How To Give Effective Feedback to Language Learners?: An Example of Vygotskian Responsive Assistance

  • Previously, I wrote a piece critical of what many EFL teachers might think is good advice for giving student feedback. I mentioned in that post that a more effective method would be Dynamic Assessment. This post then is a follow-up to that post. Here I detail what exactly DA is and then provide an extend example with data of what it looks like in action.

Introduction

Since “the sociocultural turn”, the field of second language acquisition has seen a shift in the way many educationalists and linguists view the dialogic nature of the teacher-student interaction. The turn from traditional initiate, respond, evaluate forms of teaching has been replaced with a Vygotskian form of responsive assistance, in some cases called instructional conversations (IC). The core these IC communications, according to Meskill & Anthony (2010) is the dynamic relationship between two people and how they “recognize and respond appropriately to the myriad of teachable moments” (loc. 515).

In order to recognize and respond, much more than attending to the forms and function of a language in the classroom is necessary. Our sociocultural theory of education must also be ecological in viewing itself as situated in a particular environment, with its own unique and variable affordances.

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Rewards and Quests as Motivation and Tasks in L2TL: A Review of “Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft”

  • This review assess the potential for game-design enhanced second language teaching and learning of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. For background reading about the philosophical and linguistic-theoretic foundation for the approach used in this review, see here and here.

The Game

Hearthstone: Heros of Warcraft is an online competitive collectable card video game developed by Blizzard Entertainment first in March of 2014. It can be played from multiple platforms including a computer, apple or android phone and tablets. Hearthstone is a multiplayer, free-to-play, card strategy game with additional single player role-playing elements.  Hearthstone can be considered a traditional and casual game because of its dynamic player-matching system which intends on matching players against others of a similar ability. It is often promoted as “deceptively simple but epically engaging” because it can appeal to players unfamiliar with both the World of Warcraft universe and collectable card games, but at the same time fosters a play environment for serious, even professional, players.

Hearthstone, while two years old, maintains a high level of critical praise. Meta-review websites like Gamerankings and metacritic, which analyze multiple reviews from various websites in order to give a game a ranking give Hearthstone a 92.50% (out of 100%) and 88 (out of 100) respectively. Reviewers have consistently praised it’s easy to learn game mechanics, user friendly interface and general aesthetic design. The game is available in fourteen different languages including English and Korean.

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Using A Game-Design Enhanced Approach to TBLT: The Example of The Social Deception Tabletop Game “Coup”:

  • This essay attempts to both describe and motivate the Bridging Activities Cycle for game-design enhanced TBLT. For further foundational reading into the philosophical and theoretical motivations for using games and taking a game-design approach to TBLT, see here.

Introduction

Vernacular video games, or commercial video games, have in the last decade begun to be examined for their usefulness for learning. From a fundamental level, Gee (2007) claims that video games demonstrate excellent learning principles inherent in their design. To operationalize and capture the learning potential in games, Thorne and Reinhardt’s (2008) Bridging Activities (BA) provide an approach to language learning and teaching that utilizes playing games with principles of language awareness (LA) (Bolitho et al, 2003).

In particular for BA, language learning is never seen as something decontexualized or simply about language in some general sense. Instead, BA aims to build in learners an awareness of how multimodalic forms are utilized by a community to make sense, achieve specific goals and perform situated functions. In this way, LA is an awareness both of and about language (Reinhardt & Sykes, 2011). Awareness of language is related to experiences that users have in specific situations, such as saying “hello” in a marketplace. Awareness about language then is the analytic side that users of language use in order to know that saying “hello” to the clerk at the supermarket is different than they “hey” they say to their best friend at home. BA then, attempts to use the situated experience and natural learning potential of video games and the attendant communities (e.g. websites and forums) around specific video games to build LA in learners in this way.

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Error Correction in Language Teaching

  • This essay is a short review of one specific aspect of Brown and Larson-Hall’s 2012 introductory book Second Language Acquisition Myths. In particular, this review addresses the myth of error correction, which Brown and Larson-Hall phase as “Language Learners Always Benefit From Error Correction”.

Introduction

The question of error correction is certainly perplexing to many of us language teachers. Not only which form of correction, but even how to correct children as opposed to adults. As a teacher cited in Brown and Larson-Hall’s (2012) Second language acquisition myths  says, “[c]hildren make adorable mistakes” (p. 105; italics mine). Adults generally do not make adorable mistakes. The intersection between age and correction-type then, is in the center of this so-called myth. In my personal experience however, it seems the authors miss a few important factors in their deconstruction of this myth.

Beyond declaring one type of error correction better than another is the idea of dynamic correction (or assessment) (Lantolf & Poehner, 2011). Additionally, this myth is ripe for native-speaker bias in which native-speaking teachers correct what they perceive as errors, but what may actually be a more creative act of self-expression. Finally, while perhaps beyond the scope of their book, no mention is made of the philosophical concerns related to evaluation, both negative and positive. The categorizing and approving of specific types of error correction, which is the hallmark of the science cited in the chapter, seems to miss what I have experienced in my own classrooms as a more messy relationship between learners and educators and the process of evaluation.

Error Correction

Prologue: Native-speaker bias

Native-speaker knows best

 

To begin this discussion, I want to first address a problem present in the book, which goes largely unaddressed. In the chapter on error correction, the teacher “in the real world” (p. 105) points out an English construction they view as a grammar mistake of helping verbs and their objects. The teacher identifies the construction, “Let’s English!” as grammatically incorrect, because let requires a main verb (e.g. “Let’s do/eat/finish it!”). The teacher expresses the frustration of many when she says, “I have to admit that sometimes I just give up and say, OK let’s English! Corrections seem to do no good in some cases” (Brown & Larson-Hall, 2012, p. 106).

Verbing nouns is not uncommon in so-called native English. In my own classroom, we often play the card game Coup (Indieboardsandcards, 2016), where each player has two cards with names of certain kinds of people on them, like Duke, assassin, captain and so on. Each of these cards can perform certain actions in the game, like tax or exchange. When performing your action, it seems reasonable that you would use the verb to declare your action (e.g. “I will tax and take two coins!”). However, after a few games I, their teacher, began saying, “I duke your foreign aid”. instead of “[As a duke], I block your foreign aid”. The students soon caught on and began verbing the names of all the cards.

As a native speaker, I seemingly have the authority to be creative with my so-called errors. However, had my students begun doing the same thing without my help, would I have corrected them? I hope not, or at least I hope I would figure out a better way to understand why they did it. If it was a genuine mistake, I suppose I would want to help fix it. But if it was self-expression and creativity, well then why do I have the right to self-express, but not my language-learning students? The grayness of the two is nearly impossible to tease apart.

Recasts vs prompts

Brown and Larson-Hall (2012) end their chapter on error correction by advising teachers to use explicit prompts which both draw the attention of the learner to their error and provide an opportunity for them to correct it. Especially for low-level learners (and younger learners), explicit correction makes it clear what the teacher is expecting. This conclusion follows from the research provided, where two different types of error correction (recasts and prompts) are studied in experimentally sound conditions and generally prompts produce the kind of language improvement teachers look for.

Recasts, the authors note, are the preferred type of error correction by many teachers. They seem less intrusive to the language production of the learner and less directly evaluative. However, students, especially young learners, don’t seem to pick up on grammar corrections if they are not obviously pointed out.

This follows from the experience of everyone who has learned a language. The only time recasts happen naturally in the world is when interlocutors A) physically can not hear the speaker or B) the meaning of the word or sentence was unclear. In other words, recasts are communicative repair tools that people use to understand the meaning of each other’s speech. Additionally, it is generally found to be very rude and pompous to correct another person’s grammar in this way.

Explicit prompts, on the other hand, interrupt the learner’s communicative act, in order to step-down and address the grammar. I find that this interruption, especially in the beginning, may be surprising or annoying to students, but the research suggests that bringing learners’ attention directly to the problem helps them notice it. As long as the student is paying any attention to their teacher, their mental resources have to switch from communication to logical thinking about language.

This categorizing and evaluating error correction types seems to show that, of course, explicit prompts are better. However, we need to think more clearly about what our categories do. In many enterprises, category formation focuses specific content as exemplary and tends to ignore content on the boundary. When we think of error correction strategies then, it seems that explicit prompts are the best fit for the category.

Dynamic assessment

There is another way to think about error correction however. Instead of categories, we can think about error correction continuums, where the type of error correction selected by the teacher should meet the need of the learner. Instead of simply using “more” of one type of correction over the other. I believe that dynamic assessment (DA) (Lantolf & Poehner, 2011) provides a better method for error correction than simply preferring explicit prompts over recasts.

DA can allow teachers to see more clearly what level their learners are at, beyond just “can do X, can’t do Y”. It asks teachers to address a learner at the stage they are at. If a learner makes a mistake, but has almost nearly mastered the content, it may only take a questioning look from the teacher to make the student realize their mistakes. Other students may not even know that they don’t know they made a mistake. The point is, the teacher needs to listen to the student, identify where they fail to address their problem, and give correction at a scaled level. This changes the suggestion we would give teachers. It’s not simply be more explicit, it’s: meet your learner where they are.

Evaluation

Negative and positive evaluation

In my view however, this discussion of good, better, best jumps ahead to quickly. No mention in the chapter is directed at the concept of correction fundamentally. At a basic level, correction is a type of evaluation that goes beyond identifying good or bad production to providing opportunity to correct it. However, acknowledging the root of evaluation is important because it raises important philosophical implications for our language teaching and learning.

Earl Stevick in his language teaching book A Way and Ways (1980) notes that while negative evaluation is at times seen as controversial, positive evaluation is more often assumed to be good no matter what. This is seen as a mistake and it is argued that positive evaluation can be as harmful as negative. Stevick (1980) describes the use of evaluation as establishing an “evaluative climate” (p. 23) in the classroom. This climate is a tension between what is called the performing self and the evaluative self that resides in all of us. This is linguistically evident in phrases like “I’m my own toughest critic”. Often that is the truth. However, the same tension that we all at times inwardly feel is often unknowingly established in the language classroom through any type of evaluation.

Stevick (1980) illustrates this idea by an experience he had with a german friend who once told him, “Oh, I like talking with you. You use such correct grammar” (p. 23). This immediately made him self-conscious of his grammar, whereas he wasn’t before. I also felt this same tension while talking to people in Brazil. Often after “hello”, people would comment “Wow! you speak such good Portuguese!”. This experience always led me to feel pressure, because I knew that after a few minutes of talking, they would realize I didn’t actually speak such good Portuguese. I just happened to say “hello” very naturally according to them. This experience happens much more often in Korea, where any knowledge of Korean by a western-foreigner is met with much praise and adoration.

Natural evaluation in language

The issue with positive evaluation in the classroom, I think, lies in the way we naturally express positivity towards the language use of other people when they speak. In a phrase, we don’t. We signal satisfaction with the words of other people by attending more and responding to their language use. When someone says something interesting, we say, “That’s (the content)  interesting!” or “Well said (the content)!”. It would be seen as patronizing to say, “Very good on your grammar”.

Brown and Larson-Hall (2012) acknowledge this idea when they talk about the teacher who reacts communicatively to the content of their learner’s mistakes of “have” and “be” and this is how I try to signal error correction in my own classroom. I try to show interest in the content, while also signaling that the error is in the language itself, not the semantics. It is a difficult thing to do.

Conclusion

The word myth is something of a sledgehammer. It lacks nuance. It certainly is false that learners always learn from error correction; however, it is a very strangely worded myth. Brown and Larson-Hall (2012) handle the scientific debate between different types of error correction in a way that is probably helpful to many language teachers, but I wonder if they don’t in some ways only change the problem quantitatively and miss a greater opportunity to really address the issue with correcting language learner errors.

The scientific categorization of error correction types divorces the ecological practice of teachers and the needs of students. It says “this is better quantitatively” without perhaps addressing the qualitative issues and fears of teachers and students in evaluation.


References

Brown, S., & Larson-Hall, J. (2012). Second language acquisition myths. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 

indieboardsandcards. (2016). Indieboardsandcards.com. Retrieved 5 March 2016.

Lantolf, J., & Poehner, M. (2010). Dynamic assessment in the classroom: Vygotskian praxis for second language development. Language Teaching Research, 15(1), 11-33.

Stevick, E. W. (1980). Teaching languages: A way and ways. Rowley: Newbury House Publishers.

Game-Design Enhanced Language Teaching

Let me start by saying this: “Game-design” language teaching is not the gamification of teaching. It is not “playing games” in a class in order to boost “fun”, though that is certainly a benefit. Game-design language teaching is something much bolder. (Check here for a brief definition of the differences). What follows here are a few principles of game-design and how they can be leveraged to teach languages in ways that address some of the hardest problems in language teaching. Namely, authentic communities of practice, learner-driven tasks and Dynamic, just-in-time feedback. This article will lay the foundation for future, praxis-oriented, content such as specific games for language teaching and specific language-learning plans.

 

Introduction

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Although, for me, Age empires would have been blue

Games in language teaching are, without question, seen as an integral and essential part of most teachers’ lesson plans. The intensity or involvement in any given game varies from teacher to teacher, class to class. From language puzzles like crosswords and hangman to active Dungeons and Dragons-esque RPGs. Researchers, too, have for decades recommended games in the language classroom for various reasons including the development of positive attitudes towards learning, providing clear goals and engagement (Palmer & Rodgers, 1983). Games, however, often only serve one specific goal for teachers: student engagement. Games are fun. The rise of gamification is related to this problem and it is an attempt to solve the same kinds of problems.

For this reason, there often is not much thought or discussion given to why we should play games, or how the games are beneficial language learning tools. Anecdotally, many teachers like myself know that games engage students and help scaffold their language production. But still, how? If it is true that games fundamentally help language learning, what principles of games and game design lead to these kinds of outcomes? These are the kinds of questions that researchers like Julie Skyes and James Paul Gee have begun to address. What follows here is a brief introduction and foundation to ground theoretically what will hopefully become a repository of useful information regarding games for second language learning and teaching (L2TL).

While many researchers have examined the language learning effects from games in themselves, as teachers many of us are interested in the ways we can effectively coordinate and implement games, particularly digital games relevant to our “digital native” (Prensky, 2003) students, in and around our classrooms. While games in general may be found to be effective language learning tools, how game-design, and in particular digital game-design can be leverage to improve pedagogy and classroom outcomes.

Some Assumptions

Language socialization 

Before going forward, I want to briefly mention some of the underlying theory and philosophy that leads many researchers and teachers like myself to believe that there is real value in using games to teach language. A game-design approach to L2TL takes a principled approach based on socio-cultural theories of language and teaching, in particular, language socialization (LS) (Ochs & Schieffelin, 1995) and tasked-based language teaching (TBLT) (Willis, 1996). An LS perspective views language and language learning as means-end oriented. That is, children come to learn and use language as a tool, or means, to achieve some goal, or end. These means and ends from an LS perspective are enforced by culture.

Ochs and Schieffelin’s perhaps most well-known example relates to how children are addressed differently in different cultures. They note that middle-class American caregivers are very likely to spend a lot of time directing their speech to their pre-linguistic infants. The speech is not random however. Nor is it monologue. It is conversational. Caregivers in these communities greet, ask questions and correct behavior all the while knowing the child can neither understand nor respond to them. Additionally, these caregivers go above and beyond normal conversational behavior to maintain the attention of the infant by exaggerating their tone of voice and body gesture.

Ochs and Schieffelin then go on to describe a different cultural practice by some Mayan (and many other) communities. Caregivers in these communities do not interact directly with pre-verbal infants. Adults in these communities do not view infants as appropriate conversational partners and so do not engage them directly with language until they already know how to talk.

The brilliance of the theory of Language Socialization then, is its ability to account for both of these cultural practices. Importantly, there is no single rule that governs the language development in these cultures. It is not the case that middle-class Americans learn language by direct conversation with their caregivers, nor is it the case that Mayan babies don’t learn language. Instead, LS says that different communities organize around the central principles of acceptable participation and evolutionary-driven needs (e.g. food, attention, touch and so on) that infants need to obtain. “novices”, as the children in each case are called, operate on the periphery of language communities. They are “peripheral members”. Core members of the community are those individuals and groups who have power and influence. These are generally adults, but can be other non-center groups who are nontheless closer to the center than the infant (such as older children). For us language teachers, it is easy to recognize that our L2 learners are peripheral members of their L2 language communities too.

So, how do the infant-directed approaches to language fit into this system of center and peripheral membership? For the Mayan children, they are required to follow their mother where ever she goes. The communal aspect of the every day life, on average, means that the child will be exposed to a great deal of language and conversation between their caregiver and other adults in the community. In the terms of Ochs and Schieffelin, the children become overhearers. They are legitimate peripheral members of the community. They are welcome to be present. For the American middle-class child however, particularly in traditional nuclear families, the child may spend days in the company of primarily one adult. The child in this situation then, is not overhearing much language at all. And hence, the effort of the caregiver to directly engage the pre-language infant.

For us, the L2TL educator, their are many other important insights that the LS perspective brings, but I just want to highlight the importance of this initial insight. Language learning is always the result of socializing into a community. And to do so, it is necessary to move from the periphery of that community towards the center. For our L2TL students then, helping them gain a legitimate and authentic position as a peripheral member of a community is a crucial step.

It is often assumed that the language classroom itself is that legitimate and authentic community. However, the goal of the language classroom is not to create a community of language classroom L2 users. But instead, to transfer the skills developed and honed in the classroom into a real community of speakers. Creating a positive and welcoming language classroom community is a real and important goal, but it is not itself the community we are aiming for. At least because the language classroom is necessary transitional and temporary, necessarily unstable.

  • So, we see a few important insights, as well as important challenges for L2TL. Membership in a language community is vital, but how to do so in a mostly inauthentic classroom setting?

Task-based Learning and Teaching (TBLT)

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The general structure of a TBLT lesson

Traditionally, TBLT was motivated by the failures of methods such as audio-lingual  and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). Importantly, how each of those methods failed to incorporate vital aspects of the other. In the case of the grammar-translation and audio-lingual, it was the complete lack of social knowledge needed to actually use the grammar rules or pronunciations learned through those methods. And in the case of CLT, the fact that students seemed to make great gains in comprehension of content language, but failed to make similar gains in functional aspects of grammar. TBLT attempts to fix these problems and also motivate students, but marrying real-life language use with problems that needed to be solved through language.

TBLT, in relation to LS, can be seen as a pedagogical means-end approach to L2TL. Sykes and Reinhardt (2013) situate the theoretical foundation of TBLT in communicative language teaching related to functional approaches to language. From this view, it was important that L2TL be applicable to real-world situations and not just the learning of language rules and forms. This end, communication in real-world situations, is achieved through pedagogically valid tasks that act as means to those ends.

A classic example is a hotel checklist task. Originally designed for immigrant ESL learners who had been employed in hotels as maids or other staff. The task, following the diagram above, gives a pair of students the task of cleaning a hotel room. Each learner has a different set of tasks that they have either “done” or “not done”. Most of the tasks, between the two learners, have been done. The goal of the learners is to determine what still needs to be done to successfully prepare the hotel room.

This task has the benefit of being immediately applicable to the learners, it involves words and language structures that will be immediately important and useful to them (words related to working in a hotel). Additionally, the learners must negotiate together to recognize and notice BOTH the content (what still needs to be done) and also the LANGUAGE (by carefully reading through their lists). There are also several problems with tasks like this, and if you’ve been teaching, you may be able to recognize any number of them. What follows is a short list (not comprehensive) of some of the problems that TBLT sometimes face, and how game-design can help us overcome them.

A critique of TBLT from a Game-Design Perspective

For L2TL at the moment, TBLT is the target most teachers are trying to hit. And there are many different approaches, pedagogues and lesson plans that utilize TBLT. However, some have recognized several short-comings in TBLT. In particular, researchers interested in game-design have discovered a short list of items that could be improved, and ways to do it.

Sykes and Reinhardt’s perspective of game-informed language socialization and task-based L2TL are categorized in five problematic areas:

  1. goals and tasks – lack of student agency
  2. interaction – promotes good ideational (semantic) interaction, but can fail to promote adquate interpersonal interaction
  3. feedback – Delayed, hard to give the correct feedback in the moment it will help
  4. context and narrative – Tasks can often be divorced from broader societal narratives and context that drives language learning (from an LS perspective).
  5. motivation – Tasks may motivate for awhile, but often do not lead to sustained, motivated attention over multiple class sessions..

A game-design TBLT perspective views each of the five areas of criteria differently than traditional views might. For this reason, we will briefly introduce them in this section along with a description of what good games do with the five TBLT areas mentioned above.

Sykes and Reinhardt describe goals and tasks in game-designed TBLT as centering around two main ideas: having learner driven tasks and goal-orienting. Learner-driven tasks contrast with learning driven tasks and the difference lies with who gets to decide how learning will happen. A game-informed TBLT perspective focuses on giving students agency and multiple routes of task completion with continually updated goals.

Interaction, Sykes and Reinhardt mention, is possibly the most defining aspect of games when compared with other types of media. For Sykes and Reinhardt, game-designed interaction is built on four levels of interaction. Ideational (or the interaction between learner and language, i.e., their own mind), Interpersonal (the interaction between speakers of a language) and cultural (the interaction of an individual user with the cultural expectations and values). Digital game-informed TBLT improves upon traditional applications by situating the learner into a game-oriented culture. Beyond multiplayer games, which promote both ideational language use and interpersonal, the communities that exist around games is vitally important. Using internet communities to learn, discuss and discover important information to better play the game is a fountain of possible interactions and provides the language learner with literally thousands of possible interpersonal partners.

Feedback in games is the primary way game-designers communicate to players whether or not they are progressing in the game. Actions taken by the player may lead to failure or success. Important then, for game design, is how to communicate to the player that they are failing or succeeding. For Sykes and Reinhardt feedback in games needs to be individualized, discernable and given “exactly at the moment it is needed” (p. 59). Feedback then, can be given both explicitly through the use of messages on the screen, level-ups, and tooltips. Or, it can be implicit through sound effects, or well-scaffolded tasks which teach the player step-by-step through each level of their development.

Narrative for Sykes and Reinhardt, is described as the way people transmit culture. Games generally have very well defined game-designed narratives. However, these narratives are never presented without a player and the player interaction with the game-designed narrative can lead to emergent, different narratives than perhaps the designed one. IThis is markedly different from other media genres such as books or movies. For example, game designers will intentionally create a narrative, build a world and populate it with characters and conflicts. However, unlike a book or a movie, the player then moves about that world making defined choices. Like in other genres, inside the players head there is an interpretation of the world designed by the creators. Unlike those genres however, an emergent narrative can unfold in the game-world itself, and not just in the attendant communities that surround it (such as fan fiction sites).

Motivation, finally, is described by Sykes and Reinhardt in terms of player engagement and flow. Motivation in games is not seen to reside within the individual player, but as an emerging factor in the interaction between the game-design and the player. Motivation in this view, then, is dynamic and continually negotiated and not simply an intrinsic property of the player or game. How the game uses the other four factors listed, it can help or hinder the motivation that the player brings to it themselves. The interactive nature of games can easily lead to a state of flow, or extended focus on the present moment. Flow is something of a mystical feature. We’ve all had the experience of being engrossed in a particularly good book, movie, conversation or other event. This in-the-momentness can lead to extensive exposure to whatever the game is exposing.

Conclusion

So, how can games be leveraged then? Do we just play games in English/Spanish/Korean and assume these principles will play out and, viola, language learned? Of course not. Though, then again, maybe. Some(1) researchers(2) have found(3) that just playing games leads inherently to learning outcomes, and this can be language learning in some cases.

But certainly, with the help of a Vygostkian helper, we can bring our language learners along faster. Reinhardt and Sykes help us with this and developed what they call a “bridging activities” cycle (example). In these cycles teachers help students explore these game worlds, analysis them and then perform them back in their authentic contexts.

 

 

I’m not lesson planning because blog

My 7th graders recently spent some time trying to figure out the difference between “because ______” and “because OF _____” in preparation for their midterm tests.  It caused a whole lot of consternation, even though the answer is fairly straightforward and easy to follow.

Simply, “because [reason]” is used to introduce a secondary clause; while “because of [reasons]” is used, like prepositions do, with noun phrases.

“I can’t go tonight because I have too much homework.”

“I can’t go tonight because of work.”

Simple.

Unfortunately, 7th graders have a hard time understanding the difference between Independent Clauses and Noun Phrases (Hell, I had trouble with the idea of verbs in 7th grade).  So it can actually be more tricky than normal to explain at times.  But since I don’t actually teach grammar, this responsibility mostly fell on the shoulders of my co-teacher.

However, it took almost everything I had to not teach the kids my favorite grammatical structure, which completely breaks this rule.

The “Because reasons” structure.

It’s an emerging usage that I’m sure really annoys a lot of people, but I just can’t get enough of it.  It think it’s funny in almost any situation.  Twitter is abuzz with this usage, here are some examples.

As you can see from the examples, the usage doesn’t exactly replace the “because of” structure.  Instead, it carves out it’s own little category within.  “Because reasons” is used to exaggerate the meaningfulness of the reasons.  Something like,

“I can’t go tonight (and it should be completely obvious why that I’m not even going to waste my time explaining) because reasons.”

Or, it used when there really aren’t any reasons, but the speaker wants to promote their proposition anyway, like this example:

because reasons 1

However, because the “because reasons” structure is used either jovially or emphatically, it can be misused, particularly in situations when stating the reason is actually necessary. Take this example:

because reasons 2

Notice that the writer actually then produces the reasons for disagreement.  The “because reasons” usage feels out of place.  Which is not to say it is ungrammatical. It seems as grammatical as any other use, it just feels less appropriate, or at least less funny.

The grammar of “because reasons” involves the adverbial conjunction “because” changing its part of speech into a preposition.  This is actually more interesting than it sounds, as it is not everyday that a new word becomes a preposition.  Language mavens may lament what they call “Zombie nouns”, but the truth is, one of the beautiful facts of English that words can move in and out of certain categories (like nouns to verbs, or vice versa).  But not all word categories easily do so.  Prepositions are one such category.

“It is a little difficult”

In the “apartment” I live, I fit: a bed, fridge, closet, TV, a small folding table, kitchen area and a bathroom with a washer all in a smaller space than my room in my parent’s home. It’s small.

No bother.  I do not demand much else than what I have, though it would be nice to have room for company.  What I have in place of room, are white walls and one picture of my family.  I have facebook also, of course, which offers as many pictures and opportunities to communicate as I’d like.  But I only have one real picture, that I can feel with my fingers; and no room for chairs, that can be occupied by a companion.

While the white walls, on one hand, can drive a person crazy; they can also narrow my focus onto what it is I am striving to do here in Korea.  I have little room, literally, for distractions.  I don’t even have room for a bookcase, in the event that I decide to forget the harsh realities of Northern South Korea and lose myself in fantasy and abstractions.

The white walls though, they do not keep the loneliness out .  There is always a window through which I see both opportunities gone by or not yet realized.  Some of which are fantasy, some of which are potential.  As focused as I try to be, it is hard to not find myself looking out the window at times.

“So why do you stay?  How can you stand it?”

I am asked that a lot.  In part because I am a habitual complainer, but also because people recognize the difficulty of the situation.  And not everyone would trade places with me.  My answers are rarely satisfying to others and I imagine I don’t paint the most beautiful picture of this lived experience.

Robin Williams has shown me how I want to answer that question though.  In the movie, Dead Poets Society there is a short, seemingly unimportant scene (so much so that I am having trouble finding it on youtube) where Neil comes to Mr. Keating for help dealing with his father. While Keating makes some tea, Neil says, looking a picture of a beautiful woman playing the chello on Mr. Keatings desk:

“She’s pretty.”

“She’s also in London.  Makes it a little difficult.”

“How can you stand it?”

“Stand what?”

“You can’t go anywhere.  You can’t do anything.  How can you stand being here?”

“’Cause I love teaching.  I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

The last line is deftly delivered.  It is pointed, quick and obvious.  There is no thinking; teaching is fundamental to Mr. Keating.  Most, if not all, teachers understand that phrase, “I love teaching”.  Not many of us got into this profession for the love of something else.

But it is the second sentence, that answers Neil’s question. I don’t want to be anywhere else.  What does Keating want? Before this moment, it’s not even a question on our minds. His wants outside of teaching are obscured.  But in this scene, Keating is someone with love and a life outside of the private school he teaches at.  With a life outside the cramped office and white walls that keep him focused on his work.  “It is a little difficult” is said modestly.

— This scene starts with Mr. Keating sitting at his desk, working, but not focused.  He keeps looking at the picture of the woman on his desk.

And yet

I love teaching.  I don’t want to be anywhere else.

Linguistic change in Korean kinship terms

Not too long ago, I was made aware of an interesting linguistic phenomenon involving the Korean kinship term, “hyung” (형).  Usually, this term is used only between younger males and their older brothers/close friends as an honorific term.  But it seems that some, college-aged, women are also calling their older male friends “hyung.”

Despite the insistence of some on the internet that this does not happen, or that it is simply a fluke or a speech-error, I have witnessed half a dozen or so instances of this phenomenon.  And while many people simply have no interest in the subject or want to down-play its role in the Korean language, as an amateur linguist I am very interested in the socio-linguistic motivations for women to use ‘hyung’ instead of ‘oppa’.

Scholarly information seems to be limited on the subject and because I am not an expert in Korean linguistics or sociology, my ability to accurately describe the situation is no better than most of the ignorant masses on the internet.  Which, by the way, includes¸ many average Korean people.  So, with that, here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1) This linguistic act is mostly used by the 18-30 demographic.  It is possible that older speakers use it to an extent, and perhaps younger speakers use to some extent. (though the little data I *have* collected suggests that people younger than college-age do not use this term).

It could be that this is necessarily an 18-30 linguistic feature.  And not a linguistic change occuring in the 18-30 demographic.  Which would mean that as the women who are currently 18-30, leave their 30s, they may abandon the use of “hyung”.  This would suggest the usage is specific to a certain group or register.  As the photos show, it is considered a “university” usage.  It could also be that as the 18-30 women age, they will continue to use it, marking a broader linguistic change.

2) This linguistic change is being led by women and is above the level of conscious-awareness.  Here, we are specifically talking about the use of ‘hyung’ by women (which is really the only interesting usage).  But it is also possible that ‘onni’ could be used by men to describe older women, or in some other fashion.  As of yet, however, the only data I have seen suggests only women are making the kinship gender switch.  It will be interesting to see, in the future, whether or not all men, or some subgroups of men, make a similar kinship-term switch.

In conjunction with reason (3), this change comes “from above”, meaning it comes from a dominant social class (the middle), appears in careful speech (meaning, speakers choose overtly to say it) and is driven by extra-linguistic factors.

3) This linguistic change is happening mostly in the middle-class.  An interesting part of this phenomenon is that is it popularly acknowledged as something that happens in Korean universities. Suggesting that both before and after university, women are not expected or it is not considered appropriate for women to call older men, ‘hyung’.  This is a very tenuous hypothesis at this point, I’m basing it mostly under the assumption that those people who are attending Korean Universities are mostly middle-upper classes, and then making a guess that upper-class women don’t use ‘hyung’ for older men based on the idea that they have little need for social mobility, as they are already on top.

It would be interesting to see whether or not this linguistic change is more popular at less-prestigious universities or technical schools, where there are fewer of the upper-class attending.

This point, if true, is interesting in that it might suggest something about how women use ‘hyung’ as social capital.

To conclude, I invite any native speaker with anecdotes or other information, intuitions, to leave me a message somewhere, in the comments if you wish.  It would be very helpful to me.  If anyone knows any scholarly work that I get a hold of, I would love that.  And, of course, if you think I’m wrong about any of these hypothesizes, correct me!

Deflecting Questions

For those unaware of what I mean by “deflecting questions”, I mean the teaching technique of not immediately answering a question that is asked in your classroom.  Traditionally, in a teacher-centered, expert/novice teaching setting, the teacher is considered the knower-of-things and the students are the sponges, there to soak up the knowledge of the knower.  It follows, in traditional teaching, that if a question is to be answered at all, it would of course be done by the knower.

With the shift from teacher-centered classrooms to student or subject-centered classrooms, the idea of the teacher being the only “expert” is also in question.  For most questions asked in a classroom, it is more than likely that a student is also a knowerof-things.  Or at least, as a collective, the class may be able to come to some realization of the answer.

My experience in this classroom has strongly suggested that I work in a teacher-centered, expert/novice, knower-of-things/sponge class setting.  Which can feel like being in a time-machine. However, simply forcing a subject-centered approach on the class is not always greeted warmly by the students.  They have been conditioned to learn in a certain way, and it involves having an expert lead the class–  It is comforting to think someone in the classroom knows what they are doing– And at times, a redirected question back to them will be met with silence.

As a skill, however, deflection has a few great benefits, particularly in a language class.

1)     First, if students are actively asking you questions in class; congratulations! That sort of classroom participation is not always achieved everywhere.  And congratulations to your students, who are probably very bright.

2)     Now that you’ve been asked, and deflected a question in the target language¸ the class now has more opportunity to use the target language in an authentic situation!

3)     Since the question came from a peer, often the class is much more interested in hearing an answer to the question.  At the very least, they are very interested in how you, the teacher, will handle the question as a template for future question/answers.

4)     Because the question came from a peer, students will be motivated to participate, either out of perceived cooperation or competition.

5)     By deflecting, you show the students that you value their thoughts, even if their thinking is flawed, illogical or irrational.  As a teacher, you can guide the students through their own confusion, without necessarily having to point the fact of it out to them.

—  Now, certainly deflecting questions in an ESL setting where you as the teacher do not speak the students’ language is a difficult task.  Often times even if I did answer a question, it still isn’t understood by the students.  Which is really only more reason to deflect the question back to the students, who, if they have a good answer, are better suited (knowing both Korean and some English) to help the question-asker to learn.

To finish, I’ll show an example of this that commonly happens in my classroom.

My students love spelling.  They love it and fear it.  It is a cause of much anguish to have to write for some of them.  So a common question that I get asked is “how do you spell ________?”  This question is not one of those great mind-bending, paradigm-shifting moments.  But it is an easy opportunity to deflect and get the class to participate in constructing and navigating English.  Especially since spelling is, apparently to some, so “random”.

So instead of answering, I might ask, “Hmm.. well, what do you think?”  and then ask, “any other ideas?” even if they get it right. Then maybe ask the class,
“Student X has a question, how do you spell _________?”
“ok, any other ideas?”
“Why spell it ______ instead of _____?”
— It is here that I could answer it, being the authority in the classroom.  But it is also an opportunity to teach the students how to discover resources, like a dictionary. So, instead, I might say,
“Let’s look it up!  Looks like it is spelled __________.”

You can even make a game of this, asking for bets on which spelling they think is correct.  Any single question, even a simple spelling question can go as deep or as shallow as you have time for.  There certainly are times when I will simply give the student the correct spelling, but if I can, I try to give them much more.

The Senses as Metaphor

Over the Korean Thanksgiving holiday, I had more than a few opportunities to talk with friends and strangers in Korean.  Such opportunities are always a mixture of self-loathing and confidence-building.

I had a thought one night after coming home from a full day of mumbling my way through conversations in a department store, that my level of fluency in Korean is at least 80% determined by the willingness of the listener to try to hear me.  It is amazing what a cooperative conversational partner can do with whatever it is we should call my Korean language ability.

Conversely, it is equally distressing how little I am able to communicate with someone who either chooses not to hear me, or through their own shyness/fear or inexperience, cannot hear me.  Suddenly all those inspirational stories, phrases and advice about “listening instead of speaking” I’ve received have new meaning.  It’s not that someone who listens more is better than someone who speaks, it’s that the vast majority of communication is accomplished on the listening end of it all.  Speech is necessary for listening (though, clearly not for communication), but even the most eloquent speaker can be misunderstood by a poor or inexperienced listener.

And I say inexperienced sincerely.  Listening, while the birthright of most humans, is a skill, chiseled by effort and time into a fine work.  It is not a passive skill nor does a person who listens much more than speaks a passive person.  It is a laborious effort for most and comes easily only to very few people.  I suspect there are a few “good listeners” out there who are really just quiet, which is not exactly the same, though if one wishes to develop listening, being quiet is a place to start.

My thinking about listening led me to this idea: First, sense words (sight, sound, etc) have secondary meanings in English to convey the meaning “I understand”.  The first to come to mind was, “hear”, as in “I hear you.”  A phrase I have come to really like due in small part to the movie, Australia.  My idea being that while many of the words for senses can convey understanding, words for “speaking” could not.  Here are a few:

“I hear you.”
“I feel you.”
“I see.”
“I’m touched.”

I thought I had stumbled upon an interesting phenomoneon (by which I don’t mean to imply I am the first).  However, I soon realized that “speak” can also be used to convey understanding:

“That speaks to me.”

Though I find the structure to be interesting, in a way I’m not particularly clear on yet.  The “speaks” example is slightly different in meaning (they all are) than the others, and “see” is really the only one that strictly conveys the idea, “I understand”.  The other tend to also imply a sense of empathy or other emotion.  “speaks” for example, seems to me to say something like, “I’m struck by this” or some other sense of wonder.  “touch” suggests connection, sympathy or gratitude.

So my idea is wrong, in addition, I can think of no way that the word “taste” is commonly used as a metaphor for understanding. “Delicious” is often used to convey a sense of goodness about something other than taste-oriented senses, but understanding isn’t one of them.  If you’ve got one, let me know.