Homophones – pain in the neck?

Recently it has come to my attention that I tend to misspell certain words. Such a discovery may not seem particularly groundbreaking since everybody errs. What does bother me a bit though is that these misspellings often pass unnoticed (by me as well as my spellchecker). I’m specifically talking about homophones, i.e. words having the same pronunciation but different meanings. Although for some reason, it’s unlikely that I will confuse mourning with morning, chances are that I will use brake instead of break without realizing that there’s something wrong with my sentence. I mean, I obviously know the difference between the two expressions but I confuse them nevertheless. Other words I tend to ball up are basic words such as heel vs heal, knew vs. new. Believe it or not, I even caught myself using no instead of know once or twice. And yes, once vs one’s can be tricky too. Well, it seems that the more notorious the word is, the higher probability there is that I will mess things up. Also, short words tend to be trickier since generally, you automatically pay more attention when producing more complex language. This implies (to me) that as I write, I actually hear the words in my head. Funnily enough, once I’m using a more complex expression, which I’m not 100% sure how to pronounce, I hear myself spelling it in my mind (the Czech way though).

Anyway, I’ve recently learned that as far as homophones are concerned, a difference in spelling doesn’t always indicate a difference of origin. As a rule of thumb, dictionaries treat homophones as different words simply because they are spelt differently. So a traditional dictionary will not give you a clue as to whether the words are historically of the same origin. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll find out that for example flower and flour have much more in common than you would expect. So, a crazy question occurred to me: is this type of ancient knowledge somehow ingrained in our brains? Well, my hypothesis is a bit flawed, at least in my case, because I’m not a native speaker of English. But still, maybe one of my genes was inherited from someone whose mother tongue was English indeed. Shakespeare maybe? Who knows? One thing is certain, language and brains are amazing entities. At the same time, I think it’s not really surprising that the brain, having to constantly make millions of decisions at every point of our lives, occasionally chooses the wrong option out of the two available in its inventory – and opts for no instead of know. It’s not a tragedy after all; unless this misstep influences our future in some way, everything is fine (apart from the fact that we made idiots of ourselves).

But here’s the thing. While I sometimes err when it comes to homophones, my students don’t as often as one might suppose. They throw around all sorts of other spelling mistakes, particularly typos are their favourites, and they like to coin new words too. But homophones? No, that’s not a big problem. There’s this idea at the back of my mind, I must have heard it somewhere, so correct me if I’m wrong, that native speakers tend to make homophone errors more often than L2 learners do. So my hypothesis is (and maybe somebody out there has already tested this) that the more frequently you are exposed to a language, the better you get at it but at the same time, you become more susceptible to committing a homophone error in writing. It seems that when your level of L2 is not high enough, which is the case of some of my students, your brain really needs to focus on in what is happening and is less prone to making careless mistakes of this sort. I mean, when producing and essay, my students probably think twice before engraving their words in stone (at least in the ideal world scenario), so these slips will not happen as often. They simply want to get things right and thus play it safe. So confusing weak with week is most likely off the table because they are familiar with both words but don’t use them too automatically yet. On the other hand, they might not even ‘consider’ confusing words such as wright vs right, simply because they are NOT familiar with the former. However, when they have enough knowledge, they might do so as a result of trying to use a rule in a context where it does not belong (overgeneralization error).

To conclude on a happier note, homophones are not just a pain in the neck. They can be fun since they are used to create puns, which is a feature I like to use in my lessons.

What about you and homophones?

Dictation – yes/no/why/how?

0The other day I read Scott Thornbury’s post D is for Dictation. Following the example set by the author, I decided to ponder the value of this popular classroom activity.

There must be something magical about dictation because it was one of the most frequent activities we did in Czech lessons during my formal education, and it still holds true nowadays. The thing is that my mother tongue is a very complicated language and it takes Czech kids ages to learn the rules of its written form. The only advantage is that unlike English, Czech is written as it is heard (with some exceptions, such as words with final voiced consonants, which are sometimes uttered voicelessly). Czech pupils start writing short dictations as soon as they start using a pen – around the age of 6-7 – and judging by the unflagging popularity of this classroom activity, it must be regarded one of the best ways of learning the language.

I’m not sure whether I use dictation for the same reasons why primary teachers over here use it to teach Czech, but I’m convinced that there is a place for dictation in an L2 classroom and that incorporating it into classes is beneficial in terms of language acquisition.

As my primary goal is to teach my students to communicate in English, I find it important to turn dictation into a communicative activity. Can I achieve this? What is a communicative activity at all? This is a question I already considered here and here. Anyway, I mainly use dictation to recycle written texts or audio recordings. My favourite activity is Write the last word you heard. This basically means that I play a recording my students are already familiar with, and at some point I stop the audio – usually where there is a full stop or after longer chunks of language. As the title of the activity implies, students write the last word they heard.

I believe that this procedure turns the dictation into a meaningful listening task; students are exposed to whole chunks/sentences, and they need to pay attention to the context, otherwise they won’t be able to pinpoint the last word. What’s more, while listening, they are forced to ‘replay’ bits and pieces of the text in the heads and they make quick, little choices before they finally zoom in on the word they are looking for. If possible, I deliberately select words that need to be practised – either because they were encountered in the previous lesson for the first time or because of their tricky spelling.

My students like this type of activity because it’s not too challenging – they don’t have to write long stretches of text, which is something they’re used to doing in Czech lessons. Nevertheless, you can obviously ask them to write more than just the last word. You can either ask them to write the first word, which will encourage them to hold each chunk in their memory for a while, or they can write as much as they manage within the time limit between the pauses. Alternatively, to give your learners more freedom, you can allow them to choose words they want to jot down. Later on, you can elaborate on this activity; your students can reconstruct the whole recording/text by completing the bits they’ve recorded. This resembles dictogloss – a classroom activity where learners are required to reconstruct a short text by listening and noting down the key words.

I believe that dictation plays a specific role in an L2 classroom, but it shouldn’t be overused – students need to be exposed to other forms of language practice after all. First of all, the teacher needs to get it clear why s/he wants to use it – is it to practise spelling, vocabulary, listening or something else? Is there a better, a more effective and a more communicative way of practising these language areas/skills or is dictation the right option? These are the decisions that must be made during the planning stage.

Google Fight

A couple of days ago I came across a post by Svetlana Kandybovich, in which she shares some great ideas for using Google in an L2 classroom. One of the tips I particularly liked was Googlefighta website that allows users to compare the number of search results returned by Google for two given queries. 

This tool is generally used for entertainment; you type two keywords and click on the ‘Fight’ button. The winner is the one which gets the biggest number of results on Google. So, I originally planned to use the tool in class for fun too, as a warm-up after Easter holidays, but at the same time, I secretly hoped for a sudden influx of sophisticated ideas related to language learning.

What obviously first came to mind was the concept of word frequency. It occurred to me that my students would find it interesting to see the differences in frequency counts of two words belonging to the same category/lexical set. To spice the activity up, we played a bidding game – each student made a bid on one of the words before I displayed  the actual results on the screen. So, for example, we found out that cat got more hits than dog. Those who had voted for cat won a point. But you can go further with this; you can develop this somewhat meaningless game into a useful linguistic exercise. If you check Longman Communication 3000, you’ll see that both cat (as a noun) and dog (as a noun) are in the list of the 3000 most frequent words in both spoken and written English, but dog is a bit more frequent in written English than cat. If you’re brave enough to play with corpora a bit, you can go to COCA, where the word cat gets 17, 284 hits, while the word dog gets 40, 020 hits. Now, you can ask your students why they think it is so. Why the different results? Is it because there are more cats than dogs or vice versa? Does the word dog have only one meaning? Is it always a noun? What about cat? Does the fact that Google doesn’t sort out words according to parts of speech influence the frequency counts? Are the words displayed plural, singular or both? What about various abbreviations and acronyms?

The exact numbers are not terribly important, but through these activities, you can develop in your students the ability to notice some very important aspects of lexis. This can be a nice lead-in to some dictionary work. I personally like working with a paper edition of Dictionary of Contemporary English because the meanings of words are listed in order of frequency, i. e. the most common meaning is shown first. The 3000 most common words in English are printed in red letters, which shows which are the most important words to learn/know. This is a very important piece of information some dictionaries neglect, and as a result, students can’t work with it.

I was very pleased with my students because they asked me some interesting questions during today’s lesson; for example, they asked me to type in pairs such as colour/color, favourite/favorite because they wanted to see which spelling was more frequent. Once again, it was interesting to think about the why. This pushed the discussion into a different dimension. Ironically, here in the Czech Republic we like to say and believe that we teach British English, using coursebooks published in the UK, yet from the global perspective, the American way of spelling of certain words seems to be more common. This finding may subsequently lead to an interesting debate about the role of English in today’s changing world. Some other words my students were interested in were: football/soccer, black/white, film/movie, cinema/theatre, etc.