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.

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.

Academic ESL and interlanguage: Partially totally effective or totally partially effective (or effective for other purposes)?

Three hypotheses for the observed effectiveness of academic ESL for preparing students for academic work in English:

  1. Academic ESL is perfectly effective at developing interlanguage, but academic ESL classes finish before the end of interlanguage development because students cease being ESL students and matricutate into regular degree programs. Students would still benefit from academic ESL after this point, but rarely have time due to their undergraduate or graduate class schedules. Some stunting occurs in students’ interlanguage because of the premature end of their ESL courses.
  2. Academic ESL is partially effective at developing interlanguage, and academic ESL classes finish at the end of their period of effectiveness. Students would not benefit from more academic ESL after this point because interlanguage development cannot occur through further academic ESL classes. Students are more likely to have student interlanguage development because of excessive time spent in ESL than a premature start to their degree programs.
  3. Academic ESL is partially effective at developing interlanguage but mainly effective at introducing compensatory strategies for students to use to make up for their lower language skills. Some of these strategies are specific to language learners and others are of use to any college student, but former ESL students in degree programs succeed by using them more than other students. Interlanguage development is less predictive of academic success than application of compensatory strategies.

Earlier this semester, we requested some data from our campus researcher, and he just got back to us. I won’t say what exactly he told us, but it pertained to average GPAs among different populations of undegrads, and it was good news for the apparent effectiveness of our IEP.

That said, we don’t know why our IEP appears to be effective. It is possible that we are getting better at our jobs. It is also possible that we are just recruiting better students. It’s possible that our students are far better than average, but we’re doing a worse-than-average job preparing them for college, resulting in performance that converges on the mean. Assuming that the work we do in class is at least part of the reason, it might help us to better focus our efforts in order to improve even more if we knew what part of what we do in class helps our students the most.

(For most of my career, I was used to the idea that interlanguage development started when students joined my class and stopped when they quit. In EFL, you can’t count much on outside factors to keep the interlanguage development ball rolling – students aren’t part of formal or informal organizations that facilitate regular English use and their identities accommodate English as a hobby at most. I tried as the owner of an eikaiwa to get students to start pastimes that included English, only to realize that as an eikaiwa teacher, I was the pastime. In short, I was used to thinking of English class as a self-contained unit; anything I wanted my students to do with English we had to do together.

I realized partway through my first year teaching community college ESL in California that we were by design only giving our students a partial education. We wanted to send them off into English 100 with maybe a bit of a head start and without a lot of baggage, but we expected English 100 to continue the work of interlanguage development. I’m sure some of us thought that ESL would still benefit our students, but they had to get on with their credit-bearing classes eventually, and some of us probably thought that ESL was inherently limited in what it could accomplish. There are also those who think that the one and only way that a student will come to understand adjective clauses is if the teacher explains adjective clauses and have never heard of interlanguage.)

Anyway, this would make a good long-term study project: find a decent sample of former academic ESL students in their undergrad years, give them the TOEFL or IELTS (which they wouldn’t have taken in a few semesters at least), survey them on their “compensatory strategies” (defining those would be a lot of work), and measure those against their undergraduate GPAs.

By the way, I’ve started recording some old blog posts as vlogs, seeing how different people tend to read ELT blogs and watch ELT-related content on YouTube. Feel free to stop by and leave a comment about how I don’t look like you expected.

COCA for translationists

(Corpus of Contemporary American English, alongside the other BYU corpora from Mark Davies)

For basically all my career, from my eikaiwa days Japanese university to community college to the IEP I teach at now, I’ve been trying to get my students to see vocabulary as more than lists of words with accompanying translations.

Image result for 英単語
Source

Sure, knowing one translation of “marry” is probably better than not knowing anything about “marry”, but it really just gets your foot in the door of knowing that word (and leaves you less able to enjoy semantically ambiguous sentences like “The judge married his son”). You still don’t have much of an idea of what kind of person uses that word, in what kind of situation, and (of special concern for fluency) what other words usually surround that word.

Part of what cramming for tests does to language learners (and really learners of anything) is convince them that the minimum amount of knowledge to be able to fill in the right bubble is efficient and expedient. One of the longest-running efforts of my career is trying to disabuse my students of the notion that when vocabulary is concerned, this kind of efficiency leads to anything worthwhile. To the contrary, the more seemingly extraneous information you have about any given word, the better you will remember it and the more fluently and accurately you will be able to use it.

(Naturally, the site where I first encountered this phenomenon was in Japan, where the question “What does that mean?” is almost incomprehensible except as a synonym for “Translate this into Japanese according to the translation list provided by your instructor”. But knowing a word and being able to use it (a dichotomy which collapses with any scrutiny) demands (again, a collapsed dichotomy being treated as a single subject) quite a lot more than an abstract token in a foreign language being linked to a more familiar token in one’s first language in memory. One can know that “regardless” “means” とにかく or 関係なくin Japanese without knowing what preposition usually follows it, which noun from “outcome”, “result”, or “upshot” most commonly follows that preposition, or that it has an even more academic ring than near-synonym “nonetheless” (which doesn’t have an accompanying preposition at all). Interestingly, overreliance on translation seems to be something of a vestigial trait of language education in Japan – people justify it for its utility on tests, but the tests themselves haven’t required translation in many years.)

Even when my students understand this, however, they still aren’t sure how to implement it. I get a lot of positive reactions to comparisons between chunks in English and in their first language (asking how many words a child hears in phrases like in “Idowanna”, やだ, 我不想 or je veux pas) or between words and animals (a lion can technically eat roast turkey, but what do lions usually eat?). Students readily identify chunks and idiomatic expressions that they hear outside of class (“Would you like to” and “got it” are some of the most-noticed). In the run-up to a vocabulary quiz though, where I want students to show all that they know about vocabulary, what I see most often on students’ desks is the familiar lists of translated pairs:

regardless 而不管 however 然而 nonetheless 尽管如此 nevertheless 但是 notwithstanding 虽然

It seems that students, when they “study”, tend to default to the strategies that they think got them through high school. Usually, students who have this tendency also have familiar patterns of scoring on quizzes: fine-to-high scores on the cloze (fill-in-the-blank) questions and low scores on anything outside of the narrow range where translation is applicable. I see this as a result of not being able to see how to use this knowledge of other features of vocabulary in their customary mode of studying.

I started using COCA in class as a way to plug the fuzzy, often-neglected dimensions of vocabulary learning – in particular register, genre, colligation and collocation – into a behavioral pattern that students have completely mastered. That is, COCA is a way to make a more complete picture of vocabulary compatible my students’ most familiar way of studying – sitting at a desk and looking up discrete words.

With that long preamble over, let’s have a look at the specific activities I use over the course of a term.

First glance at COCA

Starting on the first day, words of particular interest are added to a class web site – either my own, Vocabulary.com, or Quizlet (I’ve tried quite a few) – and drawn on for review, activities, and quizzes. Starting in week two, I introduce the idea of chunks (which they need in order to complete the reading circles sheets from that week on), either with a presentation or less formally, for example with a quiz game.

In a shorter term, I’ll introduce COCA the same week, or in a longer semester, around week 4 (my IEP has lightning-quick 6-week terms). The introduction usually has to be done in the lab – it’s much better if each student can do his or her own searches. I alternate between a worksheet and a presentation for the first introduction. This takes about an hour.

From experience, students never fail to see the utility of COCA at this stage and never seem to have trouble with the idea of another online resource. The issues that typically arise on the first day are:

  1. COCA locks out searches from IP addresses if there are too many in one day (as in a class of 20 or so all using COCA for the first time in a lab). This usually starts to afflict my classes after the first 20 minutes or so of searches.
  2. At minimum, students have to create accounts after the first few searches, which used to require a .edu email address, but doesn’t seem to now.
  3. The use of spaces on COCA is idiosyncratic. A search for ban_nn* (without a space) will find intances of “ban” used as a noun, while ban _nn* (with a space) will find “ban” plus any noun, for example “ban treaty”, or hilariously, “ban ki-moon”. ban* (without space) will find any word starting with “ban”, and ban * (with space) will find “ban” plus any word or punctuation mark. Punctuation needs to be separated with spaces as well. These rules trip up students fairly early on, as they search for, for example due to the fact that* and don’t find what they expect.

Weekly activities

After the first introduction, COCA will be in at least one homework or classwork assignment every week.

Classwork

From time to time, but especially before quizzes, students do a jigsaw-style group activity I call vocabulary circles. As you can see, a good half of it is COCA-derived. If you don’t know how these usually work, students with different jobs are assigned one word per group, share them with “experts” who had the same job from other groups, reconvene and share them with their own group, and then have to take turns presenting all their group’s work to their classmates.

Reading

COCA searches are a part of many of the reading circles sheets I use (reading circles are the only way I do any intensive reading in class). Vocabulary specialists (or whatever you call them) are always responsible for chunks as a category of vocabulary as well as collocations for other words.

Discussions

Starting the week that COCA is introduced, weekly “Vocabulary Logs” on Canvas include COCA work like that reproduced below:

This week, you must use COCA to find something interesting about a word from our class vocabulary list. You must find these 3 things:

What other words usually come before and after that word?
Who usually uses that word? (For example, lawyers, academic writers, news anchors, etc.)
Which forms of the word are the most common? (For example, “present simple”, “plural”, “adverb”, etc.)

You get 6 points for answering all of these questions.
Then, in a reply, use a classmate’s word in a new example sentence that you make. This section will be graded on correctness, so read your classmate’s post carefully. (2 pts)

Or this option to take translationism head-on:

This week, you will compare a word from another language (for example, your first language) to a word in English. The words should be translations of each other.
You will point out how the two words are similar or different in these areas:

Collocation: Do the same or similar kinds of words come before or after the words?
Grammar: Are the words the same part of speech? Are the rules for the parts of speech different in the two languages?
Register: Do the words appear in the same kinds of situations? Are they similar in formality?
Meaning: Do the words have second or third meanings that are different?

This post is worth 6 points. Reply to a classmate for 1 more point.

Quizzes

The quizzes in my classes after COCA has been introduced all have some explicitly COCA-derived questions and some questions that are graded on COCA-relevant considerations.

In questions like the one below, “grammar” includes part of speech and colligation.

Use the word in a sentence that makes the meaning clear. (1 pt for grammar and 1 pt for clear meaning)
(sustainable) _____________________________________________________________

Some questions target collocations specifically (ones that have been discussed specifically in class):

Circle the most common collocation. (1 pt each)
A difficult environment can precipitate ( fights / conflict / argument ).
Adaptation ( onto / to / with )  a new culture takes time.

Other questions target the colligations of vocabulary that should be familiar for other reasons:

Fill in the blank with one of the following. (1 pt each)
Regardless of Owing to Because Also
_______________________ the waiter made a mistake with our order, our meal was free. _______________________, the chef sent us a free dessert. Lucky us!

Students cannot have COCA open during the quiz, but they can (and are advised to) get to know the words inside and out beforehand. As you may have seen, our vocabulary lists can grow fairly long by the end of the term, but words often appear on more than one quiz.

Essays

See my last post on the subject.

I am getting on board the “reflection as revision” train – grading reflection on grammar instead of grammatical accuracy on all drafts besides the first. COCA is the vehicle I use for this.

Conclusions

I presented this to you as a way to get students with an unhealthy focus on one-to-one translation to think about vocabulary in a way that better facilitates real-world use. Actually, it works even better with students predisposed to think of vocabulary in more holistic terms – but those students would often be fairly good learners just with enough input. The advantage of using COCA is that it can easily piggyback on habits that certain students may overuse – many of my students have browser extensions on their computers that translate any word the mouse hovers over. Adding one more dictionary-like tool that includes what dictionaries miss is a way to swim with that tendency rather than against it.

Participial adjectives, very ranked

After not posting for a full month, I have a post that has been on the back burner for at least a year as an idea and half a year as a draft. It definitely falls under the “somebody should have already done this, and nobody has, so I will” category of research, like my THE/hensachi comparison that continues to be the most-read blog post I’ve ever written. In this case, I’m taking another look at a type of word that has interested me for a long time, the participial adjective, adjectives formed from the present or past participles of verbs, like interest/interesting/interested.

The relationship between verbs and adjectives, lightly questioned

It’s tempting to explain both the meanings and grammar of participial adjectives with reference to the verbs that form their bases. The question is, in the mind of a fluent speaker in 2019, are verbs still the bases of participial adjectives? My intuition is that they aren’t, that adjectives like “interesting” enter the lexicon of a typical speaker long before the verb “interest”, and only after much experience of similar words and/or explicit teaching does the relationship between the two become clear and productive.

If my intuition is correct and these are adjectives first and verb derivatives only after some reflection, there are implications for usage and teaching.

On usage, as came up recently in a Twitter discussion with @LinguisticsGirl, the closeness of the relationship between past participial adjectives (e.g. “interested”) to the passive voice of verbs like “interest” has implications for the meanings and grammar of these words.

On meaning, because a passive verb phrase (e.g. “is eaten”) has a patient (the subject) and an implied but sometimes unspecified agent (the object of the preposition “by”), an adjective based on that verb phrase could be thought to also have a patient and an agent. That is, if speakers are actively aware of the relationship between the passive verb phrase “be interested” (where “interested” is a verb) and the participial adjective “interested”, they may believe that the adjective “interested” also has an implied agent, the one who “interests” the subject. To illustrate:

Music bores Sam.

Here, “bore” is verb with an agent (“music”) and a patient (“Sam”).

Sam is bored by music.

Here, the same relationship between agent and patient is rendered with a passive verb phrase- a be-verb and the past participle of “bore”, plus the optional prepositional phrase indicating the agent.

Sam is very bored.

And a be-verb plus adjective. Does the average reader imagine that there must be an agent causing Sam’s current state, as they probably would if the sentence were “Sam is eaten”? To use the example that I used on Twitter, does one assume that “broken rocks” must have been broken by someone or something, or is “broken” just how the rocks are, with no implied cause?

On grammar, we already know that participial adjectives have a variety of prepositions instead of the expected “by” denoting the… let’s just call it the quasi-agent.

100+ Useful Adjective Preposition Collocations 1
Source.

This seems to be evidence of the looseness of the relationship between participial adjectives and the passive verb phrases that they resemble. Clearly, at the very least, participial adjectives have some options for prepositions that passive verb phrases don’t. It is tempting to think that the number of possible prepositions after a given participial adjective is related to its prevalence in corpora as an adjective vs. as a verb. More on that at the bottom.

The implications of the relationship between participial adjectives and verbs for teaching seem to be in the approach that one would take if the relationship were strong or weak. If most fluent speakers keep the relationships between verbs like “disturb” and adjectives like “disturbing” active in their minds and use both with similar meanings and at similar rates, it could be more advantageous to teach the verbs along with the rules for generating adjectives more, as the rules could be counted on to be fairly regular, productive, and useful. On the other hand, if speakers keep “disturb” and “disturbing” separate in their minds, use them at very different rates and with different meanings, it could be more useful to ignore or downplay the relationship between the two and focus on statistical fluency and input, encouraging students to see them simply as separate words as input dictates.

The verbs, totally listed

Below, I have some contributions to our understanding of participial adjectives to make. First, here’s a big glob of data, and a bit of explanation afterward.

Verb baseVerb – 3sAdj – presAdj – pastv/total
dismay133459370.9998405612
flummox12113760.9992846924
disconcert50115562160.9957705972
gut2424442110.9946416611
amaze1309317397311062000.992957057
devastate109612725565620.9918762462
interest29236173663314115190.9907987315
stun4390452311147820.9906889538
excite146097994295859830.9895651565
embarrass159982322635220.9891551311
flabbergast489842260.989021043
astonish101367450146180.9878070798
petrify190315122980.9851597282
bore55892340421106570.9840445576
hearten11562283480.9828127335
depress2954420931064490.9805011353
fascinate543726067451880.9799593806
disgust169463490187090.9798076121
overwhelm5315220680367060.979767873
tempt3907755231006630.9783056532
thrill207271947211060.978218134
nauseate138453015230.9777095784
frustrate6591190874710790.975456536
amuse229849598151300.9657147972
compel9719175318712510.9620778187
revolt29367196790.9619035236
terrify331959834222490.9611367415
enthrall37688193310.9605290783
dazzle1904458642970.960386976
frighten377656745308740.9586848296
discombobulate19663450.9558139535
relax142721402391668630.9555906825
annoy12686227355448370.9554686568
confuse145521939411098380.9542865759
astound15601756094580.9454125551
agitate772306118250.940168953
disturb702889753195000.9395602033
upset8932152701233330.9394584336
freeze244491305722227970.9352889486
exhaust401622199334830.9327280646
worry225471005691662890.9220918782
floor143015970.917816092
damage18710701691233840.9118546332
relate15169008918050.8546327486
inspire678261528891321250.8077712278
develop1708594179711520330.7693784141
boil3702886434329890.7633252584
drive204561501510984060.7457217546
forbid144538729330530.7429892416
distract79021168571760.7047416209
rate233130533980.6960931288
discourage97771236213610.5839574468
justify19230524190360.5042536736
encourage19119719175100.5007233358
love4810451884481985480.4458268676
move36560116388929430.3133389553
enliven12392771900.2737397421
consider1435030131380.08387331542
trigger57732042900.06916900455

All of this data came from the iWeb corpus over the spring and summer of 2019, basically built up over time whenever I had a spare 20 minutes or so to look up some words. In most cases, I just thought of a word that I noticed was both a verb and a participial adjective and did the search right away. There was no method to how I settled on words to search for.

The columns are:

  • Verb base: Exactly what you think it is.
  • verb 3s: the number of hits for that verb with its 3rd person singular “s” attached and the verb.3SG tag _v?z*, e.g. dismays_v?z*
  • adj – pres: the number of hits for that verb in its present participle form and the adj.ALL tag _j*, e.g. dismaying_j*
  • adj – past: the number of hits for that verb in its past participle form and the adj.ALL tag _j*, e.g. dismayed_j*
  • v/total: the number of verb 3s hits divided by the number of hits in all 3 categories. I.e., the % of hits that were adjectives instead of verbs.

The reasons that I searched for these categories were related to the limitations of the concordancer. The iWeb corpus (along with COCA and the other BYU-hosted corpora) reliably confuses grammatical categories, for example returning this sentence as an example of interest_v* (“interest” as a verb):

…James and Vugo is that they really have drivers best interest in hand.

I found that the verb form least likely to result in a misclassification of this kind was the third person singular, i.e. “interests” or “dismays”. Note that this reduces but does not eliminate misclassifications (try searching for interests_v* yourself to see). Likewise, interesting_j* and interested_j* reduce but do not eliminate misclassifications of these words as adjectives – it is possible, as is the entire premise of this post, that readers both human and computer get confused as to which uses of “am interested” are passive verb phrases and which ones are adjectives. It is probably less likely that the concordancer gets confused about present participle adjectives, as I certainly have never heard a sentence like “it is interesting me”, but for some verbs like “terrify” confusion is still possible – “terrifying me” does occur in iWeb 68 times.

Results, partly discussed

As a result of the accommodations to the limitations of the concordancer described above, the results have to be taken as ballpark estimates of the relative frequencies of the words in question as verbs or adjectives. The high ranking of “dismay” above gives us a sense that the adjectives “dismaying” and “dismayed” are more common than the verb “dismay”, and that “dismayed” is more common than “dismaying”, but it’s still not clear exactly how much more common in either case.

In the list above, the words are listed in order of v/total. That is, the highest ratios of adjectives are at the top of the list, and the lowest are at the bottom.

The data gives some support to the idea that at least for certain participial adjectives, their uses as adjectives far outnumber their uses as verbs. These participial adjectives include conversation and coursebook staples like “amazing” and “embarrassed”, but also some oddballs like “hearten” and “enthrall”. At the low end are words like “consider” whose main life is still as a verb and is only rarely used as an adjective (e.g. “in my considered opinion”) and last-minute addition “trigger”, which at the moment has no present participle adjective hits but is sure to change in the coming years.

It’s hard to extrapolate this data to answer the question, “how close is the relationship between ‘disturb’ and ‘disturbing’ in the average speaker’s brain?”, but it certainly seems compatible with my hypothesis that at least in the case of words like “amazing”, the adjective is capable of surviving on its own without analogy to the verb “amaze”. It stands to reason that a word that outnumbers another word 133:1 in frequency, as “amazing” does with “amazes”, probably can afford to pay its own rent, so to speak. And yes, I am using obtuse metaphors as a way of avoiding questions of psycholinguistics or neurolinguistics which I have absolutely no right to pretend to be able to answer.

The iWeb corpus an other corpora are less useful for semantic analysis, but it seems to me that many of the words high on the list here have gaps between the meanings of the verbs and their related adjectives – “disturb” doesn’t have all the same nuances as “disturbing” or “disturbed”, and “amaze” certainly doesn’t have the Kardashian-like connotations of “amazing”.

(At this point in the post, I vanished for at least 15 minutes unfruitfully searching for a clip of Dong Nguyen from Kimmy Schmidt saying “amaaazing”.)

In closing, the reader is invited to take from the data what lessons they will. I humbly suggest that one lesson that is not compatible with the data is that for all participial adjectives, the relationships between the adjectives and the verbs that they are based on are obvious and productive.

The same data, differently manipulated

For kicks, here is the same list, but in order of ratio of present participle adjectives to all adjectives:

Verb baseadj – presadj – past% pres
floor015970
relate08918050
rate0533980
consider0131380
trigger042900
justify524190360.01350863625
flummox2113760.01502145923
flabbergast9842260.02241537054
agitate306118250.02371541502
petrify315122980.02460360853
dismay33459370.05325255102
gut24442110.05447644564
upset152701233330.1035008642
discombobulate663450.1534883721
forbid8729330530.1552236152
enliven2771900.1623681125
love1884481985480.2170957363
depress420931064490.2778489201
move16388929430.3078114993
damage701691233840.330575748
freeze1305722227970.345594969
worry1005691662890.3475026347
exhaust22199334830.3718550035
tempt755231006630.4193555552
inspire1528891321250.4333097155
relax1402391668630.4363731976
distract1168571760.4366102455
encourage19175100.5007233358
discourage1236213610.5260425532
interest173663314115190.5465599417
boil86434329890.5524669066
embarrass82322635220.5583310161
develop4179711520330.5641677341
excite7994295859830.5710121491
confuse1939411098380.6092432091
astound1756094580.6144586745
frighten56745308740.6208764156
drive501510984060.6233988044
bore2340421106570.6681416434
compel175318712510.6840663628
terrify59834222490.7006159106
frustrate190874710790.7107736535
nauseate453015230.7317073171
amuse49598151300.7399814997
thrill71947211060.7563416557
disgust63490187090.756797349
disturb89753195000.7718629871
annoy227355448370.7980784757
astonish67450146180.811858307
overwhelm220680367060.8400424818
revolt67196790.8736185151
enthrall88193310.9257820701
hearten62283480.9308025706
amaze17397311062000.9358303067
devastate12725565620.9432374938
dazzle458642970.9542078435
stun452311147820.959336816
fascinate26067451880.9608365678
disconcert115562160.9774995771

According to this list, these sentences should sound extremely wrong to you:

“The news was just flooring.”

“Critics are highly rating of that movie.”

“The President was totally rationalizing of his behavior.”

Again, I will mostly leave the implications to you, but I count this as at least compatible with the idea of letting input address at least the less common ones and only explicitly teaching the most common/most equally distributed.

Preposition options, negatively correlated

Last, to test my dropped breadcrumb from earlier about non-“by” prepositional complements, I added up all the hits for all prepositions following the word in its past participle form, but without a verb or adjective tag, i.e. dismayed _i*. I then divided the number of hits for “by” by the total number of preposition hits, giving me a sense of how often the preposition following the past participle of that verb is “by”. For verbs that are interpreted only as verbs and never as adjectives, we would expect a higher number, because “Salads are eaten by yoga practitioners” but not “Salads are eaten of yoga practitioners” grammatically describes the relationship between the patient and agent for “eaten”. On the other hand, we expect a bit of noise in these results, as “Salads are eaten at restaurants” remains possible, as does “Salads were eaten up“. Indeed, only 33% of prepositions following “eaten” are “by”, although “by” is indeed the top hit.

The following are (is?) a random group of 11 words from the earlier list that I did the above search for:

Verb basev/adjs% of prep results that are “by”
enliven0.27373974210.7139713971
encourage0.50072333580.7016276321
distract0.70474162090.7096645612
damage0.91185463320.4349661798
disturb0.93956020330.7107868987
frighten*0.95868482960.3507753418
frustrate*0.9754565360.3077699294
disgust*0.97980761210.4077433443
bore*0.98404455760.06302701481
amaze*0.9929570570.2719719747
dismay0.99984056120.5463917526

Interestingly, the ratio of non-“by” prepositions after a given word did correlate with its ratio of hits as adjective to verb at -0.65. That is, the more often a word was used as an adjective vs. a verb, the more often it had prepositions other than “by” following it. Verbs marked with an asterisk had prepositions other than “by” as their top hit (“bored” had two prepositions above “by”, “of” and “with”).

Again, this speaks the possibility that in the minds of most fluent speakers, these participial adjectives are not explicitly or actively related to the verbs that etymologically form their bases. It stands to reason, although it isn’t proved here, that on other issues including the implied existence of an agent and the semantic relationship between the passive voice and the past participle adjective are less close than some casual linguists, language teachers, and coursebooks seem to assume.

Did I mention that my university has a half-term break right now? Don’t expect another post like this until at least December.

Addendum, just added

On the “close relationship” between participial adjectives and verbs, some readers have pointed out that I could have been more precise in what I meant. Here, I hope to flesh out some of the various ways that the two could be “related” without, again, treading too hard on territory outside my expertise with phrases like “instantiated in the brain” or “sharing an entry in the mental lexicon”.

Semantic relationships

I can think of 3 ways that these verbs and adjectives might be semantically related: number of meanings, state/action, and degree.

On meaning specifically, consider these three definitions from dictionary.com:

  • disturb
  • verb (used with object)
  • to interrupt the quiet, rest, peace, or order of; unsettle.
  • to interfere with; interrupt; hinder:
    • Please do not disturb me when I’m working.
  • to interfere with the arrangement, order, or harmony of; disarrange:
    • to disturb the papers on her desk.
  • to perplex; trouble:
    • to be disturbed by strange behavior.
  • disturbing
  • adjective
  • upsetting or disquieting; dismaying:
    • a disturbing increase in the crime rate.
  • disturbed
  • adjective
  • marked by symptoms of mental illness:
    • a disturbed personality.

Notice that only one of the meanings listed for the verb is similar to the present participle adjective, and none are similar to that of the past participle adjective (except metaphorpically). Even a grammatically ambiguous sentence can be interpreted as clearly a verb or clearly and adjective based on meaning:

The “do not disturb” sign is out, but clearly we’re being disturbed.

His collection of loose toenails is disturbing.

He’s clearly disturbed, judging by his interest in feet.

Based on these examples, “disturb” has a loose relationship to its participial adjectives. If you do a similar search to that I did above, but for “amaze”, you will see that some verbs and participial adjectives retain very similar meanings. I don’t have any quantitative way to refer to this, but let’s just say the fewer meanings are the same or similar, the less close the relationship.

Perception as a state or action is usually more of a difference between verbs and adjectives as grammatical categories, but my verbs are mostly stative – that is, they refer to a state of being rather than a discrete action, and therefore collocate more than adverbs of intensity than adverbs of frequency, just like adjectives. However, for at least some of the verbs above, there will be an option for an action rather than state meaning:

  • He disturbs me at work every day, and he is disturbing me right now. (action)
  • Your lack of faith disturbs me. (state, verb)
  • Your lack of faith is disturbing. (state, adjective)

Clearly, the action meaning is unavailable for the adjectives. What this means for “closeness” of verbs and adjectives is that if a verb has a possible meaning as an action verb, it could be said to be less close to its participial adjectives, which naturally don’t.

Last, for degree, adjectives unlike verbs are usually perceived as gradable – attributing some quality to nouns to varying degrees, as specified by adverbs like “a little” or “very”. There are exceptions like “unique” (at least according to some) or “freezing”, but the key area of interest for us is the extent to which verbs share these qualities with their participial adjectives, regardless of what those particular qualities are. For example, the verb “amaze” seems to have the same ungradability as its adjectives “amazing” and “amazed”:

  • It absolutely amazes me.
  • I am absolutely amazed.
  • It’s absolutely amazing.

But “compel” seems not to be not as gradable, or not gradable in the same ways, as “compelling” or “compelled”:

  • Δ It doesn’t compel me very much.
  • It’s not very compelling.
  • Δ I’m not very compelled.

Curiously, “compel” as a verb and “compelled” as an adjective seem less gradable than “compelling” as an adjective, perhaps because interpretation of “compel” is so closely tied to the completion of the verb that it usually takes as an infinitive complement. That is, if I “compel” you to wash the dishes, you almost definitely wash the dishes, but if I’m just “compelling” in general, my status as “compelling” doesn’t have a binary on-off status tied to the completion of anything in particular.

I believe that when verbs and adjectives differ in their ability to be seen as gradable or in degrees, they can be said to have a more distant relationship. When they are the same in these respects, their relationship can be described as “close”.

Any other forms of “closeness” will have to wait for another day.

Addendum, added again

Here are some charts showing the relative frequencies of the verb (with the caveats above), the present participle adjective, and the past participle adjective for the top 20 most frequent words in the list (as of this update, at least).

Top 10
Second 10

Since I’m at it, I thought I’d provide a bit of the opposite of what I did in my last addendum – signs of “distance” between verbs and the participial adjectives that come from them.

Date of first use

First, not every participial adjective in this list has a unique dictionary entry at all – devastated, for example, appears in neither dictionary.com nor etymonline.com, although its partners devastating and devastate do. Of those that do, often the first recorded use with a particular meaning is noted, for example “Meaning “dejected, lowered in spirits” is from 1620s.” for depressed from etymonline.com. An older first use as an adjective, particularly with a distinct meaning, could speak to a meaning as distinct as ice and cream have to ice-cream (1744).

Age of first use

This is opening an issue that begs for actual data that I don’t have, but if it could be shown that people begin using amaze and amazing at different ages, it could also speak to greater “distance” between these words. On the other hand, if both begin appearing in speech at about the same time, one could simply be a true morphological derivation of the other, formed by rules analogous to a wug test. I believe we are seeing this process of derivation in real time with the birth of the adjective triggered. If future generations of children start using sentences like “He was so triggered” years before they say “The video triggered him”, we can assume that these are distinct words, not just morphologically derived variations on the verb.

Charts, very framed

Last, here are two super handy charts for you to print, frame, and finally replace that picture of your niece with:

<– most likely to be used as an adjective most likely to be used as a verb –>
<– past participle adjectives more common present participle adjectives more common –>

Things language teachers know #3 – competence =/= performance =/= intelligence

(For part 1 or part 2 of this series, scroll waaaaay down to 2016.)

We had something of a popularity contest in the US in 2016 between a very comfortable public speaker and a slightly stiff one. Depending on one’s prior feelings or biases, the former may have looked either charismatic or puffed up, and the latter may have looked duplicitous or booksmart.

For a casual viewer, it could sometimes seem that the comfortable speaker simply knew his stuff better, which resulted in his greater comfort communicating that knowledge to large numbers of people. He projected confidence, which encouraged trust. For people not actually listening to the words he used, it was easy and tempting to consider the self-assured speaker a more experienced, able leader, who had earned his confidence through ability and experience. He didn’t choose his words carefully, but his ease on stage seemed as if it might have come from years of being tested and winning. The careful speaker always seemed to have to work a little too hard to find words that sounded right, and therefore felt dishonest – or worse, scheming – to many.

For people who were listening to (or reading) the content of the message rather than the delivery, it was practically irresistable to come to the opposite conclusion; that the stiff, careful speaker chose her words to reflect her nuanced, well-informed thoughts, which naturally didn’t come pouring forth like a river but in precisely measured portions. Meanwhile, the confident speaker’s spell was thoroughly broken on the page. Instead of a freewheeling and charming salesman, his words seemed like those of a buggy machine translator working with Nike slogans in Armenian.

Throughout the campaign and to the present day, it has been a constant joke that President Trump’s speech patterns reflect a lazy and uneducated mind. And while it may be true that he is lazy and uneducated (as opposed to unschooled), the evidence for this is not to be found in his basic speech patterns. As language teachers (and everyone reading this is probably a language teacher), we shouldn’t condone criticism of him or anyone else that is based on the premise that verbal performance is a reliable measure of intellect.

Source. It’s probably true that Obama picked up some good public speaking skills as a result of his education – but not everyone educated learns to speak in public. Do we really want to preclude from the Presidency anyone who didn’t take Debate in school?

It is a truth that is especially evident to language teachers that the sophistication of one’s thoughts and the sophistication of one’s verbal ability can differ widely. There are people who have chunks of academic circumlocution constantly at the ready to bring to bear on topics that they have no particular expertise in. There are also people whose words never quite build a substantial enough bridge for their weighty ideas to cross. Our entire occupation is based on mismatch between our students’ intellects and their communication abilities. If one reliably predicted the other, we wouldn’t need language as a separate subject at all. This is particularly true in ELT (my field), but all language teachers from speech pathologists to teachers of creative writing courses in college know that sophisticated thoughts are no guarantee of sophisticated expressive ability.

It’s also important to keep in mind that abstract linguistic competence doesn’t always manifest in perfect form in real-world situations. There can be quite a bit of “noise” between the language that exists in a person’s head and what escapes from their mouth in a high-pressure situation like an interview on 60 Minutes or an address that will be heard by millions. The presence of a threat, the need to present oneself a particular way to particular people, a time limit, or conversely, great self-confidence can disrupt or enhance linguistic performance. As language teachers, we have workarounds or accommodations to the phenomenon of performances not always matching competence – reducing the number of observers, trying to gather a sample for evaluation unobtrusively, allowing students with anxiety disorders to skip certain portions of the test, etc. It should be no surprise to us to that a politician’s verbal performance isn’t a reliable measure of their linguistic competence, or of course that their linguistic competence isn’t a reliable measure of their intelligence.

Some criticisms (that is, almost all criticisms) of the current President are valid and if anything understated. But we should know better than to attack him for his way of talking. Obviously, this goes 10x for his wife, who seems to be, like him, far too small a person for their historical moment, but is also unfairly criticized for just sounding strange.

Source.

Again – there is plenty of other evidence that Trump is incurious and ignorant. There’s no need to insult most of our students by implication just to make that point.

Instances of class Noun

I sometimes find my background in computer science helpful for understanding language – ironically, since computer science often uses language as a metaphor for computing functions. One case where this is true is in understanding the various ways that nouns work in world languages and the difficulties that English learners face in adapting to our particular system.

Let’s say both our learner’s L1 and English both have a similar definition of a “tiger”:

public class Tiger {

//assume I put the necessary constructors etc. here

public static int eyes=2; //static because each Tiger has the same # of eyes

public static int legs=4;

public String name;

boolean hunt(Animal prey) {

//do something

return true;

}

}

ESL teachers can probably predict what would happen if this student were called upon to write an essay on these Tigers: lots of sentences like “Tiger is the largest cat in the world” or “Tiger does not live in Africa”. It is a mistake to conclude that this student doesn’t realize that there are many tigers in the world, not just one.

English forces you to declare an instance of class Tiger before you make any reference to its number of eyes or call its hunt() function.

Tiger a_tiger = new Tiger();  //declaring an instance of class Tiger

System.out.println(a_tiger.eyes);  //printing a_tiger’s number of eyes

I know – this isn’t good coding style. At least I can take comfort in the fact that not too many people are interested in both Java and semantics. Saved from criticism by my small audience!

Still, I hope you take my point about English nouns: they refer to instances, rather than classes, by default. We demand that references to Tigers in general need to be plural, because there are many instances of Tigers (I’m just going to keep capitalizing this word) in the world, or that they be marked and elevated with the definite article the, singling out one instance of Tiger to stand for the rest. Both of these are ways of signalling to listeners that we mean something other than actual instances of Tigers, although that is what their form implies. So in English, this would cause an error:

System.out.println(Tiger.eyes);

because you can’t refer to the class itself. As in the above examples, you need to (at least appear to) talk about actual Tigers, not just the abstract idea of one.

Meanwhile, in Japanese, the same line produces no error:

System.out.println(Tiger.eyes);

It just prints “2”, as one would expect, because Japanese, unlike English, treats nouns as class references by default, as do many other languages. In fact, you can talk quite a lot about classes in Japanese without making any implied reference to actual instances of those classes.

if (Tiger.legs == Human.legs) {

System.out.println(“それはおかしいでしょう”);

}

if (Tiger.hunt(Human)) {

Human.run();

}

None of this requires us to posit that Tigers or Humans are even real. We can comfortably refer to them as classes and talk about those classes’ features, even imagining interactions between one class and another, without ever letting the wheels touch the ground, so to speak, on actual, flesh-and-blood Tigers.

Tiger Genocide GIF - StreetFighter Sagat Arcade GIFs
Source.

This requirement of English for instantiation of nouns is unintuitive for many learners. Countable nouns in English must be referred to as if they were either solitary or in groups, a distinction which we call singular/plural, even when the distinction doesn’t matter (e.g. everybody has “their” own problems). There are uncountable nouns, of course, but as any learner who’s ever gone shopping for “furniture” or “equipment” can tell you, the rules for their deployment are not prima facie clear, nor are there reliable rules for making countable nouns uncountable or vice versa as communication requires (one can refer to breads to mean “many kinds of bread”, but not equipments to mean “many types of equipment”).

This is by no means universal, and our approaches to learners shouldn’t make the naïve assumption that mistakes in English countability or plurals indicate some kind of lack of comprehension that more than one Tiger exists in the world. In many languages, class reference is the default (or definite reference, which I was surprised to find is the case with Farsi), and even in the ones where it isn’t, not all share the particular plural/the cheat code for class reference found in English.

Different languages can treat “reality” differently, or sometimes just appear to. This is a major lesson from learning another language – even if that language is a programming language.

A Taxonomy of Untranslatability

I started this post after hearing Lingthusiasm’s excellent podcast episode (referred by my colleague and work döppelganger Heidi) on this topic, wrote about 800 words before finishing the podcast and realizing that they said pretty much everything I was going to say but with much more finesse. Anyway, I changed the focus a bit and here it is.

Once in a while you’ll come across a listicle like this that tries to convey some of the majesty of world culture through “untranslatable” words. Notably, no list of this type is ever just a list of words in foreign languages without translations… that would be extremely boring. Instead, they usually have English translations for each word with accompanying explanations for why those translations are inadequate, usually something about the unique piquance of the origin language (henceforth OL) missing or some other woo-woo. Of course, nuance often goes missing when one speaker has less information about a word than another; one could argue that adults talking to children or experts talking to non-experts always results in nuance being lost. This could be why talking to children often has the same feeling as cross-cultural communication. When I explain metal to non-metal fans, I get the feeling that only about 60% of my words are being received with their intended meanings. If I were to make a list of words which are untranslatable from my head to the head of someone who actively listens to Justin Timberlake, it would include “Maidenesque”, “djenteel”, and “filth” (as a good thing).

Not just words in other languages, but all words exist differently in the minds of other speakers – even speakers of the same language. Since all communication is a matter of messages being sent and received by people with different lives and therefore different mental representations of words and worlds, one could argue that all language is untranslatable, if our bar for perfect translation is putting the exact same idea in the listener’s head as was in the speaker’s. For example, for a long time my prototype of a “dog” was a friendly but mischievous toy breed, because I grew up with pugs. Obviously, someone who grew up around Golden Retrievers will have a different idea about typical dog qualities, and someone who grew up in hell will have different ideas from both of us based on their long experience with Chihuahuas. When I used the word “dog” with one of these people, I’m not exactly putting into their minds what is in mine, because our experiences have built different conceptions of “dogs”. Instead of circling off certains words as “untranslatable”, we might do better to call all words “imperfectly translatable”, including among native speakers of the same language. This definition doesn’t respect the commonsense view of “translation” as a matter of crossing linguistic/national boundaries, but it does change the unhelpful “translatable or not” dichotomy into a spectrum of difficulty that includes issues of nuance, grammar, and culturally unique concepts. At one end are unique people who have the same denotation of the word “dog” as referring to a 4-legged furry companion animal but necessarily different personal experiences with dogs, and at the other end citizens of different planets whose languages either are dance-based or feature non-linear conceptions of time, and neither of which has carbon-based life (or by extension, dogs). They would probably write (or dance) some very interesting listicles.

We should also keep in mind that words “not existing in (language)” is a readily fixable problem: when speakers of that language start using those words, then they are words in that language. In that sense, “schadenfreude” is as much a word in English as “skirt” or “scaffold” (although marked for the time being as foreign in origin, while the others have lost that distinction). Lists of foreign words can easily become lists of English words if English speakers pick up on them and start using them – every nam pla is a potential future ketchup, and every ikigai is a possible candidate for kaizen.

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Source. Note that they get the pronunciation wrong – why not just ask someone on Twitter?

Now, you should listen to the podcast episode linked at the top of this post to get some more nuts-and-bolts reasons that translation is difficult, but if you’re interested in why people persist in using the label “untranslatable” for socio-cultural reasons, I think I have a decent taxonomy of reasons below.

Continue reading “A Taxonomy of Untranslatability”

Justified adjectivization

This post springs from, but then quickly digresses thoughtlessly from, a question from a student about the difference between the adjectives “justifiable” and “justified”.

My answer at the time, that the difference was whether the process was capable of being applied or had been applied, was probably too first-principlesy to be useful. I probably should have directed her to COCA and let her work back to that conclusion from examples. Incidentally, after doing so myself, it turns out that “justified” is much more common overall, and especially more common in post-hoc rationalizing. That squares with what I said, but I could have found a more brain-friendly way of putting it.

(I find I have to force myself not to correct dangling modifiers these days, perhaps out of some misplaced notion of descriptivism – did you notice the one in the last paragraph? To me, it’s like an ingrown hair that the doctor has ordered me to leave be.)

Continue reading “Justified adjectivization”

ESL Students’ Ought-to Selves

Part 2 of a 3-part series. In case you missed the last one:

As an end-of-semester assignment, I had my summer and fall classes (4 total; 2 intermediate multi-skill and 2 advanced academic writing) write about their ideal, ought-to, and feared selves. Besides being a recent buzzword in ELT, possible selves make an interesting writing assignment for both the teacher, who gets to find out his students’ motivations in a bit more detail, and the students, who get to describe their (hopeful) future lives. Now, in fairness to you, I should point out right at the start that I won’t be excerpting their writing here; I didn’t warn them that I’d be using this assignment for my blog and I am one of those teachers who doesn’t even share pictures with his students’ faces in them without asking each one of them individually. Instead of showing you what they actually wrote, I will be analyzing each of their answers for the prevalences of certain topics and concerns and then doing some basic statistics with these. As it turns out, this takes a lot longer.

My prompt for the ought-to selves section was:

“What can you, now, do every day to bring yourself closer to that future best version of you? What kind of things should you do? How should you ‘study’ or ‘practice’?”

Basically, I’m trying to get at how students think they should be behaving as ESL students – not what their goals are, but what the little ESL angel on their shoulder is telling them to do every day.

Continue reading “ESL Students’ Ought-to Selves”