IATEFL Opening Plenary by David Crystal

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Yesterday David Crystal officially opened Liverpool IATEFL conference with an awesome plenary – The world in which we live in: Beatles, blends and blogs. You may watch this session and hopefully enjoy it as much as I have, but let me share a couple of thoughts.

We all know the blends – lexical blends are used all the time (brunch, blackboard etc.) but the session was focused on syntactic blends – clashes of two independent sentence parts. As a teacher I encounter those blends all the time in my students’ language use – they mix conditionals in ways no conditionals should be mixed or do weird things to poor reported speech (hah, we all know that, I bet). Mr. Crystal mentioned a couple of reasons why blends are used, some solutions how to avoid them and a good advice for teachers (the advice I shall remember).

First of all, the common problems with prepositions, that even native speakers happen to have. E.g.: From which country does a Lexus come from? The clash here occurs between formal and informal language, the first of whom tells us to never end a sentence with a preposition while the second one seems simply more natural. So here comes the clash, the blend and the confusion – and the greater length between those two prepositions, the greater confusion.

Secondly, as Mr. Crystal points out, we make blends by changing minds on what we want to say – our grammar doesn’t keep up with our thought. And so, we may encounter relative clauses blend, question-statement blend or question-question blend, e.g.: Within how long did it take for an American English start to grow? is a blend of Within what period of time did it take for an American English to start to grow? and  How long did it take for an American English to start to grow? It can be observed while watching sports commentaries (especially football ones, I thought it was rather a weird flow of consciousness but now I know it was a flow of consciousness with blends – therefore they seemed weird [well, it’s not so easy to observe when you watch a match with the British commentators, but go ahead and watch a match in a Polish TV – best regards to gentlemen commenting English Premier League]). And even though blends rarely appear in formal and public language, as they are edited by professionals, no such help is given on the Internet (unless we have a friendly proof-reader).

Mr. Crystal explained that the problem of blending may refer to our working memory capacity. Apparently, we aren’t able to remember a lot of words, so sometimes the length of construction makes us forget the subject before we get to the verb. Reading and listening comprehension is governed by a distribution of weight thorough the sentence – and in English the weight goes after the main verb. So, obviously, the longer the subject, the greater the problem.

Naturally, the first thought of an EFL teacher after hearing this is: what about relative clauses? Mr. Crystal admits there happens to be too much weight before the main verb which may cause problems (well said, how many times have we – non-native speakers – looked at relative clauses and prayed for the main verb, eh?).

But then Mr. Crystal shares a very refreshing point of view: blends are a sign of growth. And indeed, if a learner tries to use more advanced grammar, he happens to make blends, e.g.: to whom you will marry is a blend of to whom you will be married and whom you will marry. We – the teachers – cannot simply state ‘that’s wrong’ and move on, we should spend some time with a student, take apart grammar to show the blend and explain the correct version (or versions). We mustn’t condemn blends as it may result in students’ tendencies to simplify their language.

And so – when we see our students blending, let’s notice that, but not make them feel guilty about it. Let’s just tell them their mistakes are signs of their growth (well, you have to know at least a couple of grammar constructions to make blends, it wouldn’t work well with just Present Simple, eh?) and encourage them to work.

This plenary was really good, and I would like to thank those people in Liverpool who made it possible for us to participate online. Great job! I also want to thank Chia, who made a really good note immediately after the lecture.

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