Teaching Linguistics for the First Time

I just finished my first semester teaching Linguistics to undergrads. My university (like many others) has no permanent Linguistics faculty, and my name apparently came up as someone semi-qualified who seemed like a good fit to teach Intro to Linguistics this fall in addition to my regular ESL duties. The class will apparently rotate among 3 of the ESL faculty including me from now on.

Some of you may balk at a non-PhD teaching this course, but I think having ESL faculty do it actually has some advantages, mostly in their classroom experience and a degree in pedagogy itself (as opposed to Phatic Communication among Adolescents in Balinese Coffee Farming Communities) which makes up for any shortcomings they (meaning “I”) may have in Linguistics knowledge. I found that generally, I knew enough to talk freely about the topics in our OER (https://essentialsoflinguistics.pressbooks.com/front-matter/introduction/) with a few accommodations towards different jargon, and was never at a total loss when asked a question in class (except on Neurolinguistics, which I can only talk about in very general terms with token “Broca’s area”s thrown in to up my credibility). I did sometimes come up short when asked about specific languages that I don’t speak (how Greek gender corresponds to that of Romance languages, for example) or about which languages in the world have a particular feature that had come up (“which languages have infixes?” – besides Arabic and Tagalog, my only answer is “Google it”). I hope someday to have the gravitas to be able to pass on questions like these with my teacherly authority intact. I suppose “professorial gravitas” must only be part of PhD coursework, since it wasn’t treated at all in my MA.

I was forced to review quite a bit of material that I hadn’t used (either in the classroom or in posts) since my MA, though, and I definitely have a more well-rounded grasp of basic Linguistics now than I did at the start of the semester, especially in areas that aren’t directly of use for ESL like the aforementioned Neurolinguistics, case marking in Old English, Speech Acts, or languages that American undergrads are more likely to know than ESL students are (mainly German and Spanish). I wouldn’t put my knowledge up against a Professor of Linguistics at a university with an actual Linguistics department, but I figure the curse of knowledge might actually make it harder for PhDs to meet undergrads where they’re at, and after all, I have a degree with a pedagogical focus.

The rest of this post is divided into “stuff that worked” and “stuff that didn’t work”. Enjoy.

Stuff that worked


Each week had one module that covered 1 topic – week 5 was Phonology, week 8 was Syntax, etc. – and in each module, there were 3 main recurring assignment types:

  1. Quizzes (on Canvas, can be taken twice, no Proctorio or anything like that)
  2. Inquiry Activities (worksheets that combined closed-ended comprehension checks with open-ended applications)
  3. Discussions (mostly of the open-ended scavenger hunt variety)

I put my grades from this class into my usual spreadsheet for analysis, and it turns out that of these three, Discussions have the highest correlations with final course grades on average, and differences in grades on Discussions produce a statistically significant difference in final grades. I find this interesting since the Discussions are the least direct assessment of knowledge of the three, and also include points for responding to classmates, which are perhaps more indicators of personal involvement in the course than knowledge per se. All three had roughly the same amount of points, so it wasn’t weighting that made Discussions more predictive than other assignments.

As an example of what they tended to be like, here are the directions for our Phonology discussion:

Go to https://accent.gmu.edu/index.php. (Links to an external site.) Click on “browse” from the top menu and choose “English” from the list. You will see a list of samples of native English speakers reading from the same prepared text.

In one post, give one or more links to samples from this site that show allophones used in complimentary distribution. Point out where they are and do your best to describe the rule of their distribution. You don’t need to use the notation for derivations from the OER for this. (6 points)

Leave a thoughtful reply to a classmate for 2 more points.

Example post:

I found this guy from Pittsburgh using [p] and [ph] in complimentary distribution. https://accent.gmu.edu/browse_language.php?function=detail&speakerid=61 (Links to an external site.) 

He starts by saying “Please”, and the /p/ is pronounced [ph]. Later, when he says “six spoons”, the “p” in “spoons” is [p] instead of [ph]. I think the rule is that when “p” is the first sound in a word (or maybe a syllable – there are no words where “p” starts a syllable other than the first syllable in the word), it is [ph], and otherwise, it is [p].

Discussions were held on Canvas (i.e. all text) and on Flipgrid. For the next go-round, I may increase the amount of points given to discussions and reduce the amount given to the solo inquiry assignments.

Discussion Circles

Just twice during the semester, we had Discussion Circles, once for extra credit and once as a requirement in place of an asynchronous discussion. I consider these a limited success since, although they didn’t correlate strongly with final grades, I got to hear my students actually talking about the course material with each other, which is a window into their approach to and comprehension of it that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. As I often find with this kind of assignment, I also hear from people who are much quieter during lectures or who hadn’t attended a lecture in some time. I think it’s worth doing these a few times per course, even if they don’t have much validity as graded assignments.

Final Project

The final project, a 1000-word research report with accompanying presentation on a linguistic phenomenon of their choosing, was the last 40% of their final grade not taken up by assignments like the above. This was certainly worth having, as I saw enthusiasm and depth of understanding in the reports that weren’t really part of the regular assignments. Quite a few of the final reports displayed research skills that were impressive for undergraduates and, although no one ended up going through the IRB for the permission to undertake a project like this, insightful ideas for surveys and human subjects research.

Stuff that didn’t work

Phonetics and Phonology

As I mentioned earlier, the topics each had 1 module (=1 week) dedicated to them. This was fine for most topics, but the Phonetics module and the Phonology module could have been stretched – if I were teaching the class next semester, the first change I’d make is to allot at least 3 weeks for these topics combined. As it turns out, people are really not used to thinking of speech sounds in a systematic way, and the week after they’ve learned all this bizarre-sounding metalanguage like “biliabial fricative” and seen all those upside-down and backwards letters with odd diacritics in the Phonetics module, they have another conceptually difficult and almost as jargon-heavy module in Phonology. It would make sense to give them a little more time to digest these two, especially since many of their projects will need some phonetic transcription. Without enough time spent on these two topics, you might trick yourself into thinking students have got a handle on them only to see them writing things like “the is pronounced /the/” a few weeks later.

Nuts and Bolts

In addition to the topics that typically populate an introductory Linguistics course, students need the basic vocabulary to talk about language beyond what Linguists might assume undergrads have just as a result of graduating from high school. For example, in listening to my students’ discussions, I noticed quite a bit of confusion over what exactly constituted a noun – and I don’t mean whether a gerund should be considered a verb acting like a noun or just a noun like any other – I mean “is dog a noun or an adverb?”. This “basic metalanguage” module could be near the beginning of the course, and could anticipate other modules a bit with word classes (AKA parts of speech), syllable structure (i.e. “what is a syllable”), and the difference between a word, an idiom, and a phrase – but they’ll be using basic terms like these all semester, not just in the modules focused on those topics.

Final Project

The Final Projects are definitely worth doing for their self-directedness, research, and opportunity to show deeper understanding. On the other hand, this understanding tended to be focused narrowly on whatever their report was about – aphasia, the history of a particular accent, sound changes in loanwords, etc., and therefore wasn’t a reliable sign of competence in most of the topics that make up the course. Because so many projects were focused on pronunciation in particular dialects, it might behoove the next instructor (or me, next fall) to give a mini-project that is just about pronunciation sometime during the first half of the course (after Phonetics, Phonology and Sociolinguistics, and perhaps aimed at how particular features aid in characterization in a movie or TV show) and reserve the self-directed research project on a topic other than phonetics or phonology for the second half. That second project could proceed like the ones we did in my class did, with a project proposal and many scaffolded steps before the final report is due, but should probably also include a revised project proposal – many projects really needed more attention at this stage rather than the revision stage. As you might expect, students in their first-ever Linguistics course (and at the time of that the proposal is due, less than 1/3 done with the course) have little idea of what a good research topic in Linguistics is, and many need whittling down from something like “How does language affect culture?” to “What factors predict the adoption of a piece of slang in a sociolect into a standard variety?” Students also need more support in choosing sources, including a chance to submit a revised Research Matrix – quite a few resources that I saw in them, many of which ended up in their final written reports, were more of the listicle than academic variety.

Language and Woman’s Place

I had a few weeks where instead of one module that everyone needed to do, there were two modules of which they had to choose one (the full list of modules is below). One that I will probably strike from future versions of the course is Lakoff’s “Language and Woman’s Place”, a very specialized module in which students just needed to read the classic article (not the book, although they say very similar things) and do the usual quiz, discussion, and inquiry activity on it. It was interesting enough, particularly when students came up with their own examples of words whose male and female versions are quite different in connotation if not denotation (“bartender” and “barmaid” sparked a memorable discussion thread). Unfortunately, I also heard a lot about the article being out of date (not one of my students thought “She’s a professional” implied what Lakoff thought it did), and I don’t think it earned its keep. I had hoped that after the fairly abstract Language Variation, Phonetics, Phonology, and Morphology modules, this one might convince the students that Linguistics was also the study of problems in contemporary culture, and generate a bit more buy-in and immediacy for the Syntax and Semantics modules to come. I think something by Tannen might serve this purpose better next time, and without as much 1970s cultural baggage.

Unevenness in Modules

A list of the modules is below with their correlations with final course grades and mean scores. As you can see, some were much more predictive of final grades than others. Again, each module was worth roughly the same amount in points (even the optional modules), so an especially high correlation with final grades means more than that module’s score predicted better how that a given student would do on every other module and the final project, not just that it was a larger part of the final grade itself.

The following modules were required:

  • Semantics: 0.84 (87.1%)
  • Language Acquisition: 0.76 (78.0%)
  • Syntax: 0.72 (86.4%)
  • Sociolinguistics: 0.66 (78.8%)
  • Phonology: 0.60 (80.4%)
  • History of English: 0.53 (86.4%)
  • Language Variation and Change: 0.50 (85.0%)
  • Morphology: 0.47 (88.8%)
  • Phonetics: 0.30 (92.5%)

And these modules were optional – presented in pairs of which the students needed to choose one:

  • Language Policy and Preservation: 0.96 (81.4%)
  • Neurolinguistics: 0.92 (72.5%)
  • Graphemics: 0.86 (86.6%)
  • Corpus Linguistics: 0.76 (88.0%)
  • Language and Woman’s Place: 0.64 (89.0%)
  • Speech Acts: 0.45 (81.1%)

I’m not exactly sure how to go about doing this, but I’d like to have all of the modules be roughly equally predictive of final grades. I don’t like the feeling of having a few modules that have such little connection in terms of assessed skills to the rest of the course that someone could do very well on one and not on the rest of the course, or vice versa. Incidentally, I wonder if courses like Biology have this problem – if the module on Speciation for some reason predicts final grades much less than the one on Mitochondria, for example.

Class meetings

Classes are 1 hour (remote synchronous, but not counted for points) and the course is 3 units, so almost all of the work that makes of grades takes place outside of class time. It is hard to make the class meetings relevant under these circumstances. I tended to make them supplemental, for review games and discussions or a deeper dive into the material than the OER and other pre-made materials gave, but it turns out that making your class meetings interesting but clearly extraneous isn’t a good way to drive up attendance. Spending time on things not covered in the official course materials or assessed by graded assignments only cements in some Ss’ minds that the class meetings are not necessary.

Because I didn’t give points for attendance, I don’t have an entry in the gradebook to correlate with final grades to see if students who showed up actually did better on average. I have an inkling that they did, but probably for the same reasons that extra credit and tutoring often have positive correlations with final grades (as opposed to what you might expect if students who were behind were using them to catch up) – students who are likely to have good grades are more likely to do every kind of classwork, even extra credit or work that isn’t graded at all. I.e., a positive correlation between attendance and final grades wouldn’t prove that attendance caused high grades – just that students who tended to do well in class tended to be “good” students in general.

Failure by disengagement

As in many other courses, low grades for the course are primarily correlated with numbers of missing assignments, not graded assignments that got low scores. There seemed to be roughly three tiers in the class grade-wise:

  • Students who did almost every assignment well and got As
  • Students who did almost every assignment but not as well and got Bs or Cs
  • Students who missed many assignments and got Ds or Fs

No one who completed >90% of their assignments failed (regardless of whether they did a good job), and no one who did <90% of their assignments passed, making just turning things in the biggest hinge on which passing or failing turned. This bothers me because I want my grades to have construct validity: to measure competence in Linguistics. When a student turns in something that shows no understanding of the material, I can say more or less for sure “this student doesn’t understand Linguistics”. When a student doesn’t turn in an assignment at all, it might be because they don’t have notifications on for Canvas, they lost their phone, they got COVID, or their Internet went out in a winter storm (I reached out to students who were missing a lot of assignments, but part of the frustration of remote teaching is that the technology you use to reach students who are falling behind is often the very technology they’re having difficulty with). In any case, I prefer that students do well or poorly precisely in proportion to their competence in the fields assessed for the course, not for some hidden X factor.

Anyway, a lot to think about for next year, and I’m pleased with what my students and I accomplished together.

Remote teaching causes failure from missing assignments

Or, to put it in a less clickbaity way, “remote teaching in my classes over the past year is correlated with an increase in grades of 0 for assignments, which is highly correlated with a low grade in the course”. But too late — you’ve already clicked.

The past year has roughly divided my classes into half face-to-face and half remote, 101 students in the 3 terms ending with Spring 1 2020 and 76 in the 5 terms since (yes, enrolment is dropping here as everywhere). I mostly taught level 5, 6 being the last before ESL students in our program go on to their undergraduate or graduate programs, and mostly 4-skills classes except for the most recent term.

This situation has given me an opportunity to use my usual plug-and-play spreadsheets (updated for me but not for thee) for a bit of meta-analysis of the grades my students have earned over the past year. The tl;dr is just this:

Students in remote instruction were more likely to get 0s

Blue is f2f; red is remote. The two populations differ at statistically significant levels at p=0.05

Obviously, this is the headline and one of the main things teachers were afraid of before the switch to remote teaching: that students would simply stop engaging with the class and completing assignments. In my classes, that seems to have happened to a degree, with the average student missing 5.7% of assignments before the switch and 9.6% after.

If you’re wondering why I fixate on 0s, it’s because I almost never give a 0 except for a missing or very late assignment (plagiarism usually gets a chance to resubmit at a deduction). That means that students getting high numbers of 0s are simply not doing their assignments.

These 0s are enough to cause students to fail classes. The correlation of % of assignments with 0s to final grades is quite strong, -0.89 for only f2f students but -0.93 for remote students. That means that more 0s on assignments make everyone likely to get a low grade in the course, but especially remote students. I tried doing a t-test for % of 0s on the populations that passed vs. those that failed, and I couldn’t scroll far enough past all the 0.000s to get to a number.

Just for fun, here are average final grades for students who missed >5% of assignments, >10%, >15%, and >20%. First, only f2f students:

And remote students:

Which is just a “colorful” way to say that, in addition to remote students missing more assignments, the missing assignments were more likely to lead them to a failing grade.

Taking the Floor on Zoom

I’ve been remembering a JALT event I went to where the speaker, Thomas Farrell, showed us that I later learned was called a sociogram:

His were meant to illustrate the tendency of teachers to call on certain students repeatedly and ask many display questions (questions to which the teacher already knows the answer, like “Billie, how do you compute the circumfrence of a circle?”) between long periods of lecture. This is not what teachers recall the classes being like when asked: teachers usually recall themselves as having less teacher talking time (TTT) and asking questions to a wider and more equal distribution of students. But I’m straining to remember some of these details. I remember the graphs quite clearly.

It struck me that we need a new kind of graph to describe the relationships between the population of a class when it is conducted over Zoom. No longer is anyone “farther” from the teacher than a classmate or has some classmates “nearer” to them than others. Students are no longer part of a group that is sitting and facing one person who is standing and facing the opposite way. Tables (of any shape) or rows of chairs no longer create natural cohorts among the students who might whisper to each other, inaudible to students seated 2 rows away. On Zoom, any speech at all (indeed, any sound) instantly moves you to the “center” of the room and directs everyone’s attention to you in a very literal way – your face suddenly takes up their entire field of view (assuming you aren’t always in gallery mode).

Screen Shot 2020-08-17 at 10.36.16.png
This is a traditional classroom, accurate except in that everyone appears to be having a good time.
Screen Shot 2020-08-17 at 10.36.19
This is the closest I could come to graphically representing “space” in a Zoom classroom, although it fails because every participant is not equidistant. Everyone is the same distance from the speaker, who is not necessarily the teacher but whoever last made any kind of sound. It’s a panopticon in reverse – every prisoner can see the guard, and any prisoner becomes the guard automatically by saying anything.

I struggle to describe the effects on participants’ spatial (and everything that goes along with that) relationships to one another if only because Zoom meetings are not held in actual space. There are metaphorical positions that participants can take which are analogous to ones that used to exist in the physical space of the classroom, but one needs to do a Matrix-like bending and breaking of the normal rules of physics to continue to see Zoom as analogous to the classroom for very long. For instance, the teacher is usually given “the floor” by default in a traditional classroom, and the attention that he or she is given facilitated by his or her position at the front of the room, facing the students, who are seated with little space for adjustment facing the teacher. In a Zoom meeting, as long as the teacher is the only one to talk, this arrangement is re-created by the teacher’s appearing to face each student by looking at them through their computer screens. The students’ comparative lack of floor-taking ability can be enforced by muting of mics. But if any student speaks, rather than staying safely ensconsed in a crowd of sitting listeners, he or she is metaphorically transported to the front of the room and given a mic while the teacher disappears. As you can imagine, the Zoom meeting only retains the metaphorically spatial properties of a face-to-face class if we allow everyone to move at light speed to the podium every time they speak (or sneeze).

There are many implications for a non-lecture class, as most ESL/EFL teachers have, many of which are corollaries of the implications of Zoom for conversations generally. A non-lecture class (for example a student-centered seminar or discussion, or just a class where the teacher is less content to suck up all the oxygen in the room) is less likely to feature one participant (the teacher) as the focal point. Instead, many people might speak in turn, either in one large group or many smaller ones. Students and teachers will need to cede “the floor” to each other, as one does normally in conversation, dozens of times without a set sequence of speakers or a predetermined idea of how long they are to speak or sometimes what they are to speak about. All of this sets a non-lecture class apart from a lecture, in which one person speaks for a pre-determined amount of time and often with pre-determined content.

I happened to have speech acts and conversational analysis on the mind as the whole world turned to this new medium of instruction, and put some of my initial thoughts about Zoom for remote instruction in a video you can see here:

To be honest, I started writing this blog post soon after that, and then promptly got lost in other work and forgot about it (and the blog entirely) for about 3 months. When I remember that I was writing a blog post about this, I set out to find out a bit more about speech acts and conversational analysis and was recommended an article which I’ve quoted extensively below. Basically, I was looking for ways in which “taking the floor” in order to speak was different on Zoom than in a real-life classroom, and I found what I was looking for.

The recommended article in question is an attempt to systematize turn-taking in conversation, but the assumptions that it makes about normal conditions under which humans converse bring to light nicely the strangeness of trying to conduct a student-centered class on Zoom. Below, I’ll list some quotes with commentary.

(a) If the turn-so-far is so constructed as to involve the use of a ‘current speaker selects next’ technique, then the party so selected has the right and is obliged to take next turn to speak; no others have such rights or obligations, and transfer occurs at that place.
(b) If the turn-so-far is so constructed as not to involve the use of a ‘current speaker selects next’ technique, then self-selection for next speakership may, but need not, be instituted; first starter acquires rights to a turn, and transfer occurs at that place. (Sacks et al., 704)

The above quote sets out some basic rules of turn-taking in conversation, namely that the speaker can choose (through a variety of methods, for example asking a question to a specific person) the next person to speak, and if not, anyone can “take the floor” by filling the conversational void. One aspect of the flatness that Zoom brings to conversations is the elimination of several nonverbal ways for the current speaker to nominate the next speaker – by physically approaching, gesturing, making eye contact, or turning towards, to name a few. The process of nominating the next speaker therefore becomes more deliberate — few options are available besides explicitly naming the person who is to come next. It is possible for a next speaker to be implied by an ongoing back-and-forth, but at any point the ball can be dropped with a plausible ambiguity as to who was meant to speak next.

I have had many interactions on Zoom where I seem to be having a back-and-forth interaction with one student only to have them suddenly stop responding. It is not that they turned off their camera or went to the bathroom — turn-taking in Zoom is just such that fading into the background and letting questions dissolve in midair is a possible conversational “move” in Zoom that isn’t as possible in 3D space. From each student’s perspective, after all, I am never “facing” any of them in particular, and if I haven’t said their names in a few sentences, it’s easy to revert back from me addressing one of them to me addressing all of them. I have never had a similar back-and-forth in a physical classroom that simply ends with the student looking at me and seemingly not recognizing that the baton has been passed to them. Zoom always allows for plausible deniability as to whether nomination as “next” was made.

Overwhelmingly, one party talks at a time. This fact is provided for by two features of the system: First, the system allocates single turns to single speakers; any speaker gets, with the turn, exclusive rights to talk … Second, all turn-transfer is coördinated around transition-relevant places, which are themselves determined by possible completion points … (Sacks et al., 706)

Zoom both facilitates breaking this one-at-a-time rule and strengthens the penalty for violation of it by allowing the floor to be seized by any interruption, not matter how trivial or tertiary to the conversation the interrupter, or forcing any unintentional interrupter onto the floor, giving them the full spotlight and forcing the microphone into their hands. A lecture in physical space can proceed with only slight difficulty if someone in the nosebleed seats whispers to someone else, if someone coughs, or if one student in the crowd keeps raising his hand and repeating “Professor? Professor?” In a Zoom meeting, on the other hand, a student’s allergies force every other student and the professor to watch and listen to every one of her sneezes with monopolizing focus. The “floor” is liable to be seized rather than ceded, and not necessarily with the intention of the person seizing it (usually not, in my experience).

Who speaks how much to whom in the group is a ‘brute fact’ characterizing the actual present situation. Speaking takes up time. When one member speaks, it takes time and attention from all other members of the group, some of whom may want to speak themselves. To take up time speaking in a small group is to exercise power over the other members for at least the duration of the time taken, regardless of the content. It is an exercise of power that may not coincide at all with the status position of the individual based on outside criteria, or even on special criteria developed within the group …Within the small group the time taken by a given member in a given session is practically a direct index of the amount of power he has attempted to exercise in that period. (Bales; 1970:62, 76-7)

This was the closest I could find to a definition of “taking the floor”, which when you look at it analytically, seems pretty selfish, although it happens anytime one of us speaks to another. I just want to point out that the “exercise of power” is even more literal and imposing on Zoom than it is in real life. A person talking to you doesn’t necessarily demand that you look at them or prevent you from seeing other members of the conversation, as happens in active speaker mode on Zoom. As pointed out before, this happens even when the floor is seized unintentionally.

Further, in being compatible with differing numbers of participants, [the turn-taking system] is compatible with varying numbers of participants within any single conversation, since there are mechanisms for entry of new participants and exit for current participants (though we will not describe them here).

Though the turn-taking system does not restrict the number of parties to a conversation it organizes, still the system favors, by virtue of its design, smaller numbers of participants. (Sacks et al., 712)

The number of participants greatly encourages the “fizzling out” of conversation that I mentioned above, as strategies for nominating the next speaker are constrained by the uselessness or unreadability of physical gestures. Unlike in physical space, a Zoom conversation allows for no space-facilitated mini-conversations to emerge, except explicitly by forming breakout rooms. It is impossible for a student to take the local floor of just his or her table or group without taking the entire floor of the classroom.

Zoom facilitates much larger numbers of co-conversationalists, but keeps flat the ability and necessity of taking the floor for the entire group, allowing for “exercise of power” by each member over larger numbers of people as the number of co-conversationalists increases. It is as if, in a fight, the firepower that each participant carried increased with the size of the battle – a fight between 2 people has knives, a battle of 10 gives everyone guns, and a war of 100,000 gives each participant a nuclear bomb. This phenomenon, in addition to explaining why students might be less reticent to ask questions in a 20-member classroom than a 100-member Zoom lecture, might also explain some of the appeal of “Zoom bombing” – an exercise of power that affects 100 people with exactly the same force, as opposed to walking into physical classrooms and just shouting expletives at people who happen to be standing near the door.

Thanks for reading this far. My takeaway from looking at conversational analysis on Zoom is that “taking the floor” is more explicit and more powerful (which may make initiating a conversational turn more appealing or less appealing to our students, who are doing this in a second language as well), and conversation moves that can be made subtly in real life need to be made explicitly through a computer screen.


Bales, Robert F. (1950) Interaction process analysis; a method for the study of small groups. Cambridge, MA: Addison Wesley.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1978). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn taking for conversation. In Studies in the organization of conversational interaction (pp. 7-55). Academic Press.

The Most Native Speaker

1. Lingua Prima VR

Early versions of what would become Lingua Prima VR simply applied existing paradigms of commercially available language learning software to a VR system. That is, a combination of flash cards, example sentences, game-like drills, and live conversation partners were projected onto the screens of a virtual reality headset. These were financially successful enough to convince software developers that this was a niche worth investing in.

Of the handful of companies investing in the next generation of VR language learning software, an Italian firm, Spedizione Software, was the first to bring on a team of academics, led by language learning theorist Geo F. Jensen from the University of Nottingham, from planning stage. As had been demonstrated by previous generations of Rosetta Stone and other applications, the visible involvement of linguists (although which particular linguists mattered less) was highly marketable, and the resulting higher retail price sometimes justified itself as a Veblen good among high-status customers, customers who Spedizione correctly predicted were also more likely to own VR headsets.

The only official direction given by the company to Jensen and his staff was that the product would be promoted as letting users “understand the language just like a native”. Obviously in retrospect, the directive, which may have had the hyperbolic, winking intention of something like “World’s Best Coffee”, had unique gravity (perhaps amplified by irritation at being treated as mere catch copy) to a team of academic linguists. The first day working on their own, they decided unanimously to completely scrap any and all nods toward “gamification” of the language learning process: levels, puzzle-solving, and indeed discrete language items of any kind, from single words to isolated grammar points, absent as these are in the learning process of almost all “native” speakers of any language worldwide. They then set about two main tasks: One, planning a route of exposure to authentic learning situations; and two, defining the “native” whose speech would serve as a target for users.

One task requiring much more focus than Spedizione intended was defining the “native” – in real rather than abstract terms. After four all-day meetings establishing criteria for nativeness, and (on Spedizione’s insistence) some accommodation towards marketability, the team settled on the idea of using a speaker from a major city in the American Midwest. Two of the American team members flew to Lincoln, Nebraska with the intention of finding candidates, and were fortunate enough to find an appropriate selection on the first day of interviews. That person, and the English speaker who eventually served as a model for about 95.4 million later users of Lingua Prima VR, was Nhi Nguyen, a student at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (who would appear in promotional materials as “Tina Nielson”).

The necessity of a VR reenactment of her life product came about from a frustrating finding from neurolinguistics, that instantiation in the brain of language varies to such a degree from person to person that no Matrix-like shortcut of getting linguistic knowledge into every human brain was ever going to be feasible. Thus, the only route available for technology to reliably facilitate language ability in a varying group of people was to go the relatively old-fashioned route of through the eyes and ears.

As for the reasons that a real English speaker to serve as a model was required, the development team had determined that the only realistic means by which users might achieve the native proficiency level demanded by Spedizione was a virtual reality experience of a native speaker’s life, from early childhood to adolescence. That is, users would experience language input sufficient to produce native-like understanding exactly as Nguyen had experienced in producing her native understanding. Nguyen’s life would serve as the guide for the kind and variety of input necessary to produce a native speaker. To that end, a virtual reality experience was constructed based on a combination of interviews, memory recall through hypnosis, and thorough reconstruction of her childhood home, school, and the Gateway Mall in Lincoln. Efforts at anonymizing Nhi’s memories focused on changing her family’s appearance in the virtual world to match the image that consumers across the world would likely have of the American Midwest, as well as changes in verbalizations of her name to a user-supplied pseudonym.

2. Nhi

Nhi Nguyen didn’t have regular contact with consumers of the product her life had been a model for until she took her junior year to study abroad in Guangzhou, China. There, she was confronted with the full spectrum of exposure to her own life – people who were curiously knowledgeable about Nebraska’s weather, people who remembered the feel of the wood grain of her desk next the class cockatiel in Mrs. Wong’s 2nd grade class (and what had been etched into it by its occupant the previous year), and people whose memories of a particular softball practice in July drove them into a 2-hour sullen silence. She learned to moderate her normally jaunty personality to brace for these impacts of unexpected familiarity, which were somehow far more alienating than the culture shock she was also experiencing.

So when Nhi joined her History of Communication seminar the first day of the new semester at the University of Guangzhou, she tried to see in her classmates’ faces how much of her life they had experienced firsthand. From just walking around town and getting to know her neighbors, she knew the signs of a VR returnee (someone who lived their entire adolescence in a reconstruction of her childhood) – ostentatiously Chinese fashion choices coupled with eyes that always seemed to be scanning and verifying their surroundings. This was because Guangzhou was almost as foreign to them as it was to her (all of them effectively having been raised in Lincoln), and they unlike her felt the pressure to hide this fact. It marked them as not authentically Chinese and much wealthier than their peers – an extreme version of the kids who didn’t go on the school trip with their friends because their parents took them to Disney World. Those who had only visited her life for an hour or two a day, after the hours of homework that Chinese kids all had to do, usually seemed more relaxed and comfortable in their skin, and she knew they looked down on the returnees. Those who had spent no time at all in VR and had instead tried to learn English the old fashioned way usually looked nervous too, but more the nerves that come with being 18 in a room full of strangers (i.e. the experience of every university freshman) than the stress of trying to hide your eerie otherness.

Nhi thought a few of the dozen students present were probably VR returnees on first glance. For the moment, since they didn’t know her background, she was fine with letting them feel uncomfortable while she pretended to be a run-of-the-mill exchange student from no place in particular, USA. She unassumingly took a seat around the conference table and waited for the professor to finish connecting her tablet to the projector, confident in her ability to make a good first impression and start making friends.

The professor sat down at the head of the table and began to speak.

“Yeah, so, it’s nice to see everyone here today, in our seminar, so… if you’ve got the wrong class, this is History of Communication seminar, so, you can go down the hall if you meant to go to Communication Technology lab. It’s just down thataway.”

She pointed out the door, but Nhi had lost focus on her words. All Nhi heard after the first, aggressively articulated “nice” were a series of hard Midwestern Rs.

“Ok, so, I guess you’re all here because it’s where you’re supposed to [she pronounced it ‘spowsta’] be. Ok, so, let’s just go around and introduce ourselves.”

The first boy to her left, who Nhi had thought was probably an old-fashioned English learner, stood up and addressed the class in exactly the same accent.

“Yeah, so, I’m Jim Chen from Foshan. I don’t have a major yet. That’s all.”

Nhi tried hard to hide the tension now gathering around her ears as the next student stood up to speak.

“Yeah, ok, I’m Sarah Chen, I’m from Foshan too. I guess I think I wanna study Poli Sci. Nice to meetcha.”

Sarah Chen waved at everyone with her elbow tucked into her hip, just the hand flapping around, and sat down. Nhi had gone through a phase in 5th grade when she tried to re-feminize all of her gestures and mannerisms after becoming extremely self-conscious about tomboyishness. This wave was an expert, unselfconscious recreation of her wave from that period, ages 12-14. Even worse, Nhi had met enough people in Guangzhou to know how they usually pronounced the last name “Chen”. It wasn’t supposed to remind you of Cheese Frenchies. The student to Nhi’s left stood up.

“So, yeah, I’m Nh…  Nancy Li. Nice to meet everyone.”

Same wave. Nhi was next, and she felt like a spy about to be exposed and quickly gunned down. Only instead of guns, it was a roomful of strangers that she knew nothing about knowing everything about her life from her near death in discovering her walnut allergy to the fact that she tells people she peed herself on stage at a piano recital once when it was actually three times, and she had to wipe down the bench the third time.

Nhi stood up and faced everyone solemnly.

“Dear classmate. It is good, nice to meet you today. Please let’s be friends each other.”

People looked confused, but Nhi figured she had dodged that bullet at least for today. She was fine with everyone thinking she was just learning English, especially if the alternative were everyone knowing that their adolescence had been modeled on hers.

After the seminar ended, Nhi rushed home to watch English learners on YouTube and practice her cover for the next 9 months.

Oculus Quest 64GB VR Headset



Grammar as metaphor

I’ve been noticing more uses of grammatical metalanguage in non-technical senses, either because people thought they were using it in the technical sense but were wrong, or because they’re using terms with a metaphorical, expanded meaning. Here, I just mean to catalog 2 of them. I don’t mean to point my pallid, vitamin-D-starved linguist finger at normies and make fun of how little they understand their own words, but just to point out that with linguistics going a tiny bit mainstream (I hope?), some of its technical jargon has been adapted, with modifications, for general use. If this trend continues, maybe linguists will begin to understand the frustration of psychologists and neuroscientists trying to explain what remember means.

Passive Voice Confuses, and People Are Confused

The term “passive voice” has been recruited as a metaphor for a few different features of discourse, almost always ones that the writer/speaker does not like. It always seems to refer to some attempt to obscure responsibility for an act, whether or not the utterance being called out includes what grammarians would call “passive voice”. Here are some examples of the various ways that people use “passive voice” in senses that range from technically correct to clearly not.

Here we see it used in a way consistent with its technical definition to criticize hiding the agent:

While this is technically correct, it is still interesting to see a grammar term used on Twitter as a form of criticism. If it were up to me, people would criticize each other much more for using the present simple. And incidentally, I don’t find anything problematic about this instance of passive voice – the patients are the focus of the article, and no reasonable reader would misinterpret the situation.

Here we see it used to describe an active, but unaccusative verb. It is noteworthy that people don’t attack newspaper headlines on Twitter for using unaccusative verbs – “passive voice” has made the leap to popular consciousness while more esoteric terms have not.

I assume if you’re reading this that you know what passive voice is, but you might not know the slightly less common term unaccusative (I often confuse it with unergative myself). Unaccusative verbs are intransitive verbs (verbs that don’t take an object) that lack an agent; their subjects undergo some process like fall, end, or break with no implication that the subject intended it. Perhaps contributing to the confusion around passive voice is that some verbs like break can also be transitive and used in the passive voice.

The vase was broken. (transitive and in passive voice, hiding the agent)

The vase broke. (intransitive and in active voice, without an agent)

Apparently, and in one of the linguistic fun facts I learned from Steven Pinker before my MA, causative alternation (“I broke the chair” : “The chair broke” :: *”I fell the vase” : “The vase fell”) is one of many rules with many odd exceptions that adult speakers take for granted but that learners and children take quite some time to get down.

Here we see a version of “passive” which extends the “supine, acquiescent” meaning from outside of linguistics of the word into a quasi-grammatical term:

On Twitter, I made an early attempt to capture what people mean when they use “passive” in this way:

But clearly, people mean “passive voice” as a criticism of utterances or discourse that are insufficient in clarity or strength of blame, not merely grammatical agency. You can see this below, in which the writer (correctly) identifies the passive voice, but as a remedy, also changes the verb from injured to the more impactful shot.

Being a Verb is a Gerund

The extended meaning of “verb” is a bit easier to define than that of “passive voice”. In examples like those below, people define “verb” as any deliberate action. Obviously, in grammatical metalanguage, actions can be expressed with any part of speech, and confusingly, the words “action” and “verb” are both nouns (except in the case of verbing), meaning that when we say “a verb is an action word”, the only verb in the sentence we just used to define verbs as action words is the non-action verb “is”.

Clearly, the technical meaning of “verb” includes a lot of things that aren’t actions (like “include”), but in the popular parlance, a “verb” is an action taken with effort and thought.

In the example below, the writer means to emphasize that being an anti-racist educator requires active effort.

There is a discussion separate from whether “be” is a verb (as of this writing, it is) that is focused on whether “be” is always stative, like “seem” or “think” (as in “I think so”), or can be a dynamic verb like “swim” or “regurgitate”. Obviously, in senses like “to be an anti-racist educator”, most people would call “be” stative, undercutting the intended implication of the utterance since stative verbs do not denote any kind of deliberate action. On the other hand, I remember a Louis CK bit (no link, but you are free to look it up) where he describes his boredom of watching his kids “be children”, which sounds to me like a dynamic verb meant to capture the various actions that being a child entails. Note that in this case, “be” also seems not to take its normal conjugations – he said “they be children”, not “they are children”. I wish I had another, less scandalous, example.

The writer below also seems to think “word” itself has a negative connotation, and that a “word” is a more sterile (and maybe “passive”) thing than a “verb”.

Here, “noun” is counterposed with “verb”, probably for its supposed inactive qualities. Of course, anyone with basic knowledge of grammar can see that “love” is only used as a noun in this tweet.

In the cases of both passive voice and verbs, some stereotyped characteristic of the grammatical feature seems to be the source of the extended meaning – dishonest framing in the case of passive voice, and deliberate action in the case of verbs.

Let’s speculate on what could be next idea from linguistics to make it to the mainstream. I have long hoped for the idea of “markedness”, something being slightly off from the norm (usually with intent, unless the subject doesn’t know the code by which his/her behavior is being judged) without being technically wrong, to make it into people’s explanations of, for example, culture shock, driving habits, or joke writing. Another is the phenomenon by which indirect references are reinterpreted as direct references by cutting out the middleman, aka the dead metaphor, which explains how the suffix “-gate” can be an indirect reference to scandals in general to the generation that saw Nixon’s scandals firsthand to just the name for any scandal to subsequent generations.

I definitely hope for more recognition for the linguistics/philosophy version of “performative” (as in “comes to be through its performance”) instead of the currently en vogue definition, “putting on a show for the benefit of audience perceptions”. I imagine when people hear some version of “gender is performative” alongside “… politician’s apology was performative” and “performative activism”, they might get the wrong idea about how trans people see their gender.

Then again, the next linguistics term to make it big might be totally out of left field: Maybe “argument structure” will come to mean “speech format”? Or “wug test” for comparison shopping for floor decorations? “U-shaped development” for a diet program?

Counterproductive SEVP rules for ESL

At the moment, universities across the US are panicking about a rule change from ICE saying that:

Students attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States. The U.S. Department of State will not issue visas to students enrolled in schools and/or programs that are fully online for the fall semester nor will U.S. Customs and Border Protection permit these students to enter the United States.


Obviously, this is a mean-spirited and counterproductive policy, regardless of what one thinks the purpose of higher ed is (unless you think the purpose is mean-spiritedness).

I want to draw attention to a particular change in policy, or rather discontinuation of exemption to previous policy, that is also counterproductive in a way that is very nuts-and-bolts to ESL teachers.

3) Students attending schools adopting a hybrid model—that is, a mixture of online and in person classes—will be allowed to take more than one class or three credit hours online. These schools must certify to SEVP, through the Form I-20, “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status,” that the program is not entirely online, that the student is not taking an entirely online course load for the fall 2020 semester, and that the student is taking the minimum number of online classes required to make normal progress in their degree program. The above exemptions do not apply to F-1 students in English language training programs or M-1 students, who are not permitted to enroll in any online courses (emphasis added)


Which refers to this section of the rules set out by USCIS’s Student Exchange and Visitors Program (SEVP):

(G) For F-1 students enrolled in classes for credit or classroom hours, no more than the equivalent of one class or three credits per session, term, semester, trimester, or quarter may be counted toward the full course of study requirement if the class is taken on-line or through distance education and does not require the student’s physical attendance for classes, examination or other purposes integral to completion of the class. An on-line or distance education course is a course that is offered principally through the use of television, audio, or computer transmission including open broadcast, closed circuit, cable, microwave, or satellite, audio conferencing, or computer conferencing. If the F-1 student’s course of study is in a language study program, no on-line or distance education classes may be considered to count toward a student’s full course of study requirement (emphasis added).


This was an unnecessary rule before COVID-19, but is severely counterproductive now. To understand why, it’s important to look at institutions’ guidelines for face-to-face classes in the fall and consider them in light of common practice in ESL classrooms.

Although my university and many others are “reopening” on-campus instruction in the fall, the reality of the classroom will be quite a bit different from pre-COVID times. Citing my own university’s guidelines for the coming fall semester:

Faculty, staff and students are expected to wear face coverings as required by the Governor’s Executive Order. SUU will provide masks for those who do not have their own.

To help with contract tracing efforts this fall, professors will keep seating charts and take attendance in classrooms.

https://www.suu.edu/coronavirus/classroom-instruction.html, emphasis added

In addition to these mandated countermeasures of masks and assigned seating, any professors with common sense will seat students at least 6 feet from each other if space allows, and will definitely keep at least 6 feet away from the students themselves. By themselves, these measures (required and commonsense) are welcome, but combined with the requirement that language classes be held in person, they create the potential for a very unproductive fall 2020 semester for ESL programs.

Main Image
Source: https://www.wsetglobal.com/knowledge-centre/blog/2020/june/17/return-to-the-classroom-post-covid-19 – “The Wine & Spirit Education Trust provides globally recognised education and qualifications in wines, spirits and sake, for professionals and enthusiasts.” Yet another subfield of education that I didn’t know existed

Consider how hard this makes many, if not most, of the staple activities of the ESL classroom – basically anything other than lectures, which ESL teachers tend to avoid (as do many pedagogically modern teachers in other fields). I was going to make a list of popular activities that are made difficult or impossible under social distancing rules, but there’d be no point – all of them are. Just imagine trying to do any kind of group work with students covering their faces, seated 6 feet apart, and unable to change seats. In the ESL classroom, for many good pedagogical reasons, “group work” is of course not a side order or a topping over the nutritious main course of lectures, but often the main course itself, including as it does:

  • Reading circles
  • Discussion circles
  • Any other type of discussion
  • Peer feedback (at least other than as comments on Google Docs)
  • Group presentations
  • Group projects
  • Information gap activities
  • Minimal pair activities
  • A million things I’m forgetting at the moment

In addition to the above, I can’t imagine a classroom where I stay stuck at the front, unable to interact with my students on a person-to-person basis during class time. It’s quite hard to judge whether students really get the difference between D-identity and A-identity when I can’t listen in on their discussions or pull them aside and ask them a question or two.

I’m not sure, but I suspect that part of the justification for USCIS’s face-to-face rule for language classes is exactly that real-time practice is so important to language acquisition. In that sense, the rule may have been justified as a way to ensure private ESLs were giving pedagogically sound education to students on F-1 visas. If that is true, then what is the point of requiring face-to-face instruction when most face-to-face activities will be impossible to carry out?

The point of this post is not to decry my university’s social distancing guidelines or even its reopening, but to point out that the combination of reopening, social distancing, and the SEVP rule stating that language classes must be face-to-face mean that ESL teachers and their students are stuck in a worst-of-both-worlds situation. If asked, I’m sure most of us would say that face-to-face classes are preferable to strictly online ones, but that is because under normal circumstances we make good use of the synchronous and immediate classroom milieu. When we can’t be physically in the same classroom at the same time, we can still use many of the same or similar activities synchronously or asynchronously over the Internet, often with similar or even better outcomes. We’ve now had half of spring semester and all of the summer to figure out how to adapt our classes to online delivery, and at least in my experience, it now seems that many classroom activities actually work better online (modeling pronunciation for one – I can’t show them nearly as much of the inside of my mouth in person), and I would continue to “outsource” some of my class time to Zoom, Flipgrid, and Google Drive given the choice. It seems that some combination of remote and in-person classes (in other words, hybrid classes) would be ideal. Forcing us back into 18 hours of face-to-face instruction per week with only lectures as an instructional tool exposes us (students and faculty) to risks with not only no reward, but a severe penalty in instructional quality.

Identity Creep

We are all familiar now with the idea that people can be sized up and determined to be inherently suspicious, to be inherently criminal, and (somehow) to have inherently have just committed a crime based on appearance. A theoretical lens on identity can help shed light on this process, and is one of the most common discoveries my students make when looking at narratives through that lens.


Psychologist James Paul Gee’s conception of identity is useful and instructive for its overall thesis – that identities are not so much what is true, but instead are what is recognizable and recognized – and for its helpful breakdown into four categories: N (nature), I (institution), D (discourse), and A (affinity). Let me give a few choice quotes that explain each before moving on to the topic that the title of this post refers to, that tendency of one identity, thought to be biologically determined, to usurp the roles of the others, changing characteristics that should originate in other facets of social life into innate, “natural” traits of one’s race or gender.

First, all of Gee’s conception of identity is distinct from the commonsense view of identity, that it is something deep inside of us that we know to be true of ourselves and that others can be wrong about. On the first page of the article that lays out his theory of identity, Gee describes it thus:

When any human being acts and interacts in a given context, others recognize that person as acting and interacting as a certain “kind of person” or even as several different “kinds” at once… The “kind of person” one is recognized as “being,” at a given time and place, can change from moment to moment in the interaction, canchange from context to context, and, of course, can be ambiguous or unstable.

Gee 99

Already, we see that under Gee’s formulation, identities will change depending on the points of view of those around us, as different people naturally have different relevant “types” available to categorize each other with. Therefore, identity in Gee’s formulation is clearly dynamic and culture-dependent.

With this in mind, consider Gee’s definition of N (nature)-identity:

I label the first perspective the nature perspective (or N-Identities). Let me first use an example from my own life. Part of my identity, one way of looking at “who I am,” is that I am an identical twin. Being an identical twin is a state that I am in, not anything that I have done or accomplished. The source of this state – the “power” that determines it or to which I am “subject” – is a force (in this case, genes) over which I had no control.

Gee 101

Given what he has said earlier in the article, he can only mean “nature” as the “source of power” in the minds of others, not necessarily in reality. While it is hard to imagine a category like “twin” as anything other than objectively true or false, bear in mind that Gee is still talking about being a “type of person”, and to the extent that a twin is a “type”, that “type” includes images, stereotypes, and assumptions that do not flow directly from whatever objective facts about being a “twin” may exist. I usually use blood type in my explanation of the disconnect between what one “is” and what forms one’s N-identity. Blood type, of course, is the same wherever one goes, but only in some societies is it a “kind of person”.

色々」おしゃれまとめの人気アイデア|Pinterest|あ ん【2020 ...
Source: https://www.pinterest.jp/pin/687432330609002411/. A breakdown of personality traits associated with each blood type. It says, for example, that type A are “literalists” and type B “hate being tied down”.

Gee explains as much himself:

Of course, natural identities can only become identities because they are recognized, by myself or others, as meaningful in the sense that they constitute (at least, in part) the “kind of person” I am. Thanks to “nature,” I have a spleen, but this (at least, for now) does not constitute anything meaningful, for me or others, in terms of my being a certain kind of person.

Gee 102

It is easier to see the distinction from the “source of power” and the content of an identity in people’s minds for the other 3 categories. Of I (institution)-identity, Gee writes:

The second perspective on identity I label the institutional perspective (or I-Identities). To take another example from my own life, it is part of my identity, one way of looking at “who I am,” that I am a professor in a university. Being a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a position. It is not something that nature gave me or anything I could accomplish by myself. The source of my position as a professor- the “power” that determines it or to which I am “subject” – is a set of authorities (in this case, the Board of Trustees, the administration of the university,and the senior faculty in my department). In turn, the source of this power is not nature, but an institution (namely, the University of Wisconsin).

Gee 102

Of D (discourse)-identity:

The third perspective on identity I call the discursive perspective (or D-Identities). Let me here take as an example a close friend and colleague of mine. It is part of the identity of this person that she is “charismatic”-this is one way of looking at “who she is.” Being charismatic, in the sense I intend here, is an individual trait, a matter of one’s individuality. It is not something that one just “is” (“born with”; note that one cannot be charismatic all alone by oneself on an island), and it is not something that some institution creates and upholds. However, to say that being charismatic is an individual trait is decidedly not to say that it is something one can achieve all by oneself. The source of this trait – the “power” that determines it or to which my friend is “subject” – is the discourse or dialogue of other people. It is only because other people treat, talk about, and interact with my friend as a charismatic person that she is one.

Gee 103

And of A (affinity)-identity:

The fourth perspective on identity I call the affinity perspective(or A-Identities). Here I will take the example of someone who is a Star Trekfan in the sense and way the people portrayed in the movie Trekkies are. This is one way of looking at “who this person is.” Being a Star Trek fan, in the sense I intend here, is composed of sets of distinctive experiences (e.g., attending shows, meeting actors from Star Trek at such shows, chatting on the Internet, collecting memorabilia, trading such memorabilia, dressing like a character in Star Trek).

Gee 105

Gee points out that some identities are assigned without the permission or acquiescence of the individual. A-identities seem to be by definition voluntary, but as for the others:

Like I-Identities, D-Identities can be placed on a continuum in terms of how active or passive one is in “recruiting” them, that is, in terms of how much such identities can be viewed as merely ascribed to a person versus an active achievement or accomplishment of that person.

Gee 104

That is, one can try to be shy or simply be regarded that way. One apply for and be hired for a job in a prison or be sent there by the state. On the other hand, N-identities are by definition out of the control of the individual, and people can feel a great transgression has occurred when one tries to intentionally alter an N-identity.

Identity Creep

My students have been using Gee’s theory for academic writing since at least 2017, usually for a typical ESL set of papers: one in which you apply a theoretical lens to one’s own experience, and one in which you apply it to a book (a text-on-text essay). The first text-on-text essay with NIDA identity as a lens that I assigned asked them to compare and contrast two identities of a single character in Farewell to Manzanar. Essays of this type (with different books) have become staples of my classes.

To take a famous character as an example, one might break down the N-identities of a character like Tom Robinson, the Black man wrongly accused of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird this way:

Based on a student essay excerpted below. “Criminal” here is meant as a matter of disposition rather than legal status (in which case it would be an I-identity).

Note that, as Gee’s identities need to be recognized, and therefore need a person to recognize them, these identities are from the perspective of the white townspeople who eventually kill Tom. Taking the perspective of Scout, Atticus, and some other characters in the story would completely change the contents of the chart.

One consistent observations in my students’ essays is that N-identity frequently does the work of other identities, and that this phenomenon targets members of certain groups. In Tom’s case, the “criminal” and “dishonest” identities that he carries don’t actually come from the “discourse or dialogue of other people” (Gee 103), or at most are affirmed by rather than emerge from discourse. In truth, he is assumed to have those characteristics because of his N-identity, which fills in the blanks in his other identities through the power of negative stereotyping.

Through slightly indirect means, his N-identity also affects his I-identity, by leading to both his arrest in the first place and later his conviction. In this case, strictly speaking, the N-identity isn’t directly supplying characteristics that might otherwise be established by how “other people treat, talk about, and interact” (Gee 103) with him, but making them much more likely or inevitable. It’s not true that white townspeople looked at him and thought “That man is a convicted rapist” before the incident that resulted in his arrest. However, it is possible that the community will also begin to retroactively attribute his imprisonment or conviction of a specific crime to facts of his birth.

That leaves his A-identity the only category not usurped in this way by “a force (in this case, genes) over which [Tom] had no control” (Gee 101), although this is probably due to a lack of detail from the novel than any limit on the power of stereotyping. I probably don’t need to explain to you that N-identities can both supply assumed affinities and affiliations and indirectly encourage them as much as for I-identities.

I’ll let my former student clarify (excerpted with their permission):

Tom Robinson’s N-Identity as an African American in the U.S. negatively influences his D-Identity because of his passivity in a scene in which he is falsely arrested. First of all, the story of TKAM takes place during the 1930s in Maycomb, Alabama, which is the so-called “Deep South.” This means that Tom lives in one of the most racially polarized societies, where African Americans are marginalized and racism is espoused by most white people after the Civil War. Under such circumstances, Tom’s N-Identity is the most conspicuous trait to others, and there are few differences between his N-Identity and D-Identity. Within this context, Tom is falsely accused of raping a white woman. Despite the fact that Tom is innocent, most of the white people in Maycomb consider Tom to be a liar and a violent criminal merely because he is an African American. At this point, the neighbors’ recognition of Tom can be classified as D-Identity because Gee defines D-Identity as being merely ascribed to a person through others’ recognitions (104). That is to say, in Tom’s case, his N-Identity as an African American directly leads to his D-Identity as a violent criminal. One problem is that Tom himself reinforces this unhealthy connection between N- and D-Identity by running away from the jail when he was arrested. In explaining an unintended consequence of his action, the narrator of TKAM describes that Tom would “expect to live long, so he took the first opportunity to run — a sure sign of guilt” (Lee 261). This indicates that running does not save Tom at all, but rather it merely emphasizes his passivity and underlines the neighbors’ derogatory recognition that Tom is a violent criminal because he is an African American. Tom does not reflect on a related effect between his negative N-Identity and his action, but just acts out of fear. As a result, Tom’s negative N-Identity as an African American maintains and/or reinforces his neighbors’ stereotype of him – D-Identity.  

Student paper, unnamed

Those of us who have lived abroad, or who have been a member of a stereotyped minority group, are probably well-used to the phenomenon of our ethnic group (whether the one we feel we actually belong to or not), our gender (ditto), or some other N-identity supplying more of our characteristics in the eyes of others than we are comfortable with. One could easily make up a graph similar to the above with the I-identity “English teacher” and the D-identity “gesticulates when speaking” supplied by the N-identity “foreigner” in the cultural contexts of Japan or China, or “engineer”, “good at STEM”, and “into League of Legends” for an exchange student from Asia in an American university.

This seems to be a phenomenon that afflicts historically marginalized or disempowered groups, precisely and tautologically because historically marginalized groups are likely to have N-identities that are salient and meaningful in the cultures where they are marginalized. White males, in the United States at least, are relatively unburdened with the classification of N-identity – “raceless” and “genderless” in (what I glean is) the modern understanding of how conceptual whiteness works. Women, especially white women, are less affected by N-identity creep now than previously, but it is easy to imagine contexts in which the N-identity of “woman” was capable of providing characteristics that nowadays would are more likely to be derived from discourse (such as “natural caretaker”) or institutions (“domestic worker”). A benefit of looking at this phenomenon through Gee’s lens is that it makes clear that these identities are not inherent to the people with them; they are recognized, and the sources of their power attributed, by other members of society. As Racecraft puts it, the phenomenon of using inherent characteristics of the marginalized as a shorthand for the process of their marginalization is “the great evasion of American historical literature, as of American history itself: the substitution of ‘race’ for ‘racism.’ That substitution, as I have written elsewhere, ‘transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of the object'” (Fields 48). Gee’s lens of identity makes clear that to the extent that stereotyped characteristics are attributed to membership in racialized or otherwise marginalized groups, it is because other people actively attribute them, not because those characteristics are inherent in those groups. Gee’s lens helps to turn agentless passive voice states into active voice processes.

Gee’s article later points out an opposing process to what I’ve called identity creep, what might be term the “discursivization” of identity, by which identities previously attributed to nature or relationships to durable institutions are instead seen as achievements which one strives to have recognized by others. Here, Gee’s theory dovetails neatly with theories of the performativity of gender and other social categories, the understanding of which among some intellectuals has moved from the public appearance of a biological reality to a phenomenon whose public performance is the only reality (e.g. Butler). This is another implication of Gee’s framework that is frequently noticed by my students – that all identities can be D-identities if people refuse to attribute them to nature or institutions, removing their assumed “natural” foundations. Just as identity creep seems to be a phenomenon that affects marginalized groups more, it may be true that identity discursivization is more possible the less marginalized one is. It may be easier for a celebrity like Caitlyn Jenner to have her gender identity recognized as an achievement than someone without the social capital of a former Olympian, who may continue to have their “biological” gender insisted upon as the only relevant criteria for recognizing an identity. Although Rachel Dolezal, a “biologically white” woman who has claimed a discursively achieved Black racial N-identity, has not been nearly as successful as Caitlyn Jenner in having that identity recognized, it has been pointed out that her attempts have been more successful than someone from a disempowered racial group claiming a white identity might have been.


This has been a long and pretentious blog post.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. Routledge, 2011.

Fields, Barbara J. “Whiteness, racism, and identity.” International Labor and Working-Class History 60 (2001): 48-56.

Fields, Karen E., and Barbara Jeanne Fields. Racecraft: The soul of inequality in American life. Verso Trade, 2014.

Gee, James Paul. “Chapter 3: Identity as an analytic lens for research in education.” Review of research in education 25.1 (2000): 99-125.

False Intermediates

When I was teaching English in Japan, I got to know many false beginners – learners with grammar knowledge but little practical skill. Now that I teach in the US and at the higher end of an academic ESL program, I see them less often, but when I do, the signs are unmistakable: one browser tab always open to Google Translate, long delays in pragmatically simple conversational exchanges, and papers that adhere to some standards of grammar while missing the larger point of the assignment. The term false beginner seems to come from the idea that these students may appear to be beginners, but they’re really not – they just haven’t learned to apply what they know. I don’t believe that this definition accurately describes the phenomenon that I and many other language teachers have observed. Here, I want to expand the range of the term false when applied to learners and question what exactly is false about false beginners.

First of all, what is the grammar knowledge that false beginners supposedly have but can’t apply? Terms like explicit grammar knowledge or declarative knowledge mask large differences between what mental representations our students have of English and those we may wish them to have. The first thing that a very old-school MA TESOL English teacher trained to present, practice and produce discrete grammar items would notice if suddenly asked to teach a grammar course in Japan or China is that the students’ explicit knowledge of English is almost entirely 1) encoded in their L1, 2) aimed at direct translation into their L1, and 3) meant to be applied in a manner that displays depth and breadth of intellect rather than automaticity. It therefore only partly, even coincidentally, overlaps the grammar knowledge that the teacher may have, and is certainly not taught in order to make it less laborious. False beginners don’t just have unapplied knowledge, but often knowledge that the teacher wouldn’t recognize as English in the first place.

Real-world applications of English skill, therefore, are not simply the next step that students haven’t gotten to yet. Speaking in real time, writing papers, or enjoying literature have not been the goals of most false beginners‘ English educations, and the knowledge of English that they have is not just unpracticed for these goals but often unpracticable. What is required is not just activation of dormant knowledge, but new knowledge, taught in different ways with a different purpose.

Paradoxically, what is false about false beginners is not the fact that they are beginners, but that people assume that they are not beginners. With respect to either explicit knowledge or implicit knowledge, false beginners are simply beginners that people treat as if they weren’t because of their success in a related field – as if a helicopter were a kind of false airplane. I’ve never met a false beginner that had any advantage over a “true” beginner; if anything there seemed to be a substantial hole to dig out of. But the local definitions of English competence (the aforementioned regime of translation), encouraged by others and internalized by the student herself or himself, and some behavior that approximates competence, have convinced examiners and placement officials that the student really is acquiring English. The apparent acquisition, which is really just faster and more application of explicit rules of translation, can carry a student quite far in an orthodox EFL or ESL program. I have never seen a student who relied solely on translation all the way through an undergraduate or graduate program, but I have seen a great many get to the higher stages of academic ESL before the sheer amount of language forces them to reassess their approach or just drop out.

I’m not sure what makes the difference between a false beginner who gives up on applying grammar translation fairly early in a mainstream English course and one who sticks with it for years, up to the point when they could be called false intermediates (here, false meaning “not really intermediate”), but two characteristics I’ve noticed have been confidence in their own intelligence (not the intelligence itself – that is a can of worms I’d rather not open) and past success in their first educational culture. Confidence, which in many other cases would be a virtue, encourages learners to continue applying a mentally taxing and arduous routine of translating back and forth from their L1, embracing the strain as a welcome challenge. The teacher’s advice that it doesn’t need to be that hard is counterproductive, since the effort is part of the point. Also, learners have been rewarded for years for successful application of their translation skills by proud teachers, admiring classmates, and admission into exclusive programs or schools in their home country. The current teacher’s implications that they were all wrong threaten years of hard-won self-esteem. A combination of factors have made false intermediates strongly identify with translation as a means of approaching English in a way that makes them resistant to correction.

Conversely, one situation that seems to encourage false intermediates or false beginners to course-correct is one in which their less intellectual (by their standards) or less diligent (again, by their standards) countrymen begin leapfrogging them in their new educational culture. A hardworking but taciturn student from Japan can rationalize away the success of an enthusiastic Syrian as just an outcome of the compatibility of two foreign cultures. A dedicated translationist from Shanghai who sees a lackadaisical but gregarious classmate from Qingdao regularly and publicly showing mastery of difficult material on quizzes, class discussions, or presentations may be forced by cognitive dissonance to either reassess their strategy or their intelligence. Luckily, in my experience, the strategy is the one that is reevaluated.

The El Camino

The sunset definitely looked different in Hawaii, Yukino thought – all blurry around the edges, the sun just the brightest spot in a spectrum of colors that seemed to take up the whole sky – as she looked out the rear window of the car. “Car” was probably the best thing to call it. It was low to the ground and looked like a car from the front, but had a wide, flat bed like a pickup truck. It was not really a car or a truck, but a vehicle for which she had no precise word. If she had been back in Japan, she might have said it looked like a kei-tora, but she hadn’t seen one of those since moving to Honolulu 3 weeks ago, and anyway, her host mother was an ESL teacher, not a rice farmer. It definitely had a working engine, and that was enough. She really wanted to get away from her ESL school as quickly as possible and back to her host mother’s house, east of Honolulu.

Her host mother AND teacher. June filled both roles, although not to the same degree of propriety in Yukino’s estimation. She was a pretty normal host mother as far as Yukino could tell – taking her to Diamond Head, making her Loco Moco, but otherwise giving her space to send LINEs to her friends, which was welcome. These were what Yukino had been led to expect were what host mothers did. But he word “teacher” still didn’t seem appropriate. The way she conducted herself was within the boundaries of normal host mother behavior, but she was way out to left field as a teacher. Yukino wondered how June could even call herself a teacher.

At the start of her first lesson, Yukino had known that her host mother would also be her teacher (the school gave priority to employees of the school for homestay placements), and was consequently more relaxed than she might have been. She had introduced herself to the other students sitting near her – actually with her, since instead of rows of desks they had five peanut-shaped tables – and was setting out her textbook, pen case and electronic dictionary when she she saw on the display that class had already started six minutes ago. It was another five minutes before June walked in and nonchalantly joined one of the five tables in casual conversation, not taking her correct place at the front of the room. She proceded to visit briefly with every table, just as if she were another student, before excusing herself and walking out of the room again, as if the students were to teach themselves. Her classmates, not sure what to do but still excited to get to know each other, were still talking excitedly when one girl at the next table squealed that it was 11:35 and class was over. A few of the students from Africa (Yukino guessed) walked out of the room together, presumably heading to lunch, still bantering in English and occasional French. Yukino and her new friend Jimena (who was Colombian although her name sounded Japanese), who she’d met and gotten to know quite well already while they were both waiting in vain for June to return to the classroom, followed tentatively, not quite sure if the concept of “ending” applied to a class that seemed to observe no rules of time. In the lobby, Yukino saw that she and about ten other numbers had gotten a text from June – Jimena had gotten the same one – thanking them for being such enthusiastic learners (what had they learned?) and to prepare a short speech to introduce one person that they’d met at their table that day for homework. Jimena looked happy, and they hurriedly agreed to make each other their speech subjects, but Yukino wondered how she was supposed to do this without any help. Wasn’t the teacher supposed to give them the language first, then guide them through practice with it, and only last, maybe ask them to do it on their own? Had June actually taught them anything in class that day?

She didn’t voice these thoughts to June on the ride back in the strange car-truck vehicle, but just stared at the blurry-edged Hawaiian sunset and wondered how anyone could tell where the sun ended and the sky began.

A Taxonomy of Jargon

I’ve noticed a consistent difficulty that my ESL students have, which is comprehending words that are particular to a certain academic field, analytic lens, or article/book, especially as distinct from homonymous words in the dictionary. My classes often read Duhigg’s The Power of Habit as their main text, which features a unique definition of habit, among many other words. For example, Duhigg defines cue, routine, and reward thus:

This process within our brains is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future... (19)

and later specifies further that a reward “can range from food or drugs that cause physical sensations, to emotional payoffs, such as the feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulation” (Duhigg 25)

Clearly, a reward to Duhigg is something fairly intuitive and immediate, like the taste of a delicious food or relief from an itch, as he later illustrates with examples of rats and monkeys in behaviorist, stimulus-response-type experiments. Yet I consistently find in my students’ papers that they define reward much more similarly to their dictionaries, something like a biweekly paycheck or a college degree, often abstract and far off. This resetting of the definition of the academic jargon we’ve been learning back to its lay version happens with great regularity.

The issue seems to be that students will default to the dictionary definitions of those words when dictionary definitions are available, even if we’ve been talking about the newly learned definitions for weeks. That is, although we’ve been trying to hang a new concept on an old hook, students reaching for the old hook reliably come up with the old concept instead.

This got me thinking of how the jargon (Merriam-Webster: “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”) that students encounter throughout their academic careers varies, and how the differences between types of jargon can lead to easier or harder experiences of mastering them as words and as concepts. And though the word “jargon” can have a bit of a negative connotation, here I’m not at all interested in castigating academics for using the terminology particular to their field (even to the point of alienating non-experts) or even for coining new and potentially confusing terms, just identifying some characteristics that could make academic jargon more transparent or less transparent for English learners.

What follows is a preliminary attempt to categorize types of jargon according to overlap with other words and concepts.

Pure jargon (new words)

Perhaps the easiest jargon to identify is that which is clearly a new word, a term completely unique to its field, and though rare, one that probably occurs in the dictionary and exists in the students’ L1 with almost the same definition. Some examples of this type of jargon might be:

  • gluon, a type of subatomic particle
  • aphasia, a language disorder
  • semaphore, a way of organizing multiple processes in a computer
  • molality, something having to do with chemistry
  • palantir, a magical stone used for seeing

The most common issue with words like these in my experience is that students may translate them into the L1, recognize the translation, and then feel as if because they recognized (as opposed to understood) the translation, they therefore know the word. Obviously, someone who hasn’t studied chemistry in any language (like me) won’t really know what molality is.

But in general, these words’ properties as words aren’t what cause confusion, and what difficulties students have in grasping them are likely to be difficulties in grasping the concepts themselves.

Compound jargon

A step up in opacity is novel compound words, words whose components are known but when used in combination refer to a new concept. Some examples might be:

  • the Honeymoon Stage, one of Kalervo Oberg’s 4 stages of culture shock
  • the New Deal, a group of government programs during the Great Depression
  • the Great Depression, since I brought it up
  • nature-identity, one of Gee’s 4 identities (see references)
  • call-out (or cancel) culture, a straw man of conservatives on the Internet
  • blue book, either the publication containing a used car’s estimated value or the value itself

The superficial familiarity of everyday words like “great” and “depression” can yield a false sense of familiarity with the referent of the term “Great Depression”. In my experience though, most problems with understanding these terms come from incorrect parsing of their grammar: many students seem to read “Great Depression”, ignoring its capital letters and interpreting it simply as an adjective followed by a noun, as any depression which is large or severe.

Interpreting compound nouns, or adjective-noun pairs meant as proper nouns, can dovetail with understanding the role of lexical chunks. I have no evidence of this, but ability to comprehend compound jargon may correlate with ability to parse language as chunks rather than strictly as words and grammar.

Homonymous jargon

This class of jargon, sharing spelling and pronunciation with a lay term, is what I was talking about in the introduction, and to me, the type of jargon most likely to cause confusion. I have broken down this group into a few sub-categories:

Homonymous and conceptually similar

The most difficult jargon to distinguish from its vernacular equivalent is jargon which shares a form with a non-jargon word and refers to almost the same thing, but is defined more specifically or to fit within a particular framework. Some examples might be:

  • Cue-Routine-Reward, the three parts of the habit loop as defined by Duhigg
  • Mindset, either growth or fixed as defined by Dweck
  • Grit, perseverence in pursuit of a goal as defined by Duckworth
  • Health, an integer subject to increase with sleep or decrease with physical damage as defined by the Final Fantasy series

Again, the errors seem to stem most commonly from substituting in the lay version of a word’s definition when the technical one was called for.

Homonymous but conceptually different

Some homonymous jargon extends the meaning of a lay term to the point that the connection may not be clear to outsiders. Consider terms like “sweeten” in production, which means adding effects like a laugh track to make a final product more palatable, much like sugar does to tea.

Mitch Hedberg quote: We're gonna have to sweeten some of these ...

Other jargon which is not particularly close in meaning to its lay equivalent might be:

  • Whale, a high-stakes gambler
  • Remainder, to dispose of unsold books (also tricky for morphological reasons; the lay term “remainder” is a noun while the jargon is a verb)
  • Sleeve, the body into which a digitally stored consciousness is inserted (see also “Shell“)

I have never encountered an instance of a student accidentally reverting to the lay definition of a term like this in writing, perhaps because the definitions are so different as to preclude confusion. No one is going to write about a whale visiting a casino and suggest that he may have been disappointed to find the buffet out of krill.

Homonymous and “technically correct”

Within the type of jargon that is a homonym for its lay counterpart are many words whose definitions are distinct but which are taken as the “true” definitions of those words. That is, the technical definition is thought to be what people “really mean” when they use the word in other, non-technical contexts. Some examples might be:

  • Depression (I have a hypothesis that part of what makes psychology so difficult is that so much of its jargon are homonyms of everyday words like “self” and “positive”)
  • DNA, a stand-in for “heritage” in popular discourse but not in biology
  • Myth, a story with particular cultural power, interpreted in popular discourse as “a falsehood”
  • Million, liable to be corrected even when clearly meant as a synonym for “a lot” and not exactly 1,000,000 of something

To illustrate the difference between this type of jargon and the other homonymous jargon above, consider that someone who uses “DNA” in a sentence like “I love BBQ. It’s in my DNA” may be “corrected” and forced to rephrase, while someone who uses “whale” to refer to an aquatic mammal will never be reproached for sloppy, non-technical language use, nor will someone who uses “grit” to refer to general hardworkingness be shamed for not using Duckworth’s specific definition.

What to do

Some consciousness-raising work on just how common academic jargon is in university classes and the flexibility of words’ meanings is probably a good idea.

Part of this really should be a thorough introduction not just to the idea that dictionaries (bilingual or monolongual) or translation are not reliable ways to understand course content, but many illustrations of why, including showing a list of the possible translations of “grit” (for example) and invitating students to compare any of them to the specific definition that the course uses.

Perhaps jargon can be interpreted not as a stumbling block to success but as an opportunity to raise consciousness as to the relationships of words to the concepts that they refer to.

Works Cited

Gee, James Paul. “Chapter 3: Identity as an analytic lens for research in education.” Review of research in education 25.1 (2000): 99-125.

Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do and how to change. Random House, 2013.