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English Language Teaching Global Blog


‘Young’ words

Two teenage boys in hoodies

Kieran McGovern strikes out against youth culture and the decline of the English language with his Top 10 most annoying words in common use amongst today’s youths – with a word of warning to those… not-so-young.

Words are like clothes in that there are some that are only really suited to the young.

Here’s my top ten verbal equivalents of short skirts, low cut trousers and hoodies. These should be avoided by anyone over the age of… well, you decide.

  1. Dude – meaning: male person. Has become pretty universal amongst young Americans and increasingly in the UK, too. A great word with a long pedigree, like a baseball cap it does not suit greying hair.
  2. Awesome! – should only be used for that which truly inspires awe. This does not include the a new cover for your mobile phone.
  3. Banging (great) safe (excellent) ‘hood (neighbourhood) homie (friend) – this job lot of street slang is the private property of teenagers. Sounding like a wannabe gangster is inexcusable if you have a mortgage.
  4. Cool! – the exclamation mark is the line in the sand here. Describing something as ‘pretty cool’ is acceptable but not squealing c-o-ol!
  5. Wicked – (meaning great) Life is complex enough without calling bad things good and vice versa.
  6. Chillin – perhaps a controversial one but I think the world would be a better place without the phrase ‘chill out’.
  7. Skank – horrible word meaning someone of low class, sometimes also used to suggest sexual promiscuousness. Don’t use, ever!
  8. Gay – meaning rubbish, as in ‘that’s so gay!’ As used in the school playground it doesn’t generally have a sexual connotation, but best avoided.
  9. OMG, LOL etc – I know they’ve just entered the OED but there is something a little embarrassing about ageing fingers typing this kind of text short-hand.
  10. Whatever! – this is irritating enough coming from truculent teenagers, unacceptable from anyone old enough to vote.

What do you think? Am I being unfair? A language despot? Or are there more words you’d like to add?

Kieran McGovern blogs at English Language FAQ.

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The toughest verbs in English

Oriental man looking confusedKieran McGovern considers why some verbs in English are so difficult for language learners to grasp and how they have changed (and continue to change) over time.

Here are the ten most heavily used verbs in the English language: be, have, do, say, make, go, take, come, see, get. Do you notice what they have in common? They are all irregular.

There are around 180 irregular verbs in English – a small fraction of the many thousands of regular ones. They punch above their weight*, however, making up 70% of the verbs in everyday use.

So how have these tricky customers evolved? And why are they so central to English?

The psychologist, Steven Pinker, has an interesting theory. He says that irregular verbs are “fossils of an Indo-European pre-historic language.” This had a regular rule in which one vowel replaced another.

Over time pronunciation changed. The “rules became opaque to children and eventually died; the irregular past tense forms are their fossils.”

Irregular verbs are notoriously difficult for language learners – native speakers struggle with them, too. It takes children years to learn to use ‘spoke’ and not ‘speaked’. Some never learn that nobody ever ‘writ’ anything (as opposed to ‘wrote’). In fact many of the grammatical mistakes commonly made by native speakers – ‘we was’, ‘they done’ etc. – involve irregular verbs.

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20 most commonly misspelt words in English

Example of poor spelling.Which words do you think are most commonly misspelt in English? Write down five words you expect to be on the list at the end of this post.

What makes some English words difficult to spell? One source of difficulty is inconsistent pronunciation; many sound out ‘definately’ when they mean definitely (2). And comparatively few outside the Royal Shakespeare Company clearly enunciate separate (1) – more typically the ‘A’ becomes an ‘E’. This problem is most glaring when (many) young people transcribe ‘could have’ as ‘could of’ or a lot (14) as ‘alot’.

In some cases it is an unexpected combination of letters containing few phonetic clues – bureaucracy (11) and manoeuvre (3) are examples here. In both these cases the spelling pattern is literally foreign; French, to be precise. Until comparatively recently a basic knowledge of French was assumed of every ‘educated’ English reader but most now would recognise the word entrepreneur (16) from business rather than the language from which it originates. The same applies to those other providers of hidden spelling rules: Latin and Greek.

An understandable uncertainty as to when ‘C’ rather than ‘S’ applies lies behind consensus (6) supersede (12) conscience (19) and unnecessary (7). There’s a similar confusion over what creates the ‘CK’ sound in liquefy (18), added to the confusion of an ‘E’ in place of the usual ‘I’.

By far the most difficult hurdle for any speller, however, is the dreaded ‘double letter’ dilemma. Two ‘N’s or one? Does two ‘C’s look right? Unnecessary causes double-trouble here to add to its ‘C’ or ‘S’ issues.

Spell-check/Spellcheck (?) will help, of course, which is why many young people delegate the job entirely to that marvellous (two ‘L’s in British English) programme (one ‘M’ and drop the ‘E’ in the US or amongst techies).

Sadly, technology has not yet produced a spell-checking pen for that handwritten application form.

1. Separate

2. Definitely

3. Manoeuvre

4. Embarrass

5. Occurrence

6. Consensus

7. Unnecessary

8. Acceptable

9. Broccoli

10. Referred

11. Bureaucracy

12. Supersede

13. Questionnaire

14. Connoisseur

15. A lot

16. Entrepreneur

17. Particularly

18. Liquefy

19. Conscience

20. Parallel

Source: poll from OnePoll quoted in Daily Telegraph 06 August 2010

Which words do you or your students have most trouble spelling?

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Based on recent research into the most commonly misspelt words in the English language, Kieran McGovern considers why some words are just difficult to spell correctly.

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Kind of… sort of… not really

Girl biting her lip and looking to the rightKieran McGovern discusses the question of whether language shapes thought, or whether culture shapes language.

New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world — Wall Street Journal, ‘Lost in Translation’, 30 July 2010.

The always-entertaining Michael Winner recently used his Sunday Times column to describe a visit to a London primary school (Winner’s Dinners: Heading back to school to award an A for effort). His guide was seven-year-old Skye Harris and the two had the following exchange about school dinners:

“Is the food good?” I asked Skye.
“Yes,” she said.
“Good as your mother’s?” I continued
“Not really,” responded Skye

The tentative ‘not really’ is characteristic of the answers I receive from my own seven-year-old daughter. Ask her if she likes this or that and the answer is usually ‘kind of’.

What is it that creates this reticence? Is it the hard-learned lesson that if you say you liked that trip to the museum you’ll be going there every Saturday? Or a reluctance to give a ‘wrong’ answer to an adult?

Or perhaps it’s an early manifestation of something more culturally and linguistically specific:  the famous English reserve.  English speakers generally prefer soft modals to harsh imperatives when expressing opinions: (“Do you want to listen to my new thrash-metal album?” “Um … I think I’d prefer to boil my own head…”). This can cause misunderstandings

In some cultures it is considered rude to give a negative answer – even if it involves sending someone asking for directions up the wrong street. In British English we perhaps do this too subtly. After battling through that awful spider soup we tell our dinner host it was ‘very distinctive’. We then watch in horror as she serves up a second helping.

Is this peculiar to the British? Or is it something inherent to the English language itself? What are your thoughts?

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Teaching Summer Schools and other short intense courses

Group of teenagers walking in the sun holding booksKieran McGovern offers some handy hints for coping with, and maybe even enjoying, those gruelling summer language courses.

In the popular imagination, a summer school is pretty much a paid holiday. The teacher holds forth to his/her enraptured students, perhaps under a shady tree. One hot afternoon teaching the present perfect to riotous fourteen-year-olds in an airless room will cure you of that illusion.

Thinking about how difficult the summer school experience can be for new teachers, I prepared a tip sheet for teaching short courses.

Here’s a summary:

  1. Vary activities & keep everything moving fast.
  2. Use a course book or a planned programme of materials. Students like to see that they are following a plan.
  3. Reduce teacher talk time. Give concise instructions but devolve activities via pair & small group work.
  4. Avoid whole-class speaking activities.
  5. Allow the shy to shine. Don’t force participation but give quiet students the space to contribute.
  6. Children/Young Learners sometimes need calming down! Dictation is a surprisingly effective tactic.
  7. Ban the use of bi-lingual dictionaries in class (see below)
  8. Remember you’re in charge! Two YLs never stop talking? Split them up!
  9. Keep students informed about your lesson plan: e.g. ‘First we’ll …. then you’ll ….’
  10. Encourage friendly competition but between teams rather than individuals.

What do you think? Do you have suggestions for making summer schools survivable – enjoyable even?

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