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English Detective #29, Two Aspects of Language: Dec.31,2013
December 30, 2013

English Detective #29, Two Aspects of Language: Dec.31,2013


The current investigation (Introducing this issue):

What is language used for? Think of the many aspects of language: an expression of culture and identity, a set of sounds and symbols, a way to communicate meaning, a way to connect with people.

Consider this short, eloquent plea from Dubai English teacherPatricia Ryan to appreciate other languages and not create unnecessary barriers to sharing ideas just because someone hasn’t mastered English. She asks how much the world might have lost if Einstein had to pass the TOEFL exam to enter the U.S. (!)

She talks about the value of children being able to understand the language of their grandparents, so they can learn from them. She also mentions the tragedy of languages disappearing, along with the cultural knowledge they express.

Then listen to a Voice of America English pronunciation lesson on the stresses and rhythms that help make thoughts clear. It describes the way English speakers divide sentences into thought groups and stress (emphasize) certain syllables. Pauses, stress, and tone help make speech easier to understand. They also express feelings and attitudes.

English teacher Lida Baker suggests using ‘tracking’ to recognize and practice thought groups and sentence stress. Tracking is repeating what you hear one or two syllables or beats behind the speaker. (Links to both talks are just below the vocabulary section.)

To practice, try tracking Patricia Ryan’s short TED talk after listening to it once. (I tried it. It’s not too hard…) You could also track a VOA Learning English or news recording. If you like to sing, find a song in English and sing along.

At the end of the newsletter are links to two more pages that you might enjoy. First is a page from BBC’s Learning English about Nelson Mandela. (I found it while trying to verify the quote below—so fitting for the topic of this newsletter!) There is also a page with some ideas for starting the new year right (if you weren’t getting English Detective last January.)

Happy New Year!



Your First Clue: Vocabulary Emphasized in this Issue


Review vocabulary: clause, guidelines, prohibited, sole, stress.

A few notes about the new vocabulary:


A clause is a group of words with a subject and a verb. Independent clauses can be complete sentences, but dependent clauses cannot. Examples of dependent clauses: “Although the cat ran fast,” “Even if she wins,” “Students who read a lot,” or “When your family leaves.” All of these thoughts are incomplete, and leave the reader wondering. (What? or what happened, or might happen?)

They need an independent clause to finish the thought: “Although the cat ran fast, the dog caught it.” “Even if she wins, she will not be happy.” “Students who read a lot learn more vocabulary.” “When your family leaves, we are going to bed!”

Clauses are thought groups, so we naturally pause at the end of each of them.

Guidelines are suggestions for the best way to do things. They are the best practices in most circumstances. However, they are not mandatory like rules or regulations. Rules usually have a penalty if they are violated, but guidelines do not.

Prohibited means forbidden. (It’s much stronger than a guideline!) Some religions prohibit eating pork; all prohibit murder. In the U.S., there was a period in the 1920s when drinking alcohol was forbidden. The period is called Prohibition (though the word does not always apply to drinking.)

We use ‘prohibitive’ of something so expensive or difficult that it is “out of the question”—it might just as well be forbidden, because it’s not a realistic option.

Sole means alone; one thing (or person) with no others. Solely is a synonym for ‘only’— for only one purpose.

To ‘stress’ means to put emphasis or pressure on something. (“That test really stressed me out!” “Maybe it would have been less stressful if you had started to study earlier!”)

Stress can also be a noun meaning tension or pressure. (“Stress can cause or aggravate many health problems. Health providers need to teach patients how to handle pressure and limit the stresses in their lives.”)

“In English sentences we stress the more important words— usually nouns and verbs, but also adjectives if they are important to the meaning.”

In the preceding sentence, we would probably stress (emphasize) ‘stress,’ ‘important,’ ‘nouns,’ ‘verbs,’ ‘adjectives,’ ‘important,’ and ‘meaning.’ However, if we were comparing English with other languages, ‘English’ would get the heaviest stress.) ‘The,’ ‘a’ or ‘an,’ are usually unstressed.

Getting the whole story: reading/listening practice:


Patricia Ryan’s short talk on the value of languages.

Click here for hints and practice on English sentence stress.

Follow the Clues (More on Language—and Language Resolutions for the New Year):


Click here for some background on Nelson Mandela.


Start the new year off right!

A note if you get gmail: Have you missed any issues of English Detective? if you find English Detective in your Promotions box, you can move it to your Primary box (if you want) by clicking on it and dragging it there, then clicking Yes when asked if you want to always get it in the Primary box.

Coming in the next issue: How computers understand language (or don’t!)

In case you missed these: Earlier issues of English Detective have articles on a number of topics, plus practice with all 570 words from the Academic Word List. You can check them out with the link to the back issues page below (or find what words were practiced each issue here.

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