Monday, September 26, 2011

Run on sentences - How I hate thee!

Whether it is because of poor teaching or a natural love of stream of consciousness writing, many people, even the most intelligent and organized, write horrible run on sentences.  They sound like a hysterical five year old telling his mother about his day:  I walked in the class and Johnny threw a brick at me and I cried and the teacher came and asked me what was wrong and I hit Johnny and I was punished.
To set the record straight, a sentence is ONE idea structurally consisting of one SUBJECT, which may have more than one part, and one VERB, which may have more than one action as long as they all relate to the same subject.
In simple terms, the subject can be simple, as in Boys, or compound, as in Boys and girls.  The verb can simple, as in laugh, or compound, as in laugh and cry.  You cannot have two separate sets of subjects and verbs.  Therefore, Boys and girls laugh and cry is grammatically correct while Boys laugh and girls cry is incorrect.  Instead of the word and, you can use the conjunction while: Boys laugh while girls cry; Alternatively, you can use the word with and put the verb in the ing form: Boys laugh, with girls crying.    Finally, you can write two sentences: Boys laugh. Girls cry.  That is the stereotype of children’s reaction to violence.
So, the next time you write a sentence in an email or composition, make sure there are one subject and one verb.  If not, please make the changes and make your teacher/editor much happier!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Rooted Differences or Meaning What You Say

One of the personal pleasures of traveling is hearing familiar sounds that have entirely different meanings.  A sound set, a word or series of words, may come from unrelated roots in a language or language family.  In other words, regardless of the spelling, what you thought you heard is not what they meant.  For example, the sound riba in Hebrew (accent on second syllable to be exact) refers to jam while in Russian it refers, accent on the first syllable, it refers to fish.  If a host asks you if you want riba on your sandwich, you might be rather surprised if you aren’t paying attention to the language.
Of course, these plays on roots provide wonderful opportunity for puns.  It is known that un oeuf is enough for some people, although I prefer three eggs.  If you munch some cacahouètes with your beer, you are eating peanuts, not something wet and stinky from the cat box.  A relative of mine, just off the boat from France, was watching a nature movie and remarked “Look at the phoque.”  She was referring to a seal, not to the mating activity.
This phenomenon of multiple meaning to similar sounding roots is an ideal way of learning vocabulary.  I took an intense Russian course which required me to learn some 50 words a day, an extremely difficult feat considering that all of the roots were new to me.  We had the word гордится [gorditcya], which means to be proud.  Faced with the fact the English root was so distant from the Russian root, I connected the Russian word to the name of a California town, Gardenia, where I would not be so proud to live in, for no particular reason.  The result is that I still remember that name.
I would love to hear other examples from people who have run into confusing root pairs and have lived to laugh at them.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Future Is Obvious

Native language speakers, especially ESL teachers, quickly learn to identify non-native speakers.   Accent is less important than what is termed translation errors, meaning structures translated literally from the speaker’s native tongue.
A classic Hebrew speaker mistake is the use of the future tense in temporal clauses, i.e. after the words when, after, as soon as, etc.  Hebrew is a quite straight forward language regarding tenses.  When the meaning is in the future, you put the verb in the future.  By contrast, English avoids use of the future tense as much as possible, almost entirely limiting to the use in the independent clause, the main verb in the sentence.  Dependent parts are assumed to be in the same tense as the main verb and are thus written in the present simple.  Native speakers take this fact for granted, but English as a second language speakers often struggle with this tendency.
For example, in Hebrew, one would write .כאשר אבין את המאמר הזה, אסביר לך, with the two underlined verbs in the future, as compared to the English version:  When I understand this article, I will explain it to you.  The independent part of the sentence is the future, making it obvious that the whole sentence is in the future.
Isn’t that clear?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Reflections on a Trip to L.A.

It would seem to imply that to live in a country over a long period of time would encompass all aspects of that country, including speaking the language.  That would seem especially true for an immigrant country like the United States, where the only factor in common among people could be speaking English.
In fact, what struck me on my trip was the lack of “English immersion” in the United States.  I knew that many people lived in Spanish or other language ghettos, but to see it in practice was a bit shocking.  Large numbers of people who have lived in the United States for 20+ years are unable to understand a simple conversation in English.  In many cases, these English non-functional people came in the 20’s or 30’s or even were born there!  As an immigrant to Israel, I made it my highest priority to function in Hebrew.  It seems to me to be a basic part of participating in society.
By contrast, I saw some Turks at the airport in Istanbul who spoke German like a German because they were German in the sense of fully living in Germany.  I have seen Africans speak much better French than most French people themselves.  In Israel, there are older immigrants, such as Ethiopians and Russians, who because of their surroundings and age, find it difficult to speak Hebrew.  However, most younger immigrants quickly and willingly learn to function in Hebrew. 
I would be curious to hear other people’s reaction and exposure to this phenomenon.