Francisco Marmolejo’s “Deficiency in Foreign Language Competency: What Is Wrong with the U.S. Educational System?,” which appeared on The Chronicle‘s website yesterday, is worth reading. I won’t summarize it here, but I do wonder if the attitudes he describes have anything to do with a comment I sometimes hear when I ask a student if he or she knows another language or plans to learn one: “I’m no good at languages.” I thought the same thing of myself thirty years ago. Fortunately, life circumstances and patient teachers later taught me that motivation and practice mattered more than mere aptitude.

One would think that the British and Americans could easily communicate with one another. After all, we share much media, and the occasional differences in vocabulary are more fun than disruptive. Still, as Vicki Hollett recently pointed out in the case of Tony Hayward’s bungled appearance before the U.S. Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, there is often more to it than mere words. See “A British Apology” on Vicki’s similarly themed blog, Learning to Speak ‘merican.

Perhaps our very commonalities cause trouble in the first place. At least when someone speaks with a non-native accent, we can make some allowances for cross-cultural differences—well, some of the time, anyway. BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg’s empathy for the “small people” affected by the mess in the Gulf of Mexico still rubbed Americans the wrong way.

I have been editing an interesting manuscript over the past couple weeks. While I cannot comment about the specifics, one simple truth has emerged from the process of editing and interacting with the author that I think is worth sharing. Please forgive the lack of examples.

Problems in thoughtful, but still unpolished manuscripts frequently offer authors opportunities to become clearer in their own minds about what they want to say. While it can be frustrating to discover that something one sweated over for hours will not work, it helps to embrace the problems that emerge, because they frequently force one to make connections one had not seen before. The result will be not only greater clarity in the author’s own mind, but a sharper, crisper, more interesting manuscript.

Some of you might see a contradiction between this video and my previous blog post, Tough Love, since that post pushes students to learn how to write standard English well. There is no contradiction, however, because using language is all about communicating effectively with your audience. If you strive to make a good impression in a professional work environment in an English-speaking country, then standard English you must learn. But if you are communicating with friends and family and in other informal occasions, you can treat English much more flexibly. Of course, any deviations you produce will still tend to occur within the language’s flexible, but not arbitrary grammar and syntax, but that’s another story for another day.

[hat tip for video: kalinagoenglish]

Here is some tough love from an English professor that is worth passing on to native speakers, whether still in college or out in the workforce:

Everything one needs to know to use the language clearly, correctly, and even stylishly is available in thousands of places, often free and rarely at a price of more than a few dollars. The nation is full of secondhand bookshops where $15 will get a used dictionary, an old copy of The Elements of Style, and a grammar handbook. Learning to write and speak clear, standard English is mostly a question of will. Some subjects require face-to-face instruction from an expert and hands-on practice under expert supervision. But when the subject is one’s own language, ignorance is a choice.

In some ways this idea applies to non-native speakers too. While you might need classes with a teacher, you should also study a lot on your own.

Source of quote: Art Scheck, “Old Books, Old Stories,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 12, 2009.

If you begin an independent clause with however, you need to preface it with a semi-colon.

I would like to spend the winter break on the beach; however, I do not have enough time or money for such a vacation.

I would have turned the paper in on time; however, my little brother’s dog ate my computer.

Sometimes, however, people prefer to put this word in the middle of a clause, like I just did. Then it needs to be set off by commas.

I would like to watch a movie. I can’t, however, because I have more papers to grade.

If you use however is at the end of a clause, it also needs a comma.

I would like to eat some candy corn. There is none in this apartment, however.

I would like to eat some candy corn. There is none in this apartment, however, so I will have to live without it.

There is no semi-colon before the however in the last example, because however does not begin an independent clause. Compare it with my first two examples. It is at the end of the first clause, as I hope the second-to-last example makes clear.

Here are the most common grammar mistakes I saw in student writing in my history courses this summer. Each one is linked to the page I referenced in my comments in each paper that contained such an error. The first four links lead to the amazing OWL at Purdue, and the last one leads to an article on this blog.

Native and non-native speakers alike make these mistakes. Some non-native speakers also had trouble with definite and indefinite articles. I always thought that the lack of articles was a peculiarity of Slavic languages, but I found the issue come up with some Korean students too. Some native speakers of Spanish also ran into trouble with the because they use this article differently in their own language.

One way to learn English is to live with an American family and take care of its children as an au pair. I teach a lot of young women who do this. The results are usually quite good, especially in terms of listening and speaking. Unfortunately, some au pairs get matched with families that speak no English at all. This might still work if the au pair can learn English outside of the family. She has to take one English class anyway, but she also needs to spend a lot of time with friends speaking English. Unfortunately, some families have the au pair work far more than five days or forty hours a week. When that happens, she will have a hard time making friends and learning English.

Every au pair that I have taught has stories to tell about the parents and kids, because living with a family and raising kids forces au pairs to come to terms with American culture on a very basic level, starting with manners and food. Most can get annoyed, but they like it here, and many extend their stay from one year to two. Unfortunately, however, there are also families that make their au pair work six or seven days a week, and I have even heard of one that wanted to require its au pair to go to church, as if there were no such thing as freedom of conscience in this country.

The au pair agency is supposed to help au pairs who have been badly matched, but from the stories I hear, the results vary greatly by agency. Every horror story told me has come from someone working for Cultural Care. It seems its counselors have no incentives to make sure that the young women visiting this country have good working conditions. Little wonder, then, that their web page advertises “A flexible, affordable program!” (One possible translation: We can get you someone to work for you for $100 per week and we will not interfere if you make her work six or seven days a week.) By contrast, Au Pair in America has two major links on their modest homepage, “Become a Host Family” and “Become an Au Pair.” This setup reflects the reality I have heard from au pairs who came through this agency. The counselors work for both the parents and the au pairs. If there is a problem, a solution is worked out with both sides in mind.

I would like to be more specific, but I cannot without violating the privacy of students I have had. I just want to get the word out about the consistently bad stories I have heard about Cultural Care. I also want potential au pairs to think about what questions to ask before they sign a contract. Don’t just ask what the host family will expect of you. Find out how the au pair agency operates in this country. What incentives do its counselors have for looking after your best interests and not just those of the host family? How are disputes resolved? These questions matter, because unforeseen problems can easily arise. What if you unexpectedly encounter a family that doesn’t think you should go out at night during your free time? What if a host father thinks nothing of walking into your room when you’re not there and inspecting the contents of your fridge? Or what if no one in the host family eats together or talks, instead turning only to the TV or computer? What if the family lied to you about the working hours? These and many other issues can come up, and you need to have a way to resolve them. Make sure your agency will be on your side.

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