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
gut2424442110.9946416611
amaze1309317397311062000.992957057
devastate109612725565620.9918762462
interest29236173663314115190.9907987315
excite146097994295859830.9895651565
embarrass159982322635220.9891551311
bore55892340421106570.9840445576
hearten11562283480.9828127335
depress2954420931064490.9805011353
fascinate543726067451880.9799593806
disgust169463490187090.9798076121
overwhelm5315220680367060.979767873
tempt3907755231006630.9783056532
thrill207271947211060.978218134
frustrate6591190874710790.975456536
amuse229849598151300.9657147972
compel9719175318712510.9620778187
terrify331959834222490.9611367415
enthrall37688193310.9605290783
frighten377656745308740.9586848296
relax142721402391668630.9555906825
annoy12686227355448370.9554686568
confuse145521939411098380.9542865759
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
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% of adjs present
floor015970
relate08918050
rate0533980
consider0131380
agitate306118250.02522463111
justify524190360.02678936605
dismay33459370.0532610429
gut24442110.05476992144
upset152701233330.1101707755
forbid8729330530.2089177158
depress420931064490.2833743992
damage701691233840.362531193
freeze1305722227970.369506097
worry1005691662890.3768633505
exhaust22199334830.3986746166
tempt755231006630.4286549442
relax1402391668630.4566528385
inspire1528891321250.5364262808
interest173663314115190.5516356898
embarrass82322635220.5644524286
excite7994295859830.5770334023
enliven2771900.5931477516
distract1168571760.6195323684
confuse1939411098380.6384279361
frighten56745308740.6476335041
bore2340421106570.6789749898
compel175318712510.7110301782
boil86434329890.7237634292
frustrate190874710790.7286574309
terrify59834222490.7289450922
develop4179711520330.7332773103
amuse49598151300.7662526264
disgust63490187090.7723938247
thrill71947211060.7731830247
disturb89753195000.8215151987
annoy227355448370.8352743652
drive501510984060.8359670354
overwhelm220680367060.8573892908
discourage1236213610.9008234351
amaze17397311062000.9424680554
hearten62283480.947080292
devastate12725565620.9509628821
enthrall88193310.9638251366
fascinate26067451880.9804861169
move16388929430.9823594994
encourage19175101

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.

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.

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.

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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.)

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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.

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Construct validity vs. a tight ship

I have a fantasy where I’m one of those hardass disciplinarian teachers, the kind whose students march in synchronized rows to the auditorium where I’m given some kind of award that these kinds of teachers always seem to get. While I’m standing at the podium of my real-life classroom daydreaming like this, one of my students turns in a piece of paper with a coffee stain on it after walking into class 40 minutes late, and while imperfect, the assignment shows clear development in language control and engagement. Suddenly, my “runs a tight ship” fantasy collides with my inner applied linguist, which naturally wants to reward development, even as my inner disciplinarian threatens to complain about me to my inner department head.

Being a strict teacher sometimes works against the construct validity of  grades. That is, enforcing one’s lateness, makeup, and assignment format policies drags the crosshairs of one’s grades away from “English ability” (however one defines that) and toward “not annoying the teacher by making them put out small fires all semester” or more charitably “being a responsible person in general”.

This problem comes to vex me when I’m looking at a well-written paper turned in 30 minutes late without a cover sheet or a proper MLA header. Is the difference between A and C supposed to be the ability to follow abstract rules in principle? Where is that in the course outline, or to take a wider perspective, in any definition of linguistic competence?

I honestly can’t imagine a class where this (taking points away for non-language-related violations) doesn’t happen at all – and I can imagine my colleagues’ frowns of consternation that I would even consider loosening late work policies in favor of some persnickety notion of validity we all last heard about in our MA programs – but I’ve noticed a trend in my work recently of lots of points hinging on things like “finding parking before class” or “understanding the difference between submitting in Google Classroom and submitting on Canvas” which I don’t remember being a prominent part of any theory of SLA. After all, I do have more eggs in the basket of “effective pedagogue” than “well-oiled adjunct faculty cog”.

Below is a partial list of things that have been at times worth more points in my classes than any variety of English competence, hidden point-stealers from beyond the realm of language ability:

  •  “Please read and follow the directions for this assignment” Actually, “being able to read an assignment” is clearly part of the competence that should be tested in an academic English class – but assignmentese tends to have its own idiom and in my view needs to be taught explicitly as its own topic. Ditto for lines like “work must be accomplished without external assistance beyond what is available to all students in the language lab” in the syllabus.
  • “Please turn this assignment in on time” There is a clear relationship between accomplishing a specific language-related task within a time limit and linguistic competence. That said, I don’t think that extends to assignments that took all weekend and are being turned in 15 minutes late on Monday morning.
  • “If you don’t understand the directions, email me instead of waiting for the due date to ask a question in person” There is an unhealthy tendency to run all competences in ESL through the bottleneck of writing on computers, but I don’t really see a way around this particular issue. After a sour experience with a student who abused the ability to contact me, I don’t give students any other ways to reach out.
  • “Write your name” I do give points for people who forgot to write their names after I ask the class who this mysterious person named “Essay 2” is, but I definitely also give them a hard time about it. Some teachers don’t give points for work that is not gradable on time for any reason, and I certainly empathize. Not writing your name is essentially hijacking a few minutes of class time and precious mental resources of the teacher’s that could be going toward his seldom-read blog.
  • “Have friends that you can ask for help for days that you were absent” Given that Canvas, while equally available to everyone and therefore “fair”, is nonetheless intimidating to the point of inaccessibility for some low-intermediate ESL students, a lot of assignments’ scores depend instead on having a friend who will collect homework sheets for you, explain them for you, and sometimes turn them in for you. If you don’t use Canvas and don’t have friends like this in class, your competence as reflected in grades will drop.

Parts of this list make me react the same way my colleagues probably would: “You can’t seriously be talking about accepting…” or “Well, SOME teachers may not want their students to be responsible, but in MY classes…” and I understand this. I just want to point out that being responsible isn’t one of the areas of linguistic competence we all learned in grad school.

Nudgework

With my teacherly black robes in mind, I’ve been giving my students a particular type of assignment recently that maximizes use of the teacher’s ability to give orders. This type of homework, which I think is worth exploring as a new teacher- and student-friendly homework paradigm, has a few qualities in common:

  • It places students in situations where input is likely.
  • It does so with directions that on the surface have little to do with language learning.
  • It involves minimal paperwork.
  • It requires little or no reporting or reflecting.

This kind of homework is ideal for low-intermediate students, particularly in a place like Southern California where it is very easy to spend one’s entire life surrounded by L1 speakers (of Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, or what have you), and a little nudge is all that might be needed to gain practically unlimited meaningful input or interaction. The goals are increasing input, building confidence, and setting up habits which will facilitate language learning throughout the students’ lives.

banking business checklist commerce

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As an example, one of my recent homework assignments requires students to get a tutor’s signature and then draw (not take) the tutor’s picture (our college offers a variety of tutoring services). There is nothing in the homework assignment that requires them to seek a specific lesson from the tutor or even to ask a question. The point of the homework is just to put the student in a situation (talking to a tutor face-to-face) where their instincts will lead them to inevitably have some kind of interaction, as well as give them the experience of having talked to a tutor and thus taking away some of their reticence to do so in the future.

This kind of homework tends to rely on human instincts to interact or to latch on to things that are interesting to them in any given situation to be effective for language learning. If a nudgework assignment is to “sit at a café for 30 minutes without your smartphone”, it’s very likely that their trip will include a conversation with a barista and incidental input from Auto Trader or Healthy Living magazines. It’s the kind of thing students could feasibly do anytime, but a directive from someone standing in front of the white board makes much more likely.

The downside is that input is simply likely with this type of assignment, not guaranteed. A much more straightforward language assignment, along the lines of “read this and then prove you read it with a detailed report”, makes input practically inescapable (and makes it much easier to talk about it as a class if everyone read the same thing). The downside of a traditional assignment is that the input will probably be of less interest to the students, and a large part of the time taken for the assignment will be devoted to proving to the teacher that the input happened rather than getting more input. Krashen isn’t the last word on these things anymore, but I still tend to think input is superior to reporting when it comes to moving the interlanguage ball forward.

In my teaching career, this nudgework idea evolved out of my Language Logs, which are a regular type of assignment I give that follow the format: “Find examples of grammar point X on the Internet or in real life. Copy and paste/post a photo on the discussion board and describe the grammatical form.” The Language Logs are still a regular part of all of my classes, but particularly in my lower intermediate classes, I wanted a kind of assignment that would facilitate more natural interaction/input and have less emphasis on metalinguistic analysis.

As a last perk, there isn’t much to grade.

input-reporting

Stereotype threat and ELT

When they speak their L2, our language students are undertaking something mentally taxing while monitoring themselves for mistakes and in the presence of people who expect them to struggle. This is almost a perfect recipe for stereotype threat.

What is stereotype threat?

In case you’re behind on your liberal intelligentsia required reading, stereotype threat (ST) is “subtle reminders of stereotypes that presume the incompetence of certain groups. This ‘threat in the air’ can cue a concern with confirming these stereotypes that can impair the ability to perform up to one’s potential” (Schmader, 2010, p. 14). In short, fear of confirming negative stereotypes about one’s group takes up mental overhead and reliably and demonstrably hurts performance, and triggering this effect is as simple as reminding people of the stereotype before giving the test. This effect is real and has been replicated many times with many different groups – men and women most often (Johns et al, 2005) , but also White men and Asian men (Aronson et al, 1999) – even tracking implicit bias scores on a national scale in a study with hundreds of thousands of subjects (citation too long – click here).

The precise psychological mechanism behind this is apparently under dispute, but general anxiety along the lines of an affective filter (I don’t think I need a citation for this) seems not to be it. Rather, mental resources seem to be taken up imagining ways to fail. Working memory available for the task is reduced in favor of monitoring oneself for mistakes and spontaneous, intrusive negative thoughts (Cadinu et al., 2005; Schmader, 2010).

What’s it got to do with ELT?

I think it should be clear that our students, to varying degrees, are under ST almost all the time. Less obvious is the fact that many teachers are, too. Learners and teachers alike may be facing a penalty to their language use that has a cause besides incomplete knowledge or acquisition.

If placed in a context where stereotypes are known and especially when ELLs are implicitly being compared to NSs, we can expect ELLs to perform worse than otherwise at language-mediated tasks (I’m reminded of this article in which the author recounts having found solace in the relatively language-free world of math in her teenage ESL years – the Asian math stereotype probably didn’t hurt either). We can expect NNS teachers also to make more errors when they know they are being evaluated by NS teachers. Performance is likely to be worse both for input and for output in both cases. As Rydell et al (2010) write, “At least in the present task setting, we see that overt emphasis on the existence of the stereotype both prevents learning … and, to a significant degree, prevents expression of learning that has already occurred” (p. 14046) (Yes, that is the real page number). ST is likely to affect students in the ELT classroom as well – an ESL class in the USA where everyone thinks “Asian students don’t talk” is probably worse for Asian students, all other things held equal, than an EFL class in Asia taught by a NNS.

These conditions follow NNSs outside the classroom, too. Even well-known ELLs like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Melania Trump have jokes made at the expense of their intelligence – mostly based on accent, the hardest part of NS speech to adopt. It doesn’t seem to have discouraged Arnold, but whenever he speaks in public he is one error away from confirming everyone’s perception of him. I have certainly experienced this feeling myself, and I didn’t have Arnold’s fortitude. Our students’ lives are replete with conditions in which they will be judged on their language use and stereotypes about their national group or ESL students in general are known.

The mechanisms of ST appear especially designed to vitiate SLA. Working memory is probably as relevant as a danger to language acquisition as it is to math, but hyperconsciousness of mistakes is clearly more relevant to language use than many other subjects. Teachers may be instructing students to do exactly that as an effort to encourage noticing (Schmidt, 1993), usually thought of as a good thing, while ST holds self-monitoring to be an inhibitor of performance (Schmader, 2010). It is possible that while noticing facilitates acquisition in the long run, it distracts from other essential processes (e.g. understanding the intentions of one’s conversation partner) in the short run.

In fact, one effect of ST has been described as reduced ability to sort relevant information from noise, which would clearly hurt students’ ability to notice and turn input to intake. One such experiment used Chinese characters to test women’s “visual processing”, and found a ST effect of clear relevance for language teachers (Rydell et al, 2010).

Questions for study

If you haven’t noticed yet, I haven’t done any research to back up my suspicions that ST is an extremely important future topic for SLA. I do have a few ideas for research questions:

  • Assuming ST for SLA is real, how will we know? Grammaticality judgment tests seem the most analogous to the mathematics-based research on ST that has been the most common so far, but wouldn’t real-time processing skills (like participating in a conversation) show a larger effect?
  • What constitutes a “trigger” for ST? Is the presence of NSs enough, or the possibility that NSs will read/see the students’ output, or just a box for “nationality” at the top of the test?
  • For that matter, how would you avoid triggering ST or creating a control group? ST-inducing instructions often look something like Candinu et al’s: “recent research has shown that there are clear differences in the scores obtained by men and women in logical-mathematical tasks” (2005 p. 574) (Interestingly, they left it to the test-takers to infer that women did worse, not just different, on these tests.) Non-ST instructions either simply leave that part out or explicitly negate it, along the lines of “… that there are no differences in the scores…”. How would this condition be accomplished plausibly on a language test of NNSs? Would it be believable to preface a test with, “This grammar topc shows no measurable differences between American and Chinese test-takers”?
  • What groups have relevant stereotypes that could trigger ST? Is “ESL student” enough of a stigma? (Many students act as if it were.)
  • Are different ELT classes more threatening than others? Can interventions by the teacher mitigate ST, for example by making explicit the fact that students will not be judged by NS norms?

References

Aronson, J., Lustina, M. J., Good, C., Keough, K., Steele, C. M., & Brown, J. (1999). When white men can’t do math: Necessary and sufficient factors in stereotype threat. Journal of experimental social psychology 35/1, pp. 29-46.

Cadinu, M., Maass, A., Rosabianca, A., and Kiesner, J. (2005). Why Do Women Underperform under Stereotype Threat? Evidence for the Role of Negative Thinking. Psychological Science 16/7 pp. 572-578. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40064271

Johns, M., Schmader, T., & Martens, A. (2005). Knowing is half the battle: Teaching stereotype threat as a means of improving women’s math performance. Psychological Science 16/3, pp. 175-179.

Rydell, R. J., Shiffrin, R. M., Boucher, K. L., Van Loo, K., Rydell, M. T., & Steele, C. M. (2010). Stereotype threat prevents perceptual learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107/32 pp. 14042-14047. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/25708852

Schmader, T. (2010). Stereotype Threat Deconstructed. Current Directions in Psychological Science 19/1 pp. 14-18. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41038531

Schmidt, R. (1993). Awareness and Second Language Acquisition. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 13, pp. 206-26.

Correlations with final grades, spring 2018 edition

Every semester I throw a bunch of survey data, biographical data, and assignment scores from my classes into an Excel sheet and see what pops up.  This semester, like the last one, yielded some interesting information.

The tl;dr version is:

  1. Work is a huge predictor of low grades
  2. I should continue to push the importance of drafts in writing
  3. I need to be careful not to evaluate students too much on their familiarity with my style of class
  4. Perhaps I need to design better questionnaires

Read on for the details.

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