Will You Pass Me The Salt?

As an ESL teacher we are constantly asking ourselves the purpose of our job, searching for answers such as ‘why do I teach English’, ‘will my students actually remember to conjugate properly’, ‘are my activities engaging enough’,  etc. We tend to focus on linguistic form, we worry about making our students understand the meaning of certain words, but then we forget to teach them the consequences that some sentences generate. Pragmatics is constantly neglected by most ESL teachers. Leia mais

The Strangest of the Things

I believe that by now you all have watched – or started to – the 3rd season of Stranger Things. I know the rules, this article is spoiler free, so you can go ahead and keep reading it without any concern. Many things have been said about the presence of Universal Grammar (UG) in both first and second language acquisition process. Watching Netflix’s series Stranger Things may help you notice that UG is not one hundred percent responsible for the success of a language acquisition. Leia mais

Please, Draw the Word ‘House’

There is a great chance you already asked your students to draw or maybe designed a lesson which students were required to show off their artistic skills regardless their age. The value of such activity when teaching infants is commonly known, they love drawing and it is a tool to check whether the students are in accordance with what has been taught. As for adult learners, they are more hesitant in performing this kind of task, but the reason for applying it is similar. To check their understanding. However, there are linguistic reasons for having students draw and they are related to their acquisition of a foreign language. Leia mais

The Word Won’t Escape Me Anymore

If you were ever interested in becoming acquainted with a speech impairment called aphasia and its effects on people, you probably read this amazing and very humane book “The Word Escapes Me: Voices of Aphasia”. This book brings reports of professionals and patients with aphasia (PWA) with emotional and realistic descriptions of what life is like when speech suddenly becomes a hassle. Although the book contains real stories involving all sorts of aphasia, this article will focus on Wernicke’s aphasia and how linguistics can help PWAs overcome it.


– Understanding the monster

Before we start talking linguistics and possible solutions that can bring speech back to its track we need to understand what Wernicke’s aphasia stands for.

Wernicke’s aphasia is a speech disorder derived from a stroke or another kind of brain accident that hinders oral competencies of people. The injury happens in the superior temporal lobe in the left hemisphere of the brain which means that comprehension of the language is directly affected, but differently from other types of aphasia, this one also disables the ability people have to understand and produce certain words intelligibly and so it is called the fluent aphasia (

What this kind of impairment does to people’s speech can be noted in (1) and (2) and it is important to shift your attention to the person replying in this conversation ( for it is the motive PWAs struggle getting their normal lives back, but in time, they realize that there is a new normal.

(1) Hi Nicole! What did you do this weekend?

(2) Hi Mary Kay! I went to the catabot and then I saw the gleeblabla…


– What does linguistics have to do with it?

At a first glance, this may seem more a medical issue than a linguistics topic for analysis, but if we take a closer look you will see that linguistics is just as related.

Considering Neurolinguistics, it is possible to find the relation since the superior front lobe of the left hemisphere is responsible for formulating our speech (Robson et al., 2014), i.e. when we are engaged in a conversation, the left part of our brain is the machine that puts words together, combines them in the syntax of our language and not least importantly, it also finds out the intention behind words and syntactic order. Then, all of a sudden PWAs find themselves in a situation where this part of their brains insists in not working as it did before.

This new situation shatters the person’s self esteem and this can be one of the factors that supports the idea that their intentions remain untouched even though their utterances are not in compliance. If we consider the previous dialogue, in (2) the patient clearly produced noises instead of words, but if they had access to maybe a written paraphrased text they could have a chance to communicate better. Given this situation, one can support that there is not a single utterance that is intention-free, i.e. every speech is then a locutionary sentence full of intentions and enforcements other than just say something (Austin, 1975).

A third connection between Wernicke’s aphasia and linguistics is regarding PWAs’ recovery. You may have heard of the term neuroplasticity before, but is that really clear to you? So, let’s figure it out. Even though we do have certain parts of our brain that is responsible for decoding certain types of information – the left superior temporal lobe is responsible for languages – many parts of our brain work at the same time when we speak or are exposed to speech. If our brains were an unchangeable organ, then there would be a limit for the amount of info we could insert in it, but that is definitely not the case for we learn, decode, relate new things all the time and yet our brains are still there, inside our skull. This happens due to the connection our neurons make with one another linking information which is called synapse.  Considering that this can perfectly happen as long as there are neurons, PWAs have a chance to re-acquire their speech with a frequent amount of guided exposure which will then trigger the neural compensation, i.e. they will start using parts of their brain (mainly the right hemisphere) when engaged in a conversation.


– The words won’t escape anymore

We have seen in this article that Wernicke’s aphasia is a result of a brain injury mainly caused by a stroke that impairs speech regarding utterances, we have also talked about the connection between this impairment and linguistics theories when we linked aphasia with how languages are decoded, how preserved intentions can be a the key to speech re-acquisition and now we will see how Tomasello’s Usage-based Learning studies are aligned with a proposal to make PWAs’ speech become closer to what it used to be.

According to Wartenburger et al. (2003), meaning of words is a result of a declarative memory, i.e. someone will tell the meaning of a word and it will not hinge on assumptions or conjecturing. Indeed, this kind of exposure can benefit PWAs as it happens in classes where a teacher will design lessons which will provide patients with a great amount of exposure triggering parts of the brain that were not affected by the injury. This combination complies with studies on Usage-based Learning since this exposure will be the fuel for the neural combustion because the intervention of the teachers through their lessons might be the stimulus that these patients need to compensate the hemisphere that got impaired by the injury. Therefore, without this social input speech re-development would limp and opposite is also true. Without higher functions speech cannot be whole. If that was so, PWAs would not need any type of compensation to speak properly again, but they do need and they do compensate which leads us to one conclusion: we don’t have a specific organ dedicated to organize our speech, we learn to speak as we learn everything else – with exposure, repetition and reasoning (Tomasello, 2003).

Thus, the exposure to the language they want to re-develop will work as the model for the new brain connections so that the intention (previously stated as preserved) regain their proper outcome – the speech. The role linguists have in this new  era of a patient is very important such as the understanding of how acquisition takes place and also the implications that this process has on the brain of the person. In addition to that, and maybe more important than anything else, respect the individual, have empathy, acknowledge their emotions and rescue their story. This will make our jobs easier.

Aphasia And The Super Heroes

Back in the days, when I was in school, if you read comic books you were a huge nerd. I was one of them. It was the early 90’s and the X-Men was a big hit among super heroes with fascinating stories, captivating plots, a whole new universe that easily caught my attention. Then the 21st century came and what we have been witnessing since then is an invasion of super heroes and just like that, we are all nerds and that is cool. What very few people realize is that comic book characters have a gigantic social load underneath their skins, full of behavioral issues, health issues, political issues and also linguistic issues .

Let’s take Marvel’s big hit ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ as an example. There is this tree-like super hero called Groot whose linguistic competence is limited to and only to this sentence “I am Groot” in this exact order. Which means that whatever a person asks him, tells him, he will utter “I am Groot” and this reminds me of a very serious impairment called aphasia, more precisely, Wernicke’s aphasia. I am far from being a medical doctor, but for those who are getting in touch with this term for the first time, Wernicke’s aphasia is an impairment as a result of a vascular accident or a severe brain injury on the posterior temporal lobe of the left hemisphere of the brain thus interfering speech production. This type of aphasia makes their patients provide utterances that do not provide any continuity to the conversation, although for patients with aphasia (PWAs) they sound themselves absolutely fine, as if their response was pragmatically acceptable for the conversation. Using the example of the film mentioned above we can notice the question in (1) and Groot’s response in (2).

(1) Where did you learn to do that?

(2) I am Groot.

Considering the pragmatic perspective of a dialogue, one needs to use linguistic data that is shared with the interlocutor so that a conversation happens. In (1) we can notice the desire of the speaker for some information that is not provided accordingly given the response does not fulfill the speaker’s request. However, intention is a linguistic feature that has been revisited in the works by Austin (Rajagopalan, 2010) thus the notion of constative utterances tend to be very strict and the performative ones tend to be more frequent which means that whenever a person utters there is always a purpose and an intention. Having understood that, it is possible to study the productions of PWAs, more precisely patients with Wernicke’s aphasia, and investigate the possibility of a locutionary act in their speech. There are some studies that indicate a trace of intention in their speech. Murteira & Santos (2013) state that some PWAs paraphrase in certain situations which may be an evidence of understanding even though their utterances may sometimes stall the entire conversation. If a thorough study brings to surface the hypothesis of a trace of intention, then a linguist can implement some tasks in order to rebuild PWAs speech.

(3) No, Groot! You’ll die! Why are you doing this? Why?

(4) We.. are Groot.

Those who watched the Guardians Of The Galaxy will remember this scene which is in fact a very emotional one. Groot saves his friends by giving up his own life and then he finally changes the subject, from ‘I’ to ‘we’ as can be seen in (4). This instance, although it is only a flick, may be the spark that linguists need to go further in studies that will impact over 3 million Americans who have struggled to communicate due to several types of aphasia. Why is that character a motivation? For starters, having one of the main characters of a blockbuster with a communication impairment and also be a hero is awesome. In addition, knowing that there are people with difficulties in communication can lead linguists to a better understanding of how a language is acquired – a long disputed battle. Results from comprehension tests have displayed a silver lining for the reconstruction of the language where PWAs showed some understanding of idioms (Murteira & Santos, 2013; Burchert, Hanne & Vasishth, 2012), therefore, it is possible to use these instances and turn them into a more coherent utterance.

So, even though Groot performs the very same words in the very same order for whatever a person tells him, the fact he replies and his variety of intonation display comprehension of what is being said to him. Maybe through a very intensive treatment using the Usage-based Learning study (Tomasello, 2003), with a lot of exposure and repetition from both the linguist and the patient, the brain might compensate its impairment and finally produce more comprehensible utterances.

Habemus Linguistics I

Since always foreign students want to learn slang. I must say I don’t understand why they have this urge to learn slang that passes from generation to generation of students. Despite that, what matters is they want to learn, slang is part of the language and no, they definitely don’t disrupt the language whatever it is. I also decline the argument that internet has been hindering the language – after all, it is considered the guilty for the accelerated metamorphosis of the language creating, then, more and more slang. Ok, but what does this have to do with us teachers? Everything.

In our recent article Having Our English Outside The Box, we talked about the possibility to play with language and still be proficient. Well, you may not like this perspective, but I recommend you get used to accepting some students’ utterances that were once reckoned as “wrong”. We have already mentioned the ultimate use of ‘because’ playing the role of preposition, but what we have been witnessing every single day is a massive attack of linguistic creativity that we teachers need to be aware so we identify whether an utterance is slang or not and, in case it is one, we have to check if the context it was used is indeed appropriate. This is our role: show our students that language has an infinite number of possibilities, but there are situations in which some linguistic forms are more adequate. It is like I always say “if we are going to a barbecue, shorts and flip-flops are ok, but if we’re going to a business meeting, we gotta suit up”. This has to be our spirit whenever our students produce (1) or (2). We have to position the appropriate moment for their utterance.

(1)That film is amaze.


Notice that I did not use the “semantically strange” symbol for there many examples of utterances such as those, therefore I consider these slangs as part of a speech community. The case in (1) was not regarded as ungrammatical also for the same reason previously stated. Furthermore, although ‘amaze’ is a reduction of ‘amazing’, playing the syntactic role of adjective, we can take into consideration that this is a new word, thus eliminating any sort of confusion it may cause with the verb ‘amaze’ which would turn the sentence ungrammatical.

Alright. You might ask me then “what’s new about all of this?”. The greatest news here is the origin of this, the internet. This wonderful man made creation that connects everything to everything to everyone has rubbed on our faces how mutant languages are. Take Twitter, for instance. It is one big source of linguistic change. Tweeters know that the message space is highly limited which forces our students to express themselves in a more objective and reduced manner, generating a mutation in the language that would make Professor Charles Xavier jealous. That is why we have the commonly known OMG, LOL and they should never be considered a defeat in language teaching, instead they have to be taken as enriching factor of the language. Imagine how creative our students have to be to convey a message in a short space. With this scenario, we will obviously have abbreviations like IDK, reductions like ‘gonna’, ‘gotta, ‘wanna’, ‘shoulda’, ‘woulda’ and, why not, syntactic changes that end up being mistaken with slangs that are part of some speech communities. And yes, our students will do their best to speak “bad English” just because it is cool. Bucholtz already wrote about it brilliantly.

Thus, my fellow teachers, we have the duty (because we’re pros) to be in touch with the online universe for it materializes in the real world and makes our students coin words, abbreviate their speech, play with the language. Therefore I say it again, the internet has not been disrupting our students’ speech, it has only been going through some changes which is normal in the teenage years and with these changes we see a new type of language, pictorial for times, that facilitates communication.

Having Our English Outside The box

In over a decade teaching English, I have lost count of the many times people (students, teachers, principals, TV ads, etc) told that someone speaks good or bad English. By the time I started my (super duper) career as an English teacher, becoming a linguist was not even an option,  but every time I heard something like that it did not sound good. It was as if language had to be performed in a specific manner otherwise the speaker would be burned like a witch. I do not think this is the way.

Thinking about phonetic symbols we will certainly find a an average line for pronunciation. What would this line turn out to be? Those utterances that cause no confusion, so whether you are from the countryside or the capital, Texas or San Francisco, your pronunciation will not lead you to a minimal pair situation, i.e. those small phoneme chunks that once misplaced will generate different words. In addition to minimal pairs, we can think about accent issue, a very regional linguistic feature. For countless times I also heard people (mis)judging another person’s linguistic competence due to the accent being that maybe that funny sound coming from someone’s mouth is the result of an exposure to an English that comes from northern England, Scotland, ?India, South Africa and maybe that person did not know that. Thus, saying a person speaks “good” English under a fully phonetic perspective may cause some breakdown.

Syntax, oh my beloved syntax! Those who have a linguistic educational background just like this poor writer for sure had dark days doodling syntactic trees to analyze phrases. Believing that a person is a good or bad English speaker leaning upon the syntactic elements noted in a person’s speech is understandable yet arguable. If one of our students uttered something like (1), we would certainly say that he or she is a terrible English speaker and we would even say that the student is not proficient if we compare it with (2) – nonsense!

(1) *You’s cool, man.

(2) You’re cool, man.

Of course our role as teachers is to show our students the language’s canonical manner as can be seen in (2), but labeling (1) as awful and non-proficient English is agreeing with a generative perspective of language, which in fact, even if unconsciously, is part of the behavior some of my peers have. Language does not develop as if there were labelled boxes where we can only put things that are specified in the label. As a matter of fact we can play with the boxes and their content, actually this will happen so that our students know how to explore every characteristic of the language and then they will become a highly skilled speaker once he or she will have become able to to communicate in any sort of context. If we acknowledge that there are some speech community where (1), ‘he don’t work’ among others are accepted, we will not be embarrassed by our students when we hastly correct them – with some kind of arrogant air – because they will certainly say that they had heard that type of utterance from a native speaker which, by our students’ logic, native speakers have more credibility than us. A current phenomenon that portrays metamorphosis in the language is the teen-famous ‘I can’t even‘, where ‘even’ plays a verb. This is not in the correct box, but it is certainly not considered non-proficient.

We teachers have to broaden the matter of language acquisition (Rajagopalan, 1996), because if we keep framing our students’ utterances we will never evolve in the concerns of language in general and we will remain with the biased behavior projecting language as a steady organism that does not carry any proposition, ideas, thoughts and this unfortunately has set the tone of the discussions involving native language teaching in Brazil. We need to try to understand what our students’ point is and then show them the many ways they can achieve their goal in varied contexts. What about you, teacher? How do you have your English outside the box?

Well-Structured Classes Give You Wings

I have already mentioned in previous articles the importance of having a 3P structure for our lesson plan, but I have never dove into this issue because otherwise we would turn a simple 500-word article into a book. However, it is possible to detail this structuring through Lecercle’s speaker/listener system and how it promotes autonomy of our students – because autonomy.

Lecercle’s communication structure (1999) establishes that a speaker utilizes cognition to organize utterances and then produce them. All this linguistic information – phonetic combination, syntactic structure, lexical choices, intention, etc – reach the listener who has the role of decoding what is being spoken, understand the information and formulate his own reply once is his turn to talk. This system turns listening into an active skill and we can do the same with our students in the classroom (that’s why I insist in saying that teacher have to develop their lesson plan and not only lean on textbooks). Making our students listen and speak gives them an opportunity to use their higher functions (cognition) to make out what is being said to them and also it allows them to produce and such production is the main step to have them work freely.

The deal here to make our students have more and more autonomy, which here is the use of English to perform tasks, is to develop our lesson plan very well and carefully. Brazil is still at the baby-step phase with regard to the implementation of student-centered culture, but we English teachers can start promoting it and dividing our classes in sections Presentation, Practice, Performance makes the assignment of this freedom to do their activities more natural and these activities are going to be developed to meet the needs of our students. In order to shorten this article and not make you doze off or lose interest and turn on the TV – I myself do doze off when texts are too long – I’m going to put the highlight on the last P, Performance. This is the phase that we teachers worry about having our students work freely. Debates, role plays, games are some of the tasks that promote students’ autonomy for, in a drilling phase, we can challenge our students with tasks which communication in the target language is essential for the activity to be successful. Our role then is to pay close attention at our students’ performances (remember that the grouping and pairing them up facilitates) without any sort of interference. After all, we seek student autonomy and having them talk, listen, understand and solve problems is our goal. If we put our hands in it, we break the whole purpose of the activity.

We sure talked about only a chunk of our lesson plan and many other things can be done in the other P-sections of our classes. However, what matters is that we create activities that are relevant and promote autonomy by speaking the target language (English in this case). This will only happen if we prepare our classes, if we teachers leave the status quo and try to commit to developing our lesson plans. The activities will certainly be positive more often for nobody knows students better than the teachers.