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Graham Davies

BT English

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Dear All

I just received a letter from BT's Customer Service Director, beginning:

"In your recent BT Bill you should of received your regular issue of Update..."

I sent the letter back, underlining the error and indicating that they should swot up on their knowledge of English modal verbs and formation of tenses.

Pompous old git, am I not?

P.S. I am a retired teacher of German. No wonder modern kids can't understand how to form the tenses of German verbs when they can't get them right in their mother tongue.

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Dear All

I just received a letter from BT's Customer Service Director, beginning:

"In your recent BT Bill you should of received your regular issue of Update..."

I sent the letter back, underlining the error and indicating that they should swot up on their knowledge of English modal verbs and formation of tenses.

Pompous old git, am I not?

P.S. I am a retired teacher of German. No wonder modern kids can't understand how to form the tenses of German verbs when they can't get them right in their mother tongue.

Also in my country, Italy, we seem to be losing the real knowledge of our language. Punctuation and vocabulary are no longer properly used. Young people know much less vocabulary than they used to know a few years ago, in part also because they are not fond of reading.

Commas are added everywhere in written texts, in particular between the subject and the main verb. Not to mention the problem of the distinction between the conditional and the subjunctive forms of verbs, which is often ignored. The question is that grammar and spelling are no longer relevant in the syllabus. I also wonder how a language like German can be taught effectively without referring to some grammar rules. Of course, the situation is different in schools like our "licei", where students still learn Latin and ancient Greek, study grammar, and translate the texts of the ancient classical writers of the past .... but these schools represent a minority and are starting to face the reluctancy of students who think that these "dead" languages are absolutely useless.

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Pompous old git, am I not?

Having recently berated the manager of my local ASDA for his "10 items or less" sign at least I no longer feel alone :tomatoes:unsure:

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Heard recently on the BBC (reporters, not members of the public):

"There is several examples..."

"Less people are..."

Misplaced stress also annoys me. I believe misplaced stress is known as "plonking", e.g. as in "There WILL be scattered showers in the South East". Why stress the verb? I've also noticed an increasing tendency for the modern Australian rising intonation to creep into sentences, making statements sound like questions.

If children are told (in one of our National Literacy Strategy documents) under the heading "tense" that "English verbs have two basic tenses, present and past, and each of these can be simple or continuous", they might get the wrong end of the stick and be completely confused when confronted with the perfect and pluperfect tenses in French and German - which are constructed in much the same way as their English equivalents, i.e. using an auxiliary verb and the past participle.

In fairness, however, I did find these examples in a National Literacy Strategy document:

"You should have asked me" and "They must have been working" under the heading "modal verb", with the warning: "In this context 'have' is unstressed and therefore identical in speech to unstressed 'of'; this is why the misspelling 'of' for standard 'have' or 've' is not uncommon."

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If children are told (in one of our National Literacy Strategy documents) under the heading "tense" that "English verbs have two basic tenses, present and past, and each of these can be simple or continuous", they might get the wrong end of the stick and be completely confused when confronted with the perfect and pluperfect tenses in French and German - which are constructed in much the same way as their English equivalents, i.e. using an auxiliary verb and the past participle.

Why on earth are children being told this in the first place? No wonder they're getting confused about foreign languages. When it comes to your native language, it's impossible to make a mistake in grammar. There might be more or less clear, aesthetically pleasing, socially acceptable, or contextually appropriate usages, but these are not mistakes.

Swedish pupils have to do a lot of parsing in Swedish … and the results are generally disastrous, both for their own language and for their deep understanding of foreign languages. I often start my session on this point with a statement from my first Swedish textbook (when I threw myself in at the deep end and joined a class in Swedish for Swedes, despite not really being able to understand the language): "you have to learn the grammar of Swedish so that you can learn the grammar of foreign languages".

I then ask them what the 'imperfekt' of the Swedish verb 'se' is in English in the first person. What I get is both "I saw" and "I was seeing". EFL teachers tend to use the 'duck' test when looking at the difference between tenses and aspects: it looks like a tense, it acts like a tense - it's a tense! So we look at the Past Simple and the Past Continuous as being two separate tenses. In the interests of grammar-translation, Swedish language teachers push the same line as the National Literary Strategy: English has a Present Tense just like Swedish, except that the English tense has two forms, whilst the Swedish tense only has one (which is a bit of philosophical hair-splitting which no-one - not even the teacher - can get his or her head around).

Back to the presentation. I then point out that it's this distinction which causes all the problems for Swedes. However, let's stick with the original idea, that calling "I saw" and "I was seeing" 'imperfekt' helps you to learn foreign languages. I then take them to French and point out that "j'ai vu" is what the French call either 'parfait' or 'passé composé' (which is the terminology I used to use in England when I was teaching French). The French 'parfait' has a similar form to the English Present Perfect, but the meaning of the English Past Simple, which is why you have to be careful teaching the Past Simple to French people, but Swedes have no problem with it at all. On the other hand, the French 'imparfait' is the exact equivalent in meaning of the English Past Continuous.

To sum up: the Swedish 'jag såg' is called by them 'imperfekt', but is a nice, clear equivalent of the English 'I saw'. Mix French in and the picture becomes totally confused, since the same grammatical metalanguage takes you to the exact opposite meaning.

Collapse of argument (at least if you're a fan of logic).

In my year doing 'O-level' Swedish, it was fascinating for me (who trained as an English teacher for British people before the National Curriculum) to see what the effect of spending all those hours on parsing was on my Swedish classmates. I never got less than 100% on all our 'grammar' tests, since 'underline the subordinate clause' didn't require me to actually understand the language, whilst they typically got about 25%. "You know it's a subordinate clause because if you make it negative, the word for 'not' goes in front of the verb" was a great explanation for me, who didn't understand the language (it explained why the word 'inte' kept hopping around), but a total waste of time for them, who never made the 'mistake' in the first place.

The main two effects were to destroy their confidence in using their own language, and to crowd out any chance of learning much about Swedish culture and literature - in other words, much the same effects as the National Literary Strategy has had in England. One major problem we university teachers of literature have is that our students are unused to reading whole books in Swedish (they've had to spend the little time they have on anthologies), and they are culturally illiterate (you have to explain any references to Greek mythology and the Bible from scratch). They've read very little poetry, and have very rarely analysed things like metre and literary forms (alliteration and assonance are a surprise to them).

So … I'm not surprised that the philistine attitude that's been shown to the subject of English in schools in Britain for the last 20 years has been having these effects. Until you ditch the National Curriculum and go back to real teaching, I'm afraid you're stuck with it. 'should of' has probably already found its way into the corpus, and it'll probably be the standard form in 50 years or so (unless the educational policies in England change).

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The early drafts of the National Literacy Strategy documents were riddled with errors - presumably they had been drawn up by teachers of English. For example, adjectives were described as having three forms: nominative, comparative and superlative. "Nominative"? Hey, that refers to a noun case. "Nominal" was what was intended. Whether it is important to teach these terms anyway to young children is questionable. The early drafts of the documents just stated that English had two tenses: present and past (the word "basic" was inserted later). Teachers of modern foreign languages in the UK got very uptight about the way in which our language was described in the National Literacy Strategy documents as it didn't appear to help the learning of French, German, Spanish, etc.

I learned most of my English grammar at secondary school - from my first teacher of German.

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There's a quotation from the Swedish philosopher, Thomas Thorilds, inscribed on one of the buildings at Uppsala University, which, in my opinion, gets to the root of this problem:

Att tänka fritt är stor, men att tänka rätt är större

It is a great thing to think freely, but an even greater thing to think correctly.

If I were Chancellor of Uppsala University, I'd put a disclaimer under the inscription, so that people didn't think that that was an acceptable prescription for an educational establishment.

I think that the problem is that the people who've shaped the British education system over the last 20 years have been obsessed with the idea of right answers, and haven't grasped that education is about getting the processes right - the answers then generally look after themselves. Right answers are the province of training, which isn't a useless activity in itself, but when it supplants education for young people, then we're all in trouble …

OK, I'll get off this diversion from the original post now!

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David writes:

I think that the problem is that the people who've shaped the British education system over the last 20 years have been obsessed with the idea of right answers...

When my wife says "He got a quare gunk", she is speaking correctly in the context of her dialect of English (Belfast). When my bricklayer friend, with whom I enjoy a drink in our local pub, says "He ain't got no...", he is speaking correctly in the context of the working class variety of English that he uses.

Where I think we go wrong in the UK is that we have an obsession with "correctness" rather than "appropriateness". I would not want to see "He ain't got no..." in a business letter, for example, and "I should of..." is quite inappropriate in a letter from the customer services department of a large organisation -it just makes them look uneducated.

In other countries, for example Switzerland and Austria, a clear distinction is made between the local appropriate spoken form of German - which is incomprehensible to native speakers of German from North Germany - and standard German, referred to as Hochdeutsch (High German) or Schriftdeutsch (written German). It is not unusual to hear educated Swiss and Austrians conversing among themselves in dialect and then switching to accented High German when talking to people from outside the region. But they rarely write in dialect - maybe only in personal letters to friends and family.

I recall listening to a lecture at a university in Switzerland, which was given in Hochdeutsch (with a regional accent) by a prominent Swiss professor of linguistics. In the ensuing discussion with the audience (mainly Swiss) he switched to Schwyzerdeutsch. I am not aware of dialect speakers in the UK code-switching with the same sort of ease - but maybe I'm wrong.

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David writes:

I think that the problem is that the people who've shaped the British education system over the last 20 years have been obsessed with the idea of right answers...

When my wife says "He got a quare gunk", she is speaking correctly in the context of her dialect of English (Belfast). When my bricklayer friend, with whom I enjoy a drink in our local pub, says "He ain't got no...", he is speaking correctly in the context of the working class variety of English that he uses.

Where I think we go wrong in the UK is that we have an obsession with "correctness" rather than "appropriateness". I would not want to see "He ain't got no..." in a business letter, for example, and "I should of..." is quite inappropriate in a letter from the customer services department of a large organisation -it just makes them look uneducated.

In other countries, for example Switzerland and Austria, a clear distinction is made between the local appropriate spoken form of German - which is incomprehensible to native speakers of German from North Germany - and standard German, referred to as Hochdeutsch (High German) or Schriftdeutsch (written German). It is not unusual to hear educated Swiss and Austrians conversing among themselves in dialect and then switching to accented High German when talking to people from outside the region. But they rarely write in dialect - maybe only in personal letters to friends and family.

I recall listening to a lecture at a university in Switzerland, which was given in Hochdeutsch (with a regional accent) by a prominent Swiss professor of linguistics. In the ensuing discussion with the audience (mainly Swiss) he switched to Schwyzerdeutsch. I am not aware of dialect speakers in the UK code-switching with the same sort of ease - but maybe I'm wrong.

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I am not aware of dialect speakers in the UK code-switching with the same sort of ease - but maybe I'm wrong.

No, I think you're right. The problem is that the question of which 'English' is acceptable is completely mixed up with social class in the UK, which is why we don't code-switch, in my opinion. We use the code we use in order to place ourselves in a particular social class, which makes many people inherently insecure about whether they really belong there or not.

At the same time, the development of language progresses and, as we know, there's quite a difference between the way people think they speak and the way they actually do speak.

The result of all this is that there's total confusion about what the main focus of both language use and language teaching should be.

The attitude of Swedes towards their own native language is equally fraught with contradiction. Dialects are specifically taught in schools in the subject of Swedish (together with basic Danish and Norwegian, interestingly enough), but the net effect of all the parsing pupils have to do is to give a mixed message: we say that dialects are important, but the model of language you're going to get marks for is this old-fashioned one, which people are increasingly moving away from.

When I trained as an English teacher in London, we spent a lot of our time thinking about codes and sociolects, and I get the impression that this is now taboo in the new model England. The problem is that as soon as you start investigating how the ruling classes impose their rule, you threaten that rule …

However, if you don't examine the social basis of the way we communicate with each other in our native language, it's very difficult to take change in language use into account (like the phenomenon of 18-34 year olds in the South East pronouncing the word 'laugh' as if it were 'laff').

One of the problems with teaching native language in schools is that it's often the one subject that the pupils at least think that they already master. If you've got an authoritarian turn of mind as a teacher, the temptation then is to 'set them straight' - you might think that you know how to speak English, but you're wrong.

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I recall giving a lecture in Finland in 1985 - my first visit to that country. A couple of Finns told me over coffee that they found my pronunciation "unusual", referring to the way in which I pronounced the "-ing" ending of participles, etc. I come from mid-Kent and speak a variety of Estuary English, in which "going" and "coming" are pronounced as "goin" and "comin". I was a bit annoyed to be picked up on my pronunciation, which is completely normal where I come from, but then I realised that the Finns (both middle-aged females) had probably been exposed mainly to Received Pronunciation (RP) in their English classes and did not know any better. Who uses RP these days anyway? The Queen, maybe?

I do code-switch a bit. I sound slightly "posher" when I give a lecture, and when I visit my relations in Canada I automatically refer to "drapes" instead of "curtains" and a "faucet" instead of a "tap". It causes less confusion. When I visit Northern Ireland I know that if I order "a half" in a bar I am likely to get a "half 'un", namely a single (35ml) measure of whiskey rather than half a pint of beer or stout, which is referred to as "a glass" of beer or stout. This reminds me of a Swedish friend who accompanied me on a trip to Norway and tried to order an ice cream in a cafe but got a small beer instead. Am I right in thinking that "et glas" is an ice cream in Sweden and a small beer in Norway?

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I recall giving a lecture in Finland in 1985 - my first visit to that country. A couple of Finns told me over coffee that they found my pronunciation "unusual", referring to the way in which I pronounced the "-ing" ending of participles, etc. I come from mid-Kent and speak a variety of Estuary English, in which "going" and "coming" are pronounced as "goin" and "comin". I was a bit annoyed to be picked up on my pronunciation, which is completely normal where I come from, but then I realised that the Finns (both middle-aged females) had probably been exposed mainly to Received Pronunciation (RP) in their English classes and did not know any better. Who uses RP these days anyway? The Queen, maybe?

There are still plenty of Scandinavian academics who think that RP exists. A colleague of mine, who's from Orkney, was once refused entry to an English course at university level by a Swedish academic because he said she'd never pass the pronunciation test with an accent like hers! Just goes to show the absurdites 'tänka rätt' can lead you into.

The Queen doesn't speak RP any more:

http://www.phon.ucl.ac.uk/home/estuary/queen2.htm

This reminds me of a Swedish friend who accompanied me on a trip to Norway and tried to order an ice cream in a cafe but got a small beer instead. Am I right in thinking that "et glas" is an ice cream in Sweden and a small beer in Norway?

'Glass' is the Swedified version of the French word 'glace' (ice-cream). It's pronounced just like the French.

'Glas' is the Swedish word for the English 'glass' and is pronounced the way Southerners speak: glarse.

Norwegian doesn't follow quite the same conventions.

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