus.  Its creators claim better coverage of the COCA academic corpus (14%) compared to the AWL (7.2%).  And although I find this logic a bit circuitous (How could a list based on a given corpus not cover that corpus better than a list that is based on a different corpus?) the development of a more recent (2013) list of academic vocabulary is intriguing.

Just The Word.com – This is another resource described by Chris in his presentation.  This website, based on the 80 million-word British National Corpus (BNC), offers an even simpler, Google-inspired interface.  The user enters a word or phrase in the search box and clicks on one of three buttons: Combinations, which provides collocates; Alternatives from Thesaurus, which links to the phrase with one or more words replaced with synonyms to show the strength of the links between words in the original phrase; and Alternatives from Learner Errors, which purports to link to actual user errors, but I wasn’t able to see much difference between this and Alternatives from Thesaurus.  Although simpler, this tool took me a few tries to get the hang of.  For example, Alternatives from Thesaurus only works with phrases, which I did not immediately realize.  But aside from this initial learning curve, this tool is a very straightforward way for students to easily search for collocates and to learn more about the nativeness of their word choices.  And, like Word and Phrase.info, search results are linked to the corpus for quick and easy access to multiple authentic examples.

If you use these tools, use them in ways other than I’ve described, or know of others, let me know in the Comments.

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How Do You Spell Success?

Statue of Rocky in Philadelphia, his arms raised in triumph.

To find the prescriptive answer to this question, look in a dictionary.  To find the descriptive answer to this question, look in a corpus.

In ESL Programs at Ohio State, I have been working towards building a couple of corpora of learner language not only for our own analysis, but also for researchers around the world to access.  Our plan is to include the English placement compositions that all international students’ write when the arrive on campus in the first corpus and the Intensive ESL Program (IEP) students’ placement and end-of-term compositions in the second.  Because almost all of these compositions are now written on computers instead of paper, it is relatively easy to take the next step and format them for analysis by corpus tools.

Both corpora should be interesting.  The former could grow by more than a thousand compositions per year as international students are admitted to Ohio State in ever increasing numbers.  Because these students have met the English proficiency requirements to be admitted, their level of proficiency is relatively high.  The latter will include fewer students, but will include longitudinal data because each student will write multiple compositions as they progress through the program.

As I was scoring some of the recent end-of-semester IEP compositions, and encountering the usual and frequent errors in our lowest-level students’ writing, I began thinking about how our students’ creative spelling would affect, and possibly inhibit, searches of this corpus.  For example, how can you search for past tense verbs when so many of them are misspelled?  Then it occurred to me that these misspellings could themselves be quite interesting.  So, to answer the question posed in the title of this post, here are some of the ways our students spell success (and its cognates), listed in order of frequency:

successful, success, succeed, sucessful, successfull, succesful, secessful, succes, succed, sucssed, successfully, succeful, seccsessful, suessful, suecess, suceessful, succsful, succsess, successul, successufl, successfufl, successeful, succeshul, succefull, succeess, succees, succeeded, succeccful, secuessful, secssed, seccssful, seccessful, scuccess, sccesful.

We are currently working on securing IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval for this project, after which we will be able to share the data and results more publicly.  As part of our IRB application, we are alpha testing our procedures and this question about the spelling of success became an interesting test case.  To create this list, I took a set of student compositions and fed them through AntConc, a free concordancer written by Laurence Anthony.  In addition to the frequency of words, lots of other interesting queries are possible with this application and others.

All of the compositions will be coded with the demographic information we have for each student (age, gender, country of origin, first language, major or degree program) as well as information about each composition (score, topic, date).  By sorting for whatever factor is interesting, we’ll be able to make any comparison we like.  Want to see what the compositions above and below a certain score look like?  No problem.  Want to see how Chinese speakers compare to Arabic speakers?  Male to female?  Grad to undergrad?  We will be able to do it.

We’re looking forward to bringing this Big Data approach to our programs.  Not only will this data inform our curriculum, but it will also become a useful resource for researchers across our campus and around the world.

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The Effect of Art

Blue Water Silver Moon (Mermaid) 1991 by Kerry James Marshall

Blue Water Silver Moon (Mermaid), 1991 by Kerry James Marshall.  Photo copyright Dispatch.com.

I’m currently teaching one of my favorite classes: the Field Experience elective.  In this class, I plan a series of field trips on and around campus so students can explore their community as well as English, the field they are studying.

One of our recent trips was to the Wexner Center for the Arts, the campus art gallery.  The current show is Blues for Smoke, which explores Blues music as a “catalyst of experimentation within contemporary cultural production.”  Works in the show span several decades and include a variety of media.

As part of our trip, I ask each student to identify a favorite piece, which we later discuss in class.  One student chose the painting above.  We had talked in front of the painting and I helped her understand some of the vocabulary in the information placard next to the work:

Marshall’s portrait of a  mythical female nude lounging under the moonlight in a shimmering pond was inspired by a pulp comic book he was reading in the early 1980s.  He notes, “Up until then, I had not considered that a black woman could be considered as a goddess of love and beauty.  Even I took the classic European ideal for granted …. I wanted to develop a stylized representation of beauty that would be unequivocally black.”

We discussed how the painting includes faces from pulp romance novels that typify this “classic European ideal” for beauty and how the mermaid figure is beautiful and unequivocally black.

But what I interpreted as an interesting insight into the experience of African Americans was something that my student took to heart.  The next day, she shared that this was her favorite piece because she, too, had felt the pressure to conform to this classic European ideal of beauty in her native China.  For example, she and many of her friends stayed out of the sun so that her skin could be lighter and whiter.  But, in this painting, she discovered that black is beautiful — an idea she could relate to and share.

I wouldn’t have guessed that this piece of art would strike this student in this way.  But by exposing students to a wide variety of art, the opportunity for this to happen was created.  Never underestimate the power of art.  Or a good field trip.

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Writing from Colville

If you’re not familiar with the work of contemporary Canadian artist Alex Colville, take a minute to search for his work on Google’s image search.  Colville died on July 16 but his 70-year career leaves us with lots to look at.

For more on his life and art, I’d recommend this article from the Toronto Star, but searching Wikipedia and other sources will provide more background if you’d like it.  The focus of this post will be on how Colville’s work can be incorporated into the ESL classroom.

Paintings by Alex Colville, like Truck Stop above, are typically spare in both the painting style and the story being told.  There is usually a bit of mystery — Why does the man have a cast on his arm?  Whose dog is that? — that remains unresolved, which is why so many of his paintings are so compelling.

These paintings make excellent jumping off points for storytelling.  Students can search for Alex Colville to see a number of his paintings (be warned that there is occasional nudity, but nothing too graphic) or provide access to an online gallery of images of his work to students.  From there, students can write or tell stories that answer some of the paintings’ inherent questions.  As a creative exercise, Alex Colville’s paintings provide plenty of inspiration.

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Know Your Meme

Have you ever encountered an internet meme like Success Kid, above?  Memes like these are spreading across the interwebs, fueled by websites where you can make variations of them in seconds.

If you come across many variants of the same meme, you can start to tease out some of the social rules that have evolved to govern their creation.  Success Kid, for example, is usually used to celebrate the mudane successes in life.

You can view many, many more examples at quickmeme.com, memegenerator.net, any of the other ubiquitous meme generating websites, or on a Google image search.  Before you click on these links, you should know that some of the content way contain profanity or otherwise be NSFW (not safe for work.)

So, you can get a read on popular memes, and even contribute to them by creating your own.  But, do you know that Success Kid is based on a picture of a boy named Sammy that was uploaded to Flickr in 2007?  No?  Maybe you don’t really know your meme after all.  That’s where KnowYourMeme.com can help.

Taking Success Kid as an example again, Know Your Meme traces the origin of the meme through several twists and turns (as I Hate Sandcastles, for example) before arriving at what we now know as Success Kid.  This website is usually where I start when I first notice a new meme flashing across my screens.  (And, when you Google any meme, the link to KnowYourMeme is typically right near the top of the results.)

Another, more current example is the Harlem Shake, which is hard to avoid on Facebook and other social media as your alma mater, favorite sports teams, and other random groups of people each create their own version.

How can this website be useful to ESL students?  Given the pace at which these memes evolve, learning about their background and meaning could help non-native students better understand and interact with their peers who use memes and reaction GIFs as conversational shorthand in social media.

A teacher could also have her students put their anthropologist hats on and track the meaning and development of their own favorite memes.  They could then compare their conclusions to the “expert” information in KnowYourMeme to see how much they were able to deduce on their own.

Either way, this website is an excellent resource that provides students and teachers with well documented information on emerging trends in popular culture.

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