Friday, March 1, 2013

It isn't just what you say, it's how you say it

I've learned a number of unexpected lessons working in Germany. Public transport is great and all but sometimes (often) you really miss having a car. People can live along the banks of a huge river for two thousand years and only just now get around to putting up a wall to keep from being flooded every eighteen months or so. I have a strong accent when I speak German. Things like that.

Attempting to teach English means that I've learned a great deal about my native language as well. For example, its lack of consistent pronunciation is really rough on language learners. (Curse you silent 'e'!) Synonyms aren't always so synonymous - try replacing "search" with "look for" a couple times and you'll discover that it doesn't always work. And most germane to this post, we use a lot of phrases that don't make any sense when translated literally. I don't just mean idioms, though I did spend a delightful half-hour explaining to a group of teachers where "to punch the clock" originated. "Having a crush" or "checking the time" are really confusing when students are translating every sentence word-for-word in their heads.

I helped correct the vocab for a test recently and came away with several gems. The test was in the form of a gap text, where students had to fill in the appropriate word or phrase. Keep in mind that they had spent the last two weeks with this exact text, all filled in, and could pretty easily ace the test by simply memorizing it. I think most of them tried to do just that, with mixed results.

The gap text: I ______ Brussels sprouts!
The correct sentence: I can't stand Brussels sprouts!
A smattering of alternatives: I stand for Brussels sprouts! I stand on Brussels sprouts! I stand Brussels sprouts! I stand against Brussels sprouts! I can't Brussels sprouts!

Other more straightforward grammar (and understanding mistakes) included:

The gap text: My dad _______ how to cook.
The correct sentence: My dad taught himself how to cook.
A smattering of alternatives: My dad thought himself how to cook. My dad thought him how to cook. My dad caught himself how to cook. My dad taught how to cook. My dad toot him how to cook.

The gap text: Next week mom and dad _______.
The correct sentence: Next week mom and dad are visiting Grandpa.
A smattering of alternatives: Next week mom and dad visited Grandpa. Next week mom and dad are Grandpa. Next week mom and dad and Grandpa visited. Next week mom and dad are saw Grandpa.

And we haven't even started with "I must have forgotten my book." Student alternatives: I must need to forgotten my book . I need to forget my book must. I must need have to forgotten my book. And so on. If you can't remember the actual phrase, just throw every word you know in there. One of them will probably turn out to be right*.

*I do that sometimes too. Sympathy, kids. Definite sympathy.

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