Friday, June 29, 2007

Simon Li stresses me out

Today marks one week since Simon Li's last day as Friday host of CBC's "The Current". You can read and listen to parts of the show on the CBC website (e.g., here). Since his first appearance on June 1st, I've been asking myself what I think of him and the answer keeps coming back that he bugs me.

As the blurb on June 1 says, "while he's new to the CBC, he's not new to the radio-waves. Simon Li is the long-time host of 'Power Politics' on Toronto First Radio, a Chinese-language current affairs program." It does appear that Li was host back in February as well. Li is an MA student in History at Queen's University.

It seems that Li is originally from Hong Kong, which leads to what bugs me: his accent.

I find this hard to accept and that's why it's taken so long for this post to see the light of day, but it seems I can't escape it. I'm not sure why this should be. I listen to learners of English from all over the world every day and don't have any problems with it. I hear many experts interviewed on the radio and TV who have much worse English than Li and yet I focus on what they're saying, not their accents. I can listen to announcers with Australian accents, South African accents, Jamaican accents, Cockney accents and French-Canadian accents and none of them trouble me at all. So why do Li's broadcasts cause me such discomfort?

I think there are a few factors:
  • He seems to be working very hard to be crisp in his pronunciation, yet he swallows a lot of consonant clusters and finals that are clearly pronounced in standard English. (e.g., McJob comes out as /mdʒɒ/).
  • He makes me work just to understand him. There are times when I have to think to recover words that I've missed.
  • His voice quality doesn't do it for me aesthetically. He's got one of these androgynous voices.

What really kept needling me though was his habit of stressing the final noun where we would normally stress the modifier. For example, we would usually say soccer ball, but Li would call it a soccer ball. Here are some examples from his broadcast:

  • Li was host of the Friday edition, but he kept saying the Friday edition
  • the Ipperwash inquiry
  • our Toronto studio
  • specific findings
  • Dudley George
  • Fighting words

This seems to jive with general findings that it tends to be the suprasegmental aspects of accent that bother people more than individual vowels and consonants.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Grammar for New South Wales teachers

It appears that to get a teachers license in New South Wales, you will need to study grammar. Do you suppose that Rodney Huddleston, being right nearby in Queensland, might be able to influence WHAT they study about grammar? One can hope...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

On lexicons, gaps, Zipf and exponents

While I won't spend more time dwelling on the numerical problems that I brought up in my previous comment on Brown's lexicon article in the Globe, I would like to note an interesting feature which does deal with numbers.

Part I:
"If Little Princess is an average child, she'll know 6,000 root-word meanings by the end of Grade 2. That's okay, but nothing special: At that point, the top 25 per cent of children already know twice as many words as the lowest 25 per cent, and the gap grows exponentially."

I don't think that Brown means exponentially in the literal sense. Such a literal meaning would be described by the formula:

G_y = G_b^y

where Gy is the gap in year y, y is the number of years that has elapsed, and Gb is the gap in the base year. This kind of exponential growth would soon have adults knowing hundreds of thousands of words, far beyond what any reasonable estimate claims.

Part II:

"But by (graduation) the foundation of her so-called mind has hardened. Limited by early lexical laxity, the average North American adult knows only 30,000 to 60,000 words, out of a potential "working vocabulary" of 700,000. If only Little Princess had learned more words earlier! If only you were a better parent!"

Brown is right about something: People learn fewer and fewer words as they grow older. But how much has it to do with calcification of the synapses and how much with the frequency of words? This brings us to our second equation of the day.

Empirical research has found that in English, the frequencies of the approximately 1000 most-frequently-used words are approximately proportional to 1/ns where s seems to be just slightly more than 1.

This second equation describes a distribution that is knows as Zipf's Law after George Zipf (not to be confused with the ill-fated George Zipp). In other words, the second most common word is about 1/2 as frequent as the first (which happens to be the), the third most common is only about 1/3 as frequent as the, and the fourth most common is only about 1/5 as frequent.

Now this isn't exponential change either, but it sure means that the frequency of words drops off pretty darn fast. Consider then a child's chances of meeting and learning their 3000th word compared to an adult's chance of meeting and learning their 60,000th word. At less than 1/60,000 the frequency of the, you could easily be well into middle age before you even encounter the word for the first time. If you're lucky enough to encounter it again before you retire, you're unlikely to recall that first meeting when you do. In other words, it's mainly the inherent distribution of words that makes it so hard to learn new words as you get older.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mark Davies & the Time corpus

Mark Davies has a new free online interface. The following blurb is from the site:
"This website allows you to quickly and easily search more than 100 million words of text of American English from 1923 to the present, as found in TIME magazine. You can see how words and phrases have increased and decreased in usage and see how words have changed meaning over time."
The interface will be familiar to anyone who has used his excellent VIEW interface to the BNC BNC corpus interface (now available here).

Monday, June 18, 2007

Losing our lexicons?

Ian Brown, writing in Saturday's Globe & Mail, takes a hell-in-a-handbasket tour of society's love-hate relationship with vocabulary. (As far as I can tell, the Globe conspires to make it impossible for me to link directly to an article without making it appear as though you have to pay for it. So I'm hoping that by linking through Google I can to bypass this barrier.)

I'll start by getting my quibbles with the first line out of the way. "The last days of long words! The sunset of syntactical surplusage!" I can understand the lure of easy alliteration, but in a feature about vocabulary, the choice of syntactical here is sad. Semantic would have been a smidgen closer, and there's still that juicy /s/ at the outset. The loss of lexical lavishness would have been just right.

Yes, well, on to the article proper: In one corner, quoth Brown, we have the logophiles like Conrad Black: those poor, misunderstood folk who simply love words and can't understand what anyone could have against dropping "tricoteuses (knitters of yarn, used to describe reporters and gossips, augmented by the adjective "braying"), planturous (fleshy), poltroon (a coward, a.k.a. former Quebec premier Robert Bourassa), spavined (lame), dubiety (doubt: Mr. Black rarely uses a simple word where a splashy lemma will do), gasconading (blustering) and velleities (distant hopes)" into everyday chit chat.

In the other corner (because setting up false dichotomies makes for a juicier read) we have
"the linguists, who have the upper hand at the moment, (and) are very much of a type. They tend to be acolytes of American scholar William Labov, who developed the concept of code-switching. Standard vocabulary doesn't need to be taught, the Labovites claim, because there's no such thing as a standard vocabulary... Teaching a standard vocabulary today isn't just ineffective: According to the linguists, it's undemocratic and limiting."

Some of the most militant linguists are Canadian. Clive Beck, a professor of education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, relishes the collapse of the standard Western vocabulary. "I think it's partly a democratization, of getting teachers to have a closer relationship with their students, and being able to talk on the same level. I love correctness in speech and in writing. But I think to some extent I have to go with the change."

Here I fight my innate desire to smother hyperbole with sarcasm and simply note that the phrase, "I think to some extent I have to" doesn't exactly reek of militancy or relish. Indeed, there is little truth to be found in this quoted section (though the lack doesn't stop there).

  • I have yet to meet a linguist, in any sense of the word, who is not also a logophile.
  • To be effective at code switching, you need a diverse vocabulary, not a restricted one.
  • Of course there is a standard English vocabulary, but, by definition, it doesn't include words that most people don't know.
  • As to whether you should teach vocabulary or not, that all depends on what the learners already know and what their purpose is, (more here).

All in all, Brown misses the point that it's simply impractical to teach someone enough words to have a large vocabulary (problems with counting words aside, his numbers are wonky; high school graduates know 6,000 + 35,000 = 41,000 words, but the average adult knows only 30,000?) A large vocabulary is merely a symptom of an educated person. Yes, some direct vocabulary teaching is probably useful with young children and ESL students, and having a good basic vocabulary will bootstrap other learning, but simply stuffing a bunch of words into your head is a trivial pursuit. The benefits that come with a broad vocabulary are those that stem from having a variety of interest, reading widely, and discussing concepts in some depth with other interested parties.

Which leads us to one more of Brown's forced choices: deploy grandiloquent vocabulary indiscriminately or use only short simple words. This is like saying that your wardrobe should be limited to white t-shirts & jeans or formal-wear. It should be obvious that you match your vocabulary to the topic and audience at hand. Occasionally using a rare but fitting word in a context that will make it clear is fine. Weighing down your speech with word after word that your audience is unlikely to be familiar with is like wearing a tux to your child's soccer practice. What purpose could the speaker have other than obfuscation or pretentiousness? I suppose there is one other likely explanation: an abiding lack of empathy. Either way, you're going to arouse suspicion. And that's why Black's lawyer kept him from testifying.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The perils of grammatical celebrity

For better or for words, Grammar Girl is one of the most popular educational podcasts, and Technorati ranks it as about the 4000th most popular blog (roughly 2 orders of magnitude ahead of English Jack). Mignon Fogarty has done a great job publicising her site, but with publicity, you end up getting misrepresented in the media. Now I'm not really sure what all went on with this article, but I would bet that Fogarty's points are rather decontextualised. The premise involves comparing a grammarian's responses to various song lyrics with a DJ's responses. Grammar Girl comes out looking ridiculous. Here's an example:

Song: “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free,” by Sting.

Offending line: “If you love somebody, if you love somebody, if you love someone, set them free.”

Grammar Girl says: “Someone” is singular, so technically he should have sung, “If you love someone, set her free,” or “set him free,” or “set him or her free.”

DJ Steve says: That’s the way we talk as normal human beings. Imagine the alternative. If he were to say “his,” then everyone would be sitting around talking about it and we’d all be wasting our time talking about this otherwise likable but forgettable Sting song.

To make it worse, elsewhere they quote Fogarty referring to the "subjunctive case". Now GG doesn't strike me as being a deep grammatical thinker. Her whole gig involves rehashing the same old issues covered in any style guide. If there's creativity, its entirely in the presentation, not in the analysis. Still, GG does know the difference between a mood and a case, at least terminologically speaking. She has at least 3 posts referring to the subjunctive mood and none referring to "subjunctive case".

Saturday, June 16, 2007

More ESL funding frustration

Two article from separate areas, one from here in Toronto and one from the U.S., document the ongoing funding problems for ESL students. The first reports that only half the ESL funds in the Toronto District School Board are used for ESL. The second catalogues the consequences of underfunding.
"The results of national testing conducted in 2005 shows that nearly half (46%) of 4th grade students in the English language learner (ELL) category scored "below basic" in mathematics in 2005--the lowest level possible. Nearly three quarters (73%) scored below basic in reading. In middle school achievement in mathematics was lower still, with more than two-thirds (71%) of 8th grade ELL students scoring below basic. Meanwhile, the same share (71%) of 8th grade ELL students scored below basic in reading."

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Over delaytion

Nothing for weeks and then twice in the same day. Anyhow, driving in I was listening to "The age of persuasion" on CBC. I missed the start, so I'm not sure what the theme was, but then again, I still wasn't really sure at the end. It was something of a grab-bag of anecdotes and observations related to advertising and just like ads, seemed to jump from topic to topic rather promiscuously, although with some hint of an underlying cohesive idea. Anyhow, it's a scripted/edited show, so I was a bit surprised to hear host Bill O'Rielly's explanation for why a new technology is ready but not yet available: "So what's holding up the delay?" he asks rhetorically. "The human factor."

Holding up the delay? This seems to be related to overnegation, but neither hold up nor delay are syntactically negative.

Google only knows of two other instances of "holding up the delay": Denise Quaid saying, "You're always waiting around for something and then when you get there, you find out that what's holding up the delay is that something doesn't work," and this example, in which the speaker self-corrects. "You wanted Mr Burkett to tell Vince Alessandrino that it was the cock-up of the Department of Family and Children Services that was holding up the delay - - that was delaying the settlement?---No, I don't think that's correct. "

All this talk of negation reminds me of the study site for a chapter we've been looking at in my level 6 reading class. It includes review questions, a sadistic number of which are negative. Take the following example:
According to the United Nation's Human Development Index (HDI), China has a better score than all EXCEPT which of the following countries?

How about this instead: "Which of the following countries has a higher HDI score than China?" Can't you avoid writing questions that aren't less difficult than this?

Accent quiz

Sorry I've been rather derelict. Things wrap up at school in a few more weeks.

In the mean time, here's an interesting quiz to mollify you. It pegged me as Canadian, though the difference between Canadian (as if there were only one Canadian accent!) and midland seems slight (perhaps just the /a/ in pasta.)

Personality Test Results

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Grammatically speaking

Richard Firsten has published his June "Grammatically Speaking" column. I've commented on these before here, here, here, here, and here.

This time there's a mixture of good and bad.

In the first question about the difference between I wish they didn’t do that and I wish they wouldn’t do that, I take issue with the idea of future tense and subjunctive, but it's mainly a label issue. I generally agree with his analysis.

I quite like his discussion about the difference between participles and gerunds. Again, I would have used different labels, but the reasoning is good, and that's what matters. As Firsten explains, "if you can place an article and/or an adjective before it, it is a gerund". More grammar books should keep this in mind.

I also thought the 'much' question was handled well. Where I completely disagree is with his rejection of "graduated college". This answer is everything that is wrong with prescriptivism. I've actually addressed the issue before when Russell Smith complained about it.

Merriam Webster's has an entry for it: (transitive) "1b. to be graduated from" and says that though it is often condemned, it is "standard".
The American Heritage Dictionary: (transitive) "1b. Usage Problem To receive an academic degree from." (25% of their usage panel accept this)
Random House Unabridged: "Informal. to receive a degree or diploma from: She graduated college in 1950."

Last time, I said that it wasn't common in edited prose, but I think I may have been wrong, at least as far as the US and Canada is concerned:
  • "The average person that has graduated college changes careers seven to eight times," said Christopher Hopey, vice president and dean of the School of..." (Boston Herald)
  • "'Hill' will pick up next season four years into the future, after the characters have graduated college." (Washington Post)
  • "For students who have just graduated university, scoring a job interview after graduating is an important step on the way to getting their first full-time..." (
  • "The killing of the 22-year-old Kentucky native, who recently graduated university with honors, in a tough neighborhood in Boston's Dorchester district..." (Reuters)
  • "Nisbet was a star student when he graduated high school and was picked as his school's athlete of the year" (Edmonton Journal)
  • "Before the Iraq war began, the percentage of Army recruits who graduated high school surpassed 90 percent." (Boston Globe)
  • "Elizabeth ''Betty'' Reily went through life proud that she graduated high school with A's and B's." (Miami Herald)
  • “Today three quarters of boys and half of girls have had sex by the time they graduate high school” (Newsweek).
  • “‘I have a reading disorder,’ Leschuk says, yet he struggles to think of any friends who graduated college who are doing as well” (USA Today).
This transitive sense is no less clear than the intransitive form, and it seems arbitrary and capricious to simply say it's wrong, not to mention that such treatment fails to promote any kind of understanding of the matter.