Coldplay = ice hockey?

One of the most important skills in learning anything, including a second language, is figuring out what’s important to know and what can be safely ignored. Students wanting to know is a good thing; I don’t want to discourage that. Maybe I’m just explaining it badly.

Yesterday’s lesson had a lot about pop music, and the activities and our extra discussions were full of singers and groups and songs and words and music. Today’s lesson included a story in which a young woman and young man met while a particular song was playing – “It’s by Coldplay. It’s called Yellow”. Coldplay and the song then play no further part in the story. They could have met while any other song was playing, or in total silence.

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gong hay fat choy and gong xi fa cai

From the time of the gold rushes of the 1850s to about 1989, most Chinese people who came to Australia were from the southern provinces and spoke Cantonese, Hokkien or Hakka. I can remember seeing Lunar New Year decorations and advertisements saying gong hay fat choy (or variations thereof). 

About nine years ago I started teaching at a college which overwhelmingly catered to Chinese students. It being February, I started with gong hay fat choy! and no-one understood me, because they all spoke Mandarin (and/or because my Chinese pronunciation is so bad). Finally one student understood what I was trying to say.

Especially post-Tiananmen Square, more people from the northern provinces came here and Mandarin gradually overtook Cantonese as the most-spoken kind of Chinese. The 2016 Australian census reported that 2.5% of Australians speak Mandarin at home, alongside Cantonese at 1.2%, and Arabic, Vietnamese, Italian and Greek (with between 1.4 and 1% each).

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Spot the difference

The class activity divided the students into pairs, with each student getting a slightly different version of the same drawing, and having to describe it to their partner (no looking!) to find the differences. The instructions said that there were 10 differences.

My students found 11. The last one they found was so small that I first thought it was a simple mistake, but it was significant, and listed in the answer book. It was another definite difference which was not listed.

Mountain high

Yesterday was Australia Day (because it fell on a Saturday, the public holiday is tomorrow – Australians love long weekends), and was quite hot, so I didn’t want to over-burden the students. For the last half hour, I found a Youtube video called 101 Facts about Australia, which I won’t link to because it isn’t very good. If I’d prepared sooner, I might have found a better one. Among other things, it stated (ha!) that Australia has eight states, and named one of them “Southern Australia”. Actually, there are six states and two major internal territories, and one of them is “South Australia”. 

It mentioned Australia’s highest mountain, which the presenter mispronounced (everyone does anyway, but he mis-mispronounced it). He also said, and the caption read, “7,310 ft” (2,228 m). I said “You students from Nepal and China may be amused by how small our mountains are”. One Nepalese student said “That’s almost as high as the Himalayas. They are 8,000.” I said “That’s 7,000 feet, not 7,000 metres”. She seemed to know what feet are in this context.  

The major Himalayan mountains are almost 4 times taller than Mt Kosciuszko (Mt Everest is almost exactly 4 time taller) . It gets on lists only because it is the tallest mountain on the continent. Maybe. If the island of New Guinea is considered as part of the continent (which it geologically is), then the highest mountain is Puncak Jaya, in Indonesia’s Papua Province.

And Mt Kosciuszko isn’t the tallest mountain on Australian territory.  That’s Mawson Peak (2,745 m), on the desperately remote external territory of Heard Island. 

PS Just to confuse things, another state is “Western Australia”, sometimes incorrectly referred to as “West Australia”. “Southern Australia” refers to a wider and slightly vague geographical region which includes southern Western Australia, southern South Australia, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Tasmania. “Northern Australia” includes northern Western-Australia (also called “north-west Australia” or “North-West Australia”), the Northern Territory and Queensland.

“And then he kissed me”

The textbook illustrates indirect quotation with the song “And then he kissed me”, written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry and originally and most famously sung by The Crystals. Direct and indirect quotation can be seen in the pair of lines:

So I whispered “I love you”
And he said that he loved me too

“I love you” are her actual words and are indicated by quotation marks. (Or they should be – they are in the textbook, but not on the website I copied the lyrics from rather than typing them from scratch.) Indirect quotations are typically introduced by the subordinator that, and (hardest for ESL learners) changes of person (usually pronouns) and verb tense. He actually said “I love you, too”. Because she is reporting his words, his I becomes her he and his you becomes her me. The verb tense typically moves back one “time” (sometimes referred to as backshift), in this case from present simple love to past simple loved. But this optional. If she is reporting his words soon after (for example to a friend the next day), she might keep present simple and say “And he said that he loves me too”. If she is reporting his words a long time later (for example to their grandchildren after his death), she would certainly backshift and say loved.

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rhyming slang

The tv comedy Mind your language ran from 1977 to 1979. I use it occasionally in class to illustrate vocabulary, grammar and communication. One episode (“Many happy returns”) is largely about money. It starts with Sid the college caretaker asking Gladys the tea lady for a free cup of tea, because he’s (something). She replies “You’re always skint, Sid!”. The subtitles (whether auto-generated or created by a human – some episodes are better than others) have “I’m a bit glacier mint”, but audibly that’s not what he says. I had always guessed that it is rhyming slang, as several other episodes show him using that, and even attempting to teach it to the students (one of whom refers to it as “cockeyed slanging rhyme”).

Fast-forward to a few days ago, when I was browsing through a book which I’ll donate or throw away soon. It has a section on Cockney rhyming slang, and one of the items is boracic lint. That is indeed what Sid says, but what is it? Wikipedia explains, quoting its entire article:

Boracic lint was a type of medical dressing made from surgical lint that was soaked in a hot, saturated solution of boracic acid and glycerine and then left to dry.

It has been in use since at least the 19th century, but is now less commonly used. When in use, boracic lint proved to be very valuable in the treatment of leg ulcers.

The term “boracic”, pronounced “brassic”, is also used as Cockney rhyming slang for having no money – “boracic lint” → “skint”.

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“I’m travel go home”

For the past two weekends I have been filling in for my colleague who teaches the beginner class, and it is very frustrating. Almost all of the students come from two closely related countries which speak more-or-less the same language, and spend more time speaking that language than they do English. Today, one student said he was travelling to his country for a holiday tomorrow, and I said “Safe trip” as a throwaway comment. We immediately got bogged down on the difference between travel and trip. It would be nice if one was purely a verb and the other purely a noun, but both are both, and while travel has basically the same meaning as a verb or noun, trip is entirely different as a verb. When the student used his translator, I couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t getting the stumble meaning. (Also, travel as a noun is uncountable, while trip is countable.)

He then flicked back a few pages in his notebook and said “Can I say I’m travel go home?”. I had no idea where to start with that one. The short answer is no. The only thing I could salvage from it is that I understand what he means – almost.

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