Saturday, July 25, 2009

On Teaching English

It’s much harder than I thought. We all (for the most part) know how to speak our native language and how to speak it well. With that understanding comes difficulties because with a high level of understanding, we have the rules at our command, but not necessarily a clear understanding of how or why.

For example: “in August, I will have been in Prague for over a month.”

It seems like a sentence that is simple enough, but why can’t we just say “August, I in Prague over month.” Well aside from the article (“a”) missing before month, the sentence does not express time correctly or make much sense. Without “will have been” the sentence is not grammatically correct. But what is that and why is it necessary?

The verb conjugation is the future perfect continuous. It is formed with will+have+been+present “ing.” We use the future perfect continuous to show that something will continue up to a particular time or event in the future (in this case, August). If we were to poll all native English speakers I’m willing to bet the percentage of people that knew the proper grammatical form, function and label would be low. Before the course, I was among them.

So how do you explain that to intermediate English learners in a clear, concise way without confusing yourself in the process? This is the challenge. Scale things down even further. How do you explain to elementary learners why “eye” and “I” are pronounced the same but mean different things? You have to be extremely careful with your language because if you don’t watch what you say, they might not understand 75% of what you say. The short answer is lots of hand motions, simple hands-on activities and a lot of patience.

One of the main criticisms I received when I started in the classroom was my teacher language. You literally have to cut all colloquialisms or else the students will not understand. We don’t even realize how much we use them until we think about it:

“Okay, I’m gonna hand out these worksheets and we’ll go over them after you finish up.”

For starters, “gonna.” What does that mean? “Going to” – but the students were never taught “gonna.” Why don’t we just say “going to?” The truth is that it’s a complex matter of linguistics that I don’t really understand.

“We’ll go over them.” The students probably caught the “we+will,” but what is this business about “going over” the worksheet? We place them on the table and jump? Or maybe on the floor and step over? “Finish up?” Do you hold the paper in the air when we are done?

We can begin to see how a single sentence can throw students off before we even say a word about future intentions that have a specific time marker and comment upon the continuous actions leading up to said marker. Oy.