Aiming on Moving Targets at the Lake Michigan

Today I’m happy to present another contribution from the classroom of Alan Kennedy, our correspondent from the front lines of teaching English as a Second Language. This time he’s talking about the surprisingly complicated dangly bits of English: articles and prepositions. You never notice them until they’re out of place.

One of the odd things about learning a language is that it’s easy when you’re young and hard when you’re old. We feel bad about having to teach our children the strange rules of language, but they aren’t really troubled by it. In a sense, they’re the ones who made the problem in the first place. Kids are the ones who cook simple pidgins into rich creoles. There is a time when our brain can effortlessly spin and juggle complex new grammars. In some cases, it seems to border on the extravagant flourish of a peacock display. The Luganda language of Africa, for example, has at least ten different noun classes (not counting the plural forms), essentially genders like masculine, feminine, neuter, large things, skinny things, wet things, and so on. Each one has a different associated affix to memorize. What on Earth were they thinking? Who made this up? You can bet it wasn’t some Luganda government subcommittee. It had to be the kids. You can’t learn this stuff as an adult. You can’t even make it up as an adult.

It seems baffling that difficult and exceptional constructions aren’t eroded from the language by use, as a tumbling stone is smoothed by a watercourse. But there you have it.

Alan teaches English to adults. That puts him in the hot seat when the language gets weird. Here’s what he has to say.


Aiming on Moving Targets at the Lake Michigan

by Alan Kennedy

In my last entries here I focused quite a bit on some of the socio-cultural issues that have arisen in my ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. Some readers/friends have told me they’d be interested to learn more about the challenges of teaching the actual mechanics of the English language.

Off the bat I’d say that the two most difficult things to master, for learners from any native language background, are the use of articles and the use of prepositions.

I have written before about how important it is to know, and teach, the grammar rules of English, but when it comes to these two topics, the “rules” are sketchy and hard to generalize. Aside from that, the biggest challenge is the challenge faced by any language teacher – English is constantly changing,
and is therefore a kind of moving target.

The articles in English are “the”, “a” and “an”. “The” is called the definite article, and “a/an” is the indefinite article (we only use “an” before words staring with noun sounds). Many languages – including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian – the native languages of many of my students – have no
articles at all. In these languages “I see a book” and “I see the book” translate roughly as “I see book.” Can you imagine, therefore, how hard it would be to understand the nuance of difference between “The elephant is a large mammal” and “An elephant is a large mammal”? Students
struggle with these articles all the time – and often resort to using none rather than guessing which one is best. Of course, sometimes using no article is correct – we say “The Hudson River” but not “The Lake Michigan, “The U.S.A” but not “The France”, and “it’s easier for
the rich” but not “it’s easier for the attractive”. (“Aaaaaah!” shout my students, in despair.) There are some rules for certain situations, but my experience shows that no book or teacher can teach natural-sounding use of articles in English perfectly.

Use of prepositions – in many languages, not just English – has an arbitrariness that we native speakers take for granted. For example: we say “she is married to a lawyer”, “I worry about my problems” and “I can count on my friends”. Spanish speakers, (translating into English) say “she
is married with a lawyer”, “I worry for my problems” and “I can count with my friends”. Are English preposition choices better or more logical than Spanish ones? Not really. Why do we say “I said to her…” but not “I told to her…”?

Pretty random, no?

Me: No, Chang, it’s not ‘I am familiar about that’ Guess again.
Chang: I am familiar to that?
Me: Nice try! Not quite. One more guess.
Chang: I am familiar of that?
Me: No…
Chang: Teacher, you have convinced to me that prepositions are hard!
Me: No ‘to‘. Just ‘convinced.’
Chang Aaaaaaaaaaah! (pretends to bang head on desk)

Cross-language translation of prepositions often corresponds very unevenly. As just one example, the Russian preposition “Ð’” (pronounced like our “V”) can be accurately translated as “into”, “to”, “in” and “at”, depending on context.

We call errors with articles and prepositions the “last things to go” – in that, with very fluent speakers, these kinds of misuses are the hardest to correct. When you hear people like Celine Dion or Antonio Banderas speak English, these are the type of things that trip them up. The only real way to master the native-like use of articles and prepositions, I think, is to read and listen to a lot of English so that you can almost absorb it by osmosis and “hear in your head” what sounds right and wrong. This is
what I tell my students.

So now back to the “moving target” idea…

One of the challenges of teaching any second language is that languages are constantly evolving. Certain grammar rules, stylistic elements, and vocabulary featured in some ESL texts are, upon closer inspection, either moving away from everyday use, falling gradually out of use, or even out of use
altogether in natural American English. Conversely, new words enter the lexicon all the time which will not be featured in published ESL materials (yet) but are common and useful for comprehension. This seems to be particularly true in the areas of technology and in the shifted use of nouns as verbs.

English is famously flexible with its creation of verbs from nouns without changing the word – some linguists have estimated that as many as one-fifth of all English verbs began as nouns. As just one example – “e-mail” has become a verb, and a common, natural-sounding, malleable one at that, which can be conjugated like any verb (e.g. “I was e-mailing him yesterday…he had e-mailed me the day earlier, and by tomorrow we will have e-mailed each other several times”). We can see a similar pattern with words like “blog” and “google.”

The challenge becomes, what do you teach?

Language learners want to speak and understand English as it is really spoken, and if a teacher tells them that something is “wrong”, even if they heard it on the subway or on a sitcom, they get suspicious and sometimes frustrated. This challenge is much more present in teaching speaking than it is with
writing, where a more conservative or formal style is appropriate. If a learner’s goal is to write university papers or business correspondence in English, or to do well on a standardized language test, then the “textbook” ESL is probably a good route to go; but what if a learner’s goal is different? A few examples where “textbook” ESL is at odds with natural spoken American English include these:

1. WHOM is dying. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum of UC Santa Cruz posted this on the Language Log website (referencing Monty Python): “Kiss whom goodbye. It is rarely heard in conversation now, and just about never in clause-initial position. This word is nearly dead. It is close to being no more. It has all but ceased to be….this is almost an ex-word.” Even among educated speakers – and certainly
for younger Americans – you will not hear this word in casual speech. “That’s the girl who I was telling you about” no longer sounds like the glaring error it may have been fifty years ago – and “that’s the girl about whom I was telling you”, coming out of the mouth of a twenty-something American would
sound positively bizarre.

2. SUBJUNCTIVE TENSE with the “be” verb in sentences like “If she were going, I would go too” (as opposed to was). These days you are as likely to hear “If I was rich…” as “If I were rich…”. To wit: on June 3rd, the executive producer of “CBS Evening News,” was quoted as saying about Dan Rather, “We are very much a hard news program. I wish Dan was watching more closely. A lot of people here are very disappointed with him.”

3. REPORTED SPEECH – (sometimes also called indirect speech): these are the supposed rules for how we relay what someone has said in the past when we don’t quote them directly. Many grammar texts give the standard advice that you should “back-shift” the verb tenses. According to this rule, the quote “I am on my way” should be relayed as “He said he was on his way”, and the quote “I was in Mexico” becomes “he said he had been in Mexico”, etc. Additionally, “yesterday” needs to become “the day before”, “right now” should become “at that time”, and so on. The problem is that Americans rarely speak this way.

If you had just asked a colleague where he was last week, and gotten the answer about Mexico, it’s unlikely you’d relay this with a tense back-shift; it’s at least as likely that you’d say “he said he was in Mexico”. Even when telling someone what the colleague said 5 months ago, “he said he had been in Mexico”, while certainly not wrong, is marked as formal. If we make a distinction and say that we
abandon the reported speech rules for very recent quotes (i.e. “I ‘m coming!” “What did he say?” “He said he’s coming”), a learner may ask “well how recent does it have to be before I backshift the tense? This is an unanswerable question. The bottom line: teaching reported speech in English in a natural, native-like way using textbook rules may be impossible. Like learning how to use articles and propositions, it may best accomplished through osmosis.

4. “IT IS I” vs. “IT IS ME”. Grammar books say the first is the only correct form, but it seems no one under a certain age in the U.S. says “It is I” (i.e. on the phone)

5. AIN’T. ESL materials do not explain this word. English learners, who may hear it every day, often always ask the instructor about this mystery word. They want to know what it is and how it is used. Teachers can simply say “don’t use it, it’s not a real word” – but that hardly helps the learner when they hear it in every pop song and in film and TV dialogue. In the view of some teachers, “ain’t” should be in the grammar books – they should not ignore it simply because it is “non-standard”.

There are certainly other examples that can be discussed here – e.g. using “there’s” with plural nouns instead of “there are” (“there’s five ways to do it”) – but the above five are the glaring ones, to my mind. As a general rule, language teachers need to explain the distinction between standard English
grammar and other more colloquial forms, and then touch on it all, again depending on learners’ goals.

Equally important is that students know that if they use some very “slangy” forms without being a native speaker with a native accent that it can sound forced and artificial.

As evidence of this, look no further than the “Rush Hour” series of films where we are expected to laugh uproariously whenever the Hong Kong cop played by Jackie Chan tries to speak slangy American English with his co-star, comedian Chris Tucker. From the first film:

Tucker: You don’t know nothing about no war.
Chan: Everybody knows War. [singing] War! Huh! Yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, sing it again, you all!
Tucker: It ain’t ‘you all’, it’s “y’all”!
Chan: Yaw!
Tucker: Man you sound like a Karate movie. Y’all!
Chan: Yoll.

At least Jackie got the correct preposition….

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