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Worldwide Spoken American English for Middle Schoolers — A Four-Step Wake Up Call

Jan 14, 2012 by

Robert Oliphant earned a PhD in English Philology at Stanford (1962). His best known book is the anti-Alzheimer’s “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (1980)

By Robert Oliphant –

My name is Bob and I’m a proper-name junkie, which means I’m upset by the number of exotically foreign names on the doors of the professional-office buildings in my neighborhood. Even more upsetting is the mint-perfect American-pronunciation English our foreign professionals have acquired on their home turf before coming to the USA — all this as part of a worldwide linguistic revolution in which standard American-pronunciation English is even beginning to conquer its own multi-dialectal children.

For concerned American parents, the strongest evidence of this foreign conquest is represented by the international status of our own Graduate Record Exam, which now offers over 300 foreign-locale testing sessions in American English each year. Just as important is the foreigner-friendly pruning of our GRE subject exams from over thirty a few years back to only eight now: biology, microbiology, chemistry, physics, psychology, math, computer science, and literature in English.

Even more foreign-friendly has been the offshore development of an independent GRE-style program by India and the foreign offering (Newsweek 12/26/2011) of GRE-relevant degree programs in standard professional American-dictionary English (SPADE) by universities in Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan.

What’s here is not meant to push American high school students into the National University of Singapore (nus.edu.sg) next year. But I certainly hope it pushes our middle schoolers into a serious concern with the many so-called standardized tests they’ll be facing down the line — including future nightmares like “Just step right up to our GRE speaker-friendly mouthpiece, Sarah, and answer its multiple-choice questions on microbiology.” 

PRONUNCIATION AND PUBLIC SPEAKING CONFIDENCE. . . . By way of an optimistic opener I should point out here that most American dictionaries already offer youngsters practical access to “platform” pronunciation via both keyboard-friendly symbols and listener-friendly phonetic recordings. Additional help is also available free of charge via NonpartisanEducationReview.org and its 5 eBooks offered under the heading AlzHope®, especially SpeakSharp®, RecitationWhiz®, and Shakespeare in the Head for Health®.

VOCABULARY SIZE. . . . For middle-schoolers, our next step toward GRE success is that of increasing vocabulary power via the 3 AlzHope eBooks cited above, along with two additional vocabulary books: Big Vocab® and WordEdge®. Ideally this article should present all of this information directly. But as has been indicated, each of these eBooks is practical and available free of charge including PDF versions.
HIGH TECH VOCABULARY. . . . With American unabridged dictionaries over twice the size of those in France and Germany, the overall vocabulary of Spoken American English is the largest in the world, especially its coverage of scientific and technical terms. Hence the usefulness of a sixth free-access NonpartisanEducationReview.org eBook: An Access-Dictionary of Internationalist High Tech Latinate English (HTLE).
When it comes to testing, the primary virtue of HTLE’s link to dictionary.com (also available via wordgenius.com) is its ability to calibrate levels of vocabulary-question difficulty via three key features: number of letters in the headword, pronunciation unfamiliarity (the first five letters), and definition unfamiliarity. Thus learners working on their own can start with a high success level by mastering high tech terms that are measurably lower in difficulty than, say, BENZANTHRACENE.

An even stronger learner-friendly feature is the wealth of memory-friendly clues in dictionary entries themselves. In contrast to conventional vocabulary lists, e.g., Kaiser Permanente, dictionary headwords offer spelling, pronunciation, and variant definitions, along with word-building elements, word histories, word components, related words, and even related words in other languages.

Simply put, Spoken American English is itself a foreign language today for all of us, since over 90% of our dictionary headwords have been borrowed from “non-English” sources. As opposed to German, French, and other purists, Spoken American English tends to retain the original Greco-Latinate forms, thereby given its learners a slight advantage. But with 600,000 entries already in our 1934 Merriam Webster, high tech vocabulary learning is still a major challenge for both foreigners and Americans themselves — enough so to justify plenty of attention and pride by serious middle schoolers and their families.

FAMOUS NAMES. . . . America is still a nation of namedroppers with a career emphasis upon it’s WHO you know, not WHAT you know. So it’s not surprising that full service dictionaries like Random House (cf. wordgenius.com) offer an onomastic vocabulary of over 6,000 names as a catalog of who is/was on our planet during the last 5,000 years.

For beginning onomasticians, a learning-friendly calibrated approach should begin with dictionary-listed proper names identified as American, born before 1800, and listed as linked to two or more careers, e.g., ADAMS, Abigail, 1744-1818, “social and political figure,” as opposed to ADAMS, Samuel, 1722-1803, “a leader in the American revolution.” As for test construction: birthdays work very well across the board, e.g. “Who was born first, Abigail Adams or Samuel Adams.”

In my experience, frankly, Americans are obsessed by onomastic and vocabulary literacy. My own chance familiarity with Rube Melton, an obscure pitcher with the New Giants certainly impressed a baseball fanatic far more than my jokes or ideas, and an equally chance familiarity with YARELY boosted me from a modest MA candidacy up to a PhD candidacy at Stanford. So I feel justified in urging all Americans, not just middle schoolers, to take their mastery of words and proper names very seriously — especially when talking with important strangers.

Overall I must admit that what’s here is fundamentally a blast of the trumpet calling Americans to the linguistic defense of their nation, especially where the future well being and career success of their children are concerned. In that connection, I certainly feel that a stronger emphasis upon pronunciation, vocabulary size, high tech vocabulary, and famous names deserves more attention by America’s professional educators. But I also feel this emphasis can be very helpful to parents and students working on their own.

Overall I feel we should welcome the new world-unification role of American spoken English. Isn’t a little linguistic competition is a small price pay for a coming century that promises far more common ground than the reckless years stretching from 1914 to 1999.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR. . . . Robert Oliphant earned a PhD in English Philology at Stanford (1962). His best known book is the anti-Alzheimer’s “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (1980), a Reader’s Digest worldwide selection whose film version won a Monte Carlo award for Bette Davis and is still viewed worldwide. A WWII veteran (air corps), he now writes a column for EducationViews.org, he is a columnist for EducationViews.org.

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