Saturday, December 05, 2009

Slip me some skin...

Following on from last week’s post, my singing voice has been severely tested this week, as I inflicted Little Boxes on every class from Tuesday to Friday, with generally pleasing results. I think if we do this as a warm-up exercise at the beginning of every class, it will have the desired effect i.e. to get the students more in tune with the cadence of the English language. I have been scouring the WWW for suitable song lyrics and will introduce one every month till the time comes around for the TOEIC torture-chamber again. However, if my notion is correct, I expect it will be less of a torture-chamber in 2010. As we only have a couple of weeks left before the end of this term, and Christmas is coming, Felix Bernard’s 1934 Winter Wonderland will get an airing next before we call it a day for 2009.

Another thing I tried this week was watching a VHS video movie clip, with Japanese subtitles, to see if there was good correlation between what was said on screen and what appeared at the foot of the screen. It turned out that there was, after a fashion, in that the students could understand what was going on on screen but they were generally unable to catch what the English words were, even after several repetitions. This seems to be because of elision, or syllable omission, which native speakers do as a matter of course when speaking naturally.

The clip I chose was from the 1987 movie Good morning Viet Nam, which made Robin Williams into a star. This movie is set in Saigon in 1965 just as the Viet Nam ‘police action’ is about to escalate into a full-blown conflict. At about 1.17 the main character (Adrian Cronauer) first tells an outrageous falsehood, then resorts to bribery in order to persuade the Army EFL teacher to allow him to take over the class, so he can get a chance at dating the Vietnamese girl in white. In Japanese subtitles the soldier’s response is gojiyuu ni, which means ‘feel free’ or something like that. However, what he actually says is “ ’sallyurrs – yuugaddit” (It’s all yours, you’ve got it). The rest of the clip shows how the new ‘teacher’ is then hopelessly out of his depth as he has no idea how to proceed. He eventually has to confess that he is not a real teacher but achieves a measure of success, and popularity with the students by teaching them Harlem street slang. As he says, in the real world this is probably somewhat more useful to them than the hackneyed phrases the ‘real’ teacher was trying to teach, even though they were grammatically perfect.

I think it is unlikely that the TOEIC test is ever going to test for knowledge of phrases like ‘slip me some skin’ or ‘groovy’, but it does use lots of natural spoken English in its listening sections. There are a lot of examples of elision in this short clip, which I was able to exploit and I hope will be useful to my students, especially for TOEIC.

Full marks to those who noticed the subtitles are in Chinese not Japanese, but I’m sure my main assertion holds true.


Vincent said...

Wow, English is so difficult. I have been speaking it all my life, but your blog shows me how challenging it must be for foreigners. And I seem to have noticed that for Japanese, it is especially difficult.

Cap'n BrainDeath said...

Yes it is... and that's why I have a job. The Japanese Education Ministry teaches English as though it were Latin -- a dead language. But it is a
_living_ language, subject to all kinds of influences... Latin, Saxon, Viking and finally French after the 1066 invasion. No wonder it is so difficult!

Trouble is.. it has become the International Language. Do you know why this happened... ?

Vincent said...

No, I don't know how it happened. I know that centuries ago, Latin was the international language of scholarship. Then French became the international language of diplomacy.

What languages did international merchants use? I imagine they improvised as best they could in the circumstances they found themselves in.

We know that Italian was the international language of music.

Spanish was possibly the international language of something.

Perhaps German was an international language of philosophy at some stage.

Sanskrit was an international language of oriental scriptures, except where Pali was a rival.

And so on. But I hope that the songs you introduce your students to don't burden them too much with the difficulty. Your Japanese students won't want to learn a dead language but nor will they be likely to use any kind of ghetto-slang!

When I worked in Sabah (North Borneo) in '81, I learned a little "bazaar Malay", a rudimentary lingua franca suitable for communication between the Tamils, Hokkien-speakers, Malays and gweilos/mat sallehs/orang putih like me.

If I were Japanese I would aim first to speak a "bazaar English", to understand and be understood in everyday affairs and work-life. My second ambition would be to learn "educated" English so as to be accepted in a given stratum of society and overcome a "complete foreigner" label.

Cap'n BrainDeath said...

Good article on lingua francas

As for how English gradually became the world's lingua franca, go back to 1805 and the Battle of Trafalgar.

Nelson triumphed due to several factors, but one of the most effective was the skill of his gun crews, who could fire up to 3 double-shotted raking broadsides every 5 minutes.

The Franco-Spanish crews could manage one in the same time at best. Also technology had a hand in it. British casting technolgy was the world's best at the time giving superior hardness to the cast-iron roundshot in use.

So they did much more damage each time they fired. After Trafalgar the Royal Navy effectively ruled the oceans till the end of the age of sail and beyond and the British Empire began to expand, till the sun never set on it. Part of the 'white man's burden' was educating the colonial subjects and so...

My students are all engineers and research scientists at the steel company I work for and they like this explanation a lot...

Cap'n BrainDeath said...

Sorry Vincent.. should have said 'go to Wikipedia' for the lingua franca article.

As for my students, teaching them songs is all about getting them used to the cadence of Natural English so as to improve their listening skills.

Then they will get a higher score on TOEIC and become happier, more motivated and easier to teach. My job will become easier.

If enough of them do this--then maybe even the company will notice and give me a bigger half-year bonus.

Instrumental motivation, I believe it is called. hth

Tamara said...

Cap'n, I have onnly recently become aware of your blog, and I read your post regarding "Good Morning, Vietnam" with interest. I'd love to steal a little of your time to discuss it with you, if possible. My personal email address is