How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math

How I Rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math

The building blocks of understanding are memorization and repetition.

I was a wayward kid who grew up on the literary side of life, treating math and science as if they were pustules from the plague. So it’s a little strange how I’ve ended up now—someone who dances daily with triple integrals, Fourier transforms, and that crown jewel of mathematics, Euler’s equation. It’s hard to believe I’ve flipped from a virtually congenital math-phobe to a professor of engineering.

One day, one of my students asked me how I did it—how I changed my brain. I wanted to answer Hell—with lots of difficulty! After all, I’d flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science. In fact, I didn’t start studying remedial math until I left the Army at age 26. If there were a textbook example of the potential for adult neural plasticity, I’d be Exhibit A.

Learning math and then science as an adult gave me passage into the empowering world of engineering. But these hard-won, adult-age changes in my brain have also given me an insider’s perspective on the neuroplasticity that underlies adult learning. Fortunately, my doctoral training in systems engineering—tying together the big picture of different STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines—and then my later research and writing focusing on how humans think have helped me make sense of recent advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology related to learning.

In the years since I received my doctorate, thousands of students have swept through my classrooms—students who have been reared in elementary school and high school to believe that understanding math through active discussion is the talisman of learning. If you can explain what you’ve learned to others, perhaps drawing them a picture, the thinking goes, you must
understand it.

Japan has become seen as a much-admired and emulated exemplar of these active, “understanding-centered” teaching methods. But what’s often missing from the discussion is the rest of the story: Japan is also home of the Kumon method of teaching mathematics, which emphasizes memorization, repetition, and rote learning hand-in-hand with developing the child’s mastery over the material. This intense afterschool program, and others like it, is embraced by millions of parents in Japan and around the world who supplement their child’s participatory education with plenty of practice, repetition, and yes, intelligently designed rote learning, to allow them to gain hard-won fluency with the material.

Fooled By Your Own Brain

Your powers of attention: fooled!Attention is, by definition, limited. And that’s usually a good thing. If you’re searching for a lost earring on the floor, you want to ignore anything that’s not small and shiny. When talking to someone at…READ MORE

Teachers can inadvertently set their students up for failure as those students blunder in illusions of competence.

In the United States, the emphasis on understanding sometimes seems to have replaced rather than complemented older teaching methods that scientists are—and have been—telling us work with the brain’s natural process to learn complex subjects like math and science.

The latest wave in educational reform in mathematics involves the Common Core—an attempt to set strong, uniform standards across the U.S., although critics are weighing in to say the standards fail by comparison with high-achieving countries. At least superficially, the standards seem to show a sensible perspective. They propose that in mathematics, students should gain equal facility in conceptual understanding, procedural skills and fluency, and application.

The devil, of course, lies in the details of implementation. In the current educational climate, memorization and repetition in the STEM disciplines (as opposed to in the study of language or music), are often seen as demeaning and a waste of time for students and teachers alike. Many teachers have long been taught that conceptual understanding in STEM trumps everything else. And indeed, it’s easier for teachers to induce students to discuss a mathematical subject (which, if done properly, can do much to help promote understanding) than it is for that teacher to tediously grade math homework. What this all means is that, despite the fact that procedural skills and fluency, along with application, are supposed to be given equal emphasis with conceptual understanding, all too often it doesn’t happen. Imparting a conceptual understanding reigns supreme—especially during precious class time.

The problem with focusing relentlessly on understanding is that math and science students can often grasp essentials of an important idea, but this understanding can quickly slip away without consolidation through practice and repetition. Worse, students often believe they understand something when, in fact, they don’t. By championing the importance of understanding, teachers can inadvertently set their students up for failure as those students blunder in illusions of competence. As one (failing) engineering student recently told me: “I just don’t see how I could have done so poorly. I understood it when you taught it in class.” My student may have thought he’d understood it at the time, and perhaps he did, but he’d never practiced using the concept to truly internalize it. He had not developed any kind of procedural fluency or ability to apply what he thought he understood.

There is an interesting connection between learning math and science, and learning a sport. When you learn how to swing a golf club, you perfect that swing from lots of repetition over a period of years. Your body knows what to do from a single thought—one chunk—instead of having to recall all the complex steps involved in hitting a ball.

In the same way, once you understand why you do something in math and science, you don’t have to keep re-explaining the how to yourself every time you do it. It’s not necessary to go around with 25 marbles in your pocket and lay out 5 rows of 5 marbles again and again so that you get that 5 x 5 = 25. At some point, you just know it fluently from memory. You memorize the idea that you simply add exponents—those little superscript numbers—when multiplying numbers that have the same base (104 x 105 = 109). If you use the procedure a lot, by doing many different types of problems, you will find that you understand both the why and the how behind the procedure very well indeed. The greater understanding results from the fact that your mind constructed the patterns of meaning. Continually focusing on understanding itself actually gets in the way.


I learned these things about math and the process of learning not in the K-12 classroom but in the course of my life, as a kid who grew up reading Madeleine L’Engle and Dostoyevsky, who went on to study language at one of the world’s leading language institutes, and then to make the dramatic shift to become a professor of engineering.

As a young woman with a yen for learning language and no money or skills to speak of, I couldn’t afford to go to college (college loans weren’t then in the picture). So I launched directly from high school into the Army. I had loved learning new languages in high school, and the Army seemed to be a place where people could actually get paid for their language study, even as they attended the top-ranked Defense Language Institute—a place that had made language- learning a science. I chose Russian because it was very different from English, but not so difficult that I could study it for a lifetime only to perhaps gain the fluency of a 4-year-old. Besides, the Iron Curtain was mysteriously appealing—could I somehow use my knowledge of Russian to peer behind it?

After leaving the service, I became a translator for the Russians on Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea. Working for the Russians was fun and engrossing—but it was also a superficially glamorous form of migrant work. You go to sea during fishing season, make a decent salary while getting drunk all the time, then go back to port when the season’s over and hope they’ll rehire you next year. There was pretty much only one other alternative for a Russian language speaker—working for the National Security Agency. (My Army contacts kept pointing me that way, but it wasn’t for me.)

I began to realize that while knowing another language was nice, it was also a skill with limited opportunities and potential. People weren’t pounding down my door looking for my Russian declension abilities. Unless, that is, I was willing to put up with seasickness and sporadic malnutrition out on stinking trawlers in the middle of the Bering Sea. I couldn’t help but reflect back on the West Point-trained engineers I’d worked with in the Army. Their mathematically and scientifically based approach to problem-solving was clearly useful for the real world—far more useful than my youthful misadventures with math had been able to imagine.

So, at age 26, as I was leaving the Army and casting about for fresh opportunities, it occurred to me: If I really wanted to try something new, why not tackle something that could open a whole world of new perspectives for me? Something like engineering? That meant I would be trying to learn another very different language—the language of calculus.

You go to sea during fishing season, make a decent salary while getting drunk all the time, then go back to port when the season’s over.

With my poor understanding of even the simplest math, my post-Army retraining efforts began with not-for-credit remedial algebra and trigonometry. This was way below mathematical ground zero for most college students. Trying to reprogram my brain sometimes seemed like a ridiculous idea—especially when I looked at the fresh young faces of my younger classmates and realized that many of them had already dropped their hard math and science classes—and here I was heading right for them. But in my case, from my experience becoming fluent in Russian as an adult, I suspected—or maybe I just hoped—that there might be aspects to language learning that I might apply to learning in math and science.

What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency. Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop. Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I wouldn’t just be satisfied to know that понимать meant “to understand.” I’d practice with the verb—putting it through its paces by conjugating it repeatedly with all sorts of tenses, and then moving on to putting it into sentences, and then finally to understanding not only when to use this form of the verb, but also when not to use it. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly. After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language. But if you aren’t fluent, when someone throws a bunch of words at you quickly, as with normal speaking (which always sounds horrifically fast when you’re learning a new language), you have no idea what they’re actually saying, even though technically you understand all the component words and structure. And you certainly can’t speak quickly enough yourself for native speakers to find it enjoyable to listen to you.

This approach—which focused on fluency instead of simple understanding—put me at the top of the class. And I didn’t realize it then, but this approach to learning language had given me an intuitive understanding of a fundamental core of learning and the development of expertise—chunking.

Chunking was originally conceptualized in the groundbreaking work of Herbert Simon in his analysis of chess—chunks were envisioned as the varying neural counterparts of different chess patterns. Gradually, neuroscientists came to realize that experts such as chess grand masters are experts because they have stored thousands of chunks of knowledge about their area of expertise in their long-term memory. Chess masters, for example, can recall tens of thousands of different chess patterns. Whatever the discipline, experts can call up to consciousness one or several of these well-knit-together, chunked neural subroutines to analyze and react to a new learning situation. This level of true understanding, and ability to use that understanding in new situations, comes only with the kind of rigor and familiarity that repetition, memorization, and practice can foster.

As studies of chess masters, emergency room physicians, and fighter pilots have shown, in times of critical stress, conscious analysis of a situation is replaced by quick, subconscious processing as these experts rapidly draw on their deeply ingrained repertoire of neural subroutines—chunks. At some point, self-consciously “understanding” why you do what you do just slows you down and interrupts flow, resulting in worse decisions. When I felt intuitively that there might be a connection between learning a new language and learning mathematics, I was right. Day-by-day, sustained practice of Russian fired and wired together my neural circuits, and I gradually began to knit together chunks of Slavic insight that I could call into working memory with ease. By interleaving my learning—in other words, practicing so that I knew not only when to use that word, but when not to use it, or to use a different variant of it—I was actually using the same approaches that expert practitioners use to learn in math and science.

When learning math and engineering as an adult, I began by using the same strategy I’d used to learn language. I’d look at an equation, to take a very simple example, Newton’s second law of f = ma. I practiced feeling what each of the letters meant—f for force was a push, m for mass was a kind of weighty resistance to my push, and a was the exhilarating feeling of acceleration. (The equivalent in Russian was learning to physically sound out the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet.) I memorized the equation so I could carry it around with me in my head and play with it. If m and a were big numbers, what did that do to f when I pushed it through the equation? If f was big and a was small, what did that do to m? How did the units match on each side? Playing with the equation was like conjugating a verb. I was beginning to intuit that the sparse outlines of the equation were like a metaphorical poem, with all sorts of beautiful symbolic representations embedded within it. Although I wouldn’t have put it that way at the time, the truth was that to learn math and science well, I had to slowly, day by day, build solid neural “chunked” subroutines—such as surrounding the simple equation f = ma—that I could easily call to mind from long term memory, much as I’d done with Russian.

Time after time, professors in mathematics and the sciences have told me that building well-ingrained chunks of expertise through practice and repetition was absolutely vital to their success. Understanding doesn’t build fluency; instead, fluency builds understanding. In fact, I believe that true understanding of a complex subject comes only from fluency.

In other words, in science and math education in particular, it’s easy to slip into teaching methods that emphasize understanding and that avoid the sometimes painful repetition and practice that underlie fluency. I learned Russian not just by understanding it—understanding, after all, is facile, and can easily slip away. (What did that word понимать mean?) I learned Russian by gaining fluency through practice, repetition, and rote learning—but rote learning that emphasized the ability to think flexibly and quickly. I learned math and science by applying precisely those same ideas. Language, math, and science, as with almost all areas of human expertise, draw on the same reservoir of brain mechanisms.

As I forayed into a new life, becoming an electrical engineer and, eventually, a professor of engineering, I left the Russian language behind. But 25 years after I’d last raised an inebriated glass on the Soviet trawlers, my family and I decided to take the trans-Siberian railway across Russia. Although I was excited to take the long-dreamed-of trip, I was also worried. I’d barely uttered a word of Russian in all that time. What if I’d lost it all? What had those years of gaining fluency really bought me?

Sure enough, when we first got on the train, I spoke Russian like a 2-year-old. I’d grasp for words, my declensions and conjugations were all wrong, and my formerly near-perfect accent sounded dreadful. But the foundation was there, and day by day, my Russian improved. And even with my rudimentary Russian, I could handle the day-to-day needs of our traveling. Soon, tour guides were coming to me for help translating for the other passengers. When we finally arrived in Moscow, we hopped in a taxi. The driver, I soon discovered, was intent on ripping us off—heading directly the wrong way and trapping us in a logjam of cars, where he expected us ignorant foreigners to quietly acquiesce to an unnecessary extra hour of meter time. Suddenly, Russian words I hadn’t spoken for decades flew from my mouth. I hadn’t even consciously known I knew those words.

Underneath it all, when it was needed, the fluency was there—and it quickly got us out of trouble (and into another taxi). Fluency allows understanding to become embedded, emerging when needed.

As I look today at the shortage of science and math majors in this country, and our current trend in how we teach people to learn, and as I reflect on my own pathway, knowing what I know now about the brain, it occurs to me that we can do better. As parents and teachers, we can use simple, accessible methods for deepening understanding and making it useful and flexible. We can encourage others and ourselves to try new disciplines that we thought were too hard—math, dance, physics, language, chemistry, music—opening new worlds for ourselves and others.

As I discovered, having a basic, deep-seated fluency in math and science—not just an “understanding,” is critical. It opens doors for many of life’s most intriguing jobs. Looking back, I realize that I didn’t have to just blindly follow my initial inclinations and passions. The “fluency” part of me that loved literature and language was also the same part of me that ultimately fell in love with math and science—and transformed and enriched my life.

Barbara Oakley is a professor of engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan, and the author of, most recently, A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If
 You Flunked Algebra). She is also co-instructor, with Terrence Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute, of one of the world’s largest online courses, “Learning How to Learn,” with Coursera.

Talking in the real world

Talking in the real world

JÂNIO QUADROS was president of Brazil for just seven months in 1961. An eccentric, he suddenly resigned, hinting at “terrible forces”. He was known for other memorable, if sometimes bizarre, quotes. In a debate, an opponent said Jânio’s words were going in one of his ears and out of the other. Jânio retorted, “A lie! Sound doesn’t travel through a vacuum!” And asked once why he drank liquor, he said, “I drink it because it’s liquid. If it were solid, I’d eat it.”

All this is delightfully weird enough, but the way he said the last one in Portuguese is even weirder. Bebo-o porque é liquido. Se fosse sólido, comê-lo-ia. This is an ornate, traditional European Portuguese of the kind that nobody in Brazil uses spontaneously. Most people would instead say something like Bebo porque é liquido. Se fosse sólido, comeria. Traditional Portuguese has complex rules for direct and indirect objects, even allowing them to come between a verb stem and the conjugational ending, as in comê-lo-ia, something like “eat-it-I-would”. But in spoken Brazilian, objects are usually just put before the verb, or left out if they are clear from context.

I began learning Portuguese from an old secondhand book that taught forms like comê-lo-ia, which I dutifully studied, grumbling “who on Earth says this?” If only someone had answered “nobody”. When I finally talked to Brazilians, their Portuguese resembled my textbook in roughly the way that a Picasso resembles its subject. Sadly, many traditional textbooks still teach Portuguese this way—including to native speakers in Brazil.

All languages change, but as they do, some language groups are more willing to update the formal grammar books than others. If the books don’t change, but the spoken language does—the typical case—the two forms gradually drift apart.

This is a shame for many native speakers, who arrive at school to learn that the way everyone speaks is “wrong”, and an ossified written form is “right”. Blackboard drills meant to shame pupils out of supposedly bad habits foment anxiety, and give grammar a bad name. This case was made clearly in Lingua Portuguesa, a magazine I was delighted to find at an ordinary Rio kiosk during last week’s holiday. (Try to imagine an American or British newsagent carrying the thougthful likes of Babel or a printed Schwa Fire next to the lads’ mags and gossip rags.)

Instead of a rigid right-wrong approach, with the written form always being taught as right, it would be better to teach the idea of register: that certain forms are used in casual speech, other forms in formal speech, others still in writing. Lingua Portuguesa also had an interview with Valéria Paz de Almeida, a linguist consultant to a news broadcaster, who lamented that newscasters feel the need to speak in an artificial register that resembles writing. They come to her with worried questions about rare and tricky grammatical forms. She in turn tries to get them to speak as they do with the cameras switched off: fluently and articulately, but naturally. She finds this make the journalists looser and happier, and the audience never complains.

What about foreign learners? It is distressing to show up in Paris and hear a mysterious mumble that sounds like j’sépa, over and over again, only later to discover that this is what your French teacher told you to say as je ne sais pas, “I don’t know.” Those silent s’s are a perfect example of the spoken language changing while the written remains the same. And a good textbook would explain that the negative particle ne is usually dropped in colloquial speech. But most books don’t trust learners to be able to master multiple registers. Mastering register is, to be sure, tricky. But it is not well solved by teaching only a register that will leave the learner bewildered by the first live contact with a human being.

Most textbooks are not good at conveying this stuff. But two series stand out. Routledge’s “Modern Grammar: A Practical Guide”, with books on nine languages, is good for reference; Cambridge University Press’s approachable series, “Using [Spanish, German, etc]”, is better for a read-through. Both offer detailed, detached descriptions of the difference between speaking and writing, formal and informal, regional differences and the like.

Teaching genuine spoken language is a tricky task requiring subtlety. It is also done surprisingly rarely, because too often teaching actual speech is conflated with dignifying slang or mistakes. A good book like the ones above will simply note how (mostly educated) speakers actually use their native language. This kind of real-world knowledge gives the foreigner’s attempts a certain je ne sais quoi, and helps assure that that first conversation doesn’t die in a vacuum of incomprehension.

Think you know the rules of English? These talks will change your mind.


Erin McKean

How much do you know about the right and wrong ways to use words? You know that usage and grammar rules in English are complicated and often counterintuitive, and it can be surprisingly easy to make a mistake. You know it’s important to learn these rules, both so you’ll appear intelligent and well-educated and also because there’s a right way and a wrong way to use words, and you want to do it the right way.

Only, it turns out, there isn’t. Yes, it’s important to know all the rules governing English usage (including the stupid ones). But don’t think of English, or any language, as having definite, unchangeable right-and-wrong rules. The language and rules that govern it are constantly changing–because all of us are changing them together, all the time.

You can learn a lot more about how the language is changing–and other fascinating things that may make you rethink most of what you learned in high school–from a new TED Talks playlist that is all about words. Enjoy these fascinating talks. And forward them on next time someone criticizes you for using words wrong.

1. Ever wonder who wrote the dictionary?

English professor and language historian Anne Curzan poses this simple question to the audience and, predictably, few hands go up. In this lively talk she explains how words become legitimate, who decides what goes in dictionaries (she’s one of the people who does), and why words like “hangry” and “adorkable” really do belong in them.


2. Why do we use ‘x’ to represent the unknown?

It will take you less than four minutes to find out. And if you don’t already know, you will never, ever be able to guess.


3. No, texting is not ruining the English language.

If you have teenagers at home, or even know any, texting and its odd code words and abbreviations are likely the bane of your existence. They may also lead you to lament the decline of the proper use of English. But in a thought-provoking talk, linguist John McWhorter argues the opposite is true. Far from ruining English, today’s texters are creating a new form of our language, one that is written but happens at the speed of speech.

4. How–and why–you should make up new words.

Ever wonder if something you want to use “really is a word?” If it isn’t, maybe you should make it one. That advice comes from lexicographer Erin McKean who advises, “Words are great. We should have more of them. I want you to make as many new words as possible.” And then, in this fast and fun talk, she suggests six different ways you can create new words.


5. Is proper verb usage making you poorer?

It sounds crazy, but the answer to that question is probably yes. Behavioral economist Keith Chen explains his intriguing study of how the way we speak influences what we do. Not all languages have a future tense. In some, there is no difference at all between “I go” and “I will go.” Surprisingly, people who speak such futureless languages are better at doing things today, such as saving money or avoiding cigarettes and unhealthy food, that will make things worse for them in the future. This talk explains why, and it will leave you wondering how else the language we speak shapes the things we do.


What makes a language difficult?

The Economist explains

What makes a language difficult?

EVERYONE has the intuition that some languages are more difficult than others. For the native English-speaker, professional agencies that teach foreign languages have made it quite clear. America’s state department reckons that Spanish, Swedish or French can be learned in 575-600 class hours (“Category 1”). Russian, Hebrew and Icelandic are more difficult (1100 class hours, “Category 2”). And Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin and a few others are in the hardest group, Category 3, requiring 2200 class hours. But what makes a language difficult?

How long it takes to learn a language does not answer which ones are hard independent of the learner’s first language (nor the related question “How hard is English?”) Ranking languages on a universal scale of difficulty is itself difficult and controversial. Some languages proliferate endings on verbs and nouns, like Latin and Russian. Such inflection can be hard for learners who are not used to it. Several years ago, two scholars found that smaller languages (those with less contact with other languages) tended to have more inflection than big ones. By contrast, creole languages—which arise between groups that do not share a common language—are thought by scholars to be systematically simpler than other languages, even after they become “normal” languages with native speakers. They typically lack heavy inflection.

But inflection is only one element of “hardness”. Some languages have simple sound systems (such as the Polynesian languages). Others have a wide variety of sounds, including rare ones that outsiders find hard to learn (like the languages of the Caucasus). Some languages (like English) lack or mostly lack grammatical gender. Some have dozens of genders (also known as “noun classes”) that must be learned for each noun. Languages can have rigidly fixed or flexible word order. They can put verbs before objects or even objects before subjects. Yet it is not clear how to rank the relative difficulty of exotic consonants, dozens of genders or heavy inflection. Another recent approach sought to go around the problem by finding languages that had the most unusual features, skirting the question of whether those features were “hard”. Comparing 21 feature parameters across hundreds of languages, they ranked 239 languages. Chalcatongo Mixtec, spoken in Mexico, was the weirdest. English came in place number 33. Basque, Hungarian, Hindi and Cantonese ranked as among the most “normal”. The researchers did not find any larger similarities between “weird” and “normal” languages. (For example, they do not claim that smaller or bigger languages tend to be “weirder”.) But again, the caveat is that this only compares which languages are unusual in a global context, not which are hard.

So the two most robust findings seem to be that smaller languages are more heavily inflected, and that languages farther from your own in the linguistic family tree will be harder for you to learn. If you want a challenge, a good bet is to pick a tiny language from halfway around the world.

Pronouns: It’s not you

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Johnson: Pronouns

It’s not you

IT’S time for a breakup. The person you have been seeing is lovely, but a relationship is not what you want right now. How do you break the news gently?

If you say “It’s not you, it’s me,” you are probably a native speaker of English or someone with a good command of how native speakers actually speak. If you say “It’s not you—it’s I,” you will quickly achieve the goal of making the other person not want to spend any more time with you. Yet this bizarre formulation is just how Nathan Heller of the New Yorker would have you speak.

This little conundrum illustrates a great deal of confusion about English grammar. Mr Heller was reviewing Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” (which The Economist reviewed here). Mr Pinker writes that it is normal informal English style to use the accusative pronouns—me, him, her, us or them—in a predicate after forms of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were and so on). In other words, it is natural and correct to say It is me as opposed to It is I. A granny facing a police line-up, jangled by her recent mugging, will point to the perpetrator and naturally shout, “That’s him, officer!” And as Geoffrey Pullum, a syntactician at the University of Edinburgh, points out, there are many cases where the nominative pronoun—I, he, she, we, they—in predicate position is so weird as to be unacceptable. He gives the example of looking at an old photograph, pointing to oneself and saying This one here is I at the age of 12.


But of course many traditional grammars do prescribe it is he and so on. It is the preferred form for formal usage, and Google’s Ngram-viewer tool (which allows searches of books)finds “it was him who…” to be almost non-existent in books.

What’s correct? Writers like Mr Heller offer two principles: that language should be consistent, and that it should be logical. Mr Heller here is explicit, in a passage worth quoting at length:

It’s for grammatical consistency, not beauty or gentilesse, for example, that correct English has us say “It was he” instead of “It was him.” Pinker calls this offense “a schoolteacher rule” that is “a product of the usual three confusions: English with Latin, informal style with incorrect grammar, and syntax with semantics.” He’s done crucial research on language acquisition, and he offers an admirable account of syntax in his book, but it is unclear what he’s talking about here. As he knows, the nominative and accusative cases are the reason that we don’t say gibberish like “Her gave it to he and then sat by we here!” No idea is more basic to English syntax and grammar. In the phrase “It was he,” “it” and “he” are the same thing: they’re both the subject, and thus nominative. This is not “Latin.” (Our modern cases had their roots in tribal Germanic.)

Logic and consistency are, of course, good things. But both words mean different things to different people, and sometimes the goals conflict. For Mr Heller, it is “logical” that “was” should be like a grammatical equals sign. So if the subject of the sentence It was he is nominative, so should the pronoun in the predicate be: it = he. But case systems don’t care about invisible equals signs. In French, this construction is forbidden: the French say c’est moi, not c’est je, using a special set of pronouns (usually called “emphatic”) rather than the nominative ones. Nobody accuses the language of Pascal and Descartes of being any less logical than English. In Danish, it is det er mig (“it is me”), using the accusative pronoun, notdet er jeg (”it is I”). And yet no one says the language of Kirkegaard is a confusing mess. And it just so happens that the ancestors of the Danes and the French conquered England, contributing to the language’s mixed nature. It is me didn’t show up in writing until the 15th century, and so may not come directly from those languages. But contact between speakers of different languages did give English a habit of accepting different ways of saying things, such as both the king’s son (typically Germanic) and the son of the king(typically French).

In any case, variety is not the same thing as the “complexity, ambiguity and doubt” Mr Heller fears. The situation is fairly simple. Mr Pinker argues that the accusative me in it’s me is in fact the default case, and can be used anywhere except as the subject of a tensed verb. In other words, in the absence of any reason to use the nominative, the accusative is natural:

Who ate the last piece of cake? Him.

What, me worry?

Me, I prefer skiing to surfing

“Me” in predicate position even appears in traditional places like the King James Bible’s “woe is me”. Where did the confusion come from, then? When grammarians first sat down to write the rules of English, they made certain mistakes that have had long-lasting consequences. Before the first grammars of English, the word “grammar” could only have meant the formal systems of Greek and Latin that they had learned. And so while few scholars announced their intention to press English into a classical mould, they were inevitably influenced by what seemed like the elegant rules of the classical languages. (It was tempting to assume Latin and Greek were superior languages. The first English grammarians never had to hear an inarticulate Roman teenager butcher his cases; they had only the works of great writers to judge by.)

As it happens, the rule “use the nominative case in the predicate nominative position” (It is I) is not just Greco-Latin. It is akin to the German (Das bin ich, which is the equivalent of what English speakers used to say: It am I, with both pronouns in the nominative case). English is descended from an old form of German, namely Anglo-Saxon. So It is I is not quite a foreign import. It is an alternative. The key is that there is nothing wrong with alternatives, which allow a writer or speaker to pick a level of formality. This is obviously the case for vocabulary (acquire is more formal than get, and therefore is smarter than so). But—though many people want there always to be only one right answer—it also applies to grammar. It is I is more formal than It is me in much the same way that it is is more formal than it’s.

Style variation is not only possible; it is desirable, allowing a speaker or writer to communicate not only content but meta-content—how the speaker or writer feels about the content and how it should be taken. We can be both logical and consistent without straitjacketing the language so tightly as to make its native speakers writhe in discomfort. If you think yourself articulate and care about English, yet can’t force yourself to speak as Mr Heller of the prestigious New Yorker would have you do, don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s him.

Students and teachers detail pervasive cheating in a program owned by test giant ACT

Students and teachers detail pervasive cheating in a program owned by test giant ACT
By Steve Stecklow, Alexandra Harney and Ju-min Park

Filed July 25, 2016, 2:35 p.m. GMT
Part Four: The Global Assessment Certificate program is designed to give foreign students the skills to succeed at U.S. universities. Reuters found it sometimes offers those students much more – including a sneak peek at the ACT itself.

SHANGHAI, SEOUL and IOWA CITY – For many Chinese high school students hoping to get into a U.S. university, the pitch is hard to resist.

Take English-language courses in China in a program recognized by admissions offices at more than 60 colleges in the United States – including state universities in New York, Michigan, Iowa and Missouri. Prepare for the ACT, America’s most popular college entrance exam. And take it in mainland China, instead of traveling elsewhere as other Chinese students must.

The program, known as the Global Assessment Certificate, also offers some students an advantage that isn’t advertised: At three different GAC centers, school officials and proctors ignored and were sometimes complicit in student cheating on the ACT, according to seven students interviewed by Reuters.

The GAC program, which can cost students $10,000 a year or more, has emerged as one of many avenues in Asia used to exploit weaknesses in the U.S. college admissions process.

But the most remarkable aspect of this program is that the ACT itself owns and oversees it.

The GAC program is operated by a foreign subsidiary of ACT Inc, the Iowa-based not-for-profit that administers the crucial college entrance exam. The subsidiary, ACT Education Solutions Ltd, is headquartered in Hong Kong.
Map: A look at GAC centers that give the ACT in East Asia

Part One: College Board gave SATs it knew were “compromised”

Part Two: Despite tighter security, new SAT gets hacked

Part Three: Chinese cheating rings penetrate U.S. colleges
The curriculum at GAC centers is designed to teach non-native English speakers reading, writing and other skills for college. The program has about 5,000 students in 11 countries at 197 centers. Three-quarters of the centers are in mainland China. The vast majority of GAC students take the ACT, which American colleges use to assess applicants.

Some GAC centers advertise their students’ high ACT scores and success getting into U.S. colleges. The website for one center – Zhengzhou Cornerstone High School in Zhengzhou, China – features pictures of accomplished graduates alongside their near-perfect test scores and the U.S. schools that accepted them.

The website for the GAC program promises universities “highly skilled international students,” and some schools award college credit for classes taken at GAC centers.

But interviews with some students who attended GAC centers call the program’s integrity into question. One now attending the University of California, Los Angeles, said a GAC administrator in China let him practice answering almost half the questions that would appear on the actual ACT about a week before the exam was given. Another student, now at a major university in the Midwest, said his Chinese center provided students with two articles that appeared on an ACT he later took there.

What’s more, eight teachers or administrators who have worked at seven different Chinese GAC centers described cheating in program courses. Some said it was widespread. They said students turned in assignments that were plagiarized. At two different centers, former teachers said, officials encouraged them to give students exam questions and sometimes even answers in advance to ensure that they passed.

Jason Thieman resigned in January after nearly five months as a teacher at the GAC center at Jimei University in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. He said he left after students complained that he was cracking down on cheating and plagiarism.

“If every university admissions office that accepted GAC students knew about what was going on with the GAC, and especially with the ACT, I think they wouldn’t want to accept the students anymore,” Thieman said. “It’s outrageous.”

A spokesman for the GAC center said the program would never condone cheating and that students simply didn’t like Thieman’s teaching style.

Thieman is now in the United States, pursuing a doctorate in physics. “The situation’s not fair to anybody,” he said of the GAC program. “It’s not fair to the universities that admit” the students, and “it’s not fair to American students who actually have the proper standards in place when they take” the ACT.

Christopher Bogen, director of studies at a GAC center in Zhuhai from 2011 to 2014, said some of his students repeatedly engaged in “intentional, flagrant cheating.” Some submitted essays that were supposed to be written in English; instead, the essays had been translated using the Google Translate web tool, he said. The GAC curriculum made cheating easier because the same tests were given “over and over again,” Bogen said. Some of those tests and other GAC assignments were available for sale online in China, Reuters found.

No one from the GAC center where Bogen taught could be reached for comment.

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said its Hong Kong subsidiary is responsible for handling cases of alleged cheating in GAC courses. He declined to make managers there available to speak for this article.

Colby said the subsidiary thoroughly vets GAC operators and monitors their work. ACT’s head of test security, Rachel Schoenig, said the organization had cancelled suspicious ACT scores of GAC students.
INSTRUCTING STUDENTS: Jason Thieman at the GAC center in China where he once taught. He left the center after several months, concerned about what he considered widespread cheating there. REUTERS/Handout
“If every university admissions office … knew about what was going on with the GAC, and especially with the ACT, I think they wouldn’t want to accept the students anymore.”

Jason Thieman, former GAC teacher in China
“From a test security perspective … we have taken many, many steps to address the ACT testing activities of the GAC centers,” Schoenig said.

To guard against test leaks more broadly, she said, the organization has begun shipping the ACT in lock boxes to some overseas test centers. This month, ACT Inc announced that, to combat cheating, it planned to introduce a computerized version of the ACT for overseas test-takers in the fall of 2017.

Like other standardized testing companies, ACT Inc is battling an “emerging trend of organized fraud rings … who, for a lot of money, a lot of their own personal gain, are seeking to undermine the system for honest test-takers,” Schoenig said.

The problems with the GAC program are not the work of outsiders, however. They are occurring within a system controlled and policed by the ACT organization itself.

Reuters identified six GAC centers that violate the ACT’s own conflict-of-interest policy. The six centers administered the ACT while also offering commercial test-prep classes aimed at helping students score well on the college entrance exam. ACT policy prohibits test-prep businesses from administering the exam because doing so would give them an unparalleled ability to help their clients by leaking them the test.

At those locations – five in mainland China and one in South Korea – GAC operators had access to exam booklets days or weeks before the ACT was given.

Several U.S. colleges said they were alarmed by what Reuters discovered. They are among the 60-plus “pathway” schools that consider completion of the GAC program in their admissions decisions and sometimes award college credit for courses taken at GAC centers.

The reports of cheating are “very disconcerting,” said Timothy Tesar, assistant director of international admissions at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. The university has enrolled 132 GAC students since 2009.

The cheating allegations are “shocking to me,” said Jonnathan De La Fuente, international admissions counselor at University of Michigan-Flint. De La Fuente estimated that the university has enrolled 15 to 20 GAC students to date, almost all from South Korea. Michigan-Flint gives college credit for GAC coursework.

“If those reports are true, we have to, as a university, look into it,” he said. “I’m wondering if those grades are even legitimate.”
ACT CEO: Marten Roorda leads the Iowa City-based ACT Inc. REUTERS/Handout
ACT chief executive Marten Roorda was unavailable to answer questions for this article, spokesman Colby said.

Evidence of academic fraud among foreign students is mounting as American colleges enroll record numbers of applicants from abroad. Foreign students typically pay full tuition, a boon for U.S. schools. These applicants also are emerging as sources of profit for the testing companies whose exams help determine who gets into American universities.

A series of Reuters reports this year has revealed how foreign students are increasingly exploiting vulnerabilities in U.S. college entrance exams and other parts of the admissions process.

In March, Reuters reported that test-prep operations in East Asia were taking advantage of security flaws in the SAT, which – like its rival ACT – reuses exams. Those cram school operations harvest items from past exams, enabling students to practice on questions they may see on test day.

Reuters also found companies in China that fabricate entire college applications for students seeking to study in America. Some companies even offer to do coursework for students attending U.S. colleges.


In 2005, ACT Inc acquired a company that had developed the GAC curriculum and had an agreement to offer the ACT as part of the program. After the takeover, ACT Inc formed ACT Education Solutions to run it.

The GAC program operates like a franchise: Local operators pay the ACT subsidiary for the right to offer the curriculum at local schools or educational centers. The GAC centers are not run by ACT staff but rather by employees hired by the local operators. The program has been particularly popular in China, where 149 of the 197 centers are located.

It’s also lucrative for ACT Inc. GAC centers each pay the ACT subsidiary a licensing fee totaling thousands of dollars plus additional fees for each student enrolled. According to ACT Inc’s most recent U.S. federal tax return, the foreign entities that run the program generated $4.8 million in net revenue in the year ended August 31, 2015.

GAC operators undergo rigorous vetting, said ACT spokesman Colby. In China, people interested in operating a GAC center must complete a four-page application and demonstrate they can run the center effectively. ACT Education Solutions then inspects the site. If there are no concerns, the ACT organization enters into licensing agreements with the center. ACT Education Solutions audits the GAC centers, but Colby declined to say how often.
As for the ACT test, the organization won’t disclose figures, but people familiar with the matter estimate the exam drew about 60,000 foreign test-takers last year. That’s up sharply from a few thousand per year about a decade ago, according to a former ACT employee. The SAT retains a big edge overseas, with about three times as many test takers.

Much of the ACT’s growth abroad has come in the past two years, though not by design. Convinced that the SAT had an insurmountable lead, ACT executives decided to invest little in marketing their exam overseas, former employees said.

They attribute the recent gains mostly to security problems with the rival SAT, owned by the College Board, a New York-based not-for-profit. Since May 2013, concerns about cheating have led the College Board to delay or cancel scores or to scrap tests for students taking the SAT in Asia. More test-takers turned to the ACT.

Cheating in Asia caused concerns inside ACT’s own test security unit, too. ACT has an internal staff of 14 people handling security for thousands of test centers in 177 countries. In 2015, the security unit repeatedly recommended shoring up security for the ACT overseas by increasing personnel and improving the vetting of international test centers, said a person familiar with the matter. Executives at ACT headquarters rejected the recommendations, this person said.

ACT spokesman Colby declined to comment.

ACT faced a major security breach of its own on the morning of June 10. Just hours before about 5,500 students in South Korea and Hong Kong were to take the ACT, officials in Iowa learned the test had leaked. They canceled the exam at the last minute. Officials won’t say how security was breached, or if they know.

The June incident wasn’t the first time the ACT has leaked in Asia, say people in the test-prep industry.

Businesses in China and South Korea regularly advertise ACT exam questions and answers just before test day. One Chinese company, Huafu Education, offered to provide test items to a Reuters reporter three days prior to an exam for $762.

“What we’re offering is exactly what you’ll see on test day,” a Huafu representative said in an online chat.


Former GAC students say some of the centers themselves have enabled cheating on the exam.
ACT AFFILIATE: The website for the GAC center at Zhengzhou Cornerstone High School in China makes its affiliation with the ACT clear, even for those who don’t read Chinese.
The GAC graduate now attending UCLA said that a week or two before he was to take the ACT in December 2014, an administrator from his GAC center in China invited him to her office. There, he said, the administrator gave him a photocopy of an ACT booklet.

“She said these questions may be on the exam,” the student said. He estimated that about 40 percent of the questions on the ACT he later took were on the photocopied test.

“It helped,” he said. “It saved me time.” He scored 33 out of 36, he said, putting him among the top 1 percent of all test-takers.

The GAC graduate now attending the Midwestern university studied at the GAC center at Zhengzhou Cornerstone High School in Henan Province. In May 2014, he said, Zhengzhou Cornerstone provided students with a practice exam booklet. It contained scans and photographs of sections of the ACT, the student said. He said two articles in the booklet appeared on an exam he took at the center that fall. Another time he took the ACT at the center, he said, he witnessed three or four students discussing answers during a break.

In a statement to Reuters, an administrator at Zhengzhou Cornerstone called the accusations “ridiculous.”

Wenyue Li graduated from Zhengzhou Cornerstone in 2015 and just completed her freshman year at McGill University in Montreal. The night before she took the ACT at the GAC center in December 2014, she said, several classmates asked if she would be willing to help them answer math questions during a test break. In exchange, she said, they offered to share some answers to the reading section. She said she refused, but another student agreed.

She also said cheating in GAC classes at her school was “even more common” than cheating on the ACT.

The administrator at Zhengzhou Cornerstone disputed Li’s account. “We firmly resist any shortcuts or cheating,” the administrator said in the statement to Reuters. “We take every opportunity and use every means to emphasize to parents and students the importance of test security.”

A Chinese student now attending a university in Washington state provided a similar account about a different GAC center. She said she witnessed cheating on the ACT when she took it in September 2014 at a GAC center at Yantai Number One High School in Yantai, Shandong Province.
UNIQUE POSITION: This test-prep center in Seoul, STEPEDU, used to offer the ACT onsite. After Reuters reporters visited the cram school, the ACT ended that arrangement. REUTERS/Steve Stecklow
“I heard people asking, ‘What does this word mean, and what kind of preposition should I use?’” she said. The students spoke in English, which she said the teacher overseeing the exam didn’t understand.

“The teacher just pretended that she didn’t see that we are doing these bad things,” she said.

The Yantai GAC center didn’t reply to requests for comment.


The GAC program is also popular in South Korea, where six centers operate.

One is run at a Seoul test-prep center – known in Korean as a hagwon – called STEPEDU. Like many cram schools, STEPEDU offers classes to prepare for the ACT. Until last month, it also offered a bonus: the opportunity to take the ACT on site.

“We are running the world’s only ACT official test center in the private sector,” STEPEDU’s president, Sam Han, said at a May 28 conference for students interested in applying to U.S. colleges. “Many people are wondering how it is possible.”

According to Bryan Maach, an ACT vice president who oversees international markets, a hagwon shouldn’t have been permitted to give the exam. He told Reuters that places “engaged in commercial test prep are not allowed to be testing sites for us. And that’s been very consistent for many years.”

Maach said he couldn’t explain how STEPEDU was able to administer the ACT.

Han said he previously operated a GAC center at a university in Seoul. In 2012, South Korea’s Education Ministry ordered universities to shut down study-abroad programs, declaring them an illegal threat to the country’s higher-education system.

“We are running the world’s only ACT official test center in the private sector. Many people are wondering how it is possible.”

Sam Han, who served as president of South Korean cram school STEPEDU
The decree forced Han to move his GAC center and left him with 130 students who hadn’t completed the program. So, he said, he shifted his GAC operation to STEPEDU, the cram school where he served as president.

At the time, according to a person familiar with the matter, ACT’s test security unit recommended that the center not be allowed to administer the college entrance exam.

The advice went unheeded. STEPEDU began giving the ACT in April 2013, Han said. In English-language job postings, STEPEDU described itself as a partner of ACT Inc and “the official ACT Test provider in South Korea.”

ACT later received another warning about STEPEDU. Emails reviewed by Reuters show that Cody Shultz, a senior investigator with ACT in Iowa, was contacted by an informant last year. In one of the emails, from June 2015, the tipster states that the GAC center “is a testing center and a hagwon.”

Shultz assured the informant that ACT was examining the matter. “We did make some movement on the investigation,” Shultz wrote to the tipster. “We are looking at other strategies to address the larger issue of cheating in Korea.”

Even so, the organization let STEPEDU continue to operate as an ACT test center. ACT Inc finally ended the arrangement just before a reporter interviewed ACT officials about the matter on June 9. Han said he had told ACT that Reuters had recently visited STEPEDU.

“The GAC Korea Center was closed as an ACT test center shortly before your visit to ACT” in Iowa, ACT spokesman Colby said in an email. “I can provide no other details on this, as the matter is still under investigation.” He declined to make Shultz available for an interview.

Some GAC centers play the same conflicted role in China as well. Reuters identified five centers in China that administer the ACT and, contrary to ACT Inc’s policy, are run by organizations that also offer ACT test-prep classes.

One of them is a GAC center at Zhejiang University in eastern China. The center declined to comment. But its website recently advertised a summer test-prep class with “real ACT questions.”

The potential reward for students? “Perfect scores” on sections of the ACT.

Reporting by Steve Stecklow in Iowa City and Seoul, Alexandra Harney in Shanghai and Ju-min Park in Seoul. Additional reporting by the Shanghai newsroom.

REVEALED: Thousands of EU doctors rejected work in Britain ‘for FAILING [IELTS] tests’ : Express.

REVEALED: Thousands of EU doctors rejected work in Britain ‘for FAILING [IELTS] tests’ : Express.

MORE than a quarter of doctors from the EU applying to work in Britain have been rejected for failing their English tests, it has been revealed.

Since the tests were imposed two years ago, 1,000 doctors reportedly failed to reach the minimum standard.It comes amid fears hundreds of medics slipped into the UK before the tests were imposed.

Before the exams, the General Medical Council (GMC) would hand out licences to doctors.But the GMC was banned from testing EU doctors as the European Commission claimed it would impede freedom of movement laws.

Of the 3,732 doctors that have applied since 2014, just 2,732 people reportedly passed.

Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, told the Mail: “Effective communication is vital and can sometimes make the difference between life and death.”A spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “We expect all healthcare professionals to have a good command of the English language to deliver the best care for patients.”

It comes after Clare Marx, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, revealed Britain’s decision to leave the EU would make Britain safer.Ms Marx said top health officials should “seize the moment” by making English language tests harder.

12 Passive-Aggressive Phrases That Destroy Your Business

12 Passive-Aggressive Phrases That Destroy Your Business

by Entrepreneur , John Rampton @Entrepreneur JUNE 21, 2016
This piece originally appeared on Entrepreneur.

I’ve been told that I’m a little bit passive-aggressive. I didn’t really get it till I started evaluating some of the simple-yet-destructive words I was saying. If you’ve encountered an act of passive aggression then you already know that it’s never the best way to resolve a conflict. And, if you’re like me and been dishing it out, you also know that it’s never the best way to resolve conflicts.

Passive-aggressive behavior is frustrating for both parties involved. It’s unproductive and it makes you and others become less trusted in the workplace. After allowing my behavior to destroy a few relationships (that I didn’t even realize was happening) I decided to figure out what I was doing and fix it immediately.

Here’s [are!] 12 common passive-aggressive text phrases and the true meaning behind them so that next time you encounter them, you’ll know how to proceed a little better and in a more productive manner.

1. “Fine.”
My best friend recently brought this phrase to my attention. As my friend pointed out, whenever someone tells you that everything is “fine,” that always means the opposite. It turns out this is pretty spot-on. Signe Whitson L.S.W. states in Psychology Today that the “passive aggressive person uses phrases like ‘Fine’ in order to express anger indirectly and to shut down direct, emotionally honest communication.”

2. “No worries.”
Actually, you do have worries. Christine Schoenwald elaborates in Thought Catalog that “This translates to ‘I’m saying no worries but what I actually mean is screw you. I won’t say what I’m really feeling but will hold it against you until I explode.’”

3. “If you really want to.”
This may appear to be accommodating at first, but don’t be fooled. Whenever you tell someone, or someone tell you this phrase, you’re actually being noncommittal. It may sound like you’re going along with the plan, but inside, you’re not all that thrilled – but you just don’t know how to communicate those feelings, or you may thing that the other person will be mad.

4. “Thanks in advance.”
I’m horrible at this one and something I’m working on each day. Another phrase that may appear innocent at first. But, it pretty much means that you’re expecting them to do whatever it is you’re asking and they pretty much have to do it. This damages your relationship with this person.

5. “I was surprised/confused/curious about…”
When you hear or see this text you can be certain that it’s used to disguise criticism, as opposed to be being upfront. Jennifer Winter recalls on The Muse the time she had a colleague who used phrases like this as “an attempt to soften the blow.” Winter, however, “took it as a stab in the back because my boss was in attendance—and that feeling led me to promptly ignore her feedback.”

6. “I’m not mad.”
This one destroyed my relationship with my ex-wife. I never expressed how I truly felt. I’ve now learned to voice my opinions openly and be honest with my spouse. It’s the same in the workplace. Yes. This person is livid. They’re just not being honest with you. I find that whenever I use this phrase I don’t feel like I can be honest with the person. Learn to express how you feel.

7. “Whatever.”
I once had a disagreement with a friend that took place over text messaging. When they dropped the ‘whatever’ response I almost went through the roof. It was infuriating because I knew that they did care, they just didn’t want to keep that discussion going. Yes this person is mad, and now you are too. It’s not helping.

8. “So…”
How can a two-letter word pack such a punch? Because most of the time it’s followed by text that is either awkward or it shows their agitation For example, “So… are we going to the movies tonight?” or “So… did you get my email?” The person on the other side is clearly agitated that you haven’t responded yet. And that’s a problem when you honestly haven’t had a chance to get back to them.

Or, it could be the beginning of an uncomfortable conversation, they just don’t know how to come out and say it. When someone says, “So…” to me, and then that weird pause, I have the almost irresistible desire to say, “so….what?” And make an exit. This can even be expressed in the content marketing you put up on your website.

9. “Just wondering…”
You see this text when someone is asking you for an unreasonable request, like “Just wondering if you were in the city tomorrow and could pick-up my brother for the train station?” Even if you were in the city, the train station could be nowhere close to where you’re at. In other words, this person knows that they shouldn’t be asking you for this favor, but they’re going to ask anyway. Do keep in mind that some shy people may use this question when asking if you want to go somewhere, or do something with them. Like, “I was just wondering if you would like to go to the movies with me?”

10. “I was only joking.”
Sarcasm is on the most common manifestations of passive aggressiveness. If this person makes a comment that upsets you and this is what follows, then you know it wasn’t a joke at all. They meant what they said, but are backing away to cover-up their true feelings. This is an especially damaging phrase when used in a relationship or (often) in front of other people, as a put-down.

11. “Hope it’s worth it.”
This phrase should be rather obvious. The person you’re communicating with clearly doesn’t want you to do something, but is well-aware that you’re going to do so anyway. Instead of expressing their concern, they’ll leave with this passive aggressive text and stew until it become a major issue. This person will also beg you to tell them about it later so they can use the phrase again on you. It’s a shaming phrase.

12. “Your thoughts?”
In most cases I find this a pretty harmless phrase. Asking someone their thoughts on dinner, etc. However, this phrase can even be used a way to tell someone that they screwed up. “Your behavior has been subpar at work, your thoughts?” or “I wasn’t that happy with how this assignment turned out, your thoughts?” Both of these are passive aggressive and damage your relationship with the person.

Your thoughts… on this article? What other phrases do you find yourself or others using that are passive aggressive? I’m not mad, just tell me.

The biggest secret to learning a new language, according to a CEO who speaks 7

The biggest secret to learning a new language, according to a CEO who speaks 7

languageAn instructor writes Chinese characters on a whiteboard at a night class for Mandarin Chinese. Reuters

Do you ever feel like you just can’t move on to the next level with the language you’re learning?

You put in tons of effort, but it just feels impossible to move off the plateau?

You have a large vocabulary, and you understand a lot but when it comes to speaking, you keep wondering why you can’t sound like a native speaker?

Well, I had the same feeling with English when I started to learn it many years ago. It’s a language radically different from my mother tongue, Hungarian, and after reaching an upper-intermediate level, I was wondering if I would ever speak like a native.

I spent long, endless hours memorizing flashcards and going through grammar books. I diligently immersed myself by reading tons of articles. But somehow I felt very far from true mastery of the language. I could manage everyday situations in English but I was hopelessly far from being mistaken for a native speaker even for a fleeting moment.

How linguistics completely transformed my English journey

When I discovered cognitive linguistics and cultural semantics (more on that later – it’s not as scary as it sounds), I went from one “aha!” moment to another. Soon, I realized why I was wrong about languages.

I used to look at learning a language as most of us are led to believe:

  1. Memorize many words and phrases
  2. Apply grammar to them to make sentences
  3. Practice with others to make your reactions automatic

Needless to say, it’s easy to get tired of this process and lose motivation. It took me quite a while to break free from this mindset.

Thankfully, after getting my hands on some of the best linguistic research I could find, a whole new world opened up before me. I could now see a tremendous wealth of culture and imagination where I had only seen a randomly connected sequence of sounds before.

I came to understand that the secret recipe for mastering a language is the following:

Master every bit of the culture and you can achieve native-like mastery of the language itself.

When I realized this, my English studies immediately gained a new momentum. Fast-forward to now. I can already write articles in English for native speakers, talk at a conference without grasping for the right word, and easily discuss all sorts of ideas (Okay, maybe not particle physics or rocket science but that’s another matter).

Mastering English has been an incredible gift in my life. I received a new mindset, a new set of emotions, and a new way of thinking. My personality has been subtly but powerfully impacted. I would say I even took on a secondary identity. Cultural semantics has played a very important role in this process. But what is cultural semantics?

What the heck is cultural semantics?

To put it simply, cultural semantics is the study of the meaning of words and phrases and their connection to culture. Many words in a language are unique; they cannot be exactly translated into other languages. Every word has a whole range of connotations, images, and associations that you cannot map to another language.

The English words “patronize” and “fun,” and the phrase “common sense” all reflect English (and American) mentality and culture. They cannot be simply translated into my native language of Hungarian, because Hungarian people have a different mentality, a different mindset, and this is reflected in their language.

That’s one of the main reasons why memorizing words is not an option if you want to achieve mastery. Instead of rote learning, one needs to go beyond the surface and uncover the hidden culture behind words and phrases. It’s like cracking an exciting secret code or connecting the dots in a detective story.

Let me now crack for you the secret cultural code behind a few common English expressions.

The secret cultural code behind everyday English words and phrases

Balázs CsigiBalázs Csigi. Balázs Csigi/LinkedIn

There are countless English words that have no exact counterparts in Hungarian, nor, as far as I know, in other European languages. The reason is that they capture an aspect of English or American mentality that is not present in other European cultures.

“Reasonable”: One can easily count tons of expressions with this one word alone: reasonable doubt, reasonable guy, reasonable time, reasonable request and many others. There’s a similar word to “reasonable” in Hungarian but I could never think of saying anything like reasonable request or reasonable doubt.

These phrases are deeply rooted in a society that admires science, reason, logic, and common sense. The word reasonable is linked to the idea that there is a certain common sense and everybody is supposed to follow it. However, it’s a highly culture-specific concept together withcommon sense and its range of use can be very hard to understand and master for a non-native speaker.

“Make a difference”: As far as I could see, Americans tend to have an innate desire to impact the world in a positive way with their work and actions. The phrase to make a differenceis practically non-existent in most languages I know. There is some form of saying “to change the world” but it’s not a popular dream shared by millions of people.

“Fun”: I have never before come across a word in any language that describes such a wide spectrum of enjoyable activities from shopping to listening to a lecture. If translated literally from English into Hungarian, the words fun and enjoy can have a hedonistic overtone because we lack exact counterparts to these words.

The word enjoy can have a stronger meaning in most European languages than it has in English. In most of them it couldn’t be said, for example, enjoy your meal or enjoy your time. Maybe that’s why English has given me a sense of casual cheer and a more easy-going mentality.

The cultural mindset that’s embedded into English

The following approaches and mindsets are unique to English, and come across in the language.

Softeners.A little bit, quite, rather, really, probably, presumably, I think, evidently, obviously, as far as I know and many other so-called softeners lend a special character to the English language. If you don’t use them, you can easily come across as abrupt, rude, or even uneducated.

It was a revelation for me when I first started to see how these phrases work. Interestingly, I also started to use them more and more in my mother tongue. My family and friends have even begun to tease me for becoming too English.

An indirect approach. There are few European cultures that can express meanings in such a subtle and indirect way as English. Before saying something, you’re supposed to think carefully if it’s going to hurt someone else’s feelings, or if your comments will be considered prying.

Many of the Anglo-style indirect and polite requests could easily cause confusion in other European cultures where it’s not the norm to be indirect. It’s enough to think of those funny phrase collections where you can see how the British say something, what they mean and how other Europeans understand it.

For example, “quite good” is often understood as praise by most Europeans, while the British might mean “it’s quite disappointing”. As another example, “you must come for dinner” can often be said out of politeness by the British, without implying an actual invitation. However, it can be confusing because this phrase would be taken as an invitation in most parts of Europe.

I learned to be much more tactful, polite, and sometimes indirect after mastering English. I would say it’s one of the most obvious ways English has left its mark upon me.

Positive thinking. One can argue about the pros and cons of positive thinking but one thing seems to be certain: Thinking positively is an essential part of Anglo-Saxon culture and it’s imprinted on the fabric of the English language.

This is apparent from the way many English speakers replace negative words (e.g. problem) with positive and neutral words (e.g. challenge or issue). Positive thinking is an all-pervasive idea. Some authors, like Barbara Ehrenreich, even attribute large-scale social changes to this mindset.

As you can see, the connection between language and culture goes far deeper than a few generalizations about the Italians being romantic and the Germans precise. Most words of a foreign language reveal a specific mentality. It’s most easily felt when you translate from one language to another. Maybe you know the feeling when a translation just doesn’t “feel” the same as the original version. Through understanding everyday words and phrases from a native speaker’s standpoint, you can unravel their culture in a very detailed and practical way, just like you can crack a secret code.

Culture hacking: The real secret to language mastery

Language learning, at least once you’re past the beginner level, is not about memorizing sequences of random sounds until you can utter them automatically.

Language learning is not about sweating over grammar rules and trying to get them right every time you speak.

Language learning is all about discovering the beauty of another culture. It’s like traveling to a far-away, exotic country. It’s about being energized by the seductive charm of a new culture.

As you walk through new lands, you soak up the atmosphere of a different people. You immerse yourself in their history, music and food. At every corner you come across something that makes you stop, smile and wonder.

Mastering a language is exactly the same. No matter what language you’re learning, let the pulse of a new culture run through your veins.

Read the original article on Fluent in 3 Months. Check out Fluent in 3 Months on Facebook. Find out more about Benny’s free 5-day crash course to speaking your target language and discover some of the <ahref=”http:”&#8221; book-us=”” “=””>books he’s written. Copyright 2016. Follow Fluent in 3 Months onTwitter.

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