I didn’t used to think it was possible…

A bit of a throwback, this month, to a more purely speculative language-based article (I’m aware that recently my reflections on my teaching have rather taken precedence). I speak of ‘used to’, and a little experiment to find its most commonly-used negative.

First, some terms. ‘[Subject] + used to’ is most simply defined as a grammatical structure which is typically employed to describe a past activity or state, often one which is no longer indulged or no longer the case. It is usually taught at around B1 level, and its shortcut to meaning and diverse activity possibilities (pronunciation, games) make it a favourite with teachers.

When presenting this language and deploying all your best guff, the conscientious EFL teacher should also elicit its form in affirmative, negative and interrogative moods. The affirmative is above, and apart from the archaic or non-standard (student) practice of occasionally dropping the ‘d’, it is uncontroversial. But the negative and interrogative provoke more debate. (As an aside, speaking of ‘correct’ and ‘errors’ as I am about to do is inaccurate, but denote more common and less common conventional usage.)

  1. ‘I didn’t used to…’
  2. ‘I didn’t use to…’’
  3. ‘Did she used to…’
  4. ‘Did she use to…’

Before I became an English teacher, I would have sworn blind that versions one and three were ‘correct’, and two and four contained the error. As with all grammatical and orthographic conventions, I would have ‘known’ this instinctively, having mentally recorded and imprinted as ‘for use’ the more common one among the assorted books, articles and whatever I had ever read. (Incidentally, this practice goes some way to helping my spelling, with which I have mercifully few problems, though runs into trouble when non-standard forms become common!) But English language coursebooks have the opposite – versions two and four are correct.

We can also examine the grammar among its peers. It is common – nay, obligatory – in the past simple, for example, for the main verb not to be conjugated if its auxiliary is – as in the example ‘he didn’t go’, not ‘he didn’t went’. This may explain why the coursebooks stipulate not to conjugate the ‘use’ part when featured with a mandatory conjugated auxiliary in the interrogative and negative.

But hang on. That presupposes that ‘used’ in ‘used to’ is the past simple or the past participle of a verb, whereas some may argue that it is in fact a lexical chunk, or even that most modish of terms, ‘lexico-grammar’. Those conjugating the ‘use’ in the negative and interrogative are making a conscious decision about the part of speech, which they may or may not have the right to do.

So to Google Ngram Viewer – a tool that allows us to see the relative rates of use of a variable. As opposed to a corpus, the tool has limitations – it is only written language, and more specifically only books. We miss a number of genres in which the variable could be seen, and which could dramatically change our data. But nonetheless we can still give and see a part of a response to a hypothesis, which is that in the negative, ‘use’ is significantly spelled with an additional ‘d’.


Variable and incidence of use in all books on system, year 2000. Google Ngram Viewer, 25th May 2018

Did not used to = 0.0000055%

Did not use to = 0.0000020%

We can see from these results that the first variable is more common in recent history than the second. However, while rates for the first shot up in the late C20th, rates for the second decreased significantly after a high around 1820. It would seem, that the coursebook writers are either relying on older forms in perhaps older grammar books, or failing to take account of modern usage.

Obviously, however, such investigation has considerable limitations, and cannot really warrant that conclusion for many reasons. However, it is sometimes interesting to see what data can support a hypothesis about a particular variable. As ever, more research is needed – but whether it is in reality a cool enough thing to prompt someone to fund someone to investigate – well, I didn’t used to be so naive…


A few reflections on Latin creoles

As a three-day break from the rigours of firstly a hectic school year and secondly childcare, I found myself in Lisbon, Portugal last week. A wonderful city for food and wine and people, let alone its beautiful scenery, it also gave me a chance to refresh my familiarity with the Iberian tongues.

Living in Seville in 2009-10, my Spanish went from A0 to probably B1 productively and A2 receptively (my unfounded self-confidence trumping the truism that learners usually understand more than they can produce. Garth Marenghi puts it best when he says, ‘I’m one of the few people who have written more books than they’ve read’).

Over time, however, and with the structural and lexical influence of my L2 (French) loud in my head, my Spanish seems to have waned to the point of non-existence. Trying in vain to communicate the other week in Spanish, I bored my interlocutor silly with my hesitations and inability to recall the word or paraphrase what I wanted to say. No amount of swagger will help you there. But knowing I was going to Portugal, where (unlike in some parts of Spain) a set of complex historical and sociolinguistic factors generally mean the hapless English-only speaker is nevertheless made to feel welcome despite their incompetence, I did not have to worry.

And it could have been that relaxation about interlocution that allowed some Spanish to flow back to me during my trip, even through the Portuguese. For the uninitiated, Spanish and Portuguese are very similar lexically and structurally, though orthographically and particularly phonologically can differ hugely. On my trip I would see words written in the street and pronounce them as they would be in Spanish, and remark on the considerable difference in Portuguese with my Portuguese-speaking friend. I even found myself capable of having a conversation in Spanish with a taxi driver whose English was somewhat below the impressive standard of many of his compatriots, and thought I could even see how one day mutual intelligibility might be possible.

What struck me in particular was that language continues to be political. I felt almost rude speaking Spanish, particularly when many of the Portuguese natives we met spoke such good English. Using Spanish could hint at a lack of respect for Portuguese as a tongue – that it is so similar to Castellano that mutual intelligibility may be breezily assumed by the arriviste colonial tourist. Although English is also a colonial tongue, it is not a colonial tongue in Portugal, or at least a friendly, allied one. Testimony from an admittedly small sample group of Portuguese native speakers confirms the suspicion that many Portuguese prefer to use English than Spanish, and not just because they need the practice.

I was reminded of the time in Flemish-speaking Belgium when I attempted to use French in a bakery to buy a sandwich, and was rebuffed rather brusquely by the server and told to speak English if I couldn’t use Flemish. My earnest attempt to ‘meet the other speaker halfway’ in linguistic terms had tripped over the complex socio-political implications of using one language rather than another, and I left feeling mortified. Then there was the time that I used my limited Spanish in a supermarket near Pisa in Italy, and it was enthusiastically welcomed by my interlocutor as it was intended. No such event happened in Portugal, but it was mainly that I fell back on using English, rather than continuing my experiment.

The answer, of course, is to learn Portuguese (and Italian), and then my still stuttering Spanish won’t be quite the embarrassment it is!

Language and literature

I have recently become a trained examiner for the Option International du Baccalaureate Language and Literature, a Cambridge-accredited equivalent of an A-level which is designed to complement the French Baccalaureate. This is because I teach the corresponding preparation course in my current school.

The exam consists of written and oral examination on dramas, poetry and prose from the English literary canon, including a synoptic topic and a Shakespeare play. It is, as one might expect of an A-level equivalent, very challenging, and provides our higher level students with a considerably larger hurdle than its parallel examination in the conventional French curriculum, the English as first modern foreign language (for which the CEFR requirement is B2).

For me, familiarity with the exam has been a learning curve, but one that seems entirely right. On the one hand, its rigours – even its philosophy – seem markedly different from what I’m used to in a pedagogical sense. Unlike every examination I have prepared students before in my career, it does not have as its core requirement the mastery of some degree of communicative competence. It does not require the evidence of resource and range to gain marks. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is not marked according to binary, A or B-style choices, but apparently rather by the somewhat more subjective concept of the appreciation of the marker (even if that marker is helped considerably by instructive and detailed Key Point descriptors).

However, and on the other hand, it seems somehow more valuable, more weighty. I grew up in a family of English literature teachers and am married to a graduate in the subject, and, if not well-read, I can at least say I can open the set texts having heard their names and often seen their dramatic versions. Their work, without a doubt, is art. Poetry is wonderful art that I have hitherto been less aware of, less tolerant of – the lack of tolerance of the ignorant.

I find myself reflecting that teaching English as a foreign language is, perhaps, a skill; and moreover, a technical one. It is a very difficult one to master and the several communities of practice in the industry live and promote a research-based profession that moves forward rapidly in understanding teaching and learning. It is a community that I was very happy in for the majority of my career. But the bedrock of the community, the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR), has communicative competence at its heart – it is only arguably above B2 level (so only usually maximally a third of any given school’s student body) that any literature-like skill, like for example being able to perceive the tone of a written extract, becomes relevant and/or tested.

OIB LL, by contrast and as we’ve mentioned, doesn’t really test all of the skills and systems below C1/C2. It seems to me that it requires by sheer virtue of its content a B2 level of comprehension at the very least, as any student below that is going to struggle not only with the amount of text to be read but with its relative complexity. This is not to say in any way that non-natives cannot access English literature fully – I have been more pleasantly surprised by the level of engagement with paralinguistic ideas from some non-natives I have taught than their native counterparts – but it remains a fact that if you don’t have or rapidly acquire a B2 level when you begin an OIB LL two-year course, you’re going to find it hard.

This has all caused a little ruckus among some potential takers of the OIB LL examination, who have, I think, a suspicion that universities put a greater premium on pure language qualifications like IELTS or Cambridge Advanced/Proficiency than they would on the OIB. This may well be true if a student is going on to study something at university for which English the language is a tool to facilitate communication and possibly expression primarily. (The constant wrangling over the weighting of the marks which seems to be a feature of the system is another issue.)

But that, in many ways, is missing the point. If in a university degree you are required to think, OIB is for you. If in a university degree you are required to analyse or interpret, OIB is for you. If in a university degree you are required to appreciate artistic beauty and explore how its effects are produced, OIB is for you.

Vaguer, less empirical, less cocksure, less flash, it may be. It might also be riskier in terms of your marks, and push you in an uncomfortable sense. But it also might open your mind.



A bit of ‘this’ and ‘that’

The other week I was teaching my low level 11-year-olds ‘this’ and ‘that’. Moreover, I was teaching it in the time-honoured low-tech EFL way – pointing at chairs in a classroom. Simple, I thought – close to me is ‘this’, further away is ‘that’. Even the lower ability kids should be ok with that.

It was fine with things close to us; so much so that I felt confident enough to move onto plurals ‘these’ and ‘those’ (with which they had mainly pronunciation issues, but that’s another story). But in review, I pointed at a chair maybe three feet away, thinking ‘this’ because – I suppose – it was one of many, most of which were further away, and the kids all said ‘that’. Ah.

So, there is more to ‘this’ than meets the eye. I then happened to see the front page of The Economist of that week, which was remarking on the year anniversary of the Trump presidency. The sub-headline was as follows:

Is it really as bad as this?

Oo. Now, you see, many would have put ‘as bad as that’, perhaps because it collocates more readily. But the meaning of ‘is it really as bad as that?’ is quite pro-Trump, if you think about it. To me it suggests that other commentators’ views (the ‘that’) say Trump’s presidency is terrible, and The Economist is casting doubt on that perspective.

Not having bought or read The Economist’s leader on the issue, I can’t comment on the intent behind this for sure, but I do know their in-house policy on the primacy of free trade clashes somewhat with Trump’s avowed American protectionism. So I suspect that in replacing the traditional ‘that’ with ‘this’, they are in fact inverting the meaning too – saying something like “how can it be this bad?” The alternative is that the leader writer had originally written ‘is it really as bad as that?’ and then been edited to ‘this’. Either way, a semantic choice is being made, and a vast difference in meaning is evident.

Elsewhere, of course, you can look at the word type. ‘That’ and ‘this’ are both pronouns. They are also determiners and adverbs. But only ‘that’ is a conjunction – as in the ever-weird “I thought that that was right”. The first ‘that’ is completely unstressed, in contrast to the pronoun which follows it, and it is something of a grammatical oddity in its non-lexical word repetition. I wonder whether other languages have the same.

Then, thanks to the fact that of the two, only ‘that’ is a conjunction, the subjunctive comes to mind – the fact that in some languages, including some variants and genres of English, the subjunctive mood conjugates the verb following. Examples:

He insists that she go.

They suggested that he be released.

How much of this is connected to the conjunction? As the convention is echoed in French and Spanish, too, so I suspect it’s a Latinate phenomenon.

I’m also curious about when the two pronouns are not interchangeable without meaning change. Look at the following examples:

“I am younger than you. This means…”

“I am younger than you. That means…”

Now to me, the difference is that the ‘this’ is more immediate, more personal. By contrast, the ‘that’ seems colder and more baldly factual. I don’t really trust my own judgement on that, though. It may seem a more friendly explanatory segue, the first sentence, but is there really a difference between the two in this example?

As a final thought, any reader with time on their hands could go back through this post and replace every ‘this’ with ‘that’, and also the inverse. Maybe then some further idiosyncrasies of these two everyday words will come to light…





[ellipsed ‘The’] Labelling (gerund) [ellipsed ‘of’] language (noun)

Happy New Year, all. It’s been a while, mainly because I just don’t seem to find the time on a Saturday to read the paper, but for this month’s post I return to Oliver Kamm’s redoubtable column on language usage in yesterday’s Times. As regular readers will know, Kamm is not only a leader writer at the newspaper, but also a scourge of prescriptivists everywhere with his attacks on outmoded rules about usage.

This week (paywall), Kamm takes aim at metalanguage – language we use to talk about language. More specifically, he discusses the practice of teaching (UK native English speaker children) ‘parts of speech’ – for example – a noun is a ‘naming’ word, a verb is a ‘doing’ word et cetera. He argues that this originated with Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar of 1762, a book which arguably did more to enshrine shibboleths about usage than any other, coming as it did at a time when a burgeoning aspirational class sought codification and status for their tongue. Moreover, Kamm posits, labelling words in such a way is not only often inaccurate and somewhat pointless, but it can also mislead and distract these native speaker children in their acquisition of language.

As usual, there are many ways of approaching what Kamm puts forward. I think that for my generation, which I hope I’m not being rude in saying is one a bit later than Kamm’s, state education had largely thrown out grammar teaching to native speakers. I certainly don’t remember being taught any metalanguage like this at my comprehensive; only, although it may be misremembered, a vague sense of shame at Mr Burn’s shock that I didn’t really know what an adverb was.

This was a disaster when it came to learning to be an EFL teacher in 2007. One simply cannot become a CELTA or Trinity TESOL qualified EFL teacher without knowing these things. Although I am yet to enjoy its rigours, I am promised that the next step up, the DELTA, is considerably more focused on syntax and morphology. My education’s metalanguage shortcomings also grossly hindered my ability, as an adult, to acquire additional languages.

This forms one of my main objections to what Kamm says. If I remember my MA research on second language acquisition correctly, adults tend to learn languages best through exposure to and practice of certain patterns. In the adult EFL classroom, it follows, labelling language as nouns and verbs is surely not only helpful but actively desirable, as it can assist students in their creation of these new neural pathways. Incidentally, foreign language learning adults in my experience (and particularly ones with Latinate L1s) tend to know these labels in their mother tongue, which enables them then to note where this L2 relates to and differs from their L1. Overall, labels here are a shortcut to meaning; they denote any word of that class rather than that specific word. I read somewhere once of the analogy of learning to drive a car – as challenging as that can be, a new foreign language is even harder for adults to learn. Especially if you don’t know what a gearstick is.

The exact opposite is one of my current classes – EFL-learning schoolchildren. Again, my recall of my research into SLA (I’m thinking of Bley-Vroman (1989) in particular) has it that children all enjoy a critical period of neural plasticity during which total assimilation of the grammar of any given language is theoretically possible. It rather relies on Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, this idea, but nevertheless it would mean that EFL-learning schoolchildren have no need of metalanguage whatsoever. Rather, they need only wads of exposure, motivation and practice to attain proficiency. Here Kamm is right – no metalanguage wanted or needed.

(I think here would be a good moment to distinguish, perhaps, between metalanguage as a whole, and what Kamm is disavowing. The debate around metalanguage in EFL is huge and ongoing, particularly around the labelling of tenses, and takes in concepts like silent approaches, historical linguistics, and other vast areas of inquiry.)

But back to calling a spade a noun. When I think of my native-speaker classes, the National Curriculum materials I use deal with grammar (using metalanguage), but only really in the sense of asking students to note the difference between one usage and another. I taught a lesson last year on the passive to a native speaker class, who complained, thinking that they were being taught the EFL passive. For the uninitiated, an EFL class passive lesson would focus on the morphological swap of the subject and object, the omission of the former when unnecessary, and the conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ in some or all tenses. Despite the good teacher couching all that in a context-driven, learner-centred and ultimately communicative approach, it is still going to be a struggle for all concerned if a student cannot identify the verb in the marker sentence. By contrast, a native speaker passive lesson looks perhaps briefly at form and function, but thereafter on genre-specific usages like newspaper headlines, elision, and stylistic choices the writer is making in using the passive rather than the active. Comprehension of these high level ideas don’t, I think, require knowledge of or proficiency with the labels given to parts of the marker sentence.

There is our answer, perhaps. Metalanguage has its use, and has its place. In a native speaker context, as Kamm would have it, it distracts and deflates (unless of course you are intending to become an EFL teacher in later life!) But it would be very interesting to see whether a conventional grammar lesson can be taught in a non-native context without recourse to any metalanguage. Any takers?!

Dontopedaspheralogy – or the art of putting the football in one’s mouth…

Football, bloody hell. So said Alex Ferguson, amongst other things. I prefer the aphorism that in football everything changes, but nothing changes. A billionaire Manchester club sits proudly atop the league, their wealth having brought them its due superiority; Jose Mourinho is in some kind of trouble; there are whispers about the Chelsea manager; and the less said about my beloved Arsenal, the better.

On the language front, as I have written before, native English speaker interviewers and interlocutors continue to ask non-native speaker footballers and managers to understand and respond to their convoluted or absurd questions. You can forgive the footballers and the managers to some extent for their responses – they are, after all, users of the ball rather than the brain – but I can’t get over my professional frustration with journos, whose job it is to work with words, being quite so obtuse. A recent lengthy interview with Sergio Aguero, in English, is a case in point: the Argentinian (despite having been resident in the UK for the best part of eight years) has not got beyond the pre-intermediate habit of back-channelling the last three or four syllables of his interlocutor’s last utterance. To be fair, his interviewer was not doing too badly overall, but his constant rapid and irrelevant asides were obviously increasing the hapless Aguero’s nerves.

That to one side; because, like all things in language, it will change, but not by my moaning. Instead today we will look at a native speaker gem. Sean Dyche, ladies and gentlemen:

“It was highly unlikely it wasn’t going to get given, you can draw your conclusions from that,” the Burnley manager said. “It probably is a penalty but it was never not going to be given, I can assure you. You lay your hands on someone, he goes down, they are tough calls; you have to be 100%, which I assume the referee is.

“It’s a tough job for referees, it’s not going to change. There were some frustrations with some of the moments – I’ve not spoken to him.”

Back story: Dyche is referring to a penalty given to their opponents by the referee Lee Mason in the dying minutes of a recent match with Arsenal, which seems often to be considered less fair than one given at any other time in the match. Dyche is performing these verbal contortions, we can conjecture, to avoid being sanctioned in some way by the FA, who can take a dim view of managers’ comments about referees.

Let’s look at what he says. “It was highly unlikely [what am I saying here – talking about the penalty, or the giving of the penalty?] it wasn’t going to get given [I am so clever – at that time of the game, either sod’s law, or perhaps the referee’s sympathy to the attacking team or desire for a result, suggests the penalty will always be given], you can draw your conclusions from that [do you assembled idiots catch my drift? I’m saying it was the referee, not sod’s law!]. [Sugar, have I gone too far there? Better say it was a penalty] It probably is a penalty [phew…but now I’m angry again because it was not fair…] but it was never not going to be given, I can assure you [that dark hint that I know I am right should help]….you have to be 100%, which I’m sure the referee is ]this is a good one – it sounds like a compliment at first listen, but then morphs into an implication that if the referee wasn’t 100% sure, he shouldn’t give the penalty]… [Um, did that sound too much like I was going for the ref too much? Better rescue this] “It’s a tough job for referees, it’s not going to change [I’m being clever again here: what’s not going to change – the toughness for the referees, or the decisions that the referees give to favoured top teams?]. There were some frustrations with some of the moments [this is putting it as lightly as I can!] – I’ve not spoken to him [see, I don’t blow my top at him like some managers do!]

Obviously I have taken a few liberties with inference from Dyche’s remarks, and to be fair to him, he has a massively high pressure job in which moments like this are impossible not to rail at. Linguistically, however, his is a lovely example of a non-wordsmith attempting to (arguably largely successfully) use language to obfuscate. Despite his efforts, however, his meaning is crystal clear…but I sincerely hope that doesn’t discourage him from doing this sort of thing again!

Perspectives – EFL and secondary

An early post this month, to pre-empt what will surely be a busy run to Christmas. So a year and a half term or so into my new career, it is as good a time as any to take stock. I have been reflecting of late about whether my teaching has changed for the better or not as a result of being in the new environment – a large international school for children (as opposed to the adults with whom I spent my early career in education).

For the first nine months or so I had the vague sense that I missed my old EFL classroom. I missed there being structure-based learning outcomes, I missed only having to raise a paw for silence, I missed meeting new and interesting adults from different cultures. I also missed my old colleagues; my old workplace was held to be the best in the world in that respect, or at least they all still maintain so!

Then, last May or so, as the academic year was beginning to wind down, I began to enjoy my new career in and of itself. It had in some senses been the annus exhaustis – my second son had been born, we had moved house twice, I was still trying to do publishing work, and there were some family issues on top. At my new school, after a good period of trial and mostly error, I think I was just beginning to tune into the teen mind and outlook. I had that key bank of activities that worked in the sense of both appealing to the students and resulting in progress. I had timed my assessments better. I had modulated and refined my task-based learning lessons. I had, in a word, learned.

This academic year, it has all changed. It seems that now I am on a default wavelength of sorts that runs those lessons now for teens rather than for adults. Again I have only really my own reflective feedback to give, but I think when I put a good deal of effort and consideration into my planning, I am able to go some way to catering for teens’ limited attention spans (and corresponding need for variation in pace and activity), teach cognitive improvements as well as skills, provide differentiated tasks and outcomes and enjoy those lessons at the same time. I am also feeling mentally stimulated in a way I didn’t always feel in EFL, perhaps because of the literature element. I’m (still) learning: in the spirit again of the developing teacher, one is still very conscious of how much one has still to master, assimilate, perfect and improve yet further, but there is cause for optimism. This is in no small part due to my classes this year, which are generally full of engaged and engaging little humans.

So how does that reflect back on my carefully crafted near-decade in EFL teaching? As may be inevitable when changing gear in a career, there can be a tendency either to look up to or look down on one’s previous incarnation. The former perspective means that you think EFL teachers have it made; they have time and energy to experiment pedagogically; that they have excellent fun in and out of the class; that they can rely on and luxuriate in the extrinsic and intrinsic motivation of their tiny class. The latter means you think EFL isn’t ‘real’ teaching; ‘real’ teaching is a million times more work; ‘real’ teachers are the only sort worth the label; you may sniff at teaching form and function when ‘real’ beauty is to be found in poetry and prose.

To which, of course, the answer is that neither is true; there’s a healthy dollop of the ‘grass being greener’ in at least one of those viewpoints. But in academic terms, to employ a metaphor, I am now in the foothills of a mountain, having come from a low base camp. I used to be at or near the top of a hill. To extend that metaphor to encompass my future career, it may be that from the hill one can see other pastures – I am interested one day to return perhaps to adult training, though it is unlikely to be in EFL. But for now, the mountain is magnificent – occasionally vertiginous, but full of majesty and excitement.