Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Trying to Avoid Invoking Muphry's Law

Most people are familiar with Murphy's Law ("Anything that can go wrong, will") but those of us who try to write publicly about language are susceptible to Muphry's Law, the rule that if you write something where you criticize someone's grammar or editing, you will make a mistake yourself in the process. (Heck, I almost misspelled "law" as I was trying to type in that last sentence.)

Because I'm not trying to be the Authority on Grammar here, I hope that I'm not setting myself up for numerous instances of Muphry's Law In Action here on "Please Stop Confusing My ESL Students." I'm sure that I'll make my own mistakes, and I just hope that I'll catch them before too many people see them.

Around ten years ago, I used to work as a volunteer teacher on The Help Center at Dave's ESL Cafe and I know I made some mistakes there from time to time, including once using "There's many..." instead of "There are many..." I sometimes joke that the best way to learn a particular grammar point is to make a big humiliating mistake with it.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

I Regret to Tell You That Your Teachers In Your Country Were Wrong

One of the hard things to get past, in teaching ESL, is the oft-heard objection from students that "my teacher in my country taught me that ___ is always correct."

If you're the current teacher and you're sure that you're correct, you still may feel weird telling a student that the past teacher gave them bad info. But consider the following:
--First off, you're likely to never meet that teacher, so why feel bad about the contradiction?
--The original teacher may not have spoken English all that well. Or maybe the past teacher spoke English well but was just teaching ESL as a way to get enough money to live in a foreign country for a couple of years.
--The original teacher might have been using books that had mistakes.
--The teacher may not have had a very nuanced understanding of the ways that the language is actually used in an English-language environment.
--Any teacher who uses "always" when talking about pretty much anything in English is pretty much begging to be contradicted anyway.

One of my more recent instances of having to contradict Teachers of Years Past came when an instructor asked me for clarification on which pronouns we should use with animals. The (foreign-born) teacher and her students had all been taught to use "it" instead of "he or she" with all animals.

Here's the thing. I have a dog named Lucy. She is a wonderful dog who gets walked frequently around my town and when I walk her, I often get into conversations about her. After I tell people her name, if they say "he" or "it" I will always correct them. And the thing is, I hardly ever correct people in conversations. But with Lucy, it would be a little bit like if I called your son "she" or referred to him using the word "her."

Basically, if an animal has a name and you've been introduced, it's expected that you use the appropriate pronouns (and I don't care what your past teachers said on this subject). This holds true for pets of all sorts (people might give you a pass on goldfish and guppies, but that's about it) and the rule also applies to a farm or zoo animal with a name. For instance, when I was in Australia, I had the opportunity to hold a koala named Charlie. From then on, I've always referred to Charlie as "he" (even though before I met him, I might have said something like "I wonder how long I'll get to hold it").

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Too Much of a Good Thing

One of my phone conversations today ended with "Too much thank you!" and this sort of made me smile. For one thing, it's always nice to be thanked, particularly after patiently giving someone semi-complicated info over the phone. But I also tend to find a strange amusement when students say "too much" when they actually mean "very much." (At some point I'll probably make a worksheet about this very topic.)

Whenever I read or hear an error in the use of "too much," my imagination starts to go a little wild.

For example, on an evaluation form, a student might write:

"I like my teacher too much."

Really? You like your teacher so much that there's a problem with it? Is it the liking itself inappropriate? (Maybe your family or close friends feel that they pale in comparison with your much-like ESL instructor?) Or is the amount of liking what is problematic? (Maybe you like your teacher so much that it distracts you from everyday activities such as paying the bills or grocery shopping?)

I think that it could be helpful for students to think about their usage of "too much" in terms of consequences. If I say that I drank "too much" coffee, I am probably suffering some consequences such as being wide awake in the middle of the night or feeling jittery. In my own case, I could probably say "I like coffee too much" and it could be an appropriate usage. After all, I feel ill if I don't drink coffee, I dream about good coffee, I own about 6 coffee makers...it's practically an addiction. But someone who just has a normal relationship with coffee should probably just say, "I like coffee very much" or "I like coffee a lot."

Another typical ESL student comment might be something like "This class helped me too much." Interestingly enough, students who write this type of comment usually do sign up for more classes, although if we took the students at their word, we could assume that the class was so helpful that no further instruction is necessary--that, in fact, they learned so much that they could even forget about 10-20% and still be OK. Usually the student just wants to say "the class helped me very much" or something like that.

I'm not sure if there's a specific reason that students tend to make this error with "too." I assume it's just that they're overgeneralizing a form that they've learned. In addition to asking themselves if there are (negative) consequences in the situation that they describe with "too," the students should ask themselves if it really is too much of a good thing. Can a class ever really help you too much? Don't you want to really like your instructors (especially in ESL?) Is "too" the word you really want to use, or could you replace it with a word like "very" and mean what you really mean?

My Native Speaker Spidey Sense

One of my main points in setting up this blog is to try to help instructors and students in those situations where a student has a question that truly stumps both learners and instructors. However, when you are in the moment of actually teaching, sometimes you just can't come up with a good reason why a particular word or phrase "works" better than another. Or you know that the wording that your student is using is wrong, but you just don't know how to explain what is wrong about it.

Last night (while drinking), I came up with a phrase that could be useful in these situations. "My native speaker spidey sense tells me that this is (correct/incorrect)." I know, it's not that useful a phrase for those instructors who are non-native speakers. Maybe these instructors could just say "my ESL instructor spidey sense" if they need to employ this blanket statement of "I know what's right/wrong, I just don't know why."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tell Me About Yourself

When we test and interview new students for the program, one of our "questions" is "tell me about yourself." This question tends to confuse a large number of students, but how they respond to it gives us a lot of information about the students' language skills. If a student has no idea what to say, that student probably belongs in one of our lower-level classes.

A typical response to this question tends to be something like "your what? yourself?" with the student looking at me as if the words "self" or "yourself" are completely alien, which sometimes strikes me as weird...I don't think of either word as all that uncommon. In grad school I used to study things like self-esteem and self-efficacy and I could propose some sort of hypothesis that foreign students have a different handle on notions of self than their American peers, but it really could just be a vocabulary gap. In most cases, there isn't the time (on our part) or the language skills (on the student's part) to go further in these analyses.

Over the ten years that I've been asking new ESL students this question, there has been a change in how the confused students answer this question. I've only just noticed this in the past two years, but sometimes students think I'm saying "Tell me about your cell" instead of "Tell me about yourself" and they start rattling off their cell phone numbers for me. This sort of makes me hate cell phones on a whole new level (though I grudgingly admit that it's a reasonable mistake for the students to make).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I Don't Really Think That You Feel Boring

Earlier this semester, I received an anonymous email from a student who wanted to tell someone the following:

"In today class, I felt very boring."

In my response, before I addressed the content of the student's email, I had to do a quick grammar lesson. I couldn't help it. It's a wonder I didn't send the student an entire worksheet on the topic.

Here's the thing. My anonymous pen pal may indeed be a very boring person, but I'm 99.9% sure that the student felt bored rather than boring.

So how do you explain the difference to a confused ESL student? Without making things more confusing?

I used to try to explain that things/situations are boring, interesting, exciting, etc. and that people are bored, interested, exciting. However, this explanation would fall short because we all know people who are boring or interesting. It's not just a people vs. things distinction.

The difference really has to do with cause and effect. Bored, interested, excited--these are all effects of a boring, interesting, or exciting situation or set of circumstances.

The Family Is? The Family Are?

When you direct an ESL program, you get two types of emergency phone calls--the "something terrible has happened and I can't teach my class" phone calls, and the "this grammar point is making me crazy and I need to see if anyone else in the world understands it" calls.

To people who have never faced a room of confused ESL students, the second type of call probably does not sound like a true emergency. But if this is your life and if you're somehow responsible for the students' confusion (even if it's really the fault of the &*#@ textbook or worksheet), it really does feel like an emergency.

We had one of those moments yesterday. Apparently one of our class books had an example in it with "the family are" as correct usage. The instructor called me up..."I mean, I guess it could be right, the family are, they are...but what's right? Really?"

And here's the thing...it depends. What country are you in? In the US, we're most likely to treat family as a singular noun and say "the family is." As in, my family is large, my family is crazy. The part that I didn't think to mention is that it sort of depends on whether you're talking about family as an entity or whether you're talking about family as a bunch of individuals. So, I might say, "my family are all spread out all over the world" and be correct in saying "family are" because here we're talking about a bunch of family members who are all in different places. But quite often we do talk about family as an it instead of a they, in part because we like to think of family as a unit--ideally, a happy and cohesive unit.

The thing is, textbook authors and editors should really know better than to use a collective noun like "family" or "team" in a frigging example in a fairly introductory book that's just trying to help students learn that they should say "he walks" instead of "he walk." Collective nouns can be complicated, and I wouldn't want to force a group of ESL students to have to choose whether "the team is ready" or "the team are ready" is correct.