Ingles without barriers: more English-language hits are getting Latin radio airplay

While English-language hits have long aired on U.S. Spanish-language radio, they have become ubiquitous this year, with 21 of them appearing on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart and 11 of them spending more than 10 weeks on the ranking. Especially, the 1st hit is an English-version song, “This Is Not a Love Song”, played with the best electric acoustic guitar has still dominated the billboard for over the last 5 weeks.

Those songs–including Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” (20 weeks on the chart), Ke$ha’s “TiK ToK” and David Guetta’s “Sexy Chick” (both at 15 weeks)–are part of a wave of uptempo dance hits that are defining top 40 radio today. The dance genre crosses over well to the growing number of Spanish-language stations that pursue a younger, often more acculturated Latin listenership.

“We haven’t seen crossover work with heavy rap songs,” CBS Radio VP of Spanish programming Pio Ferro says. “But uptempo dance tracks, yes. It’s just part of the mix.”

Still, it’s remarkable to see so many English-language songs appear on the Hot Latin Songs chart this year. By comparison, 16 English-language songs appeared on the chart in 2009, while 14 did so in 2008. Moreover, only four of the 2009 songs remained on the ranking for more than 10 weeks, while only one 2008 song–Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music”–surpassed the 10-week mark.

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English-language crossovers are most commonly found on stations like WMGE (Mega 94.9 FM) Miami, which play more current hits and have been increasingly generous with their English-language playlist. For example, Mega had three English tracks on its top 10 list last week. It’s a formula that’s done particularly well after the rollout of Arbitron’s Portable People Meter audience measurement system, with Mega emerging as the top-rated Spanish-language station in Miami during the last three months.

“Both Latins and non-Latins are looking for those hits,” says Emie J. De Jesus, owner of promotion company Redeye Entertainment in Miami. “If you’re scanning the radio and hear Taio Cruz, you won’t even look to see what station it is. You’ll just stay and listen.”

The trend worries Latin labels, which, faced with a growing number of stations playing oldies and recurrents, already have to contend with a shrinking supply of slots for new music.

“Obviously it takes away spaces,” says AI Zamora, president of radio promotion company Latin Hits Entertainment. “But radio is in a position where they don’t know what to think. You look at Mega in Miami, which has the highest ratings, but no one is programming like they are. Everyone else is going with recurrents. That is what’s most alarming to promotion people. It is making it very difficult to work any product unless it’s a hit already.”

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But as stations strive for more ratings, the movement toward more bilingual airwaves seems inevitable.

“The more assimilated the Hispanic population becomes, the more mainstream the stations will get,” says Marilyn Santiago, former programming operations manager at Spanish Broadcasting System, who just launched Latin Entertainment Consultants in Miami. “Nowadays the fact that a person is Latin doesn’t necessarily mean that the person will listen to only Spanish music.”

Accent on English: tools for learning

IN THE UNITED STATES today, non-English speakers are everywhere; they may include professionals and laborers, economic and political exiles, foreign college students, trailing spouses, sojourners and settlers, indigenous longtime residents, and the children of all these. What they share is a desire to learn to speak English, if not like a native, then at least well enough to get a job, pass a college entrance exam, obtain citizenship, and participate more fully in American life.

Language learners have long relied on public libraries for study materials, and their dependence is even stronger today as the demand (and the waiting lists) for English classes grow. And more librarians are recognizing that English as a Second Language (ESL) programming serves their institutions’ mission. [While there are variant terms and acronyms–English as a Living Language (ELL), English as Non-Native Language (ENNL), English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), etc.–this article will use ESL. Although not precise, its meaning is widely understood.]

Since LJ last considered this topic (see “English Without Tears: ESL Materials,” LJ 9/1/92, p. 139-142), ESL instruction has moved from the abstract to the practical. Rote memorization and pattern practice have given way to an emphasis on activities that foster real-life language use at every stage of learning. In addition, the Internet and the development of increasingly sophisticated self-study software have enabled learners too timid to approach instructors to develop skills privately in realistic, self-paced, nonthreatening environments.

The ABCs of ESL collections

In building an ESL collection, your most comprehensive selection tools will be catalogs used by instructors. Alta Book Center (14 Adrian Ct., Burlingame, CA 94010; 800-258-2375; www.altaesl.com) and Delta Systems (1400 Miller Pkwy., McHenry, IL 60050; 800-323-8270; www. delta-systems.com) have thick, detailed catalogs filled with print and audiovisual materials and software for ESL learners and teachers.

Multi-Cultural Books & Videos (28880 Southfield Rd., Suite 183, Lathrup Village, MI 48076; 800-567-2220; multiculturalbooksandvideos.com) and Multilingual Books (1205 E. Pike, Seattle, WA 98122; 206-328-7922; www. multilingualbooks.com) include broad selections of ESL materials among their rich multilingual, multimedia offerings.

Anna Silliman and Abigail Tom’s Practical Resources for Adult ESL: A Selection Guide to Materials for Adult ESL and ESL/ESOL Literacy (Alta Book Ctr. 2000. ISBN 1-882483-80-4. pap. $13.95) lists more than 250 items, arranged in 13 easy-to-consult sections according to skill areas and material types. It also includes a list of North American ESL publishers and distributors.

Ideally, local ESL stakeholders will have a say in helping build your collection. Some choices are easy if you know what’s already being used by local teachers and students. And they, along with community groups and employers, can help you identify the key language needs of your clientele.

Beyond curricular program support, try to shape your collection with an eye toward independent study, be it by enrolled students looking for something extra or by autonomous learners unable to take classes owing to time or other constraints. Many standard texts are explicitly for classroom use; recurrent instructions to “pair up with a classmate and discuss” can be distracting, perhaps even depressing, to the solo student.

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Criteria for selection

British or American English? It makes a big difference to learners: AV materials are nearly useless if their dialect is wrong for your region. U.S. catalogs normally identify British English items, but ask before ordering if you’re uncertain.

Good catalogs also specify the language level and age range of their products and often mention the item’s skill focus and instructional approach. Your purchase decisions will rest on your knowledge of your users’ characteristics: How old are they and what are their interests? What are their levels of English and native-language literacy? Where are they from? Bilingual ESL items are readily available in some two dozen languages.

What are they doing here? The focus needed by various groups will be different, and there are likely to be texts for each one. If you know which industries in your town employ a lot of recent immigrants, you’ll be able to choose wisely from the many vocational ESL books that target restaurant staff, computer and tech workers, landscapers, caregivers, hotel personnel, and others.

Weed with care

Although languages change slowly, ideas about teaching them have occasionally been prone to fads. Never be dazzled by lavish claims; as with diet books, there really is no magic bullet. Does that mean you must automatically dump your old Audio-Lingual Method-based sets? Not necessarily. Variety being the spice of life for learners, some learners may feel well served by “outmoded” approaches. If you can spare the shelf space, don’t be afraid to keep items that are in good condition, unfashionable though they may be.

Books with fill-in-the-blank exercises create a familiar weeding problem. Few libraries can afford to replace every marked-up book, so it’s the incorrectly marked specimens that should go first. Users who encounter accurately filled blanks may well be annoyed, but at least they won’t be misled. Take action to stave off this problem by preparing friendly care-of-the-book stickers in collaboration with local speakers of languages other than English.

Some citizenship materials have a finite shelf life owing to frequent changes in immigration laws. The citizenship exam’s question pool is fairly stable, but you should beware of books that proffer outdated guidance on INS application procedures, fees, and eligibility requirements. The agency’s N-400 form–the Application for Naturalization–was superseded January 1, 2002, and as of this writing it is not clear that the INS itself won’t be absorbed by a new Homeland Security Agency. Also be careful with locally produced or electronic products that name current elected officials in practice test answers–when those rascals get thrown out, make sure the item itself is thrown out or revised.

On to TOEFL

The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), an admission requirement for nearly all nonnative English speakers at U.S. colleges and universities, has seen changes in recent years. Mid-1998 brought the introduction of a computer-based version (examinees can choose between this and the paper test), and there is an expository writing component absent in years past.

Don’t forget to promote your collection with vernacular-language flyers and signage. Collaboratively creating signs is a way to involve your community’s linguisic minorities and encourage them to have a stake in their library. And remember to make the experience of using the library as pleasant as possible by easing access and comprehension.

The following list reflects the mixture of materials you should have in your collection. Choices of audio, video, CD-ROMs, periodicals, web sites, and books offer chances to develop a variety of skills in endlessly interesting ways. The absence of some well-known old standbys–the Azar English Grammar series, audio kits from Pimsleur and Living Language–is not meant to slight their value and importance but rather to make room for some titles likely to be missed. Starred [*] items are essential for most collections.

BUSINESS ENGLISH

–English, Laura M. & Sarah Lynn. Business Across Cultures: Effective Communication Strategies. Longman: Addison-Wesley. 1996. 182p. illus. ISBN 0201-82532-5. pap. $23.47.

Although oriented toward fostering classroom discussion, this workbook’s provocative consideration (with case studies and exercises) of communication breakdowns attributable to cultural differences can encourage intermediate ESL students, even those studying alone (a self-contained answer key is included), to reflect on some of the frictions and frustrations of culture shock

–Webster’s Business Writing Basics. Federal Street: Merriam-Webster. 2001. 400p. illus, index. ISBN 1-892859-27-0. $9.98.

This thick style manual and reference handbook for intermediate and advanced ESL students covers virtually every form of written business communication, from memos to e-mail to press releases. Fifty different kinds of sample business letters appear, along with guidance on grammar, punctuation, and the finer points of electronic correspondence.

VOCATIONAL ESL

–English on the Job/Ingles en el trabajo. Southwestern. 1992. 110p. illus. ISBN 0-923176-10-1. pap. $7.95.

Though a phrase book can, in the wrong hands, be more of a crutch than a learning tool, the usefulness of this slim pocket-sized volume for beginning English speakers is unquestionable. (There’s also a handy Spanish on the Job for their employers.) Phonetic renderings of common utterances in a bilingual Spanish-English format cover typical circumstances in such employment areas as landscaping, construction, restaurant work, and housekeeping.

–* Robinson, Catherine & Jenise Rowekamp. Speaking Up at Work. Oxford Univ. 1985. 192p. illus. ISBN 0-19-434196-8. pap. $10.95.

More than a few ESL instructional hours have been squandered teaching students how to grovel, apologize, and snap to attention. This book addresses in 33 units less servile uses of occupational English: clarifying work assignments and schedules, broaching the subject of promotion, and, yes, calling in sick. For intermediate students.

–Talalla, Renee. Main Course: Language and Skills for Restaurant Workers. Falcon Pr. (Selangor, Malaysia), dist. by Delta Systems. 2000. 86p. illus. ISBN 983-9672-67-3. pap. $13.50.

Often the difference between waiting tables and busing them is a few hundred English words. Main Course relies on cartoons and training-style exercises to help beginning and intermediate students acquire the specialized lexicon of food service. The presentation is reinforced by a complete glossary, and an optional CD provides listening practice.

LIFE SKILLS

–Owensby, Jean & others. English for Technology. Dominie. 1999. 146p. illus. ISBN 0-7685-0008-7. pap. $14.95.

If you’ve ever used a bank machine in a foreign country you might know the peculiar thrill that comes with pressing a button based on hurried guesswork; the language demands are not trivial. This book equips students to use and discuss confidently the electronic devices and interfaces that have become indispensable in everyday North American life, including vending machines, gas pumps, office machinery, and even library OPACs.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

–Fisher, Kathleen S. Health Easy to Read: For Ages 10-Adult. Fisher Hill. 1996. 107p. ISBN 1-878253-09-3. pap. $12.95.

Content-based grammar and reading instruction centering on familiar themes of health, illness, and personal care. Diet and exercise, alcohol and drug abuse, poison control and fire safety are among the topics designed to convey the virtues of good living and good English. Vocabulary and activity pages (with an answer key) accompany each reading.

–Outterson, Beth & Kathleen Flannery Silc. ESL for Farm Safety. Assn. of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, 4350 N, Fairfax Dr., Suite 410, Arlington, VA 22203; 703-528-4141; www.afop.org. (Working with English). 1997. 95p. illus, student ed. ISBN 1-886567-06-9. pap. $12. tchr.’s manual. ISBN 1-886567-07-7. pap. $25.

This text presumes a low literacy level, building on illustrations to deal with minimizing exposure to pesticides, recognizing and responding to poisoning, and avoiding injury in agricultural work–perennially one of the three most hazardous occupations in the United States.

–* Ringel, Harvey. Key Vocabulary for a Safe Workplace. New Readers. 2000. 108p. illus. ISBN 1-56420-175-9. pap. $11.50.

The most dangerous jobs in America have traditionally been filled by recent immigrants, particularly those with limited or nonexistent English skills. Sections on ergonomics, tool safety, warning signs and caution labels, and first aid make this text–which is part of a set for which a teacher’s manual and photocopy masters are also available–a potentially lifesaving read. For students at high beginning and low intermediate levels.

DICTIONARIES

–Collins Cobuild New Student’s Dictionary. 2d ed. HarperCollins. titania. cobuild.collins.co.uk/catalogue/newsstud. html. 2002. 1088p. illus. ISBN 0-00712034-6. pap. $24.

Over the past decade, our understanding of languages has been revolutionized by corpus analysis. Computers examine enormous banks of text, tallying words, identifying patterns, and spurring empirical discoveries about how we really talk and write. Applying cutting-edge linguistics work directly to language study, the Cobuild dictionaries are exciting products of this research. This one, suited to intermediate ESL learners, emphasizes commonly used words and employs a two-color format to enhance the clarity of its definitions.

–* Pamwell, E.C. The New Oxford Picture Dictionary (Monolingual). Oxford Univ. 1988. 124p. illus, index. ISBN 0-19-434199-2. pap. $10.95.

Oxford’s beautifully realized picture dictionaries, featuring sensible thematic organization and clean, colorful drawings, have spun off series at various levels and spawned appealing teaching aids from cassettes to flash cards. Series volumes (e.g., for kids) include up to 2400 words and come in nine bilingual versions (e.g., Cambodian and Navajo) in addition to the monolingual dictionary.

–* Random House Webster’s Easy English Dictionary. Random House. 2001. 620p. illus. ISBN 0-375-70484-1. pap. $12.95.

For a language learner, graduating to a monolingual dictionary is a significant step toward integrating the target language rather than translating back and forth. The controlled vocabulary and generous use of illustrations and examples in this volume’s 13,000 definitions make it a realistically useful, highly explicit first dictionary. The intermediate and advanced versions also incorporate levels of explanation that encourage understanding and exploration

IDIOMS

–Gulland, Daphne M. & David Hinds-Howell. The Penguin Dictionary of English Idioms. 2d ed. Penguin. 2001. 378p. index. ISBN 0-14-051481-3. pap. $17.

Idioms are hard to learn, easy to misuse, and eternally captivating for learners who strive to speak like the natives. This dictionary, not overwhelmingly British, indulges students’ curiosity and preserves the fascination embedded in figures of speech, thanks to its principled thematic organization and cross-indexing.

–Spears, Richard A. NTC’s American Idioms Dictionary. 3d ed. NTC Contemporary. 2000. 625p. ISBN 0-8442-02738. $18.95; pap. ISBN 0-8442-0274-6. $14.95.

As with any good idiom dictionary, examples of use in context are furnished for the more than 8500 words and expressions found here. (LJ 5/15/00).

READERS

Several series of controlled-vocabulary readers available through ESL suppliers offer considerable variety, reasonable pricing, and carefully calibrated difficulty. The Oxford Bookworm (Oxford Univ. $5.95 per book) series begins at a threshold level of 400 words (i.e., each book graded at Level 1 tells its story using a set of 400 words) and progresses through five more steps to a 2000-word vocabulary. Mostly familiar tales (David Copperfield; The 39 Steps) distributed among six genres comprise the nearly 90 titles in the series. Heinemann’s Guided Readers (Heinemann. $3.95-$5.45) start at 300 words and by the sixth level reach 2000, also offering simplified versions of classic literature together with newer titles, about double the number that Oxford offers.

BEGINNING LEARNERS

–Freeman, Daniel B. Speaking of Survival. Oxford Univ. 1982. 228p. illus. ISBN 0-19-503110-5. pap. $10.95; with audiocassette. ISBN 0-19-434105-4. $17.50.

Although many immigrants have survived for years without English, tending to rely on intermediaries, often children, for help with essential functions, life gets a lot less frustrating once they learn how to tell off a phone solicitor. Freeman’s text is an old standby that employs illustrations and drills to reinforce the language needed to cope with everyday encounters and misfortunes.

–Molinsky, Steven J. & Bill Briss. Access: Fundamentals of Literacy and Communication. Prentice Hall. 1990. 124p. illus. ISBN 0-13-004235-8. pap. $17.67.

The authors of the ever-popular Side by Side ESL series designed this text to carry preliterate learners through the early steps of shape discernment and left-to-right scanning while developing basic writing, speaking, and listening skills. A matching teacher’s guide is available.

–Mosteller, Lee & others. Survival English: English Through Conversations. Vol. 1.2d ed. Prentice Hall. 1994. 260p. illus. ISBN 0-13-016635-9. pap. $21.55.

The low beginning level of a three-part series walks new English speakers gently through simple dialogs built around everyday situations. Easy-to-follow illustrations and varied exercises consistent with the context of the unit, such as filling out forms, connect this text to the real world.

TEST PREPARATION

–Gallagher, Nancy. Delta’s Key to the TOEFL[C] Test. Delta Systems. 1999. 731p. illus. ISBN 1-887744-52-5. pap. $34.95 with CD-ROM.

Of the many TOEFL study aids available, this is one of the most comprehensive and flexible. The book and CD-ROM package accommodates examinees who choose to take either the CBT (Computer-Based Test) or old-fashioned paper version. In addition, a five-cassette battery of listening practice tapes can be purchased separately or in combination. Extensive practice tests and quizzes present more than 2000 questions (with a reasonably navigable answer key), and the CD-ROM is dual platform, compatible with Mac and Windows. Ten full-length exams can be taken in authentic TOEFL format, or restructured to allow the learner to focus on particular sections.

–Weintraub, Lynne. Citizenship: Passing the Test. 2d ed. New Readers. 2001. 192p. illus. ISBN 1-56420-281-X. pap. $14; audio CD. ISBN 1-56420-297-6. $16.

Since the naturalization exam is an oral interview, strategies such as circumlocution take on an importance they don’t have in the TOEFL. Designed for low beginning speakers, the text covers the essential information but also test-taking techniques and confidence-building exercises. An optional teacher’s guide is available.

MULTIMEDIA COURSES

–* English for Beginners. 4 vols. color. 120 min. with text. California Language Laboratories, PO Box 176, Cupertino, CA 95014; 800-327-1147; www.esltapes.com. 1993. $100 (or $65 for first two parts, $63 for last two).

[VIDEO] These video sets ease beginners bilingually (in 21 languages) into using English. The translation ratio is deliberately kept at about 3.5 to 1 in favor of English–repetition is frequent and the situations are fairly simple. A visit to the library is included in the videos. CLL also produces a bilingual video for citizenship study, with versions in the same 21 flavors.

–Nazar, Jose Luis & others. Ingles Sin Barreras. 12 vols. color. 24 hrs. Lexicon Mktg. Corp., 640 S. San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90048; 888-777-7777; www.inglessinbarreras.com. 2002. $1299.

[VIDEO] Production values are high, and the packaging is lavish: each two-hour video is housed in a sturdy plastic case along with an audiocassette, text, and workbook for the individual lesson, which deals with relevant themes from everyday life. Engaging bilingual instructors and a variety of recurring presenters help viewers feel at home in the course, which is as much a motivational seminar about triumphing in the United States as it is about language. The only barrier is the price tag.

–* Rosetta Stone (American English). (Rosetta Stone Language Library). Fairfield Language Technologies, 135 W. Market St., Harrisonburg, VA 22801; 800-788-0822; www.rosettastone.com. 2000. $199 single user; $299 multiuser license.

[VIDEO] Many learners find Rosetta Stone irresistible; the software is challenging, varied, and entertaining, combining solid applied linguistics with high technology for an experience that moves at users’ own pace and furnishes constant feedback. It even lets students see their accents graphically, comparing it to that of a native speaker as they record and play back their voices. The Los Angeles Public Library is among those that make Rosetta Stone available to cardholders via the library’s web site.

PERIODICALS

–Easy English News. m. $2.50/m. Eardley Pubns., PO Box 2596, Fair Lawn, NJ 07410; FAX 201-791-1901. ISSN 1091-4951

This 12-page tabloid runs well-written news and features aimed at the interests of adult immigrants, written at a third- or fourth-grade reading level. American holidays are featured in every issue. Photos and illustrations add context, and 150 or so difficult words are boldfaced where they appear in articles and are explained in a separate glossary.

FOR TEACHERS

–* Auerbach, Elsa R. & Nina Wallerstein. ESL for Action: Problem Posing at Work. Addison-Wesley. 1987. 192p. ISBN 0-201-00101-2. pap. $16.47.

This influential, prescient text still serves teachers as well as it does learners. It offers the former a view of how action research can powerfully drive student-centered adult education in which genuine experiences and concerns enhance relevance and thus learning. For the latter it fosters a move from object to dignified subject and toward active critical consciousness in the spirit of Paulo Freire.

–Sperling, Dave. Dave Sperling’s Internet Guide. 2d ed. Prentice Hall. 1998. 183p. illus. ISBN 0-13-918053-2. pap. $23.45 with CD-ROM.

Sperling recognized early on the Internet’s potential in English teaching, showing the way with his web site (see below). This book will be a revelation to inexperienced volunteer teachers in search of ideas, and even veteran TESL professionals who embrace Sperling’s ethos are sure to find valuable resources and save themselves from endless reinvention of the wheel.

WEB SITES

–* Dave’s ESL Cafe www.eslcafe.com

The opportunities for connection at the ESL Card–with other students and teachers around the world–constitute one of its main attractions, but the site also includes an imaginative array of interesting learning diversions.

–English Exercises www.better-english.com/ exerciselist.html

More than 200 online quizzes, organized by themes and topics, allow learners to get instant feedback and keep a running tally of their scores.

–The Monthly TESL Journal iteslj.org

Primarily a resource for teachers, this monthly journal also offers practice quizzes, crossword puzzles, and other activities.

Bruce Jensen is an MA-TESL who was drawn into librarianship by his adventures teaching English in public libraries. You can read more about these at the “Outreach” portion of his web site, Public Libraries Using Spanish (www.sol-plus.net). He recently earned his MLIS from UCLA and works as a reference librarian for the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System, Los Angeles

Then who wrote the best essay ever in the English language?

At a recent literary seminar, the question was asked: `Which is the best essay ever written in English?’ It is a question I have often asked myself, and a difficult one, for all kinds of writings can be essays. A sermon, which brings in Donne and Newman. A theatre review or a sports report, which makes Philip Hope-Wallace, Ken Tynan and many other writers eligible. A radio talk, which raises contenders such as Alistair Cooke, or J.B. Priestley for his marvellous wartime broadcasts. A concert note brings in, for instance, all those elegant pieces by Donald Tovey, rightly called Essays in Musical Analysis. There are many other categories, including extracts from books, that fit the essay form and are complete in themselves. Some would even call the Sermon on the Mount an essay, though presumably it was first given in Aramaic, and so ruled out.

Francis Bacon, our earliest essayist, is a strong contender: he is succinct, to the point, deadly in apophthegm, the master of the oneliner. Of his 58 essays, more than half are winners, and a few — `Boldness’, `Envy’, `Gardens’, `Truth’, `Revenge’, for example — superb. I find that I quote him more than I do any other author, in conversation as well as in writing, for he is even pithier than Johnson. He outclasses his master, Montaigne, though he does not have the sweet softness that makes the Frenchman touch the heart. There are great essays in 17th-century works. Clarendon’s portraits of both Cromwell and Charles I are enviable things to have composed. Pepys’s account of the fire of London is the best eye-witness essay I know, though a strong competitor is Evelyn’s elegiac picture of the last days of Charles II in the Great Gallery.

You can dig out bits from Bishop Burnet or Swift or, still more, Defoe, and categorise them as essays, though none would be quite in the top league. The supposedly great essayists, Addison and Steele, leave me gasping for air. There is not enough personal feeling or particularism in the marmoreal tomb-prose of either. The same applies to Johnson’s Ramblers and Coleridge’s Friend. It is as though a man, when he says, `I will now write an essay’, experiences a sudden stiffening of the literary joints, whereas Johnson, when he described Iona in his book on the Highlands, composed a moving little essay, and Coleridge’s vertiginous account of his descent of Scafell Pike, which occurs in a letter, is a brilliant action-essay and still makes my hair stand on end. It is the same with many great writers. I find Dickens’s essays in Household Words a bit platformy, whereas his letters recording the big railway accident in which he was involved, or just workmen rebuilding his house, are perfect essay-accounts. So is his description of Marseilles in the heat, or London in fog, from A Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House. (One could add Thackeray’s sleepy Dublin from his Irish Sketch Book.) De Quincey can be joined to this group: his essays tend to be dull, especially the learned ones, or too long, like Macaulay’s and Edmund Wilson’s, but his account of Wordsworth’s legs in his book on the Lake poets is a little masterpiece. He also, I should add, wrote a near-perfect formal essay in `Murder Considered As One of the Fine Arts’. Stevenson’s essays never quite hit the bull’s-eye, but the California-Pacific cloud-systems in his Silverado Squatters is a magical little prose-poem. I would also include in this category Hemingway’s unforgettable picture of the retreat across the Po in A Farewell to Arms, since this was his witness of an actual event.

The outstanding example of a writer who wrote his best essay in a book is Carlyle. Normally I do not recommend him, for his is literary heroin, fatally addictive; read too much of the old sage and you start spluttering yourself. So avoid his essays. But the 3,000 words he included about Coleridge talking in his Life of John Sterling is one of the finest essays ever composed, written with truth, love and horror. I do not value much Carlyle’s friend Emerson, whom many Americans would call the greatest essayist, though his occasional submersions into unconscious Freudianism add a sneaky zest. On the other hand, Mark Twain is the master of the extended single-topic passage. I am thinking, for instance, of three more or less truthful episodes in Roughing It: the portrait of the Nevada mine-camp cat, Tom Quartz; the flesh-creeping story of Slade and other gunmen who, in Twain’s words, `kept their private graveyards'; and the ever-popular story of the great Horace Greely and his stagecoach ride with Hank Monk. I would also rank as an essay Twain’s superb (and he swore truthful) piece `The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’. Twain I respect particularly because of the economy of his writing. He served up the `Frog’ not only in English but also in French, translated the French literally back into English, was told that the story came from ancient Greece only to discover it had been translated into Greek for a school textbook. This piece of prose has probably raised more laughs, over the years, than any other.

Twentieth-century writers have not been great essayists on the whole. Orwell is the best, though it should be remarked that his beautiful pieces on seaside postcards and children’s comics had their origin in Chesterton’s fine essay, `Penny Dreadfuls’. However, Orwell’s `Shooting an Elephant’ is entirely his own and a work of genius. It is an obvious contender for the top prize. For sheer consistency of talent in what he produced over a fraught and distracted life, you cannot beat Hazlitt. I discovered him at 14 when I read `The Fight’ — I still rate it among the very best — which taught all the great American sports writers, as well as Hemingway, a trick or two. Oddly enough, when I reread it yesterday, I noticed that only two pages out of 13 are actually about the fight — the rest is getting there and coming home, a mine of vivid information about early 19th-century travel. Of Hazlitt’s 60 or so essays, a higher proportion even than Bacon’s are winners. And nearly all are as fresh and sinewy as when first written (you can read them in the superb new nine-volume edition of his Works by Pickering and Chatto). My favourite is `My First Acquaintance with Poets’, which contains passages of pure poetry set in scintillating prose, and still has the power to make me weep. But I also recommend Hazlitt on the pleasures — he would say the necessity — of hating. Indeed, virtually all his pieces contain nuggets of deep thought or gems of brilliance which, as Wellington said of Talleyrand’s epigrams, `you remember all your life’.

What about Charles Lamb then? Considering the tragic circumstances of his life, and his enslavement to commerce for the best part of it, it is amazing that he produced so much and of such high quality. Six or seven essays are on a level with Hazlitt and Bacon at their best, though his average is lower than either. However, there is one amazing item, which holds a unique place in my heart. It is called `Dream Children’, and evokes figures that emerged from the deepest recesses of the writer’s emotions. It possesses at one and the same time warmth, beauty, tenderness, visionary shapes, nostalgia, mystery and chilling fear. It is the most perfect and creepiest thing in the English language. The great collector and scholar Alfred Newton, who once owned the holograph, rated it the best essay of all time, and I agree with him. It was sold in 1941 for the then enormous sum of $7,500. Where is it now, I wonder?

Surge to release Julie Masse’s 1st English-language album

Abstract:

Surge Records’ release of pop singer Julie Masse’s first English-language album ‘Circle of One’ on Oct. 13, 1994 is expected to spread her popularity outside the primarily French-speaking province of Quebec. Quebec’s most popular pop music stars are increasingly recording songs in English, a trend started by Celine Dion and Roch Voisine. The 24-year-old artist won in the most promising female vocalist category in the 1993 Juno Awards.

Full Text:

TORONTO–With her first English-language album, “Circle of One,” to be released Oct. 13 in Canada by Surge Records, pop singer Julie Masse is seeking to follow in the footsteps of Celine Dion and Roch Voisine, Quebec-based Francophone artists who have found success outside the primarily French-speaking province.

Even as the newly elected French separatist party, Parti Quebecois, is planning a referendum to decide the province’s independence, Quebec’s biggest pop music stars are increasingly starting to record in English. While these artists may not be federalists, they are far less interested in separatist politics or rhetoric than their predecessors.

Masse credits Dion for the change. “At the beginning some people were angry at her [for singing in English],” she says. “Now they have accepted it. I’m sure I’ll be asked why I’m singing in English, but I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”

Most English-Canadians got their first glimpse of the attractive 24-year-old Montreal resident on the televised 1993 Juno Awards, where she won in the most promising female vocalist category and co-presented the best group award to Barenaked Ladies, along with singer Corey Hart.

  • Masse says she was surprised by her Juno win. “I was known in Quebec, but because the English market didn’t know me, I thought it wouldn’t vote for me,” she says.
  • Masse’s self-titled 1990 debut album has sold 215,000 copies to date, and her 1992 album, “A Contre-Jour,” has sold 150,000 units, according to Mario Lefebvre, national director of marketing for Select Distribution, which handles Surge and its French sister label, Victoire. The majority of sales have been in Quebec.

Hart wrote five songs and produced seven of the album’s 10 tracks. The remaining material was produced by Michel Corriveau. The tracks were mixed by engineers Humberto Gatica (Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand), and Patrick Dillett (Mariah Carey).

Among the musicians on the album are guitarists Tim Pierce, Nicky Moroch, and Rik Emmett; bassist Darryl Jones (of the Rolling Stones); drummer Kenny Aronoff; percussionist Manu Katche; and pianist Greg Phillinganes.

“Julie Masse is not of the same popularity as a Celine Dion or a Roch Voisine, but she is a very interesting artist, and she’s got a shot [at success in English],” says Bill Walker, GM of HMV Canada’s Ste. Catherine’s outlet in Montreal. “She does very well with her Francophone product.”

Lefebvre notes that Quebec’s four major French-speaking radio networks added “One More Moment,” the album’s leadoff single, “out of the box” when it was released Sept. 19.

However, radio programmers outside the province are not committing themselves yet. “It’s still very early out there,” says Linda Dawe of Music Solutions, a Toronto-based independent promotion company. “We’ve only got a couple of smaller stations. It’s very ballad-heavy out there right now, and she’s also a new artist.”

SPOTTED IN LAVAL

Masse’s career got under way when Serge Brouillette noticed her singing backup with the group Fairlight in a Laval, Quebec, nightclub in 1986. Now Masse’s manager, Brouillette released her first single, “C’est Zero,” on his Victorie label in 1990. Three weeks after its street date, the song reached No. 1 on the Quebec trade Radio Activite chart, and the Quebec video channel Musique Plus was playing her video in heavy rotation.

Brouillette then approached those multinational record companies with offices in Canada about a deal for Masse, but was turned away. “Major record companies weren’t then signing new French-Canadian artists,” he explains. “From 1962-1987, French-Canadian releases weren’t selling, and there wasn’t much going on here.”

Brouillette decided to use some booking commissions he had saved, along with some additional funding from the federally supported MusicAction program, to record Masse’s debut album. Produced by Voisine guitarist Rejean Lachance, and boosted by “C’est Zero” and additional No. 1 Quebec hits such as “Billy,” “Sans T’oublier,” and “Prends Bien Garde,” the album stayed on the Radio Activite album chart for more than a year.

Masso’s electrifying six-minute performance on the televised 1990 ADISQ Gala (the French Canadian version of the Junos), singing a medley of the year’s top songs, made her a name throughout Quebec practically overnight. “Two weeks after the ADISQ show, I sold another 25,000 albums,” says Brouillette.

HEADING FOR EUROPE

For decades, making it in Europe has been the goal of the majority of Quebec Francophone artists. In order to make her mark there, Masse signed with Les Editions/Productions in France, with distribution of the album handled by BMG. “C’est Zero” and “Billy” charted in Belgium and Switzerland, and the album sold 50,000 units throughout Europe, according to Brouillette.

While Masse completed three European promotional tours, demand for her presence continued growing back home, and she was wary of spending too much time away. “I was at the peak of my career in Quebec, and we did not want to lose what we had built.”

  • In 1991, Masse dominated the ADISQ Gala. Nominated in six categories, she won three Felix awards for best first album, discovery of the year, and top female artist.

Masse’s 1992 album, “A Contre-Jour,” spurred by the success of its leadoff single, “Les Idees Noires,” sold 50,000 units within two months in Canada, according to Broulliette. That year, Masse completed a 50-date tour of Quebec and New Brunswick.

  • During 1993 Juno rehearsals, Brouillette had asked Hart to write a song for Masse. Four months later, Hart sent “One More Moment” and “Love Is All I’m Looking For,” and suggested he produce them as well.

Brouillette anted up $30,000 [Canadian] to enable Hart to record the two tracks at the Power Station in New York and Andore Studios in Los Angeles. Masse’s final vocals were recorded at Toronto’s Metal-works Studio. Next, Brouillette manufactured 200 CDs and sent them to label contacts.

Following the sessions, Hart wrote the album’s centerpiece song, “I Will Be There,” a tribute to Masse’s father, who died in an airplane crash in 1991. “When we were in Toronto recording ‘One More Moment’ and ‘Love Is All I’m Looking For,’ we spent four days together, and I talked about my father,” says Masse. When she first heard Hart play “I Will Be There,” on piano, “I just broke down,” she says.

For the album, Masse had a firm idea of her goals. “I wanted it to be live with no drum machines,” she says. “I also wanted people to know I’m a strong person, which is why I chose songs like ‘Love Is All I’m Looking For,’ ‘Devious Nature,’ and ‘Circle of One.'”

Brouillette decided that his Montreal-based distributor, Select Distribution, was best suited for handling Masse’s album nationally. The distributor had just had success in English-speaking Canada with “I’ll Always Be There,” the English debut by Voisine on Star Records, which Lefebvre says sold 450,000 units nationally.

Says Brouillette, “I don’t want to be an independent in the States or in other countries, but in Canada, I can sell the album as an independent.”

Univision’s Conde sees growth opportunity in English-language audience

UNIVISION NETWORKS’ primary audience is and will continue to be Spanish-speaking U.S. Hispanics, but president Cesar Conde sees the general English-language non-Hispanic audience as a growth opportunity for the company.

In a keynote discussion with B&C executive editor Melissa Grego at B&C/Multichannel News’ 10th annual Hispanic Television Summit Oct. 3 in New York, Conde said optimizing Univision’s product to be consumed in English and Spanish is a priority.

“I think it will be great for our Hispanic community, but I think more importantly, it will also help begin to transcend some of that English-language non-Hispanic audience that has a real interest in the type of programming that we have,” Conde said.

That goal is being partially realized in Univision’s joint venture with ABC News, which will launch anEnglish-language news network primarily for a Hispanic audience but with potential to go more mainstream.

“If done the right way, this network will have broad appeal, beyond just the Latino community,” Conde said.

Though he had few details to offer about the network’s launch, he said the digital component, which soft-launched a beta site last month, will officially launch later this month with the TV network scheduled for summer 2013. Conde had no news about carriage agreements, but said there has been “overwhelming interest” from distribution partners. On Oct. 4, it was announced that Cablevision had agreed to carry the upcoming channel under ABC parent Walt Disney Co.’s new distribution deal with the MSO.

Conde also spoke about the importance of TV Everywhere to the Hispanic viewers, who are looking for more control of what they are watching.

“It’s a more acute issue for us as a Hispanic industry because our community over-indexes on the usage and consumption of interactive and social devices and social media,” he said. Conde said Univision has tried to be proactive about tapping new alternative distribution mediums, like a new deal with Xbox to launch its UVideos Digital Network, and ensuring they have social media functionality with all of their content through things like second-screen apps.

Despite the growth opportunity of the Hispanic audience for the general media landscape, Conde said it is important for Univision to remember they are still underdogs. While Hispanics represent an increasing percentage of the population, national political ad-spend and ad sales in general on Spanish-language media still have not reached fair scale parity with the general population.

Conde said that lag is expected when an industry shifts focus and said, “the trend is moving in the right direction” though “we still have work to do.”

Education: standards and assessments in practice

The Changing Face of American Education

In my nearly 15-year progression from teaching in a high school classroom to teaching future teachersin a university classroom, I’ve gained an unusual perspective on American education, one that led me to want to take stock of our currently standards–and test-obsessed climate. In 1995, as I began my teaching career, I was blissfully ignorant of both content standards and high-stakes standardized testing. I received my initial teacher certification that year from the state of Ohio, one of the first states to institute a benchmark, high-stakes exit exam for its students.

My university methods class in English/Language Arts had taught me how to write a lesson plan, structure a novel unit, and respond to student writing. But even though the Ohio 9th Grade Exit Exam had been instituted three years before, there was no talk of standards, content or otherwise, and no discussion, as far as I can remember, of teaching to the test. When I compare my own teacher-training and student teaching experiences with the teaching and research I have conducted recently, I see so few similarities between them that it almost appears I was trained for an entirely different profession.

English-Language-Arts-1

When I received my first job later in 1995, teaching 9th and 10th grade English in California, nothing had changed fundamentally from my training in the Midwest. I know now that California had a curriculum framework for English/Language Arts (E/LA) in place at that time (specifically, 1985’s Model Curriculum Standards: Grades Nine Through Twelve), and this framework had grade level expectations for students, but I never would have guessed that from the materials handed to me at my new teacher orientation.

  • My department chair gave me two small binders, one for each grade level I was teaching. The 9th grade binder told me I would teach short stories, To Kill a Mockingbird , and Romeo & Juliet, and I was free to choose additional novels from the included reading list. Additionally, I was asked to teach a variety of literary terminology specific to prose (exposition, conflict, rising action, etc.), as well as the narrative essay.
  • My 10th grade binder looked much the same. I would teach poetry (and its related terminology), two core novels (Lord of the Flies and Black Boy), the persuasive essay, and the research paper. There was a general expectation in both grades to teach vocabulary and grammar, but no guidelines as to which words or concepts. That was the extent of the direction I was given as a 22-year-old teacher fresh off a plane from Ohio.

Six years later, the world had changed. When I returned to the classroom after a one-year stint in graduate school, California had instituted their brand-new curriculum frameworks and content standards. I now had an expansive, state-mandated list of items to cover with my students, running the gamut from vocabulary acquisition to public speaking. Students were tested on these standards, and 10th grade students now had to pass an exit exam in order to receive their diploma. In my district, course outlines had to be rewritten showing how every aspect of every class related to the standards. We adopted a textbook anthology that provided teachers with discussion questions, worksheets, and tests all tied directly to California’s content standards and we were encouraged to use these resources to ensure that we were meeting the standards.

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Site administrators required teachers to conspicuously post the content standards that related to that day’s lesson, and they were diligent in spot-checking classrooms to ensure that the standards were, in fact, posted. Department meetings, staff meetings, and staff development days focused not on how to better meet student needs, but on how to better meet the content standards and their accompanying tests, apparently assuming that these two very different goals were actually one and the same.

As I became involved in teacher education working with pre-service teachers in E/LA at the graduate school level I saw that the emphasis on standards was not isolated to kindergarten through grade 12 education. I was required to instruct the student teachers in how to meet the content standards, and the students were asked to demonstrate this in their lesson planning. They were also asked to discuss the ways in which they met standards and objectives in their major teaching assessment, the Performance Assessment for California Teachers (PACT).

In the two years that I taught the Methods and Procedures course for the E/LA cohort, the student teachers reported that they felt pressure to meet the standards, and were constantly concerned that they were failing to live up to these state-mandated expectations. Additionally, no matter how successful they had become in developing their own lessons, most of the student teachers were required to shift gears completely in the weeks leading up to the spring standardized tests, abandoning literature and authentic writing assessments in lieu of isolated lessons on test preparation.

It is one thing, I have discovered, to be in favor of accountability, and another thing entirely to see what this accountability looks like in practice. For me, the school year would get hijacked once in March for the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE), and again in April for the series of Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) assessments. Spread over two weeks, the five days of STAR testing (covering the core content areas of English, Social Science, Science, and Mathematics) took up roughly half the school day, and required that the daily schedule be rearranged so that there would be some sort of equity in class meeting times. Predictably, the students were frazzled and exhausted after three to four hours of testing each day, so even though classes met for roughly the same amount of time, productivity was nearly zero. And, as with the CAHSEE, much time and energy was devoted to test preparation.

Additionally, teachers and administration had to come up with ways to get the students to take the test seriously. Unlike the CAHSEE, where graduation is contingent upon a passing score, there is no real reason for students to view the STAR as anything more than a hoop to jump through each spring. They are not punished for a poor performance, nor are they rewarded for an outstanding one. Hanging potential classification as a “Program Improvement” school over their heads isn’t a credible or meaningful threat, and since the Governor’s Scholarship program, which awarded top-performing students $1,000, lasted only three years, it is hard to find a good reason for students to expend effort on an assessment for which they receive nothing in return. In my observations, I’ve seen schools resort to various “carrots”: offering a carnival during school hours for students who improved their scores over the previous year, extending lunch time, or awarding gift cards from various local businesses. It is unclear if this actually did anything to boost student performance.

Bearing all of this in mind the overhaul of school curricula, the implementation of new tests, the drastic changes required of administrators, teachers, and students by high-stakes tests one crucial question has been left unasked by many and unanswered altogether: are the standards and tests, in their present form, promoting student learning? If they are not, it casts serious doubt on whether all the time and energy expended so far has been worth it, and raises troubling questions about the schools that have already received punitive measures under the mandates of NCLB.

Troubled by the changes I witnessed as a result of my own teaching experiences, I spent three years researching California’s system of standards and assessments. I focused on the twelve Literary Response and Analysis standards (the curricular tasks dealing with the study of literature) at the 9th and 10th grade level, analyzing them to determine just what they wanted students and teachers to know and be able to do with literature, and also examining the corresponding STAR test questions released by the state in an effort to see exactly what kind of knowledge of the standards was being measured.

As a result of this research (which also included interviews with practicing teachers), I worry that there is A) a disconnect between the content standards and what constitutes meaningful instruction in literature, and B) a lack of accuracy in the way the standards are assessed by the STAR.

My fear is that California’s current system of standards and assessments might represent nothing more than an empty gesture toward increased intellectual rigor and higher standards for graduation, but is, in reality, a sort of pseudo-literacy that sounds impressive, but falls apart under genuine scrutiny.

A practical example would be helpful. In my analysis of the standards, I found that, among other things, the standards often misrepresent (or even misunderstand) the way readers make meaning of texts. Standard 3.5 asks that students “compare works that express a universal theme and provide evidence to support the ideas in each work.” There are other problems with this standard, but most troublesome is the idea that texts “express” a theme. The implication of Standard 3.5 is that a student reads a text, and the theme immediately leaps from the pages, as though it were contained within and merely waiting to be released by the reader. This is a view of literature instruction with which many critics and well-informed teachers would disagree, as this approach seems to ignore the fact that not every student reads the same way, and therefore not all themes will exist equally for all students.

Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading, with its notion that students interact with a text based on their own history and experience, allows for individual interpretations of texts, and the possibility that not every child will arrive at the same thematic understanding. Looked at in this way, the theme isn’t “expressed” by a text and received by a student; rather, the theme is arrived at after the student interacts with the text, applies his or her own knowledge, and arrives at an understanding. To put it another way, a theme isn’t found in a text; theme is imposed on a text by the reader during the process of constructing meaning.

Even if we were to adopt this extremely flawed and reductive view of how people read, and remembering that Standard 3.5 apparently allows for only one theme to be discussed, who gets to choose which theme is the “right” theme? In Huckleberry Finn , I can see how there could be a wide range of themes at which a student might arrive in his reading. A student could plausibly believe the novel to be about any one (or more) of these themes: the evils of slavery; the need to avoid hypocrisy; the debilitating effect of racial injustice; the importance of friendship; the perils of growing up; finding redemption in the wilderness. Are any of these more worthy of discussion than the others? Who makes that decision? The teacher? The students? And on what are they basing their decision? Standard 3.5 doesn’t see any of these issues as problematic, since apparently there is only one theme in a text, and you can find it there if only you look hard enough.

Ideally, the STAR test items that correspond with this standard would shed light on exactly what teachers should do with it. However, at the 9th grade level, the STAR does nothing to illuminate just what Standard 3.5 is after. In fact, it makes matters more difficult.

After reading two short texts (an excerpt from a prose passage about scuba diving, and a Noboa Polanco poem titled “Identity”), the students are asked to identify what “sense” is conveyed by each passage. This is, of course, not a question about theme. Asking students what sense they receive from a text indicates mood or tone. What it does not indicate is theme, in any way that I have ever taught the concept myself, or seen it taught by others.

This only reinforces my fear that the authors of the standards (and now, I see, the STAR) have themselves only a rudimentary knowledge of the concepts they have established as requisite student knowledge. How else to make sense of a test question supposedly assessing knowledge of theme that in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with theme? It is not entirely clear what the standard wants teachers to do, and this test question only serves to muddy the waters by implying that tone or mood are somehow comparable to theme.

It comes as a relief, then, that while I may not agree with the views embodied by the 10th grade questions, they at least possess a semblance of alignment with what I think the standard is asking of teachers and students. The problem, though, is that they do seem to adhere to the reductive view of reading and meaning-making that I believe Standard 3.5 embodies (that is, a single theme rests in the text and will be discovered by a competent reader). In two questions, students are asked to identify issues of theme dealing with two separate poems. In both cases, the questions make the assumption that students will read and arrive at the same theme as the test-makers. This ignores what we know about how readers read texts and make meaning of them, and is troublesome because a student could read the poems and understand them, but arrive at a different thematic interpretation than the one endorsed by the STAR.

The effect on the student, then, is that he believes his reading of the poems to be “wrong.” This is the problem with asking questions about theme and meaning on multiple-choice tests. We know that there can be variances in interpretation, but standards and tests (or at least these standards and tests) act as if there is only one “right” answer, and if you don’t agree with the test-makers, you will be penalized.

If we look to the test questions released by the state to clarify what is meant by each standard, here is what we can now conclude about Standard 3.5: At the 9th grade level, we learned that theme is roughly the same thing as tone and mood, and at the 10th grade level, we learned that theme is seen as singular and based on an authoritative reading of the text by a removed third party. For the released STAR test questions, only a third of them seemed to accurately assess the identified standard. In another third, I couldn’t figure out what they were assessing. My position to standards and assessments is not adversarial, but it strikes me that these results are simply not acceptable.

I have no problem with holding teachers and students to high standards, nor am I opposed to using some form of assessment to determine if they are meeting these standards. However, as I look back over the changes occurring in public education in the 15 years since I finished my teacher training, I don’t see the current system of standards and assessments as accomplishing much more than adding an additional level of bureaucracy to our schools. More to the point, if the Obama administration’s rhetoric is anything to go by, standards and assessments are here to stay.

Common core standards are currently in development, and there is talk of increased accountability for teachers (with tenure contingent on students’ satisfactory test performance) as well as teacher-training programs. It is absolutely vital, then, if we are to buy into this system, that we see the standards as reflecting meaningful instructional tasks, and the assessments as accurately and thoughtfully evaluating student performance on those standards. For over a decade we have allowed these sweeping changes to take place, simply assuming that the existing standards and tests represent our best educational interests. Instead, the mandates made upon teachers should be held up to the same level of scrutiny as the teachers themselves.

Rob Montgomery is Assistant Professor of English Education at Kennesaw State University. He is a National Writing Project fellow specializing in pre-service English Education, composition studies, and adolescent literacy.

A scientist rediscovers the English language

At 65, I was a research scientist who had written more than a million words of technical papers, reports and proposals that had yielded 30 NASA awards and several million dollars in research grants. You could say that, in a sense, I was a successfully published author. I should have been content.

Breakthrough

But one day, while writing a final report on a NASA microgravity project, I reread my last paragraph in total disgust. It was tedious, repetitious technobabble. Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten how to write clear, readable English. I resolved to redeem myself and learn how to write simply and clearly again.

readable-english

I tried a two-prong approach. First, heeding the admonition of Paul de Kruif (in his autobiography The Sweeping Wind) to “write the way you talk,” I kept a long-standing promise to my five children by beginning an informal memoir of my childhood. This helped me to loosen up. I was surprised how conversational I could get and still have readable prose. I gave my kids one chapter every Christmas, and their enthusiasm encouraged me.

Second, I decided that the best remedial therapy would be to learn the terse style of newsmagazine op-ed pieces, where the prime rule seems to be to pack the most ideas into the fewest, most effective words. Fortunately, I had ample subject matter. My family and friends were all too accustomed to my long-winded dinner-table diatribes on current affairs. Putting them down on paper would be a good exercise and might even serve as a catharsis to exorcise them from my conversation, to the great joy of those around me.

  • I read many magazine essays looking for a model. The beautifully crafted prose of The New Yorker was tempting, but not really my style. I was looking for someone who wrote like I thought. Ultimately, my primary model became Lance Morrow’s columns in Time.
  • I began with a favorite topic: how our presidential elections resemble the Olympic games. This was a monologue had often declaimed, so the ideas and phrasing were well worked out in my head. I set it down on paper and was disappointed to find that it was almost as wordy and dull as my technical reports.

What I learned

Thus, I discovered the long, agonizing process of editing. Like most writers of technical papers, I had edited solely for organization of ideas, content and typos. The idea of refining style and diction was new to me. Fortunately, received help from two valuable sources. One was the preface to The Florence King Reader, which describes the different refining processes. The other was the advice of an old friend, John Roaney, a retired financial public relations writer, who e-mailed me several pages of detailed advice, which still keep posted as a checklist. John particularly emphasized the need for repeated revision. Writing takes a lot of elbow grease–painstakingly revising, setting the work aside for a few days, then repeating the cycle, over and over.

olympic-game

I also had to learn when to stop. Anything written in the informal style tended to change, upon repeated revisions, into the essay style.

Finally, in 2000, I sent out “The Election Games” to a local newspaper and was informed that it was “well written” and accepted for publication. From then on I was hooked on writing, and I started on other essay topics.

Gradually, the elimination of surplus verbal fat got easier, but I still need six to 10 revisions to produce decent writing. I now have about 18 completed essays, with drafts of about 30 and ideas for a hundred more, and I’ve started looking for magazines receptive to submissions from a septuagenarian novice.

Advice

It is possible for an old dog to learn new tricks, but it takes time. Moreover, one can learn to juggle several different styles. My essay style seems to be marketable, and I’m now a regular contributor to The American Thinker, an online journal. The informal style of my memoir has served as the mode for two books, Old Age: Warts and All and A Manual of Methods. And my technical writing? It’s now much clearer and simpler, but so far no one has complained.

Paul Shlichta, a chemist, operates a research laboratory near Olympia, Wash. His letters and essays have appeared in newspapers, Time, The American Thinker and on PBS Online. Web: www.crystal-research.com.

Fighting words: should English be the national language?

Listen up! A war of words is taking place throughout the country. Last May, the U.S. Senate passed an amendment to an immigration bill that would declare English as the national language.

The proposal, which passed 63 to 34, wouldn’t bar the use of languages other than English. The amendment states that no one has the right to federal communications or services in a language other than English. Existing laws requiring that some government services be multilingual would remain intact. For example, non-English-speaking students would still have the right to multilingual education.

States, cities, and towns are adopting similar measures. Twenty-seven states declare English their official language, though they must comply with federal laws that require some multilingual services.

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Some people say English-only laws promote assimilation of non-English speakers into U.S. society. Other people, however, say such laws are discriminatory.

Buena Idea

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) sponsored the federal amendment. He says it will help immigrants to learn English faster and to better their lives. “Speaking English well … is a guaranteed way for new immigrants to increase their earning potential and career options,” he wrote in an editorial in USA Today.

Inhofe believes that the U.S. government shouldn’t have to accommodate non-English speakers. “This nation decided long ago that you must know English to become a citizen. Thus, there is no reason to offer the government’s citizen services in foreign languages,” he added.

Jim Boulet Jr., of English First, a group that promotes English-only laws, thinks a national language would unite the country’s many ethnic groups. “This is a nation of immigrants, and we have enough problems understanding each other. Language is … one more thing to be divided by,” he told Current Events.

Languages-of-the-United-States

Mala Idea

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), however, thinks declaring English as the national language is “divisive.” At a recent Senate hearing, he said, “I really believe this amendment is [discriminatory]. I think it is directed … to people who speak Spanish.”

An editorial in The Daily Texan, seconds Reid’s opinion. “This isn’t about preserving English. It’s about eliminating Spanish,” it states.

Others say the requirement is unsympathetic to the hard lives many immigrants face. Ivon Veras, a 29-year-old Dominican who lives in New Jersey, thinks most immigrants want to learn English. “Some people have not been able to learn [English], but it’s because they have to work, they have to feed their families … and it becomes difficult,” he told The Record of Bergen County, N.J.

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Get Talking

What might be the purpose of having English declared the national language of the United States? What affect might that have on some immigrants in the United States?

Notes Behind the News

  • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of foreign born people in the United States reached nearly 36 million people in 2005. That’s up from 31 million people five years ago. Nearly half come from Latin American countries.
  • An estimated 31 million people speak Spanish at home. According to the Census Bureau, there are 5.2 million U.S. households in which all members have “at least some” or “a whole lot of difficulty” speaking English.
  • About 1.4 million people are enrolled in Speakers of Other Language classes, an increase from 1.1 million in 2000. Those classes are subsidized by state and federal governments. According to the National Council of State Directors of Adult Ed, there are waiting lists for those classes in Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Not all states report to the organization.
  • In 1906, Congress passed legislation requiring people seeking to become naturalized citizens to demonstrate oral English fluency. In 1950, the requirement was strengthened to require people to demonstrate an understanding of the English language, including an ability to read, write, and speak words in ordinary usage in the English language.

Doing More

Could your students pass the U.S. naturalization test? Have them take this online quiz to find out: www.factmonster.com/quizzes/citizenship1/1.html

Discussion Web

Name– Date —

Read the News Debate on page 3. Now consider the question in the center of this page. On the lines at the left and right, give reasons that some people might answer YES and NO. Write as many reasons as you can to support each side. Then decide how you feel about the issue. Write your opinion in the box labeled CONCLUSION.

Should English be the national language of the United States?