Tuesday, August 31, 2010

That’s Not Really Hard, So Why Don’t They Get it?

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

Have you ever taken a course in another language? If you have, then you entered the realm of comparative linguistics without even realizing it. That’s because you would be subconsciously comparing how something is said in your native language to how it’s said in the language you were learning. So, for example, if you learned some Spanish or French, you quickly realized that the typical place to put an adjective is after the noun in those languages rather than before the noun, as we do in English. And you realized that the English phrase of the or of a closely resembles the way a genitive phrase is expressed in Spanish or French, but that there’s no equivalent of the –’s in those languages. Voilà! Comparative linguistics!

So why, then, do many ESOL teachers end up pulling the hair out of their heads when trying to teach something so seemingly easy as the use of that –’s? Why do their students often drop that inflected form and say things like the neighbor dog? The reason may not be that the students are just poor language learners; it may be due to language interference. There are languages in which the proper way to form a genitive phrase like the neighbor’s dog is to say “the neighbor dog.” This is something that would be useful for ESOL teachers to know so that they could anticipate the problem and hopefully nip it in the bud before the problem becomes fossilized.

To pursue this item a bit more as a case in point, let’s take a look at how this genitive phrase is produced in a few unrelated languages:

  • In Amharic, spoken in Ethiopia, you’d say the neighbor dog.
  • In Haitian Creole, you’d say the dog the neighbor.
  • In Arabic, you’d say dog the neighbor.
  • In Cantonese, a form of Chinese, you’d say neighbor the dog.

Aha! So it may very well be that it isn’t the fact that your students just don’t have the smarts to get it; it’s probably language interference with the structure of their native languages getting in the way that’s created this problem.

If you’re an EFL teacher, getting into comparative linguistics to make teaching certain grammatical points go more smoothly is relatively easy since just about all the students you have in any class speak the same language, the native language of the country you’re working in.

If you’re an ESOL teacher working in an English-speaking country with students from lots of other countries, the task of delving into comparative linguistics is more daunting, but definitely doable. You don’t need to become fluent in any of the languages spoken by your students. If you see that some or all of your students are struggling with a certain point of grammar, all you need to do is a bit of research into how that form is structured in their languages to see whether or not it may be creating a bigger problem to teach than you might have thought. And in those cases when a certain form is a big problem for certain students, you may find it useful to give them some comparative phrases in their languages and in English to show them how to switch from one way of communicating this to the other.

I guarantee that your students will be very impressed that you’ve familiarized yourself with something in their languages and can demonstrate how it crosses over from their languages to English. You’ll definitely win brownie points with them and, in addition, you’ll become a more effective teacher!


Comment from Nick Jaworski
August 31, 2010 at 11:49 am

Of course L1 interference will be an issue. For beginning learners of new languages, it’s often a shock for them to find out that you can’t just substitute words – a common assumption among monolingual speakers.

There’s also good evidence to support the idea that certain structures are learnt in a certain order, regardless of the learner or the teaching style. It’s a feature that’s especially noticeable in children. This is why present continuous is often internalized before third person singular “s”.

The key is patience. Your learners probably aren’t picking it up because they simply aren’t ready to. Give it time and it will come. Just don’t expect immediate results after a short 1 hour lesson.

Comment from Rebecca Wright-Hyde
September 1, 2010 at 5:51 am

I agree with Nick. The key for me and my students is patience. I teach high intermediate and advanced adults so by the time they get to me, habits are often fossilized. I appreciate Richard’s examples very much because I’ve had students who speak all the example languages. My typical student is a Spanish speaker and it is easy for me to spot language interference and remind him/her to think in English! Knowing a little bit about the structure of the other languages would be very useful to me i.e., it would explain many repeated errors. Thanks for the post.

Comment from Richard Firsten
September 2, 2010 at 2:51 pm

I appreciate the first two comments, but I’d just like to mention that the subject I wrote about has nothing to do with what these two commentators are talking about. How did Mr. Jaworski get so off track?

Comment from Rebecca Wright-Hyde
September 28, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Mr. Firsten, you don’t sound appreciative. Ridiculing commentators won’t encourage anyone.

Comment from Richard Firsten
September 28, 2010 at 3:10 pm

I don’t sound appreciative? I said I appreciated Mr. Jaworski’s comments and yours. I appreciated the sound advice that you both conveyed. I’m sorry, however, that you interpret what I’ve said as some kind of ridicule. I don’t consider pointing out that your comment and Mr. Jaworski’s were off topic as ridiculing, i.e., making fun of you.

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