Teaching the present perfect

A longstanding client of mine recently wanted to pick up lessons again with the aim of refreshing his grammar skills, to increase his confidence in using the language which he is already quite proficient in and uses on a daily basis. While I generally am more of a business and communication skills trainer, teaching the mechanics of the language is clearly also a part of the job. So yesterday we decided to look at the present perfect.

Oh, grammar. I’d only just had a chance to review the rules of thumb at Dominic Braham and Anthony Gaughan’s Grammar Workshop for ELTABB on Saturday.

  • Recent past – breaking news and updates
    eg Have you heard the latest?
  • General experience – doesn’t say when
    eg Blue is the Warmest Colour has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. (It won on Sunday.)
  • Unfinished past – the nth time so far, how long or often up to now
    eg It marks the first time that a movie based on a comic book has won the award.
    eg The film has received largely glowing reviews from critics.

On Saturday, Dominic had us think about different approaches to teaching this tricky subject, e.g.

  • keywords
  • concepts
  • standard chunks for typical situations

With advanced learners, I generally prefer to develop concepts based on their experience. That worked best for us yesterday, too, as we contrasted the twin concepts:

  • Review – the game is over (past)
  • Potential – the game is still on (present perfect)

We started with a conceptual grammar drill I learned from Theresa Gorman (thank you!) to clarify the concept of potential contained in one use of the present perfect:

Imagine two people, Bärbel and Justin.

  • Bärbel’s trip to Paris: 22-26 May 2013. Is it over or ongoing? ->over
  • Justin’s trip to Paris: 26 May-3 June 2013. Is it over or ongoing? ->on

Who still has the potential to do something in Paris? Who has come home, and can now look back? Get on the phone to Bärbel and Justin and ask them about their stay in Paris. Include questions starting with “What, where, how many, how long…?”

  • Hi Bärbel! It’s great to hear from you!
 So, how was your trip to Paris? Did you see the Eiffel Tower? Did you…?
  • Hi Justin! How are things?
 How has the trip been so far? Have you seen the Eiffel Tower? Have you…?

This way in clicked. Later I did give him some more examples, but noticed that keywords or set phrases or correct chunks tended to confuse him, whereas the contrastive grammar approach was clear and held his attention.

So we went on to work on twin contrastive settings for him to create phrases for:

Task 1/ Potential: Prepare questions for an asset manager about a property he or she is assessing, to make sure the correct steps will be taken:

  • Have you looked at the level of rents in that area?
  • Have you applied method X to see what the ROI would be? etc.

Task 2/ Review: You and the asset manager are looking back over the year 2012. What steps did you take with the various properties?

  • Did you look at the level of rents in that area?
  • Did you apply method X to see what the ROI would be? etc.


Here is a list of German-English translations showing the main contrastive grammar issues

Present perfect simple for facts, referring to when they came into being (German: Present or “Perfekt” or past)

  • I’ve lived in Germany all my life. (=Ich lebe seit meiner Geburt in Deutschland. Ich habe schon immer in D gelebt.)
    (This is not true, by the way. I’ve actually been here since the 1980s.)
  • I’ve liked football since I was a kid. (= Ich mag Fußball seit meiner Kindheit.)
  • I’ve always liked football. (= Ich habe schon immer Fußball gemocht. Ich mochte schon immer Fußball.)
  • I have been here in Berlin for 2.5 years. (= Ich bin schon seit 2,5 Jahren hier.)
  • I’ve been here since September 2011. (= seit)

Present perfect continuous for ongoing actions referring to when they started. (German: present)

  • I’ve been working on my presentation since yesterday, and I’m almost finished. (= Ich arbeite seit gestern an meiner Präsentation)

Simple past for actions that are over/ facts that are time-boxed, mentioning when they took place/ were true. (German: usually “Perfekt”, past more frequent in literary register)

  • Bärbel went to Paris last week. (= Bärbel ist letzte Woche nach P. gefahren.)
  • I was born in 1961. (= Ich bin 1961 geboren. Lit: Ich wurde 1961 geboren.)
  • After my A-levels, I did an apprenticeship. (= Ich habe nach dem Abi eine Lehre gemacht.)
    (Again, not true. I wish I had!)
  • She completed her course of studies in spring. (= Sie hat im Frühjahr ihr Studium abgeschlossen.)
  • I talked to Julian 10 minutes ago. (= Ich habe vor 10 Minuten mit Julian gesprochen)
  • Bill was an impressive guy. (= Bill war ein beeindruckender Mensch. Bill ist ein beeindruckender Mensch gewesen.)

Kishi Bashi

Wow. Kishi Bashi. I hadn’t seen the ads, instead discovering him through Paste Magazine. All that attention to detail, craftsmanship and polish. Animal Collective meets Andrew Bird and classical Japanese music.

They are hosting a video-based riddle contest for idioms like

  • wearing _ _ _ _ h _ _ _ _  _ _  your  _ _ _ _ _ _”
  • “x” _ _ _ _ _ the  _  _ _ _
  • _ _ _ ‘ s knees
  • _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ driver

You’ll find the gap-fill here and the video here:

Some answers and associations:

to be framed, It’s all Greek to me, paint it black, the elephant in the room, be the spitting image, back seat driver, ride shotgun, eye candy, free ticket, it costs an arm and a leg, give me a hand, buy a lemon, throw someone a bone, he’s got your number, bite the bullet, (the) truth is written all over his face, (it’s the) bee’s knees, bird’s eye view, hell in a basket, A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, break a leg, birds of a feather flock together, kill two birds with one stone, X marks the spot, kick the bucket,  a penny for your thoughts, piece of cake, icing on the cake, have your cake and eat it too, (have) a bone to chew, when pigs fly, key to my heart, once in a blue moon…

To use in class, here are many of the idioms on cards:

Concert on KEXP:

“What are you selling?” “Personality”

Comedian Salesman Kenny Brooks: “I’ve got a disease called enthusiasm”. Catching!

Goes into suburbia with his cleaning liquid, deals with bad attitudes, and lays his word wit on his potential customers, playing to their social anxieties (“Don’t laugh too hard cause the neighbors gonna see this black kid scrubbing your windows”).

My favorite one-liners:

  • My mom says, “If it’s darker than me and it don’t pay the bills, it shouldn’t be there.”
  • My mom said, “If you can’t get the whole chicken, at least get the wing.”
  • You get the HBO Special. You know what HBO means? You get to Help a Brother Out.
  • That one bottle lasts longer than my last relationship.
  • You just go back and forth like an argument.
  • You can do cash, checks, or chicken wings.

I tried to collect as many of his one-liners as possible, after the break:

Continue reading “What are you selling?” “Personality”

Online tools and resources for scientific writing

I’m still struggling to teach scientific writing to a diverse group of PhD candidates that I only see occasionally. My latest attempt is to give them a set of online tools to analyze their genre of target texts (published works and their own work in progress), and to tell me how they like what the tools do. These are tools I use myself when I explore a genre to analyze them within the overall corpus of English and present typical collocations. In class we’ll then look at selected texts on one topic comparing different genres (i.e. in a general publication, as opposed to a scientific journal) to determine typical collocations and rhetorical and stylistic devices.

MacMillan Dictionary
handiest online dictionary, with a thesaurus, examples, audio

COCA Corpus of Contemporary American English
BNC British National Corpus (GB)
How are your words generally used in context?

Word cloud generators:

How frequent are key words in a text you read or write? Copy it into a  word cloud generator that makes the more frequent words larger. Tips: In Wordle, create strings of words, or multiword units: Edit your text before you copy it in, joining the words you want to keep together with the tilde character: ~ (e.g. “cataclastic~rock”). Also, reduce the word output number (Layout/Maximum words) to simplify.

Just the word
This collocation thesaurus concordancer shows frequency and produces word clouds. Clicking on a given collocation gives you samples from the BNC. (e.g. precipitation)

A set of tools to analyze the text you copy in:
a. Concord Writer
Work in progress: Write text in the window, and your text is dynamically linked to multiple examples as you write.
b. Vocab Profile (BNL)
A published article: Copy in your text, and the tool will output a word list.

Google Ngram Viewer
How has your word been used over time? Has it changed in meaning? Study a word over time based on the word’s occurance in the Google Books library (those published since 1800).

5 modes of search for collocations: find one word (e.g. the missing word in a phrase – e.g. verbs, prepositions, possible modifiers), several words, alternatives in the phrase (so: find a better synonym), and word order (e.g. adverb placement). Follow links to find sample sentences. Caution: the Internet is your database.

If a scientist wants to read just one article on writing a thesis: George Gopen and Judith Swan show that where you place information in a sentence makes a huge difference. Their article The Science of Scientific Writing was originally published in the November-December 1990 issue of American Scientist.

Some excellent websites to surf for university writing skills:

And when in doubt, try a grammar quiz:

Diagnostic grammar quizzes, especially recommended for connectors/ transition words http://www.grammar-quizzes.com/

These are not online tools, but books I recommend for the research library:

  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Abstracts and the Writing of Abstracts. The University of Michigan Press 2009.
  • Christine B. Feak/ John M. Swales: Telling a Research Story. Writing a Literature Review. The University of Michigan Press 2009. (The answers to the tasks in these two books are available online.)
  • John M. Swales/ Christine B. Feak: Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills. Second Edition. The University of Michigan Press 1994/2009. Also get the commentary by same authors: Commentary for Academic Writing for Graduate Students. Essential Tasks and Skills.
  • Rowena Murray: How to Write a Thesis. Open University Press2002/2011.
  • Robert A. Day/ Barbara Gastel: How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Greenwood Press 2006.
  • Michael McCarthy/ Felicity O’Dell: Academic Vocabulary in Use. 50 units of academic vocabulary reference and practice. Self-study and classroom use. Cambridge University Press 2008.

Do you have any resources to add?

PS: There is an online scientific writing tool called Swan, the Scientific Writing Assistant, http://cs.joensuu.fi/swan/. The concept was developed by Jean Luc Lebrun, formerly at Apple and now a scientific communication skills author and trainer. It requires Java version 6.0 or higher, and runs on various operating systems, working on Apple OS 10.6 and higher. Its USP is that it helps you organize your thoughts and content (rather than your language and grammar) by working around the placement of key words.

PPPS: Graham Davies created a fantastic online site dedicated to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for Language Teachers, initiated with EC funding in 1999-2000, which he has continued to maintain himself. It contains pretty much everything teachers need in ICT. I’m finding the section on using concordance programs in class and the one on corpus linguistics helpful. It makes me want to take a week off and do nothing but dip into this world, and finally read the books I’ve got on the subject from cover to cover. Graham also keeps a blog.

iCloud: iUnderstand

This is one of Steve Job’s last presentations, still explaining “his” products with inspired simplicity and clarity.

Focus with me for a moment on his metalanguage (often called signposting), that is the language he uses to take us from one point to the next. Metalanguage or signposting varies widely between presentation types, and is generally very different in product marketing, say, than in a presentation of technological developments to other specialists. Likewise metalanguage in academic science presentations that rely heavily on visuals will differ completely from those in economics, with their charts and empirical data, or from lectures in philosophy. At one level the difference is connected to the way each type of presentation communicates concepts. The more abstract and involved concepts get, the more difficult it will be for the audience to relate to and follow the speaker communicating them, and the more necessary it becomes to talk about what has already been said and to connect it to what is coming up next. In other words, there is no one formula for signposting, no instant phrases to learn by heart and simply apply to presentations. One size does not fit all. Every genre is different!

Just listen to the type of metalanguage Steve Jobs uses. It’s unbelievably simple:  Introducing a new product: “You like everything so far? (Audience: Yeah!) “Well, I’ll try not to blow it.” Moving from one feature to the next: “So that’s Contacts; here’s Calendars. Works much the same way.” Each statement backed by the trademark big, beautiful pictures. His authentic and communicative body language suggests that everyone is really getting the message. He doesn’t explain the technology in a way that goes over anyone’s head. And should anyone not get it completely, he draws them in, not through information, but through

  • Empathy: “Keeping those devices in sync is driving us crazy.” “You might ask, Why should I believe them? They’re the ones that brought me Mobile Me. It wasn’t our finest hour, let me say that, but we learned a lot.”
  • Emotion, quasi-religious feeling and humor: “Some people think the cloud just a hard disk in the sky… We think it’s way more than that.” “The truth is on the cloud.”
  • Reassurance: “It just works.” “Pretty cool.” “It’s that simple.”

…and his audience laughs and believes it understands. A socially very powerful approach. Remember we are talking about an app that takes all of the information on your personal phone and removes it to an external something, somewhere, which should at least invite questions. But no, it’s all good.

It’s really an understatement to say that Steve Jobs’ iconic presentation style perfectly matched the Apple image. As a consequence of these presentations, Jobs was Apple. He’ll be a hard, no: an impossible act to follow. RIP.

Learning to listen to scientific lectures

One of the greatest challenges for non-native academic users of English as a Lingua Franca is keeping up with what is being said in discussions to the point where they can process the information in real time and contribute themselves. In a word, the challenge is information overload. Not only are you trying to understand the content, but you are also trying to decode the language. But instead of listening to every single word, you need to focus on very specific things.

The challenge is two-fold. First, learn to listen for the key words that hold meaning, and know what vocabulary to expect and which structures to expect those words in. This is something you can acquire through practice. It is also where pronunciation as a receptive skill comes in, listening in context and noticing how the most important words are stressed. Here it makes sense in the name of international intelligibility to listen to and emulate good near-native speakers and the way they use nuclear stress.

The second challenge is learning to accommodate a wide variety of accents. This means understanding what specific challenges a non-native speaker needs to overcome to make his or her English sound “English”, based on the restrictions of his or her native tongue (L1). Accomodation is a challenge for every speaker of English, and in fact is at least as difficult for native speakers as it is for non-native speakers. I have a hard time with some Asian and African accents, and even with some from the UK! But practice makes perfect. Here are some sites to practice your listening skills:

Talk About English: Academic English is a didactic program from the BBC geared to preparing learners for the listening skills part of the IELTS exam. This BBC program provides discussions and tips, listening practice and accompanying questions, and student responses are discussed with a teacher.

The TED Talks http://www.ted.com/talks are the best lectures online today, but tend to be removed from the type of lectures students are subjected to at college. Still, it has obvious benefits to study these talks by international luminaries, as the series celebrates the highly engaging nature of cutting edge research.

Video Lectures http://videolectures.net/ is a collection of videotaped academic and business lectures by international speakers, tagged by discipline and accompanied interactively by powerpoint slides. This site has content supplied by academic institutions, which makes it a good window into academic presentations. On the business side, I’ve watched a presentation from 2001 by Volvo CEO Leif Johannsen on Volvo’s Environmental Business Strategy, and one from 2009 by Robert Grant on the financial crisis. I can also recommed the very entertaining Umberto Eco on the History of Ugliness, from 2007.

In the Reith Lectures on Radio 4 on BBC, Martin Rees,  President of the Royal Society, speaks on “The Scientific Citizen”:  In 4 lectures dedicated to “Scientific Horizons”,  he challenges scientists to play a greater role in helping the public understand science. The full transcript is available.

For these and more tips, explore the wonderful English for University site written by Patrick McMahon. His page with great links is here.

Finally, my current favorite for online pronunciation practice, English Central, is the place to go to analyse at the level of individual words and phrases what exactly it is that you are hearing.

Limericks and the life of an English teacher

Stan Carey of the Sentence First blog and the MacMillan blog and sundry other lingusitic habitats is holding a limerick competition – yeah! – and there are some really great ones there, don’t miss them. Deadline: September 21st.

My contributions are a bit dour for limericks, but such is the life of an English teacher:

Krashen wrote all about acquisition
being outside the realm of tuition
which made me morose
and take a whole course
which was fine, but I’m still no magician.

There can never be any consensus
Whether German will lull English senses
Russell Smith got it right
Spoken softly by night
by a beauty it surely mends fences.

“Until Friday,” she’d said, so I queried
“You’ll be writing all week?!” I was worried.
“No, I’ll do it on Thursday,
you’ll have it on Friday.”
“By Friday, then, fine.” Out I hurried.