The Purpose of Words, and Style

Pronouns are like kaleidoscopes, how you see them kind of changes but the colors, shapes and origins of the design stays the same. Pronouns come in and out of fashion, and they seem right or wrong, but it’s all just a matter of the times. McWhorter spends some time explaining this with examples of such common “wrong” assumptions as “Tell each student to hand in their paper” and “Billy and me”. The logic behind these mistakes is faulty, and often goes back to the imposing of Latin structure onto English.

Clear examples of changing pronoun use include such outdated words as Thee, Thou, and Yee. No one really knows why these things change, they just do, and it’s really not a big deal – it’s fashion. During the transition, however, people will often criticize and complain about poor English. McWhorter gives an example of a guy named George Fox who complained about such things a few centuries ago, in the same manner that in any comment section on the internet today we see people complain about the disintegration of language.

There are distinctions, for sure, but important to keep in mind is the logical vs formal distinction in language use. Often what we are taught in school is formality, not logical. This provides some difficult situations as an EFL teacher, because students often can’t see the difference when their mind is wrapped around learning correct English to pass a test. I often found myself teaching in two different directions, so to speak, because of this formal vs logical distinction.

Another point is again brought up, that the printed page allowed people to think of earlier language as a sort of standard. If this was the case, then the electronic word has maybe liberated this concept of a standard for visual language. With today’s technology, we are well on our way to contextual based standards because of the milieu of styles that the digital medium creates.

McWhorter continues on about Fashion and Language in Lecture 12, bringing up irregular verbs again. Many such atrocities were considered bad-form back in the early 1800s, only to eventually be accepted. Or, vice versa. Google Ngrams is fun to play around with – as you can see here for the verb Baken, which used to be the past tense form of Baked, I guess. Or, in the image below for the word Thee.

Pronunciation has also changed over time, as illustrated by rhyming poetry and by semi-literate people who would write phonetically. Words like slaughter or daughter were pronounced in the same way we pronounce the word laughter (and sometimes spelled similar – dafter, for example). There were no audio recording technologies back then, so I wonder what that means for the future of pronunciation. Perhaps the spoken word has hit a standard?

Link to the first post in this series is here.

Ngram for Thee

What Language is Usually Like

Contrary to what you might think, explains McWhorter, the bigger a language is, the more widely it is used, and the simpler it will be. The smaller the language, the less number of people that speak it, and the more complex it will be. Part of the reason for this is because of the number of adult people that learn the bigger language will be significant enough to impact the complexity of the language. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, when a large number of adults learn a language, that language tends to shed complexity. 

The number of adult learners of English in the world today has got to be at an all-time high. I’m absolutely guessing this here, but considering economic globalization and the amount of access that learners have to authentic language, I would be surprised if this isn’t the case. Local versions of English exist and are being developed all around the globe. In Japan, for example, adult language learners have to make a choice of whether to learn American English, British English, Pilipino English, or English from a fellow Japanese person (often the best option for those studying for tests), just to name a few of the options.

Normal Language is the product of step-wise developments of transformation of material, reinterpretation of material, and renewal of material.

This sounds very much like the remix, reuse, repurpose slogans of contemporary digital workspaces, that it makes me wonder if we’re not amidst a major language shift right now, more than anything else. Stephen Downes wrote a wonderful article that describes changing language use in the digital world. There was one point he made that really stood out, however, and it was something about how he used or defined the word language. (I can’t seem to find the original post, but only this slideshow – also, this article with the use of the term ‘language’ on page 13) McWhorter makes a distinction between the word “language” and the word “lingo”, and like many distinctions these days, I think it is a distinction that people will need to explore and expand.

A Lingua Franca is a standardized, user-friendly kind of language. How does this term translate into the digital realm? Where are the Digital Lingua Franca? 

Link to the first post in this series is here.

Notes for using Debate in the ESL Classroom

I attended an Alberta TESL Conference session on using debate in the classroom.

View or download my notes here: Using Debate in the ESL Classroom

OER for your Ear – Adapting Audio Material for Language Learning

Here’s a post for this month’s ELTresearch blog carnival on Listening – for info click here.

Article: Using internet-sourced podcasts in independent listening courses: Legal and pedagogical implications

I chose this article, involving listening, because it brings up the issue of Open Educational Resources (OERs) that I find interesting and important. However, the article doesn’t quite get into the OER topic as much as I thought it would. I’ll provide a short summary of the article (in note form) and then some comments and suggestions of my own.

Podcasts and audio files have become popular in Language Learning (LL) because

  • Decreased cost (of internet, mobility, etc)
  • Increased access to content
  • Podcasts are good source of authentic language

Discussion arose out of designing a “Listening for Scientists” course for University level LLs

  • Students were weak in listening
  • Students has little time
  • No commercial material for specific content needs
  • Authentic materials were too high level

Because of this last point, there was a need for supplemental materials

  • This created potential copyright problems.

One solution: provide links directly to the audio material

  • no saved files
  • no transcripts

Selection of Podcasts/Audio Files based on:

  • Match area of Specialization
  • Range of Learner Levels
  • Transcript Availability

Design of supporting materials was based in research, focusing on complex and multiple ways that LLs listen.

Listening activities were supported by pre-listening activities to activate learners’ schema AND by ‘key idea’ and ‘summary’ tasks.

Both of the above were made explicit to students.

3 types of podcasts were used:

  • VOA Special English Health Report and Agriculture Report (public domain)
  • Scientific American 60-Second Science (conventional copyright)
  • MIT OpenCourseWare – Intro Biology course 7.014 (Creative Commons – attribution, noncommercial, share-alike)

Because of the conventional copyright, Scientific American was the most restrictive and provided the most problems (a useful flowchart (p225 in the article) highlights the restrictions).

No more than 10% of audio or transcript could legally be used.


The rest of the article describes the course in which the materials were used. My notes will stop here, as I want to focus mainly on the relationship between ESL audio material and OERs.

The underlying issue of the article is the diligent steps that educators and course designers need to take to ensure that materials are used fairly and legally. It may seem like a lot, or bothersome, but it is a small price to pay for access to materials.

And this is the special consideration of OERs and their relation to ESL: There is a fair amount of potential material online because target language is content AND medium. OERs, for language learning uses, exist unintentionally all over the place.

The big problem with this, as described in the article, is finding a suitable level of material for your students. This is difficult because copyright restrictions limit the supplemental materials that you can provide along with the audio files, and because OERs that are useful for language learning but were not specifically made for language learning will not have ESL or EFL specific metadata attached to them.

In the article, look at the difference between the Scientific American material and the other two sources. Because of copyright, the Scientific American materials were more difficult to adapt for use in the classroom compared to those under more open license.

The authors of the paper offer one method for adapting such copyrighted materials for language classroom use: include links to the file, contact the copyright holder for permissions, and reduce the amount of transcript to 10% of text or less.

Another approach the problem of OER suitability for language learning classes, and perhaps the long-term solution to the problem, is to start creating your own OERs.

Real power of OERs in language learning comes with that buffer zone of supplemental material that bridges the gaps between content and context:

  • Use an authentic language audio file
  • Adapt it via supplemental documents
  • Tag the documents for ESL/EFL purposes (ie: topic, skill focus, level, vocab, etc)
  • Put an open license on it

And, better yet still, see what authentic audio you can collect from your own class interaction, and create authentic language OERs from this:

  • Record students (with consent) discussing an authentic audio clip
  • Use this recording as an OER in itself. Students can:
    • Transcribe the audio document(s) on their own or in pairs/groups
    • Compare with transcriptions/understanding with partners
    • Offer corrections
    • Cite correct vocab use/eloquent language use
  • Add a CC license to the newly created OER
  • Include metadata (ie: topic, skill focus, level, vocab, etc)
  • Post it somewhere along with other supplemental materials (worksheets, etc, that students can also create)

Here’s a list and search of OER websites.  These are not specifically for language learning, but many can be easily supplemented for such purposes.

What would be great is if a collection of OER supplemental language learning materials existed somewhere. Does anyone know of such a thing? If not could it be created and would it be useful?

English Online and In Canada

The past few weeks have been exciting for me – I changed jobs, relocating to the opposite side of the globe in the process. I did the same thing over 7 years ago, and the move wasn’t nearly as disruptive now as it was then. For most people I relate with it wasn’t so much of a good-bye as it was a change of mode. For many people I interact with, there was no change. For me, the transition was smooth.

And it continues to be exciting – this week my new workplace announced the Canadian National Online Conference for ESL Professionals to take place next January.  One of our first steps is to recruit an Advisory Committee. It will consist of 13-16 language professionals from across the country, hopefully from a wide range of expertise, and including one international member. Details are posted here. But, this isn’t the exciting part yet (unless you’re really into committee proceedings).

I was hired in part to help produce this conference, and the reasons why I feel excitement are the same reasons I decided to accept the position in the first place: the learning structure here embraces emergent learning and promotes learner autonomy. It’s a course design that facilitates, not instructs.

English Online is an NPO in Winnipeg, Manitoba that focuses on helping newcomers to Canada improve their language abilities, and on helping ESL teachers become better at guiding their own professional development. I’m more on the teacher side of things, so I’m concerned about things like PLNs, curating resources, and building networks. But for both sides, we’re trying to adapt complexity, and a decentralized (or, as I like to think: Authentically Centralized) mindset into structured learning for the ESL profession. It’s not an easy task, for one because ESL people are not EdTech people.

You can only go as far as your learners are motivated to go, in terms of digital literacy and autonomy.

The affordances of modern communication technology potentially give access and control over learning structure to the learner. When approached in this way, teacher roles shift to focus on learner autonomy skills and self-guided skills. However, as an organization we have to ensure that learning is taking place – we even have to somehow measure and show it.

It’s an exciting context to be in because it shares a lot of the same qualities of MOOCs…which didn’t instigate these qualities into the educational scene, but brought them into the spotlight. And the MOOCs under that light aren’t the only ways that MOOCs can exist. MOOCs have potential to come in many different forms far beyond what works best for the major American Universities. People like Stephen Downes continually remind us of the potential MOOCs hold and the reasons why they were developed in the first place: MOOCs were not developed for teachers, they were developed for learners.

For example, we have to take into consideration the language learning context of our learners (language is both means and content) and this changes what we can and cannot do in our learning approach. One result of this context is that we can produce an outer ‘ongoing’ structure, challenging how educators define the C for Course in the MOOC acronym. And this is the real exciting part, I feel, that it does try to build on the development of MOOCs (or better yet, the underlying principles) in an innovative way.

To me, English Online isn’t altogether different from my LMOOC outline I posted a few months ago. It attempts to embed education into a learner’s life, with minimal unintended disruption. Moving around the globe doesn’t have to disrupt a lifestyle very much these days, why should self-improvement?

Notes on Portfolio Assessment in the ESL Classroom – Joanne Pettis

Portfolio Assessment in the ESL ClassroomJoanne Pettis


[note – my own comments are in square brackets]

Definition of Assessment – a systematic approach to collecting information on student learning and performance based on various sources of evidence to inform teaching and help students learn more.

Assessment should benefit students, foremost


Purpose of Assessment:

  • placement (diagnostic)
  • for learning (formative)
  • of learning (summarative)


Problem of diverse contexts [Is this an inherent characteristic of ‘Language Learning’?]

Assessment, by nature, can’t be made specific for specific groups


Assessment that Impacts is:

  • planned
  • goal driven
  • engages participants in reflection and dialogue


PBLA – Tells the Story of learning English and Meeting Goals

PBL Assessment is a part of teaching – embedded in the teaching learning cycle

Standardized tests are One Shot Deals – situationally dependent [privileges teachers/structure?]

PBLA provides multiple opportunities – privileges students

PBLA are Learning portfolios, documenting learning over time [important info to relay to learners?]


Metaphor —> Language Learning as a Road Trip:

  • Starting points are different
  • Destination is restricted by available time
  • Watch for signposts, read a road-map as you go
  • Produces a keepsake, document of the journey


Elements of a PBLA:

  • placement levels
  • needs
  • goals
  • autobio
  • language samples (skill building & skill using)
    • when students decided what to include initially, there wasn’t much useful for benchmarking purposes (ie: grammar exercises)
    • therefore more direction was needed, to include more skill using
    • [PBLA is centralized distributed interaction?]
  • Feedback – action oriented (not ego oriented [Is this true for Japan, all cultures?])
  • Reflection – promotes autonomy


Add items frequently, depending on frequency of study – however, need at least 6 items to make benchmark decisions


This is a very informative talk by Joanne. Generally, I find a lot of connections to MOOC style learning, or even Distance Education methods – mainly in that assessment (as well as instruction, or even simply structure) needs to, and has the ability to become more specific for individuals. One of the main differences, would be the centralized nature of the PBLA vs a more decentralized approaches that are possible nowadays (I guess this is inherent since Joanne talks about off-line portfolios, not online ones). Each have their benefits – and I would be interested in the idea about guiding students from the former to the latter, as a major goal in Language Learning. Joanne touches on this idea with her points about reflection, and how this helps learners to begin to do.

I especially love Joanne’s point that the main purpose of assessment is to further benefit the student by better shaping the structure of their future study. I wish some of my recent profs understood this.

A Language Learning MOOC – Thoughts & Vision

MOOCs and Language Learning seems to be a natural fit for each other. I previously wrote about the suitability between Language Learning and MOOCs, and have expanded some ideas on the topic. (I’ve also created a website that tries to communicate the LMOOC vision)

One of the reasons why Language Learning and MOOCs fit so well together is that MOOCs can create interaction. For language learners in non-target language speaking countries, this can increase the amount of target language feedback that they receive. This is a major part of the barrier in trying to learn language in an EFL setting.

However, one of the challenges of increasing this feedback, is helping learners develop strategies for increasing this feedback, and guiding them in how to use this feedback effectively. A LMOOC isn’t based in Educational Technology (like many MOOCs are, making them more like conferences), but rather uses educational technology as a means for connecting.

Thus, the two main goals of the exterior LMOOC structure would be Increased Feedback and The Promotion of Autonomous Distance Educational Skills (Learner Autonomy).

Other, content and language driven goals, would be addressed in the finer details of the interior workings of the LMOOC.

One of the other important features of an LMOOC would be the openness of such a structure not only at the learner end, but also open at the facilitator end of the structure. I believe that MOOCs (and how they are currently practiced) would benefit greatly from a general adoption of more facilitators – a whole slew of knowledgeable people in any given MOOC that construe user activity into more robust connections and networks. Building on new teacher roles, these facilitators would take the buds of learning and help them to flower.

So, my LMOOC design incorporates the need for many facilitators by making that end of the MOOC open to anyone who would like to facilitate (by creating a kind of sub-unit within the LMOOC overall structure). This achieves two important results: learners have the ability to become facilitators; and the LMOOC becomes a tool for educators who to learn and practice distance language learning instructional design.

Anyway, please check out the link to the webpage if you are interested (here it is again), and leave any feedback. I’ve been dwelling on this idea for a while, so I think I need to let it sit – I still don’t have a means to put this into practice yet, but I would love to hear about and follow any organization that tries this type of LMOOC structure out. With the means to put it in motion, it’s would be a fantastic thing for language learners and educators. Thanks!