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Update: I had this whole post written about my personal observations on the a kind of sub-stratification between ‘native’ speakers like myself and my friend, and monolinguals. I decided to call us “second class native speakers”. Two weeks later, while I was still finalizing this post (’cause believe it or not, I spend more than one sitting pushing out these posts), I attended a two-day conference on this very subject. So at least my observations aren’t entirely crazy. But on the other hand, it makes me wonder how many times I’ll end up reinventing the wheel, simply from mere lack of exposure.

As it turns out, I was accessing two different phenomena: heritage language speakers, and semilinguals (now a somewhat contentious term). But of course, in my head, I somehow combined the two. It all started in my linguistics classes, when my Syntax textbook told me:

(1) *Bill kissed quietly his girlfriend

(2) Bill kissed his girlfriend quietly

I totally agree that (2) is more natural than (1); but at first blush, I wouldn’t have necessarily faulted a speaker if I heard him/her report that Bill had “kissed quietly his girlfriend”. After all, (1) isn’t exactly unclear, and there’s not clear ambiguity either.

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This is a bit of a second take on my original insight on double referents. I’m also going to change gears slightly by introducing two related-but-not-immediately-intuitive concepts, so I hope my dear readers will bear with me as you patiently wade through my confusion of jargon and pseudo-logic.

So I’m gonna start by explaining how these constructions work syntactically (at least, so far as my middling understanding can take it), and follow it up by why this type of error is so exciting. As a sort of refresher and motivation to work through this post, I was looking at the construction and deconstruction of the error generated by non-native speakers of English in phrases like (1) and (2).

(1) Your questions are always hard to answer (*it)!

(2) John is easy to please (*him).

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Sometimes, the smallest words make up the most interesting errors. A common speech error I’ve noticed among ESLers, is the addition/placement of “it” as the object in a complement. For example, consider the following:

*1. Your questions are always hard to answer it.
*2. What you just said is something that we cannot do it.

(Linguists conventionally head an unnatural sentence with a [*], and a questionably/regionally unnatural sentence with a [?])

In both cases, the “it” at the end is superfluous, because either (a) the whole complement (ie, the bit that goes after “is/are”) is used to describe the subject (the bit that goes before the “is/are”), and so it would create a recursive referent (e.g. “your questions are hard to answer themselves”); or (b) because it’s part of the subclause modifying the noun (e.g. “questions {that are hard to answer}).

But admittedly, this is a relatively high-level error. After all, consider the following related sentences:

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A lot of the friends that I’ve been making recently are from Japan, and so the topic of language acquisition naturally  crops up in conversation. “Joseph, why is your Japanese so good,” they’d ask. “What can I do to improve my English?” As both an English major and an amateur linguist, my answer is usually something like:

“access as many forms of media as possible. Watching sitcoms will give you natural expressions for natural situations. Reading novels and magazines will give you the breadth of vocabulary for sophisticated discourse. Speaking with native speakers will give you first-hand opportunity to practise and revise your speech patterns.”

But internally, my answer is simply a word: Rhetoric. Rhetoric is the secret success to any language learner. It’s the secret success to any speaker or writer, to any one who communicates effectively. And yet, it’s the one thing in language acquisition that is never explored. Everybody gets fixated on grammar and vocabulary, without considering the wide-ranging applications of rhetoric.

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COCA - Corpus of Contemporary American English
L1/L2/... - Primary/Secondary Language
NNS - Non-Native Speaker
NS - Native Speaker