Dec 092013

Today Google popped up with a wonderful link to an interview from the past that I enjoyed emensely. It was a Letterman interview with a lady called Grace Hopper.


Her discourse style was so intriguing – military style? (I found it so interesting. How outdated would it be today?) And I was also intrigued by her last question. She wanted to know what David Letterman’s ancestry was. He clearly had little idea, but it seemed to be important to her. But not to him. Were we watching a generational shift at work?

Any thoughts?
Here’s another related post.

I’ve been sent a link to a comic about Grace Hopper, designed to inspire more young women to pursue careers in Computer Science.
Here’s the link: a comic about Grace Hopper? Here’s the link so you can check it out:

 Posted by at 7:28 am
Oct 202013

I’m continuing on with some responses to some of the great questions that flew by in the chat yesterday. As I mentioned before – it’s almost impossible to frame questions perfectly in webinar conditions so some of these questions could look like they don’t make  much sense if you weren’t there. I’m hoping you’ll be able to get the gist nevertheless.

Question 2. Anne Hodgson (Berlin): How to respond to negative politeness in students (responding in the context of hierarchy)? and Question 11. Anne Hodgson (Berlin): still not sure – So if students say ‘I’m so bad’ you say ‘we’ll work at it?’ or ‘ ‘you’re doing very well?’

I’m not sure if I’m interpreting the question correctly Anne, but if my student came from a culture that favoured negative politeness and they said ‘I’m so bad’, I might want to know if  it was ritual expression of modesty or their real perception of their performance.

And if “I’m so bad’ is their real perception, I’d want to know why they thought they were bad. If they’re right and they can pinpoint their weaknesses and work on them, that’s a good thing, isn’t it? We’d just need to hatch a plan to move them along to a higher level.

If “I’m so bad’ is a ritual sort of statement, I’d want to know what they really thought of their English.  Are they motivated and putting the work in or not?  Any other thoughts folks?

Question 3. @MercedesViola – Uruguay: How do you suggest showing this to our students?

Ah. This is the million dollar question, Mercedes! Some quick ideas:

  • For all sorts of reasons (some of which are good), I think the language models we present tend to show communication going right. However I think we should also present models that show how it can go wrong too. It doesn’t seem sensible to present a world  where people are never indirect or ambiguous in our course materials. So I’d like to see more critical incidents, more examples of ambiguity and more examples of indirectness that we can explore.
  • I think we should avoid equating ‘direct’ with ‘good’ and acknowledge that ambiguity can have relationship benefits too (so, rather like the point above – include shades of grey rather than black and white cases in our course materials) .
  • In addition to the word and sentence level stuff we tend to be focused on, I think we need to look at the structure of the discourse with our students too – pay attention to adjacency pairs and how ideas are structured.
  • I think we need to show more videos in classes because more meaning can get conveyed quickly through context in videos. Plus videos and movies are some of the best sources available to us of natural sounding language.
  •  I think we probably need to take a more overt approach to teaching pragmatics too. You can pick up a lot of pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary by following examples. But when it comes to pragmatics there’s a case to be made for saying – hey look what happened there- that was because…(and EXPLAINING) – how is that similar to/different from what would happen in your culture? – Why?

Question 4. Marjorie Rosenberg, Austria: I’ve also read that men react better to questions with ‘would’ and women with ‘could’? Is that true for both Americans and Brits?

That seems to be such a strange finding and I’m scratching my head over why that might be true. I wonder what is meant by ‘react better’ and how the researchers measured it.  Can you point me at some papers?

Question 5. Rachael Harris – Geneva: I have an American friend who uses “prefer” as “like”

Interesting! I haven’t noticed a semantic difference in how the verbs are used here, but that doesn’t mean to say one doesn’t exist. Corpora should be able to answer this question. I also wonder whether ‘prefer’ might have a higher frequency in AmE.

Question 6. Lynn Nikkanen (Helsinki): Vicki, could you give some more examples of the I don’t care/I don’t mind phrase variety?

Here’s a link to the video we made, and here’s a post about it that I wrote a while ago.

Question 7. Maria Costa (Portugal): Vicki, do you not think that intonation really plays a very important part here, within the context?

Yes, Maria. I think intonation plays a very important role and I think there are British and American differences. I’ve stopped noticing it so much now, but when I first came here I was struck by the sound of American conversation at parties. Folks seemed more excited. And I think intonation might play a slightly different part in mitigating tricky speech acts like requests and criticism as well. There’s a brief post about it here.

Question 8. Liesje – Italy: How do you recommend addressing these differences in the classroom? I’m an American teaching in Europe and my students are generally more familiar with British English.

Do you use British course materials Liesje? I sometimes think that having an American or NNS  teacher using British materials in class could be advantageous for students because you’d be able to point to differences. Hopefully some of the answers to Mercedes question above will apply to yours as well.

Question 9. Craig – Spain: Vicky, do you think the British place more value on (are more proud of) their sense of humour? Maybe that’s why they risk more and don’t use “I’m kidding” so much.

Yes, I think we do take pride in our sense of humour, and as I mentioned I think we might be confusing quantity with quality a bit. 🙂  I think there are different risks involved when we employ sarcasm.

  • 1. Don’t explain the joke and risk that the other person will feel insulted if they don’t get it.
  • 2. Explain the joke and risk insulting the intelligence of the other person by implying they haven’t got it.

I’m guessing option 1 is more attractive if a high value is placed on letting people go about their business without impeding or imposing on them in any way. Choose option 1 and you can appear to avoid making a negative judgement about the other person. But if a higher value is placed on inclusion and affiliation then option 2 will probably look more attractive. You don’t want to risk leaving them out.

I also wonder if we’re reluctant to say ‘I’m just kidding’ so much in the UK because we have a higher tolerance for ambiguity. In the old Hofstede studies the US came out as pretty low context in comparison to the UK, so we could expect a higher degree of explicitness in US communication perhaps?

Question 10. Norman Whitby: i wonder if social media might be making us a bit more american in our humour. is the “lol” on texts and chats a bit like the Amercian “just kidding”?

I’m sure you’re right, Norman. The likelihood of misunderstanding increases when we can’t see the person we’re talking to and the LOLs etc enable us all to make our intentions clearer.  Does that then spill over into face-to-face communication though? Quite possibly. I don’t know. And also, do the two sides of the pond develop a more similar sense of humour/humor as more comedy programmes and movies get shared, I wonder?

Question 12. Nives Torresi_Italy: In Australia we say “whatever ” in place of ‘I don’t mind”

Oh interesting, Nives. Whatever can have all kinds of interesting meanings and I’d like to try to write a post about it one day.

Question 13. Marija Liudvika Drazdauskiene: Thank you very much for the most interesting talk. Would you recommend any topic to a foreigner who has investigated British small talk mostly in fiction?

You’ve been investigating small talk in British fiction, Marija? How interesting! I wonder if folks have any ideas. I think the British use of ‘thank you’  is very interesting. Maybe Lynne Murphy will inspire you?

Question 14. Craig – Spain: Does Jay know what a fish slice is?

Ha! Well I thought he did until I tested him just now. I asked him to get the fish slice and he said ‘What, a slice of fish?’ I was amazed. He has been listening to me call the thing he calls  a ‘spatula’ a ‘fish slice’ for years, and it seems it’s never registered – proof he never listens. 🙂

 Posted by at 5:29 am
Oct 202013


Many thanks to all the terrific, contributors who were able to come along to the webinar on Learning to speak ‘merican today.

Lots of great questions flew by in the chat and I’m going to try to address some of them here. Note to blog readers – it’s almost impossible to frame questions perfectly in webinar conditions so some of these questions could look like they don’t make  much sense if you weren’t there. I’m hoping you’ll be able to get the gist nevertheless.

Question 1. Marjorie Rosenberg, Austria: Do you think that British are less modest on social media? I read lots of posts where people talk about success in ways that I (as am American) find somewhat boastful.

For folks picking up  this conversation now, I haven’t checked with Margie but I’m 99% certain that her question is NOT about whether people from one culture are more modest than people from another.  Muddling personality traits with culture makes no sense and it would be impossible to measure even if we wanted to.

But many theorists would argue that there are universal politeness principles at work here.  Modesty is viewed as a virtue in all cultures and boastfulness is frowned on the world over.  (There’s lots that’s debateable about politeness theory – eg. see here. How practical and accurate can a theory that claims to explain human behaviour in universal terms ever be? Nevertheless, the Brown and Levinson model has endured for many decades now.)

This is a question about the face we present to the world. (See here for more on face.) How is the appearance of modesty achieved in different cultures? Also, modesty may be one perceived virtue, but it’s not the only one. There’s being friendly, being agreeable, not intruding or impinging on others, being open, being direct, being sensitive to the feelings of others, not criticizing, etc, etc? And what happens when these different virtues conflict and start competing with one another? Are they weighted differently across cultures?

So I think this question is also about how different politeness principles compete and commonly get resolved in different ways in different cultures. Specifically, how does the modesty principle seem to fare in British and American English?

It seems to compete with being agreeable when we’re responding to compliments in both cultures (and all cultures). If  someone compliments us and we agree with them, we could appear immodest. If they compliment us and we disagree, that could suggest we think they are stupid to think the way they do.

(Heads you lose, tails you lose! Responding to compliments is tricky the world over!)

Conversational research indicates Americans are likely to accord a heavier weighting  to appearing agreeable than Brits, who are likely to place more weight on appearing modest. Similar things seem to go on in situations like job interviews as well. (Karenne Sylvester wrote a funny guest post here about this.)

Margie you seem to have encountered situations where the opposite was the case. I can think of lots of individual Brits who seem to flout modesty maxims, but without more specifics about  context, it’s hard to comment. It’s quite possible (if not likely) that there would be cultural variations in how far we should go when blowing our own trumpet. I heard of a case here about students from an Asian (negative politeness culture) applying to an American university. Their applications and personal statements came over as  too boastful and over the top and they were rejected. But their previous applications had been rejected too because they were deemed  too modest.  They had tried to adapt but had over adjusted. Pitching things just right is hard.

OK – next questions tomorrow!


Another post on compliments:

 Posted by at 3:58 am
Oct 182013

Here’s our latest 90 second video English lesson. (As always, the video is also available with a clickable transcript at

This is one of many curious British and American differences that I’ll be exploring in my webinar for IATEFL this Saturday (19th Oct 2013), along with questions like ‘Are Americans really more direct?’ and ‘What’s the role of sarcasm in American English?’
To join the webinar, follow this link:
It’s suitable for English teachers or anyone with an interest in linguistics and British and American differences. It’s free and open to all so hope some of you can make it.

 Posted by at 3:51 am
Aug 202013

3994565602_21b9cc43ccI found lots to enjoy in this article from the New York Times Sunday review. One of their foreign correspondents, Sarah Lyall, spent 18 years living in London and she refects on the experience as she returns home.

I was surprised to read Sarah say that Brits are unduly exercised by the “special relationship” but then read:

— endlessly deconstructing what it meant, for instance, when in 2009 Gordon Brown, then the prime minister, gave President Obama a handsome penholder made of wood from a Victorian anti-slave ship, while Mr. Obama reportedly gave him a stack of movies that were incompatible with British DVD players.

Ha! I’d missed that story, but it is so funny. And yes, the Brit in me would want to endlessly deconstruct that too. Now why?

There are ways in which Brits can be surprising (some might think)  hard to offend. Consistently portray Brits as baddies in your movies, and we’ll just find you amusing. Rub our union jack in the mud and set fire to it and we’ll think you must be a bit upset about something without getting slightly miffed ourselves. No, the way to elicit a rise out of us (or our eyebrows at least) is to  give us a pile of DVDs we can’t play in return for our thoughtful gift. But look at the joke in that story – isn’t it at Obama’s expense?

I think playing the role of the unpopular kid with a much more popular friend might actually feel rather comfortable to us in an odd sort of way. If you’ve been brought up with a diet of self deprecating humour, it seems to offer a lot of potential for amusement – just so long as you can secretly feel superior.

Sarah described another incident that tickled me:

I got a friend at a party we were having to go up to a man he had never met. “Hi, I’m Stephen Bayley,” my friend said, sticking out his hand.“Is that supposed to be some sort of joke?” the man responded.

Ah wonderful! Click here read more on our greetings customs.

 Posted by at 9:57 pm