Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Go with the Flow: Yes or No?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I taught ESOL for over 35 years before I retired, and over all those years I learned to enjoy the challenges of teaching grammar the most. There were rules. I taught the rules, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly by example. There were right ways to say things and wrong ways. I figured I was teaching the right ways. I mean, I followed what was stated in textbooks and sometimes consulted what the “experts” had to say. I considered myself a teacher in the know, and did my best to pass on that knowledge to my students. Nothing was fuzzy back then. Now lots of things seem fuzzy.

Let me ask you something. As ESOL teachers, at what point do we decide to teach what a great many people really say rather than what textbooks tell us we should say? Since we have no arbitrators for English the way the French do with their Académie Française, when do we determine that we should teach our students a form or a term that isn’t found in our textbooks?

Here are some examples of the kinds of utterances I often hear made by quite a cross section of native English speakers, both educated as well as uneducated. Oh, and by the way, when you look over the following utterances, don’t think that just because one may sound more “hillbilly-like” than another that it hasn’t been said by an educated speaker:

  • On December twenty-two, did you deliver the shipment as scheduled?
  • It was a moment where I found myself wondering if I was seeing things.
  • The kids threw a surprise anniversary party for Frank and I.
  • Me and him just couldn’t agree on anything.
  • They gave copies of the invoices to both Bob and myself.
  • We couldn’t figure out where he was at.
  • Two coffees, please.
  • A: Would you mind if I asked you a personal question? B: Sure. Go ahead.
  • If I knew he was injured, I would’ve taken him to the emergency room.
  • Your child just bit mine. Look at the teeth marks on my kid’s arm!
  • Because of his obesity, his heart is having to work harder than it should.
  • I’ll try and* get help.

Not the way you’d teach those elements in bold face to your students, you say? I guess you’d go with the following instead or at least most of the following:

  • December twenty-second
  • when
  • me
  • He and I
  • me
  • n/a
  • cups of coffee
  • No. or Not at all.
  • had known
  • tooth marks
  • has
  • to*

Am I right? Yet day in and day out, I hear native speakers say such utterances the way I’ve listed them above. Are we to consider so many people wrong? After all, isn’t it a rule of thumb in English that if enough people consistently say something a certain way, it becomes an acceptable alternative? And if it is an acceptable alternative, shouldn’t it be actively taught? There isn’t one thing I’ve listed that isn’t constantly said by a very large number of native speakers on a daily basis.

And then there are some cultural issues that influence the way we speak. For example, when I was a kid, I was taught that in business or polite conversation, I should address a person with the appropriate title (e.g., Mr.) and that person’s last name. At a certain point, that person might tell me to call him or her by the first name instead, or I might ask if I could do so. Nowadays, mostly with salespeople, it seems they immediately go for using my first name, and I really find that objectionable. In a business situation especially, I feel the distance created by using the title and last name is appropriate, and I also feel it shows more respect to me if I’m addressed as Mr. Firsten rather than Richard. Is it just me? Am I that much of a throwback to an earlier era?

On top of that, at least in my part of the country (Florida), I’ll often be addressed in a similar situation as Mr. Richard instead of Mr. Firsten. That drives me nuts, and I immediately counter by telling the person I’m Mr. Firsten. Does that ever happen to you? And if it does, do you accept it? Do you like it?

The point is, so many people use those alternative grammatical forms or ways of addressing people in business situations that I wonder if we have an obligation to address those alternatives in our lesson planning.

What’s your opinion on these subjects? You tell me. I’m sure everybody who reads this piece will have an opinion, and I’m sure everybody who reads this piece will be interested in learning what everybody else has to say. Okay, folks, go for it! Click on the word “Comments” and tell us what you think. I myself am really anxious to hear what you’ve got to say on this very perturbing issue.

*Yes, I know that you may think there’s nothing “wrong” with saying I’ll try and get help instead of I’ll try to get help, but put try in any other form and and doesn’t work. For example, would you accept I’m trying and getting help or I’ve tried and gotten help? Hmm . . . So if it’s not right in those forms, why would you consider it right in that one form?


Comment from Nick Jaworski
July 20, 2010 at 10:46 am

Your talking about what the dogme crew and others have been saying for the past 10 years, mainly that coursebooks contain a lot of rubbish.

Grammar is simply the fossilization of language patterns over time, so what was acceptable yesteryear isn’t the same as what we say today. Also, some of those Latin-induced rules (like no prepositions at the end of a sentence) were just nonsense in the first place.

What to teach depends on the students and what they will do with English. If they are working with native speakers, of course the above are essential. If not, coursebook English may be fine, although it’s foolish to think the coursebook contains all or even most of what we should be teaching.

Rules of politeness and formality vary between cultures as well, so raising cultural awareness and especially teaching rules for negotiating conflict and misunderstanding in English are essential.

By and large, if we’re looking for “correct” English, it’s best found in a corpus rather than a textbook.

Comment from Rebecca Wright-Hyde
July 20, 2010 at 11:40 am

I teach what is in the textbook, then I teac h how they may hear it said. Sometimes I note things that have changed since I was taught to say or pronounce words over 40 years ago. I feel a responsibility to teach both correct and local/informal language usage.

Comment from Julie Feferman
July 21, 2010 at 2:30 am

I teach intermediate and advanced ESL at Adult School, and have also taught college level ESL and English comp. Students at these levels are still struggling to master basic grammar, though their vocabulary tends to be good. I teach “to the book” but like others mention here, I talk about idioms, slang, common usage, formal and informal situations, even American vs British English. I ask them to consider where they think it is most important to use the “most correct” “most formal” English, most students already understand that job interviews and similar high-stakes situations will call for the most polite and formal language they can produce, but a trip to the grocery store, or on a construction job site, ‘not so much’. Thanks for bringing up the topic.

Comment from Andy
July 22, 2010 at 8:04 am

I’m glad I’ve found this article. I never knew native speakers make grammatical mistakes. By the way, I’m from Indonesia.

Comment from Claire
July 22, 2010 at 8:55 am

Ditto to the posts above. I also teach grammar from a textbook. When my students complain that this isn’t the English they hear at work or in the community, I remind them that the grammar book is teaching formal English. Just as the previous posts mentioned, I have to remind them there’s a time and a place for formal and informal English. Some students become particularly unnerved when native English speakers make mistakes. Eventually they understand, but it’s an ongoing issue that takes place every semester. Thank you for starting the dialogue.

Comment from Warwick
July 22, 2010 at 9:48 pm

With salespeople it’s the motive rather than the act that I find objectionable: that they use first names on purpose in order to force a closer relationship with people so that they can get something out of them.

Comment from ChrissyDC
July 23, 2010 at 9:30 pm

I do not agree that we should *only* teach from a corpus, because English has an infinite number of possibilities of utterances.
In any event, Dr. Keith Folse, my esteemed professor from UCF in Florida, really stresses the importance of learning key vocabulary in order to even begin speaking.
On the other hand, some scholars do not believe that grammar should even be taught, nor, corrected in a writing/comp class. Personally, as an ESL comp GTA, I cannot ignore obvious grammatical errors; however, I probe my ESL students by asking questions, offering hints (starting from very implicit, getting more explicit as the error goes unnoticed) in order for them to experience all parts of Kolb’s experiential Learning Style Process.
Although I usually understand HOW they want to say something, but they do not know the English word, I continue to try to elicit information from them (“please give me an example of what you mean–in context). I feel that this strategy may lead to more acquisition over-time.
ELLs LOVE idioms! They want to use them…and phrasal verbs, but they are unsure because the translations from their L1 to L2 are not correct.
Ultimately, writing, grammer, speaking, etc. are all skills that will develop as more input is received by the student and the teacher facilitates meaningful role play, cloze, or critical-thinking activites, which allow for ample opportunities for ELLs to practice (doing/saying) what they are internally thinking, therefore, moving into another quarter of Kolb’s theory. I believe our ELLs should be able reatin as much autonomy of their pieces of writing…I never want to raise their affective filter (Krashen) by discouraging creative language, so I try to pull out the words for them to speak if they cannot get the proper grammar out initially. Then the as many times during the week that I remeber I again, try to elicit information from them to see if they grasped the meaning and can verbalise it. Repetion is key for me! 🙂

Comment from Tamara Jones
July 28, 2010 at 4:20 am

This blog came at a very appropriate time for me! Last week my class and I were correcting a quiz from an OLD version of New Headway in which the students had to determine which sentence was correct: (A) “They haven’t left yet.” or (B) “They didn’t leave yet.” Obviously, the grammatically correct answer is (A), but I have heard and even probably said (B). I told them both were correct because English is a living, changing language, but if they were taking the TOEFL or the CAE, they should use (A). Coincidentally, just today I was having lunch with a British friend and, without knowing about this quiz, she pointed out that one difference between British English and US (Canadian) English was that Brits tend to say “I haven’t” with “yet” and Americans tend to say “I didn’t” with “yet.” I am not sure if that is true, but I do think that English is always changing and we are limiting our students if we only teach them the text book version of things.

Comment from Richard Firsten
July 28, 2010 at 7:34 am

Note from Author: It is true that the British use the present perfect more frequently than Americans do “still,” “yet,” and “already.” Americans tend to use the simple past, although not necessarily all the time. Americans do use the present perfect as well. Both verb forms are considered acceptable with these three adverbs. (I wonder what Canadians use more often. Hmm …)

Comment from Naleeni Das
August 5, 2010 at 10:27 pm

They didn’t leave yet?! Don’t let my students in Malaysia hear that, please!

Comment from Carol
August 10, 2010 at 7:26 am

Present perfect vs. simple past with yet, still, already? As usual, Canadians are comfortable with both the British and the American usages!

Comment from oriel ortega
January 3, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Hi!!! Teacher Firsten

I am from Panama. Your articles are always interesting and helpful. I am taking a master degree program in TESOL. My former teacher told me, that we can’t use the expression ‘rules’ when teaching English grammar. I use the Betty Azar series.Teacher Azar has the expression ‘rules’ in her books.I am confused!!!!

Comment from Richard Firsten
January 3, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Hi, Ms. Ortega! I’m very glad that you find my articles interesting and helpful. By the way, please don’t use “Teacher” as a title with a person’s last name.

As for what you’ve said in your comment, you’re not the only one confused by what your former teacher said. We can’t use the term “rules” when teaching English grammar? Really?? The only thing I can suggest is that you find that teacher and ask him or her to explain such a statement. If you find out, Ms. Ortega, please let all of us know.

Pingback from Teacher Talk » Not To Be or To Not Be, That is the Question
November 1, 2013 at 11:50 am

[…] in July 2010 I wrote a piece for Teacher Talk called “Go with the Flow: Yes or No?” about some changes in what is considered acceptable, basic English. Such changes have been […]

Comment from suba suba
June 11, 2020 at 4:05 am

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