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On SAE and Language Standardization

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I will devote this post to the question of Standard English in light of John Simon's claim that "language can always disintegrate further" and that "there is no bottom to language degeneration."

As someone who is not a native speaker of Standard American English (SAE), I am acutely aware of the potential social consequences of failing to meet the linguistic standards imposed by the majority (or at least the elite) of society. I was born and raised in rural and poor southern West Virginia, about 50 miles from the border with southwestern Virginia and about 100 miles from the border with southeastern Kentucky. Although the form of speech that I acquired as my native language (a variety of central Appalachian English) differs notably from Standard English in grammar (e.g., many so-called "irregular" or strong verbs have been regularized, such that we say throwed for SE threw, knowed for knew and so forth, although we may also say brung for brought) and lexicon (I always thought that a "toboggan" was a type of hat until my first year in college), I believe that the most salient, and stereotyped, differences involve phonology. I struggle mightily to repress my native vowel system, attempting to replace it with that of Standard English, when speaking in most contexts, especially since I no longer live in Appalachia. I occasionally slip, especially with the pin-pen merger, and I sometimes hypercorrect, blurting out sense when I mean since. I have also pretty much abandoned my attempts at standard pronunciation for less stereotyped or stigmatized features, such as the persistence of velar [x] (very similar to the hard h-like sound in German nacht) as an allophone of /l/ in certain environments and the presence of the voiceless labial-velar fricative /ʍ/ as a distinct phoneme in words like which and where, which contrast with witch and wear in my native dialect. In fact, I was reminded of the social awareness of this particular feature in a "Wheat Thins" commercial I happened to see on television just last night--the commercial was essentially making fun of those who "pronounce the h" in such words. I did not begin to acquire Standard English pronunciation until I was well into junior high school, and so the phonology of SE will always be a bit "foreign" to me, in the sense that I am not a native speaker. Perceptive listeners can detect some lack of comfort on my part when I am attempting Standard English pronunciation, particularly my overly careful pronunciation (or over-enunciation) of certain sounds and the hypercorrection that is inevitable when paying so much more attention to form than content.

So the question is: why do I make such great efforts at linguistic accommodation, even though as a linguist I am fully aware that my native form of speech is fully equal to Standard English as a communicative system? Of course, the answer is that most of American society does not deem my native form of speech equal to Standard English. I have been conditioned since birth to view Appalachian English as uneducated and improper, as have most other Americans, including many speakers of Appalachian English themselves, who will eagerly concede that they speak English badly! In one of the video clips from the PBS series Do You Speak American? almost everyone on the train was quick to circle areas where Appalachian English is spoken as a part of the United States where people do not speak "proper English." Simply put, there are strong negative social consequences to speaking stigmatized dialects, and Appalachian English is among the most stigmatized of all non-standard (or as some would put it, sub-standard) American English varieties. Failure to accommodate to the linguistic majority on my part would have disastrous consequences for my professional life. I certainly would not have my current job as a language school administrator, which began as a part-time ESL instructor, if I had walked into the initial interview speaking with my fully native pronunciation and grammar. So, due to the collective pressures of the majority and the socially-constructed narrative that perpetuates the myth of the inherent superiority of "Standard English," I am left with little choice but to attempt to sound like those blessed souls who had the great fortune to be born in the parts of the nation highlighted in gold, including an area just a few hundred miles to the northwest of my hometown in the "right" part of Ohio, on those dialect maps from the episode. Oh, what a difference two hundred miles can make!

As for John Simon's claim about language degeneration and disintegration, in the modern era there have always been certain language wonks who lament that, with each passing generation, the language (whether it be English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese or any other language that has a literary, national or regional standard) falls into further ruin. The irony is that Mr. Simon's great-grandparents might very well have found his own speech "degenerate" had they had the chance to hear it. For both biological and sociological reasons, language change is an inevitable part of the human condition, even if language standardization is not. Language standardization and the fossilization of a certain grammar and lexicon as the spoken and/or literary standard are not inevitable, although standardization is more likely to take place in societies with a strong social hierarchy and a written language. Many languages, especially those that are spoken by people who live in a society with a low degree of social hierarchy and that lack a written form (or that simply have few speakers) have no "standard" form in that speakers tend to accept any variety as acceptable, even though they may find certain dialects "odd" or difficult to understand, which proves that language standardization is the product of specific socio-cultural conditions and is not a universal feature of human culture. I have found that the adoration of all things past, including language, is a trait sometimes exhibited by social elites who find themselves threatened by a changing world and who attempt to convince the rest of society--often quite successfully--that only by preserving our cherished traditions--including language--can we hope to stem the tide of change, which they inevitably view as degeneration rather than evolution. However, no matter how stridently such "language authorities" (as they often proclaim themselves to be) curse the corruption that the present generation has brought upon the language, in the end their warnings of the dire consequences of language "disintegration" can do little to slow the pace of a change that is inevitable. And yet we still cannot resist looking up at Standard English, towering over us like a colossus, to respect its power and authority. I suppose that this is a great contradiction, and one that cannot yet be resolved. It demonstrates the great power of the social contract and that, somehow, what society believes to be true must be true, even if it is not.

In their introduction to chapter 9, Celce-Murcia et al. (1996) assert that ESL instructors should "teach their learners (1) how to predict the pronunciation of a word given its spelling and (2) how to come up with a plausible spelling for a word given its pronunciation" (p. 269). However, the authors provide no empirical support for the effectiveness of this orthography-based approach and apparently fail to consider the possibility that such an approach may do more harm than good. It has been my personal teaching experience that focusing on how words are spelled often interferes with the learner's efforts to acquire correct English pronunciation. For example, I have taught more than one student who was able to produce a passable pronunciation for words like would and should until learning that such words are spelled with a "silent l," at which point the learners insisted that they could hear a faint l-sound in the word. From that point on, the learners began to pronounce these words with an intrusive [l] and I could never manage to remedy that incorrect pronunciation. I have observed that this phenomenon is particularly common among English language learners whose native language is written with a fairly phonemic alphabetic writing system (such as Spanish).

One viable alternative to the orthography-based approach advocated by Celce-Murcia et al. is to teach students to conceptualize the spelling of each word as a single unit, paying more attention to the whole than to the individual letters and their often tenuous sound correspondences. This holistic reading approach, which may impose a great learning burden on students at the start, can provide long-term rewards in that it allows for a faster reading rate (research has shown that readers who have internalized words as single units can read faster than those who have learned to read words as a string of individual letters), is effective for slower learners, and may minimize the risk that the learner will adopt an incorrect spelling pronunciation given the generally non-phonemic nature of the English orthographic system. Moreover, many of the spelling "rules" presented by Celce-Murcia et al. (taken mainly from the work of Dickerson) are so complicated and abstruse that they may be of little use to the learner.

On Inflection, Derivation and Teaching Word Forms

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Although heavy emphasis is typically placed on word formation, especially inflection and derivation, in most ESL/EFL curricula, only a small fraction of the total words that appear in typical English textual corpora involve either morphological strategy. The vast majority of the words used in everyday spoken English are either short function words (mainly articles and prepositions) or monomorphemic content words, with nouns predominating. I suspect that in many teaching contexts, there may be more emphasis placed on teaching inflection and derivation than usage warrants, especially when such instruction comes at the cost of tightening the "nuts and bolts" of function and simple content words. After all, even if students make minor inflectional or derivational errors, they are more likely than not to be understood. However, the same cannot be said for learners with significant gaps in their lexicon involving function and especially content words. It can be argued that complete mastery of all derivational prefixes and suffixes in a language is worthless if the speaker is constantly at a loss for the basic content words to which said affixes should be attached. This is not to say that we should not teach our students about word formation in English, as they must certainly learn to master the relatively meager inflection that does exist in the language as well as gain a significant command of frequent derivational patterns, but rather that we need to be careful not to put the cart before the horse.

When teaching word forms to beginners, I believe that it is important to focus on simple content and function words first while gradually presenting the most frequently-used inflectional and derivational morphemes. Once students have reached a low intermediate level of proficiency and have acquired a solid core lexicon, derivation should be given more attention and compounding should be introduced in order to expand the learners' lexical range and, hopefully, increase her intuitive grasp of word formation and derivational patterns. Given the right instruction, enough practice and sufficient exposure to the language, I do believe that many students can correctly guess the right word forms more often than not, or at least develop some sense of what "sounds right" and "sounds wrong," even if that intuition is based mainly on receptive skills and passive knowledge, which Folse (2009) has indicated is often a good "first start." Although as Folse rightly points out, there is something of a chicken-and-egg causality dilemma at work here (viz., how can students be expected to guess the right word form--for example, how can they know that bookish "works" whereas *bookly does not--until they have actually been exposed to the former), I nevertheless believe that students can develop enough of a holistic understanding of lexical patterns in English to at least suspect that loveliness is word while sensing that there is something not quite right about *loveliment. I have developed this sense in Spanish, such that even though I sometimes still "invent" words to the amusement of my native Spanish-speaking friends and colleagues, I guess the "correct" word form a good deal of the time. Finally, less frequent but still useful and important word formation strategies such as clipping, backformation, blending and conversion should be explicitly addressed with more advanced learners. To be sure, the most commonly-used words formed by these strategies (such as smog, TV, gas and so forth) should be still presented to beginning and intermediate level students as discrete words and useful language chunks, but discussion of the actual mechanics of such word formation strategies are best left to higher-level classrooms.

English is not typical in its predominantly analytic (isolating) character, as languages with a relatively higher degree of synthesis (see are much more numerous cross-linguistically. In fact, outside of East and Southeast Asia, predominantly isolating languages are fairly rare. With no case other than possessive (i.e., formed by the addition of the suffix -'s), English has an especially impoverished nominal inflectional morphology, and compared to most other languages, including Indo-European languages outside the Germanic group (such as Spanish, French, Italian and Russian), Arabic, Korean and Japanese, which tend to be commonly spoken by our students, English verb forms (although not necessarily their meaning or syntax, especially when it comes to modals and phrasal verbs) are a model of simplicity. Consequently, most students are much more likely to have problems acquiring derivational affixes in English than inflectional ones, if for no other reason than English has so few inflectional morphemes to start with. In addition, prefixation is rare to nonexistent in both Japanese and Korean, so native speakers of those languages are more likely to struggle with English prefixes than with suffixes, which are rife in both of those East Asian languages. Based on my own teaching experiences, Chinese is the only native language commonly spoken by our students that is less morphologically complex than English (other than a handful of morphemes that straddle the border between full-fledged suffixes and separate words, Chinese completely lacks affixation along with many of the grammatical categories, such as tense and number, that are expressed through suffixation in English). As a result, native Chinese speakers often have particular difficulties acquiring both inflectional and derivational patterns in English. The only word formation strategies they really get "for free" are uninflected simple function and content words and compounding, which is especially frequent in Chinese. These facts have led me to become especially patient with my native Chinese-speaking students, who will almost always find English morphology to be a great challenge.

On the other hand, speakers of Romance languages, especially Spanish and French (which as Western Romance languages are rather closely related historically; see, usually have fewer problems learning English word forms than speakers of Chinese (which, as noted above, almost completely lacks affixation of any kind), Arabic (which has exceptionally complex inflectional morphology, although it is of a quite different sort than that seen in English), and Japanese and Korean (both of which are highly agglutinative languages but which use suffixation to express very different grammatical categories than those in English). Unlike speakers of most languages outside the Romance (and to a lesser extent, the Germanic) group, native Spanish and French speakers find in English both familiar derivational patterns and, thanks to the many cognates due to borrowings from both French and Latin (and to a much lesser extent Greek), the derivational morphemes themselves. Thus, the morphological challenges our Spanish and French-speaking students face are of a very different sort than the ones experienced by their Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Korean-speaking peers: although many of the derivational prefixes and suffixes in English are familiar to them in both form and meaning, there is never a one hundred percent overlap between languages in either respect. In addition, while cognates certainly aid their efforts to acquire English, faux amis are always lurking around the corner (thus, while English has devolve and Spanish has devolver, in which case both the prefixes and the roots are cognate, the two words do not mean the same thing at all, which can be said for dozens of similar pairs of close cognates). Still, on balance Spanish and French-speaking students usually find acquiring English word forms to be easier than speakers of languages unrelated to English.

Strategies for Teaching Articles

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I think that the most effective approach to teaching article usage depends mainly on the specific teaching context involved, since in the ESL classroom we typically teach students of diverse backgrounds and native languages, whereas in the EFL classroom we almost always have the luxury of students with the same native language, but who usually have the disadvantage of much more restricted access to comprehensible and grammatical input. Assuming the typical ESL context, in this case, a mixed class of first language speakers including Arabic (with a frequently-used definite article but no indefinite article), Chinese, Japanese and Korean (with no articles of any kind), and Spanish (with both a definite and indefinite article which are used in ways that often do not overlap with their English counterparts, including the fact that both types of Spanish articles are inflected for number), I would still use contrastive analysis as a strategy for helping students learn how articles are used in English. I believe that it is critical for adult learners to understand the differences in how articles are used (or not used) in English and their native language in order to master this aspect of English grammar (the same could also be said for many other grammar points). Since L1 interference tends to be robust and persistent in article usage (as it is in the usage of prepositions), I believe that completely ignoring the linguistic particulars of each student's native language just because of the teaching context (i.e., a class consisting of students with different and diverse native languages) would not be an effective strategy. Allowing students to explore the differences in how English and their native language deal with articles (or in the case of some languages, avoids them entirely) may also help sensitize students to the manifold ways articles can be used in different languages, thereby raising their general linguistic awareness while at the same time validating the importance and legitimacy of their native language, which can often be an issue in the ESL context.

I recommend presenting each article (indefinite, definite and null/zero) in separate lessons, with the indefinite article coming first since Folse (2009) urges that we always teach English count nouns as "language chunks" with the indefinite article included given that in English, we almost never use the singular form of count nouns without a determiner. I would then present each separate use of the articles as a discrete lesson, addressing the most common uses first. I would make sure that throughout the lessons, sufficient attention is paid to helping students of each language address their L1-specific difficulties (e.g., overuse of the definite article by Arabic speakers, underuse or random use of articles by Chinese, Japanese and Korean speakers, and the specific incongruities between article usage in Spanish and English).

A Few Comments on Discourse Markers

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Formal and informal discourse markers

There seem to be so many discourse markers used in spoken English that it is not hard to pluck a few from the linguistic ether to discuss, so I will select I mean, you know, oh and that discourse marker par excellence, okay-- four terms that rarely make an appearance in formal written contexts. Some of their formal written equivalents might include that is or i.e. (for I mean), in some contexts as noted or as is generally known (for you know), and the obvious alternatives yes or indeed (for okay), but probably only for a small minority of its spoken occurrences. However, I intentionally made this task harder that it needed to be by selecting discourse markers that frequently act as semantically vacuous fillers that lack formal written equivalents. I hoped to make the point that because speech and writing have very different communicative purposes, there will not necessarily be a formal written equivalent (i.e., "words or expressions which mark the same logical relation") for every discourse marker used in speech because not all discourse markers indicate logical relations. In speech, we often need to hedge, backchannel, reformulate and change topics on the fly, whereas writing is usually a much more planned and deliberate endeavor than speech.

Observations on so

The word so has a long and venerable history in the English language. As Germanic as Germanic gets, it started to wend its long and tortuous course through the history of the language as Old English swā at a time when its Gothic sister swa was alive and well, and similar-sounding words were flying from the mouths of Germanic tribesman all across northern Europe. In fact, the ultimate ancestor of Modern English so is probably at least six thousand years old, as its Indo-European cognates si, "if" (Latin) and ὡς, "as, thus" (Greek) attest. And oh how the Anglo-Saxons loved their swās--so much so, in fact, that they often uttered the word twice in a row, as in the phrase swā swā, which most famously appears in the line geweorþe ðin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofenum ("Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven"), but interestingly did not mean so-so (as in "mediocre"). The word was so versatile in Old English that it could even be used as a pronoun in addition to its modern function as an adverb and conjunction (see Old English entry at and analysis of Old English texts reveals it to be among the most commonly-used words in that ancient language.

So, I must admit that I am not particularly nonplussed by the term's frequent appearance in Modern English or news articles alerting us to some sort of major shift in the usage of discourse markers in English. While Giridharadas states that "[w]hat is new is its status as the favored introduction to thoughts, its encroachment on the territory of 'well,' 'oh,' 'um' and their ilk," I have to wonder whether what is actually new is the word's increasing frequency or just the fact that we are starting to pay more attention to these sorts of things. The point I am trying to make is that the word so has always been with us, and even a thousand years ago it was among the commonest of words. So, even if this grand old word has started to take over ground once held by well or oh or um, as Giridharadas avers, our trusty friend so already started out with its fair share of discursive territory.

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