Photo from Creative Commons user: Sarah Ross.

Photo from Creative Commons user: Sarah Ross.

This is part of a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers at a local English class in my city. 

As bilingual people we do not use all of our languages equally across speaking, writing, listening and reading. These four different ways of using language are sometimes referred to as ‘modalities’. If we learn a language in a formal classroom context we are much more likely to practice it through the modalities of writing and reading, and possibly listening, and less likely to practice speaking the language. On the other hand, if we speak a language only at home, we get a lot of practice with speaking and listening, but less practice with writing and reading the language. When we have to switch from a modality in which we are comfortable, to one with which we are less comfortable we sometimes make a lot of mistakes. These mistakes are not really reflective of how much we know, though. Think about if you learned Spanish in high school, but never had to use it to speak conversationally – the first time you try to speak Spanish in a conversation you probably made a lot of mistakes, even though you knew the correct grammatical rules and information – you just weren’t familiar with how to apply these rules in the modality of speech. The solution is to get more practice across reading, listening, writing and speaking. The way we have the interaction set up in our classes now is designed to have students write, read, speak and listen – giving them practice in all four modalities!

Does learning about English mean learning about American culture?

Photo from Creative Commons user Karen Mallonee.

Photo from Creative Commons user Karen Mallonee.

This is part of a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers at a local English class in my city. 

Finally there is a question about whether learning English also means that you should be learning about American culture. As Diane has mentioned in the trainings, it is important to teach your students the language of real life. We want to give our students practice using language that will be relevant to the places and contexts in which they will use English. and because they are living in the United States, they are going to be using English in American contexts. In this sense, it may be important to teach about the practical aspects of what we might call ‘American culture’ – like how to use English phrases that are necessary to ask questions about library memberships, or to set up a bank account in the United States, or to wish a coworker a happy birthday or a good weekend. However, we don’t need to feel the pressure of teaching them every aspect of how to celebrate Thanksgiving or the names of all of our favorite American foods – because their life in America, and the contexts in which they work and live and use English, may be very different from ours. In this way, sharing about those aspects culture may be more related to student and teacher learning about one another, rather than a feeling of pressure to teach American culture as part of teaching English.


What counts as good English?

Photo from Creative Commons user Ben Rollman.

Photo from Creative Commons user Ben Rollman.

This is part of a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers at a local English class in my city. 

Knowing that English is a global language also might change what counts as good English. For one thing, many of the people who speak English are bilingual or multilingual and they often mix English with the other languages they speak. You may feel concerned if you hear someone mixing their first language with English – but don’t worry this is not a bad thing! Language mixing is actually very common and very useful, not only for language learners, but also for people who are fluent in both languages. There can be many reasons to mix two languages such as: conveying a particular idea that is better expressed in one of the languages, making a story more interesting or funny, or creating distance or closeness between yourself and your listener. And research is showing that allowing for students to mix their languages in the classroom can actually lead to greater confidence and participation on the part of the students.

To read more – check out this article by Creese & Blackledge from 2010:

Who makes a good English teacher?

Photo from Creative Commons user: United Nations Photo

Photo from Creative Commons user: United Nations Photo

This is part of a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers at a local English class in my city. 

Knowing that English is a global language impacts who counts as a good English teacher. In 2014 the president of the TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) international association said that there is now more understanding that a good English teacher is someone who is good at teaching, understands language and has good cross-cultural skills “regardless of their first language background.” Other researchers have noted that knowing more than one language can actually make you more aware of language learning processes, which can help your teaching rather than hurting it, and that being an insider of a community of English language learners can make you more aware of their particular challenges and aspirations – also adding to your ability to teach. This doesn't mean that if you are a native speaker of English that you are not a good teacher – but what it does mean is that we should feel happy to know that regardless of our cultural and linguistic backgrounds we can all bring something important to the table in interacting with our students and teaching English.

To read more check out these: Canagarajah, A. S. (1999). Interrogating the “native speaker fallacy”: Non-linguistic roots, non-pedagogical results. Non-native educators in English language teaching7792.

TESOL blog


Who owns English?

Photo from Creative Commons user: OZinOH

Photo from Creative Commons user: OZinOH

This is part of a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers at a local English class in my city. 

Some facts: English is an official language in more than 70 countries and is taught as a foreign language in more than 100 countries AND there are more non-native speakers than native speakers of English. So this brings up the question of who owns English? Or said in a different way – do native speakers of English own English? Are they the ones who should teach it and should determine how it is spoken? The facts above highlight the fact that English is really a global language, rather than an American or British language. And the fact that it is global may mean revisiting who counts as a good English teacher and what counts as good English – something we’ll revisit in the next few tips!

For more information on global English check out this book “English as a global Language” by linguist David Crystal (available online):



Photo from Creative Commons user Orban López Cruz

Photo from Creative Commons user Orban López Cruz

This is part of a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers at a local English class in my city. 

As both learners and teachers of language it can sometimes feel like the language learning process is unbearably slow. I think this is in part because we compare ourselves to the “ideal fluent speaker.” While improving one’s ability in a language is great, we may be more encouraged to do so when we stop seeing “fluency” as the only worthwhile goal in language learning. Take a minute to think about the languages that you have any ability in. Maybe you speak just enough of your grandmother’s language to make her feel appreciated when tell her food is delicious, or just enough of your boss’s language to communicate about work related tasks. You may not be able to understand a lecture on rocket science in these languages, but you are still able to use them for important things in your daily life. We always use language in a particular contexts, so rather than imagining this ideal type of fluency that allows us to speak flawlessly across all contexts and about every topic, it can be encouraging, and actually more true to reality to think about our language learning goals and the language abilities we already have relative to the specific relationships, places and tasks that are important and meaningful in our lives.

In honor of snacks

Photo from Creative Commons user Dave Crosby.

Photo from Creative Commons user Dave Crosby.

This is the fifth in a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers in a local English class in my city. 

As humans we have all sorts of feelings about different languages, and these feelings about language can impact whether or not we want to learn a language. Our feelings about language are not isolated though, usually they are related to how we feel about the people, spaces or activities we associate with the language. This is one reason our weekly snacks at our English class are a valuable contribution. We might think “It’s English class – it’s for learning English, why should the snacks matter?” But having snacks, or funny interactions changes the space into one that people have positive associations with. And these positive associations with the space can have an impact on how our students feel about their experience of learning English and the ways in which they continue to engage English learning.

This post is combining some of the work on language learning and motivation with my recent work with a colleague about how parents justify their decisions about their children's linguistic education, which you can see here:


The goal of teaching English

This photo is from Creative Commons user Laurie Pink.

This photo is from Creative Commons user Laurie Pink.

This is the fourth in a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers in a local English class in my city. 

I think it is important to remember that our goal is to help our conversation partners and their families add one more language to the list of language(s) they already speak. Our goal is NOT to replace the language they already speak with English. Being bilingual is a great thing. It can help us connect and stay connected to more groups of people, to express a wide variety of meanings, and it can also make us better at multi-tasking. But the reality is that in the United States, immigrant families don’t stay bilingual very long.  It used to be that in three generations families would go from speaking no English at all, to only speaking English. Now it only takes two generations. While there are a lot of reasons for this, one thing we can do as English conversation volunteers is to keep in mind the value of being bilingual. We aren’t teaching people a better language or a replacement language or even the “language of success”. We’re teaching them English, which will allow them to connect with new people and new opportunities, but we also value the other language(s) they speak that connect them with other people and other communities that are equally important to their lives.


The information about the amount of time it takes for immigrant families to switch completely to English comes from a chapter written by Geoffrey Nunberg in the book The workings of Language: From prescriptions to perspectives.

Your students are better at English grammar than they (or you) realize

Photo from Creative Commons user Nicholas Nova. 

Photo from Creative Commons user Nicholas Nova. 

This is the third in a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers in a local English class in my city. 

When we learn a language we are gaining both vocabulary knowledge (words, words, words!) and grammatical knowledge (rules about words and sentences). Sometimes the mistakes we make are vocabulary related, but we think they’re related to grammar. For example, if someone says “I thinked about it” – we might say “Bad Grammar!” but actually their grammar is perfect. Because the grammar says “add –ed to make past tense”. This works for a lot of words: walkàwalked and cook à cooked, but it doesn’t work for thinkà thought. Which means that you just have to memorize “thought”, and that it is vocabulary knowledge. But it gets more complicated because “doing vocabulary” and “doing grammar” are different brain functions, and they race against each other! So maybe you DID memorize the word “thought” but when you go to say it in a sentence, the grammar knowledge beats the vocabulary knowledge and you say “thinked” instead. All this goes to show is that when we’re learning a new language, we’re often way better at grammar and vocabulary then we might realize based on the mistakes we make.

To learn more, you can check out this presentation material put together by people who work on issues of bilingualism and education.


Why we can't learn a language "on the job"

Photo from Creative Commons user Andrew Affleck.

Photo from Creative Commons user Andrew Affleck.

This is the second in a series of short posts framing adult English language learning experiences for volunteers in a local English class in my city. 

As we meet and interact with our conversation partners we might notice that many of them have been living and working in the United States for a number of years and we might find ourselves wondering why their English proficiency hasn’t improved more in that time. There are two main reasons for this: (1) Many people who move to a new country end up doing manual labor jobs (even if they are overqualified for these positions) because they don’t speak English. And because these manual labor jobs often do not offer much opportunity for talking, it is near impossible to learn English “on the job”. (2) Any of us who have worked any job know that it is important to seem like we know what we are doing. For this reason, we are not likely to ask questions that show what we don’t know, especially if these questions are not even related to work (like – “How do you say this in English?”). This makes work an unsafe space in which to practice and make mistakes in language learning. This is part of why our Sunday morning meetings together are so great! They are pure communication spaces focused on language alone, where it is okay to make mistakes (and laugh about it) and to ask questions.

This information here mostly comes from Chapter 4 of an amazing book by Ingrid Piller:  “Linguistic Diversity and Social Justice: An Introduction to Applied Linguistics”.

Sound detectives

A truly adorable sound detective.

A truly adorable sound detective.

I have been working with an English Language Program for adults in my community. They asked me to write some short weekly posts to frame adult English language learning experiences for the volunteers - some of whom have not had the experiences of immigrating or learning a second language as an adult. I want to share those posts here as well, and this is the first one! 

Part of the language learning job of a baby is to find out what type of language-related information is important. By ten months they stop detecting sounds that are not found in their language – this helps them focus on the information that is important for learning to communicate with the people around them. For example there is no “th” sound in Spanish, so at ten months, babies who only hear Spanish stop detecting this sound so that they can pay more attention to the sounds relevant for Spanish. This is one of the reasons we say not to focus so much on correcting your students' pronunciation, because trying harder or knowing that they're doing it "wrong" isn’t going to make their English pronunciation better. The best thing you can do to help with pronunciation is to make the weekly recordings for them so they can listen to the English sounds – and slowly, and over time get used to detecting sounds like “th” as a part of their language system.

For more information, check out this article from The New York Times.

Photo from Creative Commons user, somedragon2000. 

Quiz time!

I've been working with some of my fellow grad students here at UIUC to put on workshops for teachers and students at local schools here in Chambana (shout out to Itxaso, Farzad, Staci, Kate and Anita for help on this particular workshop). Our first workshop was about language attitudes. What are language attitudes you ask? Okay - rather than tell you - I'm gonna make you do the same thing the teacher's did. This isn't a test and you won't be judged for your answers. The only thing you have to do to pass is NOT SCROLL ALL THE WAY DOWN!

Instructions: The following four audio files are taken from four different women all of whom were on a panel at TED. After playing each clip, rate the speakers on the following scales. 

Okay if you've finished rating all the speakers you can scroll now! 












So the big reveal is...

...those were actually all clips from the same speaker. She's an actress named Sarah Jones and I'll tell you more about her in a bit. 

The activity you just completed is a "Matched Guise Test" and was invented by sociolinguist William Lambert in 1967 to quantify the attitudes that one group of people had towards the language of another group of people. Just like in this test - the speaker that the participants are listening to is really just one speaker, but they are told that s/he is multiple speakers. 

Sociolinguists are very interested in the ways that people judge other people based on their language. But we all care about this in reality, because we all feel the reality of judging other people and being judged ourselves for the language that comes out of our mouths. I have a hankering that the reason this judgment comes about has to do in part with identity - something that I'll be talking more about in other workshops. For now I'll leave you with what Sarah Jones says about identity and the different ways that she speaks. 

During her talk at TED she says that her characters are based on her own friends and family and that she does this performance piece because she is "interested in the invention of self or selves". She says" We're all born into certain circumstances with a particular physical traits, unique developmental experiences, geographical and historical contexts. But then what? ...How do we self-identify and how mutable is that identity?" 

In honor of librarians

For me, the highlight of last week was finding a children’s book. It’s the book in the middle of the photo above – the one with the picture of the little boy and the reindeer. I found it while working in the library and discovered that it was written in the “Tofa” language. I had never heard of this language before, so I did some googling and  discovered that the Tofalar are a Turkic people group who live in Siberia and have historically supported themselves through hunting reindeer and reindeer husbandry. The Tofa language is an endangered language and had only 731 speakers in 1989.

Pretty crazy, right? At least for a linguist nerd.

I am frequently surprised by how many cool things we have in our library. But as much as I am grateful for being at a University with huge piles of interesting books – I am more grateful to the librarians who actually make all this stuff accessible to me. Working in the library this summer, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the work that goes into making something “accessible”. Making something accessible requires a combination of organizing, and advertising, framing, developing a system and teaching others to use that system. It is definitely not enough for something awesome to exist.

So what does it look like for those of us who are not librarians to make the cool things we work with accessible to others? In my line of work, we are always encouraged to publish our papers in academic journals. I think the general idea is, the more you publish, the more likely you are to land a job. I’ve always been a little resistant to narratives that run along to lines of “do this and you’ll be sure to be super employable”, but if I spin it another way the narrative could be “If you publish, you are taking steps towards making your work accessible to a larger group of people”. That narrative I can get on board with. 

But then comes the other question - who exactly do you want to make things accessible to? Just as a great idea in your head is of no use to other academics, a great idea in an academic journal is of no use to your neighbors down the street. This is where making something accessible can get really creative.

Sara Kendzior gave a talk last year at through the UIUC Anthropology Department, titled “How (and Why) to Write for the Public [as academics]”. She spent a lot of time talking about the importance of using social media – emphasizing that using mediums that others are using is one way to make your research accessible to them. In long talks with my artist friend Emma, I’ve also learned a lot the ways in which certain artists are trying to make their work more accessible by making it socially interactive. The possibilities are really endless in terms of ways to make your cool ideas and data accessible to other people.

 I think the main shift though is taking on the burden of access. When we are so enamored with our work (regardless of what kind of work it is) that we think people should just come to us– then we put the burden to find, be interested in, and understand our work on them, rather than on ourselves. This kind of thinking says advertising is a dirty word and if people can’t understand us it’s because they’re not smart enough. In reality, we probably could learn a little from those who work to get their ideas noticed and we probably need to work a little harder at using less complicated explanations. Granted, this doesn’t mean that we should treat our audience like children, or that the best way to make something accessible is to explain it to death. Overall, I am simply realizing that sharing takes a certain level of humility – humility that I learn every time I rewrite a post for this blog.

And this is the last thing that I want to say about librarians that I’ve seen. They operate in humility rather than entitlement. They are always looking for more ways to make their resources more accessible to their readers. They add more information or less information based on what they think will be most useful for their patrons. They spend time making scans searchable or teaching peoples how to use their library system. They both work to make the wonderful things at the library more accessible and are constantly reevaluating what accessibility looks like. Thank you to librarians in the Slavic and East European Library that I’ve had the honor to work alongside this summer.

How do you make your ideas and your work accessible to others? What are some of the most creative solutions you’ve seen? 

Collaboration between "insiders" and "outsiders" and the detention of Alexander Sodiqov.

This post is dedicated to Alexander Sodiqov who was arrested about a month ago while conducting research in his home country of Tajikistan. Sodiqov is a University of Toronto student and a Tajik citizen who was conducting interviews for the “Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia” project when he was arrested. He is accused of spying and treason. This post is much delayed, but sadly, still relevant as Sodiqov has yet to be released.

As an American who wants to research Central Asia, I think a lot about what I should be attentive to since I am not a member of the community that I want to research. One of my biggest concerns when researching communities that I am not a part of is that I may think I understand what people are telling me, without truly understanding. Think back to a time when you told someone your story and then heard them telling someone else their version of your story – if they get it wrong it can make you feel pretty terrible.

Charles Briggs shares an example of this happening in a research context in his book “Learning how to ask.” Briggs is conducting a survey about a facilities center in New Mexico, when he notices that based on his survey, the Navajo residents appear to be much less interested in using the facilities center than other residents. He feels that something is a bit off with these results and he’s right about that. A little more digging reveals that in this Navajo community, it is considered rude to speculate about the behavior of others and so the question “How will you and your family members use the facilities center?” couldn’t really be answered. The problem was with the question, not with the respondents. 

This points to the problem of the miscommunication (even in research about communication!) that can happen without insider knowledge. And who has the best insider knowledge?  The insiders. This is why it is essential to have partnerships between researchers who are members of a particular community and researchers who are not members of the community.

 Researchers who are working in their own communities already know how to ask the questions and they can call out other researchers who are getting non-answers and parading them around as answers. This is important because, if we can get answers and questions that are more true to local understandings then we get better, more accurate research, we do a better job of representing the communities we are studying and we get better solutions to the problems that face these particular communities.

 In the case of Central Asia the partnerships between Western researchers and researchers from the region are especially important because Central Asia has been so little understood in the West. This is why researchers like Alexander Sodiqov, who are from the region are so important to the future of research on Central Asia and to the future of relationships between the West and Central Asia.

 But one more point – in light of Sodiqov’s detention there has been a lot of talk of “scholars at risk” in Central Asia, but I think it is important to note that not all scholars are equally at risk. Scholars from the region at much more at risk than scholars from the West (due to the relative political power of Western countries and Central Asian countries, and a host of other factors I can’t fully discuss here).  I would urge those of us who are invested in Central Asia, but are not from the region to discuss Sodiqov’s case and work for his release with both an awareness of the value he and other scholars from the region bring to our work, and with a special sensitivity to the risks associated with their positions as insiders.

See here for work being done to release Alexander Sodiqov, including a petition that you can sign. See here for the latest article on Sodiqov’s situation.

A few notes: I fully recognize that the lines between outsider/insider are not so clearly drawn and that not all insiders have the same opinions or intuitions. Nevertheless, on a gradient scale there are those with differing experiences and privileges and my hope is that there would be continued dialogue and support between people in different positions on that scale. 

Update: Alexander Sodiqov was released after five weeks of being held in prison. He is still being detained in country while there is further investigations into the allegations made against him. For more information, see here

Photo from Creative Commons user, Evgeni Zotov. 

What did you just call me?

Dedicated to my cousin Sara for tirelessly contesting my identities (in some great ways) and supplying me with many terrible pictures of myself.

Me, my cousin Sara and some little cousins in Taiwan engaging in our favorite past time (eating ice cream sandwiches). 

Me, my cousin Sara and some little cousins in Taiwan engaging in our favorite past time (eating ice cream sandwiches). 

Over the years my answers to the question “What’s your ethnicity?” have varied a lot. To give you a sense of the full range, I went from “My mom is Chinese and my dad is normal” to “My mom is Chinese and my dad is white” to“My mom is from Taiwan. My dad is from Pennsylvania.” My answer still varies these days. I used to think that all this variation in the way I explain my identity was a result of confusion on my part. But I’ve come around to the idea that it is actually a pretty normal and widespread phenomenon to have different ways of making your identity depending on who you’re talking with, how you think they will understand the terms you are using and what you want to emphasize about yourself.

A lot of anthropologists and some sociolinguistics have started saying that identity isn’t a thing that you just have. Instead an identity is something that you actually create, for yourself or for someone else – and one of the ways you create those identities is through language, by the terms you use. Take for example “My mom is from Taiwan. vs. My mom is Chinese.” In choosing one over the other I am making a statement that Taiwan is distinct enough from China to merit a separate designation and I am also claiming that I am the kind of person to whom this distinction between Taiwan and China is important. But this claim on my part is only meaningful because there is a history of contesting whether or not these are two separate entities or whether one subsumes the other.

But really, there are no “neutral” or “matter of fact” terms to identify people. There are just more or less contested terms. This is what is missing in conversations about “political correctness”. I came across an email this week detailing Internal Guidelines for Policy writing in a U.S. based non-profit. The line that stood out to me was found under the guidelines for using Hispanic vs. Latino/a. 

“Respect personal preferences whenever possible. For example, Justice Sotamayor uses ‘Latina’ to describe herself, and we should respect that”.

 It’s presented in the way politically correct language is usually presented. You should use this word because people want you to, or because other people use it. Without any explanation of why it really matters. 

Here’s why it really matters. If the terms that we use for ourselves create identities for us, then the terms that we use for other people create identities for them. If we are creating identities for people that are in opposition to the identities they are creating for themselves we are engaging them in a battle for their identity. It isn’t always wrong to challenge someone on their identity – but you should know what you’re getting yourself into and evaluate whether or not you are the right person to do the challenging (who the right person is - that's another issue that is really contested). 

One last note. The meanings of these identity terms are not unchanging. Words get their meanings from their histories, so as history shifts the connotations these words have also shift. According to this article article by Pew Research Center ( the difference between “Latin@” and “Hispanic” may be less salient now than it was previously. On the other hand, the recent tensions between Taiwan and China over a Trade Pact agreement (see for details) is likely to make Taiwanese identity and the term "Taiwanese" more contested and more salient to those on both sides of the issue. 

I’m curious about you all. What are the words you use to describe yourself? Are there some terms that you care more about and others that you are more ambivalent about? Who would you allow/not allow to challenge you on the terms you use to describe yourself?




The Beginning


In my sophomore year of college I spent my winter vacation falling in love as I read and re-read through the archives of Carl’s blog. Although we had been friends for a few months, it was his blog that really sealed the deal for me. Not because of his elegant prose or because he quoted me in a blog titled “The insightful words of Lydia Medill” (although that is still up there in the ranks of my “greatest ego boosting moments”). I fell in love because he wrote about dissatisfaction through the lens of hope and he made his complaints with a commitment to investing in their solutions.

 Five years later I am starting my blog – my investment in my passions, my exercise in hope. I am in graduate school for Linguistics, meaning that for now both my passions and my dissatisfactions center around academia and the social sciences. I want to see my research and my study manifest as tools, which benefit my community.

 This is where you come in – because you are my community.  Whether you’re reading this in Urbana, IL or in Phoenix, AZ, whether we bonded over eating semichka or over beer at the Piglet, whether you convinced me to care about Church or I convinced you to care about Phoenix Metro Islamic School, whether you are family or EXTENDED family, whether you taught me Uzbek or I taught you fractions – you are the people that I care about. And I do what I do because of you. Because I want to contribute to the work that you’ve been doing and the dreams that you’ve been dreaming. This is my attempt at writing things for the people that I love. 

P.S. Since this is for you – send me your questions, your comments and your own set of dissatisfactions and hopes for my blog. 

Context is key


Context is everything. It is the key to compelling stories and narratives. But sometimes context used irresponsibly creates divides and can hurt the people around us.  We use context every day when we hear stories from others and weave them into our understanding of personal experiences - whether positively or negatively.

Warp and Weft is a phrase that originates from the tradition of weaving fabric. This idea serves as the basis for the word context (con + text) which traces its origins to the idea of two textures being woven together. Responsible context making then is the idea of carefully weaving various textures (ideas, stories, experiences) that considers the people around us. So with Warp and Weft, I hope to explore how linguistic insights can be used for building community and contextualizing responsibly.