Proper English on the Spanish radio? Not thanks to Maroon 5

If you ever listen to the Spanish radio, you’ll notice that their English is highly improvable. See some examples.

When Spain couldn’t speak English—or even less than now—the average citizen settled for the pleasure of the melody, which they accompanied with a succession of sounds sort of inspired by the actual lyrics. That is, In the Ghetto sung by El Príncipe Gitano was fine.

You’d think that in 2016 radio disk jockeys would have polished their English due to the exposure to that language. Far from the truth. They even dare make comments that are allegedly related to the lyrics. Allegedly.

After Love Yourself by Justin Bieber was played, a deejay added ‘That’s right. Everyone should love themselves’. She probably focussed on the title, the slow rhythm and the whispering and ignored the words, since ‘love yourself’ in that song is an obvious ‘f**k you’.

They don’t even try. After almost a decade of Halo by Beyoncé—in which the title of the song is repeated to boredom—other deejay introduced it as ‘HA-lo’, four sounds, instead of the six from ‘hey-low’.

'Listen, I'm going to mess with grammar if I want to and you're going to love it'

‘Listen, I’m going to mess with grammar if I want to and you’re going to love it’

However, who can blame them when the anglophone bands commit atrocities such as ‘even the sun sets in paradise’? I’m indeed quoting Payphone by Maroon 5. If the metaphor means that nothing is perfect and the sun sets everywhere, even in paradise, they should sing ‘the sun sets even in paradise’. Notice the place of the adverb. As it is in the song, it means that many things set in paradise, even the sun.

There’s still a lot to do…

What’s your English dialect? Got words?

Today, I’m sharing with you three simple, short and even fun tests to test your dialect and your vocabulary in English.

Which English? (5 min)

Cutest thing ever for a post about English [photo: Daily Mail Online]

Cutest picture ever for a post about English [photo: Daily Mail Online]

English grammar is different around the world and influences of your own language—if it’s a different one—may show on your performance. This test consists of three parts. First you’re presented with a sentence and two pictures and you have to choose the image that best represents the sentence. Then you have to tick the phrases that fit in some gaps. Finally, you need to point out the grammatically correct sentences of a list. It’s not uncommon to find different answers to the same thing. But this test doesn’t allow greys; it’s black or white.

An algorithm will guess your dialect and your native language. The more people take the test, the better its guess will be. I took it twice and got English (UK) as my dialect. Scottish and Australian/Welsh were the second and third/third guesses, respectively. As for my native language, the first option was English (UK) and the third was Finnish both times. Its second guess was either Spanish or Hungarian.

How strong is your vocabulary? (1 min)

There’s only 10 questions. You need to select a synonym for each word out of four choices. That’s all. The average score is 2470. My average [3 attempts] is 2800.

Word test (5 min)

In this test you get 100 letter sequences. You have to decide whether they are actual English words or not. This gives an estimate of the percentage of English words that you know. Natives should get about 67 %; high-proficient second language speakers should get 33 %. My average [3 attempts] is 71 %.

I encourage you to take the tests and share your results here. Try to beat me. Someone has to take this show-off down a peck or two.

The ‘boringer’ case: a better rule for comparatives

No matter how hard teachers try, at some point a student is going to use boringer as a comparative and you’ll tell them it’s an exception. But what if you were wrong?

The rule that teachers have taught for centuries is:

  • 1 or 2-syllable adjective: adj.+er for comparatives, adj.+est for superlatives
  • 3-syllable adjective or longer: more + adj. for comparatives, the most + adj. for superlatives

However, irregular forms aside, this rule proves wrong for several 2-syllable adjectives. The flaw is typically revealed by the adjective boring. It’s a very common adjective that publishers love to add in the exercises to show students that life’s hard; deal with it. But they could very well choose careful, worried or useless.

I have no idea what this book is about, but its title suits the post perfectly

I have no idea what this book is about, but its title suits the post perfectly

Students will ask for an explanation of the phenomenon and teachers will play the exception card. Well, teachers, you’re wrong. And so was I for a long time until I realised the actual pattern and it’s been years since I was last asked about boringer.

In fact, the rule is quite the same; the approach is what’s wrong. The key is not to focus on the original adjective but the final comparative or superlative adjective. Therefore:

  • If adding +er or +est makes a 2-syllable adjective, do it.
  • If adding +er or +est makes a 3-syllable adjective or longer, too bad: more + adj. for comparatives, the most + adj. for superlatives.

A 2-syllable adjective is the maximum allowed for +er and +est, the rest is more and the most. Boringer and worrieder—and, of course, dangerouser—have more than 2 syllables; they’re not possible. If your students still try to use boringer, English is not their problem; maths is.

Should you have in mind dual options (more clever/cleverer, more quiet/quieter, more narrow/narrower), this new approach might favour the two-word form indeed. It will, nevertheless, be a correct form—which can’t be said about boringer.

Further readings for teachers:

MAXWELL, K. and CLANDFIELD, L. ‘Comparative and superlative adjectives – article‘ in Macmillan’s One Stop English [online]. [viewed November 2014].

WOODHAM, R. Reply to a question in BBC’s Learning English [online]. [viewed November 2014].

‘No fotis!’ – Catalan-English slang dictionary

PONS Idiomas. No fotis! Barcelona: Difusión Centro de Investigación y Publicaciones de Idiomas, 2010.

‘It includes words that don’t appear in conventional dictionaries or textbooks, because they’re taboo, politically incorrect or recently invented.’

Catalan and English as spoken in the street

Catalan and English as spoken in the streets

Indeed, No fotis! is a Catalan-English and English-Catalan bilingual dictionary of slang and vulgar speech. It’s good that someone takes their time to collect these words and expressions and share them—although they charge for it, but they need to eat too. This is a dictionary you’d use on an Erasmus or on crazy holidays, as that vocabulary wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Useful for a Saturday night, not so much for Monday morning.

Finding equivalents for slang in two languages is far from easy and sometimes you can only provide a translation in standard register, a definition or a close-enough-but-not-quite term. That’s when I might differ from the choice of the authors, who still deserve a lot of credit for the hard work and the proper equivalents. Therefore, I do recommend this book.

On the other hand and being pernickety, there are some flaws. The currency of slang vocabulary is always tricky since this register evolves rapidly. How can’t you doubt a product that mentions Messenger in its examples? How many people over 18 used it in 2010? It is complicated to publish a dictionary of so changing a part of language on a so steady support as paper.

Originality was prioritized over linguistic or terminological rigour. It being a dictionary, it’s unforgivable to mix genders in a sentence with two he, one him and two her referring to the same person—and repetition smells funny—, or to read ame instead of the obvious anem (Catalan for we go, required in that sentence). Also, both halves are not coherent or parallel or complete. Regarding breasts, there’s only jugs in English with tetes, mamelles and metes as equivalents. However, there’s only tetes in the Catalan half with knockers and jugs. Even so, the book is still enlightening and worth it.

Finally, should you own a phone in more than two colours—unlike me—, it’s available on iTunes.

Not all abbreviations are acronyms: shortenings, contractions, initialisms and acronyms

In scientific texts, especially those for master’s degrees and PhDs, there’s a widely spread wrong habit to introduce abbreviations under the title ‘Acronyms’. Enough!

Abbreviations are short versions of words or phrases. However, briefness mustn’t be at the expense of clarity. They make language simpler and save space and also ease international communication. Therefore, they should be written out next to their first appearance in a text or included in an abbreviations list to ensure comprehension.

Don't combine them randomly [image: Maria Teresa Ambrosi]

Don’t combine them randomly [image: Maria Teresa Ambrosi]

There are different sorts of abbreviations: shortenings, contractions, initialisms and acronyms.

Shortenings drop the beginning or the end of the original word or phrase. They usually need a full stop to replace the missing letters at the end [Dec. (December), cont. (continued)], except when they’ve become a new word themselves [cello (violoncello), rhino (rhninoceros)]. The full stop should not be used at the end of a sentence or before ellipses as that punctuation already has it.

Contractions omit some letters from the middle and don’t need a full stop as the letters on both ends are still there [Dr (doctor), Mr (mister)], but they do need an apostrophe to replace the omitted letters when two words are involved [you’ll (you will), didn’t (did not)].

Initialisms are built with the initial letters of a phrase and are read as separate letters [BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)]. They’re generally written in capital letters and without full stops. The plural of an initialism is formed by just adding an s [NGOs (non-governmental organizations), LODs (limits of detection)], never an apostrophe—unless you intend to use a possessive.

Acronyms—here they come—are built with the initial letters of a phrase, just like initialisms, but are pronounced as words [ASAP (as soon as possible), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)], so much so that some have become common words themselves [radar (radio detection and ranging), laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation)]. Capitalization depends on how common they’ve become, but plural is formed as with initialisms—and any other word in the end.

So, my dear scientists, check that you’ve actually got only acronyms on that section if that’s the title you’ll be printing on long-lasting documents for people to read.

Oxford University Press. ‘Abbreviations‘ in Oxford Dictionaries [online]. 2014. [viewed July 2014].

‘The Fox’ song lesson plan

This is a musical lesson plan about animals and the sounds they make. It’s based on an advert for Adventure Time, which kids—and lots of adults—love. The advert itself is a parody of a song by a Norwegian comedy duo.

The fox (15/30 min)

a) Try to fill in the blanks before listening to the song. Then, listen to it and complete the task. Finally, check your answers watching the video.

The fox – Ylvis

Dog goes woof
Cat goes meow
Bird goes tweet
and mouse goes squeak
Cow goes moo
Frog goes croak
and the elephant goes toot
Ducks say quack
and fish go blub
and the seal goes ow ow ow
But there’s one sound
That no one knows
What does the fox say?

What the fox say?
What the fox say?
What the fox say?
What the fox say?

Believe it or not, there's a book based on the song

Believe it or not, there’s a book based on the song

Big blue eyes
Pointy nose
Chasing mice
and digging holes
Tiny paws
Up the hill
Suddenly you’re standing still
Your fur is red
So beautiful
Like an angel in disguise
But if you meet
a friendly horse
Will you communicate by
How will you speak to that
What does the fox say?

What the fox say?
What the fox say?
A-hee-ahee ha-hee!
What the fox say?
What does the fox say?

The secret of the fox
Ancient mystery
Somewhere deep in the woods
I know you’re hiding
What is your sound?
Will we ever know?
Will always be a mystery
What do you say?
You’re my guardian angel
Hiding in the woods
What is your sound?
Will we ever know?
I want to…
I want to…
I want to know!

b) Match these words from the song with their definitions.

Definitions from Oxford Dictionaries
  1. pointy
  2. tiny
  3. fur
  4. disguise
  5. deep
  1. a means of altering one’s appearance
  2. extending far down from the top or surface
  3. having a pointed tip or end
  4. the short, fine, soft hair of certain animals
  5. very small

Teacher’s notes

a) Delete the underlined words in your students’ copy. For absolute beginners you may want to stick to the first column and forget about the second. That part corresponds to the Adventure Time clip. If your student can take it, the full song is in the original clip. You might also want to point out that, actually, elephants trumpet and seals bark; it is in the Nordic countries that elephants go toot.

b) Exercise b only makes sense if the full song is played since the words belong to the second column. Answers are as follows: 1-c, 2-e, 3-d, 4-a, 5-b.