Cliche and Idiom in the Teaching of English as an Additional Language Writing

“In the face of mounting pressure to gut or eliminate  the IRS, it continues to shoot itself in the foot by biting the hand that feeds them”

(Boston Globe, letter, as quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education).

That sentence would have never made it past my English teachers, who (quite rightly) trained students to cut cliche and mixed metaphor wherever possible. And yet I teach cliche.

How could I not? Imagine a learner of English trying to read the above quote: “shoot itself in the foot?” “Bite the hand that feeds them?” なに? Que?

A cliche is simply one kind of idiomatic expression, and many language learners are interested in learning idiomatic speech and writing. Idioms help students make meaning when reading and listening, and also help students who want to sound more “native-like” to do so. Thus, teaching writing to people who use English as an additional language means balancing two contradictory principles: idiomatic writing can be easy to understand; good writing avoids cliche.

On the surface, that seems simple enough, and some decisions are easy. In general, in a US context, it’s fairly obvious that “I’m interested ___ her” requires the preposition “in;” otherwise the writing will most likely be judged incorrect by most readers (at first glance, “interested in” may not seem idiomatic: however, think about the literal meaning of “in,” as in “in a box.” The meaning of “interested in” is thus a figurative and not literal meaning, and has little connection to the basic meaning, so language teachers call that an idiomatic usage). So, I teach my students to write “interested in,” unless there is a strong reason why they should choose a different grammatical construction. Writing centers and language classrooms are filled with such lists of dependent prepositions.

Mixed cliche metaphors are at the other extreme. For example, if my students were to write that Boston Globe letter I quoted above, I would advise that mixed metaphors are generally considered confusing an better avoided when clear communication is desired. Thus, pedagogic decisions about the simplest cases (idiomatic use of dependent prepositions on the one hand; mixed cliched metaphors on the other) are easy to make.

Cliche can subtract from an otherwise beautiful piece of writing. One of my students wrote the following in an essay about Bethany Hamilton‘s Soul Surfing:

 I gave up many things and followed my heart coming to America. Now, I seem like a baby. I have changed from intellectual to illiterate, from eloquent to speechless, from high-paid to low-paid. I had to start from scratch. This is precisely my soul surfing.

The expression “start from scratch” seems so out of place among the rest of this student’s description of her experiences, and the piece is much stronger with it removed. This Chronicle of Higher Education piece explains wonderfully how cliche can be tweaked and resuscitated when identified.  But how are my students to know if something is cliche and when something is simply a well-known idiom or common metaphor? And, of course, since all writing depends on audience, “cliche” depends on who the reader is. What is cliche to me may seem fresh and original to a Samoan reader, and vice-versa.

Even seemingly simple decisions need to be complicated once the realities of international communication are considered. As I’ve touched upon previously in this blog, English is now spoken by more people in countries like China, Japan, Korea, and Russia than in countries like the US, and this is changing the English language (and there is also significant variation within the US). One change is that when English is used as a language of International communication or as a lingua franca, the idioms that US Americans or Britons prefer may be obstacles to communication. I know this to be at least anecdotally true: I heard a group of international, multilingual scientists discussing a conference in Helsinki, with presenters from 30 or 40 different countries. They said the hardest presenters to understand were the Britons (which could just have easily been any of the other traditional “native speakers”) because they used so many idioms in their speech. On the other hand, in other contexts, English as a local language may incorporate expressions that are confusing or weird to American or British speakers (like shake legs or make merit).

Therefore, it would seem that for international or lingua franca communication, it may be preferable to understand common expressions and idioms of target varieties, but also to develop an awareness of what would be difficult for readers to understand.

Finally, I leave with a quote from Jack Kerouac, whose writing mixes metaphors like paint, always turning, turning, turning, towards freedom!

the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.



Panic can kill as surely as complacency

On the terror of automobiles, as seen by a new adult driver. On existential responsibility. On driving and flow. On the resulting necessity of competence and confidence (without overconfidence).

I’m dogsitting on the other side of the island, a gig that comes complete with car. So today marks the fourth day I have participated in that most American of activities: commuting by car. This is unusual for me because I did not get my first license until November 2012, 9 months ago. I was and continue to be a dedicated urban biker.

As a bicyclist, I am acutely aware that cars are actually terrifying murder machines. Despite somehow escaping 14 years of bicycling without any major accidents,  I have seen drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists killed; I have been sideswiped; and I have been forced to leap off my bike at the last minute to narrowly avoid being smooshed. I have a healthy fear of cars.

Now I am a driver, a terrible responsibility. I can easily kill someone if I lose attention for a moment–if my eyelids start to droop, if I look at the radio, or if I check my phone. Yet, if I am too nervous, I will be hesitant and I will be even more dangerous.

I have not told you anything that you don’t already know. But it is also something that I think we forget to think about on a daily basis (to really drive the point home, you should watch Warner Herzog’s harrowing short film on texting and driving). And that is why traffic deaths are the #5 cause of death in the United States.

So driving is actually a terrific existential choice, like owning a gun. By driving, I choose to participate in an activity that could result in my or others’ death. Judging from most drivers’ behavior on the roads, I suspect most drivers have forgotten that. However, choosing NOT to drive also entails moral consequences. If, as I usually do, I let a friend drive me, I have simply passed responsibility to that friend–and while I am no longer legally responsible for any accident that happens (unless I was distracting the driver), I still bear some moral responsibility.

“Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined through calm.” -Miyamoto Musashi, Book of 5 Rings. 

Quoting martial arts wisdom is very 1980s, I know. Shut up, this is important.

My mentor/bartender gave me The Book of 5 Rings when I was living in Japan and doing very poorly. When he handed it to me, he said “this book saved my life,” and it has done the same for me. Just as Musashi brought mindfulness to the act of swordfighting, so should we focus on the act of driving. As in dueling, driving can be fatal. As in dueling, we must be constantly aware of other’s actions when driving. As in dueling, panic can kill as surely as complacency, and I see a lot of both panic and complacency on the road today.

Much has been written about this optimal mindful state which is described as neither complacent nor panicked. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly has proposed the concept of Flow (which has many similarities to the Tao, the Way, etc.) to describe this state:

…in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it (Csikszentmihaly, Flow, 1990, p. 4).

Csikszentmihaly’s view is (consciously) quite similar to descriptions of the Tao, and to Miyamoto’s optimal states, and yet I’m a little suspicious of that “enjoyable” modifier. Need we enjoy driving to have that “determination through calm” that Miyamoto describes?

New drivers: practice, pay attention, be careful. Competence should lead to confidence. Experienced drivers: don’t be overconfident. Be safe, everyone, and be mindful. Your Kia is still a murder machine.

Quick thoughts: EIL and TBLT

A 26 segment × 3 exposure (78 frames in total)...

Hong Kong skyline (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

There are more Indian than British speakers of English, and it is now possible to find English speakers in just about every country.  What does this mean for English? What does this mean for me as a teacher?

The first, and most basic observation is that students should learn about the Englishes they are most likely to encounter. That is, someone doing business in Singapore is likely to need to understand American, British, Australian, Hong Kong, Singaporean, and Malay varieties of English.

How can I possibly expose my students to this variety? And if English is now pluricentric, and I am a Malay English teacher who wants my students to be able to actually use English in their lives, what can I base my curriculum around?

Perhaps this is one area that Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) can be particularly helpful. Instead of focusing on abstract language constructs or grammar points, Task-Based Approaches focus on learning language by doing things. So, for example, models of successful interviews (which, in a plurilinguistic place would likely be heterogenous in nature) can be used as input for the task of doing interviews. This sidesteps the need for one model or variety of English to be used (and tested).

TBLT has been criticized as too Western or as being inappropriate to other contexts. Here is an example of the ways TBLT can aid in both localization and globilization (or glocalization if you prefer).

Ainokea: pidgin polysemy

One of the basic properties of words is that they are polysemous: they have many meanings. Take the word get: you can get a table (meaning procure or reserve a table) and you can get sick (meaning become ill).

People also make moral judgements about language–we expect that people express their beliefs and attitudes towards the world through language, and we judge people based on how they talk.

Enter Ainokea.

For those of you not from Hawaii, Ainokea is a Hawaiianized/Pidginized version of “I no care,” which at first glance seems to be the pidgin “translation” of “I don’t care.”

[Note: This Hawaiianized/Pidginized rendering of the Pidgin phrase could be described as Pidgin written in Hawaiian orthography, as it matches the sounds of Pidgin if they had been written in the Hawaiian language. It also matches the Odo orthography (a writing system used by some linguists to describe Hawaiian Creole English or “Pidgin”). The Odo orthography more closely represents the sound of Pidgin than “I no care,” but we could discuss other aspects of the choice to “Pidginify” or Hawaiianize the spelling: does it represent a separatist attitude between Pidgin and English? Is it simply word play? The choice of adding the Hawaiian islands seems to evoke a kind of local-ness, but that’s a post for another day.]

Ainokea t-shirts started popping up about 5 years ago around Hawaii, leading to a sort of moral panic. Some of my teacher friends from the mainland banned the t-shirts in their classrooms saying “in this classroom, we care.” Similarly, the first response I saw was characteristically Christian:

Aikea: I do what HE like (note that the pastor was giving a sermon on “Ainokea”).

Ainokea became shorthand for all kinds of social ills: lack of respect and self-centeredness; meth-heads and lazy localspolitical and social indifference; a “beavis and butt-head” attitude; lack of engagement with the outside world; lack of empathy; the loss of aloha. Even the mayor putting his feet on the desk signified his ainokea attitude. Here are some examples:

Some helpful folks are planting aloe and mother-in-law’s tongues at the base of trees where the ainokea crew dump their hot coals.

The City’s attitude: “We don’t care what the Mainland is doing,” Honolulu Transportation Director Wayne Yoshioka said. Ainokea is right Mr. Yioshioka. For the record, I see the numbers and Aikea (emphasis added).

But here’s where the polysemy comes in. I was out with some friends trying to decide where to go for dinner, and the response? Ainokea, it’s all good. So I started asking my pidgin-speaking friends “what does Ainokea mean to you?” The majority emphasized that it meant you were easy going and flexible. The same T-shirt company prints this definition:

ai-no-kea 1) free from worry or doubt 2) relaxed or casual in style or manner 3) the state of being unrestricted 4) hakuna matata Hawaiian for “carefree”

For most speakers, “care,” has both the meaning to look after/feel affection for as well as concern and anxiety. The T-shirt company and many of the defenders of the shirts argue that the shirt is concerned with the second meaning; critics argue the first meaning (and some of the people wearing the shirts have this opinion).

Either way, Ainokea often references certain kinds of localness. From the Hawaiian islands on the logo, to the localized spelling, it evokes localness, though whether that means carefree and easygoing or lazy and selfish is contested. This yelper invokes several resources: heineken, skankin’ to island reggae, slippahs, flower–all marks of a certain kind of local-ness, though one that only someone very familiar with Hawaii (and who may even sometimes identify as local) would choose to use.

I still don’t get the whole “Ainokea” concept and why it was or is so popular. I think it’s stupid, personally. My girlfriend gave me a Ainokea tank top for my birthday. Seriously. When was the last time she ever seen me sport a pua in my ear, two different color slippahs, a heine in one hand and a pitcher in the other, skanking to “it’s a two person party tonight”?

What is interesting to me is that many of the criticisms of ainokea are by locals. So we have a contested form of polysemy–when we see this T-shirt, we see different meanings. But is it the case that the more “pidgin” you are, the more you see the latter and the less you see the former? In Hawaii, Pidgin and English are rarely mutually exclusive–they influence and shape each other. So after all the talk surrounding ainokea, has that meaning changed?

and then there’s this:

(“I no more hair” would translate as “I don’t have any hair”)

Rampant Linkery

It’s been far too long since I’ve posted anything. Here are some links I’ve found interesting.

A superb blog by a brilliant former classmate of mine with his thoughts on language. Come see some old maps. Benny Lewis, one of the many polyglots telling Americans how to learn languages has some good solid advice. Language diversity, the paucity of true language universals, and what this means for our understanding of cognitive science. Glenn Greenwald reviewing a movie on the dangers of obedience to authority. How to deal with creepy dudes. Homophobia and Hip-hop. The problem with men explaining things to women.




Cop out II: February Link Extravaganza

In lieu of analysis or original thoughts, I present some webpages I found interesting in February:

If you are interested in writing, or education, or language, you should read the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s (CCCC) declaration of Students’ Right to Their Own Language (STROL).

Then you should read Surej Canagarajah’s (2010) blog post arguing for the value of moving from a “rights orientation” to a “resource orientation” in an updated STROL.

Schegloff’s home page–useful for CA transcription and some other junk

NYT Pam Belluck reports on the crisis of elderly prisoners with dementia.

Dr. Seuss’ environmental parable “The Lorax” used to sell SUVs?

Marginal Revolution‘s Tyler Cowan nudges towards a neurodiversity perspective in academia–“Autism as Academic Paradigm

The future is now–Hacked DC School Board’s e-voting elects Bender as President

An underground group of guerrilla…art preservationists and amateur cultural historians? in the underground tunnels of Paris? Oui!

My friend Ilima Loomis at Maui News shows the valuable ways a daily newspaper can utilize online media to raise standards of critical thinking, reporting, and reading. Wailuku Main Street funding.

Bitch magazine calls out Real Housewives of Atlanta

Language Log gives an excellent summary of articles and posts concerned with the use of corpus linguistics in legal decision-making. And if you’re interested in the intersection of law and linguistics, Judge Posner is always a pleasure, as he is here.


Korean ‘symbols’: das racist?

I was in a teachers’ meeting recently, and the meeting facilitator meant to tell us about the “Korean symbol for human being.” She then showed us: 사람.

This made me uncomfortable, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

Now first of all, Korean uses at least two or three writing systems: Hanja(漢字), or Chinese characters; Hangul, the Korean alphabet; and (arguably) Roman letters, which many European languages are written in (including English). The facilitator was referring to a story using the 漢字/Hanja, used primarily to write Chinese, but also Japanese, Korean, and occasionally other languages. The story goes like this:

The Chinese/Japanese/Korean word for human is written 人間 in Chinese      characters–the first character means person; the second means space. People become humans in the space between them, in their relationships to other people. Thus to be human is to be considerate of others.

I seem to remember seeing this both in literature classes in the high school where I worked in Japan and on Kinpachi sensei.

Another explanation focuses on the first character of 人間. In this explanation, the first stroke represents one person leaning on a second, showing that cooperation is essential to being human. While not etymologically correct, it is a lovely moral, and so I’m not surprised our meeting facilitator chose it.

Now, you may have noticed that she did not present the Chinese characters (which Koreans also use)for the word, which would be人間 but instead used the Korean Hangul 사람. Hangul is an alphabetic writing symbol, which is to say, it’s no more symbolic than the words “homme” “gestalt” or “burrito.”  Indeed on first pass, the alphabetic Hangul 사람 is no more symbolic than any other writing system–including English (though if it were symbolic of anything, perhaps it would be symbolic of tongue shape, as explained here).

Now, of course, linguistically and philosophically speaking, all written words are symbols, but in common speech, most Americans and Europeans I’ve talked to don’t call the word “human” a symbol, nor any of the others I mentioned. In fact, outside of linguistics and philosophy, I’ve really only heard the word symbol used to describe words in a few writing systems: Sanskrit (and derivatives), Chinese characters (and derivatives), and possibly Egyptian hieroglyphics. But let’s imagine she had actually used the Chinese characters 人間. Are they symbols in a different way than English words are symbols? I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.

My intuition is that most people who speak English and do not read Chinese characters normally think of the sign of the cross as a symbol of Christianity and the English word “cross” as, well, just a word. I do think, however, that the use of Chinese characters by non-Chinese speaker/readers is primarily symbolic. Someone who does not read Chinese but gets a Chinese tattoo, or meditates on a Chinese character as part of Buddhist practice is viewing the word primarily as a symbol of the concept, and not as a word. And that, I think, is consistent with my friend’s use of the phrase “the Korean symbol for human being.”  This unconsciously others Asian languages as symbolic, while European languages are normalized as a bunch of words. This is basically a form of Orientalism.

There’s more to this that I haven’t sussed out: please feel free to comment below.

(above: the Japanese “symbol” for hemorrhoid)


But aren’t Chinese characters pictures of things? Well, kind of. A very small proportion of them are, and while 人 kind of looks like a person, 間 doesn’t really look like space, does it?

Isn’t there something to the religion junk? Maybe. Perhaps it’s the strong tradition of linguistic skepticism in Chinese thought that highlights the empty nature of words, perhaps it’s the hanging of calligraphy (which is often one word), or the use of characters as mantras for meditation. Now of course, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity all have traditions that make use of these techniques, but I’d argue that most Americans are not intimately familiar with those aspects of the Abrahamic faiths–and are accustomed to accessing them in languages they speak to one degree or another. I wonder if Arabic or Jewish religious words are ever called symbols?