Monday, June 28, 2010

Official English? Why Bother!

The English-as-the-official-language movement just won’t go away. The Hill Country Observer of Cambridge, New York, reported that the town council of Jackson, New York (population: 1,700) recently made political hay by passing an ordinance declaring English the town’s official spoken and written language. Reporter Evan Lawrence writes in “Making a Statement, in Plain English” (June 2010) that the town’s ruling brought the American Civil Liberties Union bearing down on it to reverse the law, and everyone in the area seems to have an opinion on the matter.

No doubt, the issue is controversial. On one side stand those who believe that benevolent face of diversity brings with it a sinister aspect—a corruption of the primary language and an unfair bias toward Spanish, the nation’s second language, over other world languages. On the other side are those who believe that such a law is harshly discriminatory and unwelcoming toward visitors who communicate in a nonnative first language.

Those who support the English-first movement have overlooked an obvious fact: English already is the de facto first language—not only of Jackson, not only of New York, not only of the USA, not only of North America, but of planet Earth. English is the official language of the international marketplace. Wherever I go, I hear businesspeople say that if they want to get ahead in their company, they need to learn English. This is the reason that jobs are available to teach English overseas in virtually every non-English speaking country in the world.

As for America’s national bias toward Spanish, why not? More people on this side of the world speak Spanish than English as a first language. People from Spanish-speaking countries and territories are our neighbors—neighbors who work hard, admire the United States, and want for their family what English-speaking people do: success that can come far easier only by mastering English.

Why should Americans feel insecure about their language? To make it in the USA, people have no choice but to learn English. No law will change that reality.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Our Universal ADD

These days more conversation in my writing classes turns up about how all of us are in a perpetual state of universal Attention Deficit Disorder, texting others while with a friend in a restaurant, reading and reply to e-mails on our Droids or BlackBerrys during a business meeting, and going to 140-character-only-including-spaces Twitter to receive our daily gospel of what’s hot. Everyone seems to lament such conduct but feels powerless to do anything about it, seduced by the facility, intuitiveness, and speed-of-light answers of technology. Read a 1,000-word article? Forget about it! Write a 250-word description? Later for that!

Nicholas Carr’s article in the July/August 2008 issue of the The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” does a fine job of echoing our lament over the attention span of our more-malleable-than-we-think brains. An excellent writer and reader, Carr admits—as I do—that unlike when he used to relish getting caught up in an engrossing book, “Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.”

What’s happened? The answer, asserts Carr, is in the behavior perfected from years of efficient Internet searching and surfing, which lead to skimming, drifting, and ultimately disengagement. The author imaginatively places his premise in a historical context that considers other machines which have affected our thought process over the centuries. His conclusion seems incontrovertible: “As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”

The 4,176-word article —yeah, that’s right—is definitely worth a complete read.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Writing Myths Debunked by “Taking Initiative on Writing”

In How to Write Fast Under Pressure, I spend a good amount space discussing the myths of writing at work. Too many people place writing on a pedestal reserved for linguistic geniuses. While I do believe that writing is complicated, doing it well at work is achievable by those who have to do it—otherwise, they would not have the jobs they have.

I am reminded that these myths start early on in Taking Initiative on Writing: A Guide for Instructional Leaders by rhetorical theory giant Anne Ruggles Gere along with Hannah A. Dickinson, Melinda J. McBee Orzulak, and Stephanie Moody. In a sample chapter, the authors dispel the following myths:
  • Writing instruction is the responsibility of English teachers alone.
  • Teaching writing means teaching grammar.
  • Good teachers of writing mark every error every time.
  • All responsibility for responding to student writing rests with the teacher.
  • The purpose of school writing is to test students on what they have learned.
  • Automatic essay scoring systems will soon replace human readers of student writing.
  • Students should learn everything about writing in elementary school.
  • Good writing means getting it right the first time.
  • Good writers work alone.
These myths lead later in life to others that paralyze the writer's creative process. Taking Initiative on Writing provides research-based resources for administrators to develop quality writing programs. Language arts teachers from first grade through college would benefit from checking it out.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Excellent Administrator's Guide to Teaching Writing

The National Council of Teachers of English provides a useful four-page prĂ©cis, An Administrator’s Guide to Writing Instruction, which can be of use not only to English supervisors but teachers and learners as well. The policy brief focuses on three areas of writing management: questions for hiring writing instructors, guide for observation of writing classes, and guidelines for institutional support of writing instruction.

The paper states that key areas for probing prospective writing teachers include knowledge of the writing process, technology, and diverse instructional strategies; and ability to connect reading and writing, instruction and assessment, and writing and learning.

In terms of observing teachers in action, the study asks 18 questions focused on type, frequency, and duration of student writing activities; use of computers for research and writing; display and evaluation of gold standards in writing; and development of learning and communication skills through writing instruction.

As for administering the writing classroom, the report notes that vitals points to consider are class size, technology, writing across the curriculum, effectiveness of evaluation, opportunities for professional development, and diversity of learners.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Monday, June 14, 2010

Reader Comments in English Are Welcomed

I have been receiving several comments from around the world on my WORDS ON THE LINE posts. As much as I appreciate them, I will post only those appearing in English in the interest of my readers, who strive to improve their own, their staff's, or their students' English writing skills.

I welcome your relevant comments on any WORDS ON THE LINE post, but please comment in English. Thank you.

Books by Philip Vassallo

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Writing Is Everywhere and by Everyone

Everybody’s a writer these days. Not only do we expect journalists, attorneys, and novelists to be good writers, but we want quality prose from engineers, nurses, information technology professionals, equity research analysts, and managers of any stripe. The National Council of Teachers of English has rightly, albeit belatedly, expanded its definition of writing in a provocative white paper by Lorna Collier, Everyday Writing: Words Matter More Than Ever in 21st Century Workplace. This 10-page report covers the writing experiences of people in professions from student to military officer, from stay-at-home-parent to match teacher.

Because of the prevalence of web-based communication, people from all fields—restaurateurs, plumbers, nurses, paralegals, zookeepers, whatever—are now seeking creative ways to engage their audiences through the written word. The ten people surveyed in this paper offer insights you’re not likely to get from English professors.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Book Review: "The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life"

Benjamin Zander, a musician and conductor, and his wife Rosamund Stone Zander, a family therapist and painter, have teamed to write 12 practices designed to help readers take responsibility for their lives, empower themselves and the people around them, and build a world galvanized by creativity and positive action. If you are new to self-enrichment books, you'll enjoy the stories the authors tell and the simple maxims they render in, as the subtitle of the book says, transforming professional and personal life.

Some readers may not welcome the many anecdotes coming from Mr. Zander's experience as an orchestral conductor around the world, but I appreciated them greatly because of his unique perspective on classical music, his focus on interpersonal communication, and my passion for artistic endeavors. What nearly everyone will enjoy, however, is both author's belief that regardless of our station in life, we are all artists and have constantly before us a canvas we can paint to radiate beauty in our world.

If you're not sure whether The Art of Possibility is a worthwhile read, start with Mr. Zander's 20-minute lecture before an engaged live audience on, and you'll make a bee line for the bookstore or library:

Saturday, June 05, 2010

AMA E-mail Webinar Reprise

It’s still not too late to register for How to Write a Darn Good E-mail, the popular webinar by the American Management Association, running from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 8, or Friday, July 9. I will be presenting the program, which focuses on the following points:
  • Get started quickly
  • Write attention-getting subject lines, openings and closings
  • Create clear, concise e-mail that gets results
  • Maintain a professional tone
  • Polish your e-mail to perfection
  • Discover the do’s and don’ts of e-mail

Signing up is easy and inexpensive. The value is there, I assure you—as a thousand others who have tuned in before would tell you.