Lexical overlap

One challenge of learning a language is that it's not just about picking up the new words, but about working out exactly how the meaning of the new words maps back on to the words in your first language – since it's rarely one-to-one. For example, the dictionary may give you a simple translation, but then when you see how native speakers use the word, its usage is not the same as the word in your native language.

I've been thinking about tebie in Chinese  (defined in the dictionary as 'especially/special/particular/unusual') , which is most often taken as meaning especially. But tebie is normally followed by shi (the verb 'to be'), so a literal translation from Chinese would give 'especially is..' – which doesn't make sense in English because especially is an adverb. Tebie often occurs in brackets e.g. Mobile phones (especially HTC phones) are becoming widespread in rural areas. The Chinese equivalent of this sentence would have (tebie shi…) for the bracketed part. 

Furthermore, tebie shi can start a sentence, qualifying the whole sentence, whilst in English we can only use especially to modify verbs. The equivalent of a sentence beginning tebie shi  would be one starting, In particular. 

Dan

Language learning: Extensive exposure or focused repetition

When learning a language, is it better to cover a lot of ground and achieve an initial exposure to a wide variety of language, or to instead reinforce a smaller area of learning so that the language studied becomes actively usable?

Obviously some mix of these is called for, and yet whilst it seems more sensible to incline towards the latter of these options, finding a kind of middle ground, I think it does depend on your actual goal in learning. If you intend to become fully fluent, then you intend to reinforce all of the material at some point, so maybe it is OK to cover a large amount of topics in a new language even if they are not yet sufficiently reinforced to be part of your active repertoire. After all, you will return to them later, and no impression on the mind is wasted, even if it is unlikely to be accessible/retrievable until reinforced.

I have met learners who insist on repeatedly going over the same vocabulary items and phrases so that they don't forget them, but since they do this they don't venture out and cover further topics, eliminating even the possibility of picking up further language (if you haven't ever encountered a language item, then it is impossible to learn it). This kind of defensive hold-your-ground approach to language learning seems defeatist from the outset.

In actuality, the approach taken will change according to the stage of the journey you are in – that is, 6 months in may call for a different approach from 2 years in, and both approaches are necessary at different times. And yet I think at all stages a more 'adventurous' attitude is a key to success.

Dan
@ NCL Proofreading Services

Rhetorical patterns in Chinese and English essay writing

This post will simply introduce the idea that there are different patterns of rhetoric (i.e. different conventions of essay structure) in written Chinese and written English, and contrast one particular Chinese rhetorical pattern – a so-called "Start-Sustain-Turn-Sum" pattern (Connor, 1996; Grabe & Kaplan, 1998; Hinds, 1990; Swales, 1990) – with the English introduction-body-conclusion essay structure.

To begin with, it is worth pointing out that culturally-based styles of structure can actually be very different, and that this difference has its origin in the divergent historical and philosophical pasts of the Chinese and Western peoples. As Igor observes, what is involved are the academic cultural norms and their unknowing subversion by those from a different background:

“Unlike the native speakers of English,
who expect expository prose to be developed as a
sequence of claims and (direct) Aristotelian proofs,
non-native users of English employ rhetorical
progression of text that are incongruous with the
expectations of the Anglo-American reader." (Igor, 2011, emphasis added)

The Chinese pattern to be mentioned here is one that has been called the "Start-Sustain-Turn-Sum" pattern, and is described in Xing, Wang and Spencer (2008) as follows: 

"It is claimed that Chinese rhetorical style consists of a four-part pattern: qi ('start, open') establishes the field or prepares the reader for the topic; cheng ('carry on, sustain') introduces and develops the topic; zhuan ('turn') turns to a seemingly unrelated subject or looks at the problem from another angle; and he ('conclude') sums up the essay whereby the author's opinion is established or hinted at (Connor, 1996; Grabe & Kaplan, 1998; Hinds, 1990; Swales, 1990, cited in Xing, Wang and Spencer, 2008, emphasis added)." 

The point to notice about this pattern is that it unfolds gradually before delivering the author's opinion – that is, the author's argument or fundamental thesis statement – at the end of the essay. In other words, it is the reverse of the claim and proof approach mentioned by Igor (2011). 

In the English pattern – introduction, body and conclusion – the main point would occur in the introduction and be supported or proven throughout the body and then finally summarised and highlighted in the final paragraph. In the Chinese structure mentioned here, the proofs precede the claim (which is given in the final paragaph). 

To what extent the Chinese rhetorical pattern mentioned here is actually taught on Chinese academic writing courses is not clear (it is certainly only one of a number of such patterns), but in any case an awareness of this difference should help Chinese students when writing essays in English. 

Dan

A contrast in Rhetorical Patterns of Chinese and English essay writing

This post will simply introduce the idea that there are different patterns of rhetoric (i.e. different conventions of essay structure) in written Chinese and written English, and contrast one particular Chinese rhetorical pattern – a so-called "Start-Sustain-Turn-Sum" pattern (Connor, 1996; Grabe & Kaplan, 1998; Hinds, 1990; Swales, 1990) – with the English introduction-body-conclusion essay structure.

To begin with, it is worth pointing out that culturally-based styles of structure can actually be very different, and that this difference has its origin in the divergent historical and philosophical pasts of the Chinese and Western peoples. As Igor observes, what is involved are the academic cultural norms and their unknowing subversion by those from a different background:

“Unlike the native speakers of English,
who expect expository prose to be developed as a
sequence of claims and (direct) Aristotelian proofs,
non-native users of English employ rhetorical
progression of text that are incongruous with the
expectations of the Anglo-American reader." (Igor, 2011, emphasis added)

The Chinese pattern to be mentioned here is one that has been called the "Start-Sustain-Turn-Sum" pattern, and is described in Xing, Wang and Spencer (2008) as follows: 

"It is claimed that Chinese rhetorical style consists of a four-part pattern: qi ('start, open') establishes the field or prepares the reader for the topic; cheng ('carry on, sustain') introduces and develops the topic; zhuan ('turn') turns to a seemingly unrelated subject or looks at the problem from another angle; and he ('conclude') sums up the essay whereby the author's opinion is established or hinted at (Connor, 1996; Grabe & Kaplan, 1998; Hinds, 1990; Swales, 1990, cited in Xing, Wang and Spencer, 2008, emphasis added)." 

The point to notice about this pattern is that it unfolds gradually before delivering the author's opinion – that is, the author's argument or fundamental thesis statement – at the end of the essay. In other words, it is the reverse of the claim and proof approach mentioned by Igor (2011). 

In the English pattern – introduction, body and conclusion – the main point would occur in the introduction and be supported or proven throughout the body and then finally summarised and highlighted in the final paragraph. In the Chinese structure mentioned here, the proofs precede the claim (which is given in the final paragaph). 

To what extent the Chinese rhetorical pattern mentioned here is actually taught on Chinese academic writing courses is not clear (it is certainly only one of a number of such patterns), but in any case an awareness of this difference should help Chinese students when writing essays in English. 

Dan

Chinese University entrance exams

This past week was China's 'Gaokao' week – the week when Chinese high school students sat the exams that determine the rest of their lives. The emergency services were on stand by for students who faint, building sites hushed, flights redirected, and the whole nation put on tip toes during the exam period. Competition is intense – parents and children endure ridiculous amounts of stress. But it is easy to understand why. 

This year's figures from the Chinese Ministry of Education show that 9.15 million students are competing for only 6.85 million college slots. (Huffingtonpost, 07/06/2012)

The measures employed to ensure success are extreme by Western standards: 

Students have reportedly been given pre-exam injections and intravenous drips designed to boost energy levels, while girls have resorted to hormone injections and birth control pills to delay menstruation. (Brisbane Times)

But from the perspective of an English teacher, I have the impression that until this exam system is reformed and takes on a more communicative style of assessment (e.g. testing speaking and listening skills in a realistic manner), the whole system of language education from kindergarden to high school will remain largely uncommunicative. That is, it will hinder classroom teaching from producing communication skills because all that matters is preparing for the exam. 

At the moment it is the Gaokao exam that shapes the type of teaching strategies used throughout Chinese schooling, and so if there is to be change in language teaching pedagogies (and that is another topic for discussion), reform must first take place in the Gaokao. 

Dan 

How to use a corpus when doing free L2 writing

I just want to point out one strategy that can really aid language learning: use an online searchable corpus when doing free writing. For example, if you are learning Chinese (like I am), you can use Jukuu.

The benefits of this are that when you want to know how to say something in Chinese you can search for the expression in English, and then it lists example sentences in Chinese that are equivalent to that English phrase. This means that you can then put the Chinese sentence into the dictionary and extract the phrase you are looking for and use it in your writing. For instance, if you want to know how to write 'firstly' in Chinese, rather than use a dictionary directly (which gives you no context for the usage of these phrase), search for 'firstly' in a corpus like Jukuu and it will give you a number of contextualised alternatives for you to choose from.

Using a corpus in this way effectively weaves the benefits of reading into the writing process: reading exposes you to natural target language expressions and writing is the manipulation of these expressions to produce your own text. This process is accelerated when you use a corpus, and enables learners to acquire target language expressions from texts that in themselves would be far too difficult to be read in their entirety.

Language teaching in UK schools

The UK government is to make learning a foreign language compulsory in British schools from age 7 (so the Telegraph announced today – see the article here). 

But what is more interesting is which languages are to be offered. Latin is back. Greek is back. And Mandarin is to be added to the traditional options of French, German and Spanish.

I personally think this is a very good idea for three reasons. Firstly, it will give young people a grasp of grammar that they cannot get any other way – because there is no instruction in English grammar, in English schools. The knowledge of grammar gained from learning a foreign language is probably helpful as they learn to write grammatically in English. 

Secondly, it may take advantage of the so-called critical period during which children are able to learn languages more effectively. 

Thirdly, it will make language learning a lot easier for the large numbers of people who will go on to learn another foreign language later in life. 

In my work as a proofreader I mainly read writing by international students, and I know how hard it is to master a foreign language and be able to write in it effectively. The earlier we start, the better, since in an increasingly connected world with cosmopolitan cities and companies, Britain can't afford to be monolingual any longer. 

Dan