Those Three Little Words

Posted on 05. Oct, 2015 by in Language Learning

In my job, I proofread a lot of documents. Long ones, short ones, formal, casual, you name it… and to add a twist, a fair number of them are written by non-native English speakers. Even when I haven’t been told the author’s identity, I’ve gotten quite adept at spotting those pieces, and it’s given me some interesting insights into the subtle clues really indicate non-native language use.

It’s not just a matter of obvious mistakes: From my proofreading experience, I can tell you that native speakers make those too —just different ones. Plus, while a few of the writers I’ve worked with have yet to gain the English expertise to match their enthusiasm, many others are excellent speakers with decades of real-world English experience. It’s not easy to tell their writing from a native’s.

If you ask me what’s the one thing that most likely to tip me off, though, the answer is three little words: a, an, and the.

Never underestimate an article. They may look small, but they sneak up on you. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, you learn another rule or another exception that affects their use in some obscure case that native speakers don’t even have to think about, but language learners do. In fact, as innocent as they appear, I’ve seen articles trip up even the best non-native English speakers and writers I know, and I can’t say I blame them.

an orange vs. the orange

an orange vs. the orange

Take the following example sentences:

If you are an English speaker from the United States or Canada, understanding the use of articles in the language you are learning may be a unique challenge for you. Even after an honest attempt, the nuances of article use may remain a mystery to you.

Between them, these sentences have four definite articles, four indefinite articles, and several nouns without any articles at all. They’re all correct, but good luck explaining why —there are historical reasons why we say “the United States” but not “the Canada”, and pronunciation accounts for why a and an are each used once before a vowel and once before a consonant, but can you put into words why it is the nuances but a mystery in the final sentence, or why article use can stand on its own while use of articles cannot? It would take a whole ‘nother blog post to sort that out.

To complicate matters, the rules for articles vary greatly from language to language. Spanish, for example, has an article in Me gustan las galletas. (“I like cookies.”), but none in Tengo fiebre. (“I have a fever.”). Portuguese sometimes uses articles along with possessives, as in Come o seu bolo. (Eat your cake.), while Romanian attaches its articles to the end of nouns. Russian, meanwhile, doesn’t even have definite or indefinite articles in the same sense that English does. Is it any wonder, then, that speakers of one language often find it tricky to capture the fine points of article use in another?

Lest you think it is only a problem for English learners, let me assure you it isn’t. When I ask a native speaker to check sentences I’ve written in Spanish, the thing that gets corrected most is articles. Knowing that, however, has encouraged me to pay more attention to the little words, and the big difference they can make.

What about you? Do you feel like you have articles figured out in the language you’re learning? Or is there some other clue that you think really sets native speakers apart from learners in your language?

I Bet You a Kangaroo…

Posted on 30. Sep, 2015 by in Language Learning

A while ago at work, someone described a particularly obscure piece of trivia as “That’s about as useful as knowing the Norwegian word for ‘kangaroo’!” (I love working with language people.)

We all laughed, but after I thought for a minute, I said, “I bet I can guess the Norwegian word for ‘kangaroo’… maybe not the spelling, but at least the sound.” Since I have no known connection to Norway, they looked at me a little funny. (I have no connection to kangaroos, either, unless you count the fact that I once went to Australia.) Nevertheless, I was quite confident with my claim.

loan words

Image by Chris Samuel via (CC BY 2.0)

Can you guess? The answer tells us something about how languages work, and the key to figuring it out lies in the very way the original comment was phrased, with its implicit assumption that Norwegians don’t discuss kangaroos on a daily basis. That’s a reasonable thing to assume – the animals aren’t native to Norway, or anywhere nearby, and there probably aren’t many, if any, in the country. It’s unlikely, then, that a word for them would have developed out of native Norwegian roots. At the same time, though, the large marsupials have hopped their way into enough hearts to be known worldwide, so they must come up in conversation from time to time, even in the Nordic lands. That, in turn, means that speakers there must have a name for them, one which most likely came into the language along with knowledge of the Australian animals in the seventeenth century. In the time since then, I figured it might have gotten used just often enough to have acquired some minimal adaptations to local language conventions, but probably not enough to have become unrecognizable.

My guess, therefore, was that the Norwegian word for “kangaroo” would be a borrowed word that still sounded very much like “kangaroo” in English, but was probably not spelled exactly the same. We looked it up, and it turns out I nailed it – the Norwegian word for “kangaroo” is, in fact, “kenguru”.

What about you ‑ do you know the word for “kangaroo” in the language you’re learning? If not, what’s the most obscure word you’ve ever looked up just for the fun of it, and did it turn out to be a cognate? And did you know they’ve finally disproven the old legend that “kangaroo” came from an Aboriginal word for “I don’t know”?

How to Teach Languages to Digital Natives

Posted on 28. Sep, 2015 by in Language Learning, Language News, Trends

Nearly three-quarters of students (74%) claim they would do better in school if their instructors used more technology. 61% agreed that learning would improve if homework were more interactive. Whether these claims, gathered in a survey of 519 students, would produce the expected results is unclear. But one thing is crystal clear: younger generations of students are increasingly motivated by technology. 

Image by Wolfgang Lonlen on

Image by Wolfgang Lonlen on

Something that motivates students to learn? No wonder why so many language teachers are chomping at the bit to incorporate technology in their lessons. We interact with language teachers both in person and on social media on a daily basis. Their tech savviness and willingness to experiment in (and ultimately improve) their classrooms never ceases to amaze us.

Unfortunately, however, overhauling traditional lesson plans and adopting new technologies can be time consuming. Too often, technology is integrated directly into the classroom, in the form of videos or other passive activities. This limits the time spent actually confirming the learning and interacting with peers. Producing the language and using it in context is paramount to proficiency.

Language teachers cannot use technology simply for the sake of using technology. Today’s students are digital natives who have come to expect more out of technology. That’s why we’ve designed Declaratively Accelerated Blended Learning (DABL). This flipped classroom approach, optimized specifically for language programs, blends technology and human instruction in a way that keeps students engaged and reliably propels learners toward their goals.

In a DABL curriculum, students learn words and phrases at home in a game-like online learning environment. Learning vocabulary is much more exciting when it involves matching games, speech-driven multiple choice questions, and memory drills. Talk about motivation. Students then arrive at class prepared to use those words in phrases during interactive activities. They can perform skits, have a debate, or myriad other compelling tasks that give them the opportunity to use the language in context, interact with peers, and receive immediate feedback from the instructor. Our language teachers are far more qualified to design and facilitate these activities than to simply click the Play button to start a video, don’t you think?

We’ve watched DABL transform the way we teach and learn languages to professionals, producing reliable results in less time and at less cost. These working adults require better language proficiency for their jobs in defense, healthcare, humanitarian aid, diplomacy, scientific research, and beyond. But learning outcomes matter for K-12 and college students, too. Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders, after all.

Curious about using DABL in your language classroom? Learn more or contact us!