This coming Saturday will see the 95th anniversary of the brilliant composer and the musical half of the British comedy song-writing duo Flanders & Swann - Donald Swann. The duo was extremely popular in the 1950s-1960s, and should definitely be part of any country-studies course. Their songs are funny and fun to learn, and some of them (like the Gnu Song) are about the English language!
There is an interesting and totally unexpected fact in Donald Swann's biography. His ancestors were among those British people who made Russia their home country and lived in Russia for several generations. The first Swan, still with just one 'n' - Donald's great grandfather Alfred Trout Swan, a draper from Lincolnshire - arrived in Russia in 1840. Donald's father was a doctor and an amateur musician, while Donald's uncle was a composer who in 1918 worked for the American Red Cross in Siberia and was among those who saved a large group of children from Petrograd from starvation. All in all, this is a family story that certainly needs to be researched. Meanwhile, here's a great video about Flanders & Swan!
The superb Gnu Song about peculiarities of English reading rules is at 3'10"
The song about the English (who of course are always best) is at 32'40"
How many texts about London have you read in your teaching career? And before that, while learning English at school? And how many of those did you really enjoy? How many of the texts about the early history of London really made sense? Did you manage to remember anything from those texts besides the word Londinium?
Exactly. This is why I was so pleased when I was reading the very beginning of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. All of a sudden there was a vivid picture in my head about how London grew and how different little villages were combined into one metropolis. And here is this wonderful description:
Everybody knows the phrase - 'Once in a blue moon' means very rarely. Not never, like 'When two Sundays come together', or 'Когда рак на горе свистнет' - no, just very rarely. And today is just the day! Astronomically it means an extra full moon in a season - 4 instead of 3; or an extra full moon in a year - 13 instead of 12; or two full moons in a month. It has nothing to do with its colour.
Well, this year is quite unusual. It does have 13 full moons rather than 12. But also, there were two full moons in January (1st and 31st), no full moons at all in February, and two full moons again in March (1st and 31st), one of which - the Blue one - is today! A good time to sing a song:
With Christmas spirit still in the air, I think it is appropriate to remember Irving Berlin, the author of one of the most well-known Christmas songs - White Christmas (this song is over 75 years old and it is still popular - not bad for a song!), as well as many other hits that never grow old, like Puttin' on the Ritz.
For many, Irving Berlin's songs are the essence of the early 20th-century American music. George Gershwin called him 'America's Schubert' and the one who 'created a real, inherent American music'. George H. W. Bush, who was the US President when Irving Berlin died at the age of 101 in 1989, said that his 'words and music will help define the history of American nation'. Irving Berlin's music most certainly epitomises all things American.
So imagine my surprise when quite a few years ago, while interpreting a press conference with the then director of the Library of Congress (or, rather, Librarian of Congress), James Billington, I had to translate that among all the Russian immigrants who played an important role in American history and culture he especially admired Irving Berlin - an immigrant from Imperial Russia who was born in Tyumen' (of all places!) in 1888 and who arrived in New York in 1893!
Next May (May 11) is going to be Irving Berlin's 130th anniversary. Definitely worth celebrating!
With the sad anniversary of Princess of Wales's tragic death, and all sorts of articles appearing all over the place, I stumbled upon something I've always found amusing, because it is so characteristic of innocent pre-school children's writing and yet often found in the grown-up world as well. A phonetic phenomenon that has to do with spelling.
If you think about it from a child's perspective, it totally makes sense! If English is your native language and you have never heard about perfect infinitives, 'of' is what you certainly hear instead of 'have' in its weak form with the dropped 'h': 'She must of forgotten all about it!' (= 'She must've forgotten all about it!').
In grown-up writing you can find it as well, especially if it is mimicking oral speech, like in this extract from Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Folly:
- or in the headline above, for that matter.
Sometimes, in even less careful speech, the '-v' of 'have' also disappears, leaving only the schwa sound behind, as in this lovely poem by Shel Silverstein:
Perfect Infinitive with its long chain of words in a particular order is one of the most difficult constructions for students of English, who always struggle with it. To help them, we can show the students this funny spelling mistake that English-speaking children often make when they are just learning to read and write and which stems from the pronunciation. Its absurdity can be vivid and picturesque enough to help remember the structure. Also, learning it rhythmically, in poems and songs can be of enormous help. Two songs are absolutely fantastic here, as if written specifically for grammatical purposes. Learning them by heart will certainly guarantee that Perfect Infinitive used with modal verbs will be engraved on students' memories forever!
One is an oldie by ABBA:
The other one is from the early days of MUSE:
Both are fun to sing!
So, what happens if you are a lovely language in need of an alphabet and a spelling system, but you are not so lucky as to get two cool smart brothers to develop your alphabet with love and care, inventing new letters for all the unique sounds that do not exist in the Greek alphabet which they take as a starting point? What if it is different monks and scribes scattered all over the country, each developing their own spelling system, and using combinations of Latin letters for your unique sounds that do not exist in the Latin alphabet which they take as a starting point? They know that you already have special symbols for such sounds but refuse to use them because "your runes are associated with dark forces and magic!". What happens later, when a couple more languages get mixed up with you during numerous invasions, bringing with them their own spelling systems?
What happens is the mess that the English spelling is!
There are several interesting books around on the topic - and the summer, of course, is the best time to read! Some of them are written by fabulous linguists, like this one by the excellent David Crystal. It is a true history of the English spelling with lots of cool facts:
This next one I'd like to recommend is written by Masha Bell, a teacher of English from England who has Russian/Lithuanian roots, i.e. whose first experience with learning to read was a lot easier due to the fact that in both Russian and Lithuanian you basically have phonetic spelling.
Even if you don't want to buy these books, just reading a few pages that open on Amazon gives you a totally different perspective on English reading rules than what we are accustomed to. (Just click on the pictures of the books.)
Another interesting source is this article by Kristian Berg and Mark Aronoff which basically drives you to the same conclusion:
there is only one way to teach intermediate/advanced non-native English students how to read difficult words in English. Through experience. The more audio they listen to, the more videos they watch - the more words they are exposed to. Even if they don't really use them themselves, they will recognise them while reading out loud.
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Professor Jane Setter's brilliant Plenary on Intonation has just ended. It is always such a joy to listen to a kindred spirit. I remember J.C. Wells in one of his blog posts was writing at some point that one has to be born a phonetician, and once he/she finds this out about themselves, it makes them tremendously happy just to listen to people speak and analyse the speech sounds. I can very much relate to that, since I was lucky enough to figure it out about myself at the age of 8.
So, the main point of the talk was that even though it is generally accepted that unlike sounds, intonation of a foreign language is not teachable - so why even bother?!, - some of its aspects can and should be taught, which has been proven in an experiment that Jane Setter and her colleagues held with some of Vietnamese and Japanese students. What aspects might that be? Primarily tonicity - the placement of the nucleus (the main stressed syllable in the intonational phrase), to a lesser extent tonality (dividing speed into phrases) while tone (the choice of the intonation contour for the main stressed syllable) proved to be the most difficult to teach. To be fair, finding the right word to stress is probably the most important task if we want ourselves to be understood. The experiment has also shown that doing it in spontaneous speech was a lot easier for students than when they were reading a text. Which brings us to the issue of reading out loud - Task 1 in the Oral Part of the State Exams in English. Jane Setter pointed out that reading is "cognitively more demanding" in that respect.
Too bad all the phonetic songs that she sang with the audience could not be heard when it was streamed live. But there's a little video on Twitter (Thank you, Adam Scott!!!) and also Karaoke on the youtube!
International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language conference is going to take place in Glasgow this year. Luckily (or not! - going to Glasgow would have been a lot more fun!), to listen to some of the most outstanding speakers there all we'll have to do is watch the conference on-line. Personally, I'm looking forward to the presentation of Jane Setter, Professor of Phonetics from the University of Reading. Phoneticians are always fun people! Especially when they love singing, like Professor Setter!
April Fools' Day is obviously about practical jokes. And while I do wish you not to be tortured and terrorised by your students too much, I think it won't be completely inappropriate to look at some regular jokes instead and torture your students with them. Most of them are based on puns, idioms, phonetic phenomena such as assimilation - in other words, all the wonderful linguistic material that is important to teach and learn. So why not use them in class?
Jokes are a big part of children's culture in the English-speaking world. There are big books of jokes that children enjoy reading. They are usually put into different categories, such as Knock-Knock Jokes, Riddles, Brain Teasers, Silly Questions, Elephant Jokes, Mouse Jokes, Cross Roads and many more. There are also many jokes about school, vampires and other creepy creatures and monsters. You find allusions to traditional children's jokes in books, in news-paper headlines and articles, in advertisements - and practically everywhere else in the children's and grown-up world alike. And unless you know about their existence, you might find it difficult to understand these allusions. Here's one of them:
This is an allusion to Cross the Road Jokes, the most traditional of which are:
Silly questions are also often based on idioms and puns. Here are some of them:
So are Elephant/Mouse Jokes:
A lot of jokes are based on incomplete homophones, on words sounding similar due to different phonetic phenomena such as reduction or assimilation. Here are some cool ones called Silly States:
My name is Elena Rafaelevna Watson, I have been teaching English as a foreign language for over 25 years now. I have also been translating and interpreting (English/Russian) for over 20 years.