Columns on View All Columns
Visit ELTBOOKS - all Western ELT Books with 20% discount (Japan only)

The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

May 15, 2012

Sh*t English Teachers Teach Students

The great importance of the button on the mountain. Go on. Say it.

Now say each word separately, as if you were teaching pronunciation to your students. I wonder if you changed your pronunciation of a lot of the words-- unconsciously. Many teachers do.

It's interesting how many teachers will pronounce a stand-alone 'the' as 'thee', a form typically used only before vowel-initial words, especially 'A' (as in, "The Americans lost to Canada in hockey and Japan in baseball"). And did you pronounce 'of' with a full 'o' sound? Because it in fact gets de-stressed in almost all sentences-- to a simple 'v' or a mere schewa. This is why our students usually fail to hear it-- they are expecting to hear that distinct 'o' sound.

And what about 'button,' 'importance', and 'mountain'? Did you turn the entire final syllable into a glottal stop (resulting in something like "nt") or did you (unnaturally) stick the vowel sound in there? Sure, it's not much of a problem if our students pronounce these words as if there is a real vowel sound in the last syllable (although if done so, 'button' generally comes out sounding like 'baton'). The problem is in listening, where an 'important' or 'mountain' might simply not be identifiable to students.

And should I mention how the 'tt' in 'button' suddenly gets enunciated as if the speaker is the Duchess of Basingstoke talking about table arrangements at the Vicar's Ball-- avoiding the d-like tap, unlike the manner in which sentient beings speak? Nah.

Like the culture of some unexplored planet...

We teach unnatural stuff in the classroom all the time. I know. I've been guilty of it too. I've railed in the past against teaching self-introductions, which seems to be trying to channel the culture of some unexplored planet where the people apparently feel the need to provide reams of data about themselves upon meeting others. And don't get me started on 'Hello' (which is not a default greeting but a hailing when we can't see the other or marks an exaggerated response after a long absence, like when Aunt Hilda greets little Cindy-Mae for the first time in a few years). See? I told you not to get me started on it!

In a recent Daily Yomiuri article, I questioned the teaching of 'can' for ability. Let me reiterate that one here:
"Can you speak Japanese?" is a perfectly normal question. So is, "Can you play a musical instrument?" After all, these are clearly identifiable skills. But just what does, "Can you play baseball?" mean? Playing baseball is not a separable skill, it's participatory. Pretty much every kid in Japan or North America has played baseball so, in effect, anyone can. And if we want to find out about exceptional baseball skills we would ask something like, "Are you good at baseball?"

Or take "Can you cook?". Pretty much everyone can cook to some degree-- like frying an egg or boiling a tin of soup. So "Can you cook?" is going to have the likely uptake (and here's where pragmatics enter the picture) of "Will/are you able to cook today?". "Are you good at cooking?" would be the skill identifier.

And then there's "Can you use a computer?" or its appearance in a declarative form like, "Ed can use a computer". This might make sense if Ed is under 6 years old (unlikely for someone named Ed) or over 60, or most suitably, if Ed is in some way disabled (or, perhaps, if Ed comes from some recently discovered tribe in the Pantanal). If used towards anyone else the uptake is marked as sarcasm-- something you might say as a bit of ribbing when someone struggles with a basic computer program or software. Of course, checking someone's knowledge of a new, complex program: "Can you use a (put your techknob word here) program?" warrants the 'Can' question.

Whaddya mean, 'What's my favourite song?'

So anyway, (now there's a segue!) I had this argument with a friend recently regarding the question, "What's your favourite song?" which my students had asked me (for the umpteenth time) in one of those 'get to know each other' opening lessons. The problem I have with "What's your favourite song?" is this:
I'm half a century old. I've listened to music fairly actively for about 35 plus years. With thousands of songs in my repertoire asking me my favourite song-- one all time, single, unchangeable chart-topper is a question I can't answer because I don't know what that answer is. If you added "recently" "this year" or "these days" to the question you've limited the scope and helped me define my choice and I can offer you a plausible response. Same if you limit the scope by adding "by the Beatles" "of the late 70's" "by a rap artist" or "on that album". A desert island list or approximate top ten would also be fine.

I believe most people's response to "What's your favourite song?" would be a request for clarification: "You mean now?"- because favourite songs (unlike favourite foods or sports) are by nature highly changeable. I might also say that the question bears the imprint of a music appreciation neophyte, the 16-year old whose musical repertoire consists of only a hundred or so radio-friendly tunes that 'everybody knows'.

Why are you laughing at my yellow patio furniture?

I have a similar response to questions about my favourite colour. I like contrasting tones as far as my own clothes go-- not a particular single colour-- but, hey, that's just me. On my wife I like yellow-- I would say that's an eye-catching colour on a lady for yours truly. But yellow for my car? Or my patio furniture? Surely you jest. Do people really have overall favourite colours? You see how complicated it all gets? I even had a momentary existential dilemma just writing out this stuff.

I also have issues with "What's your hobby?" It always strikes me as officious, as if everyone has a single, government-approved hobby in the same way one has only one fixed passport number, birthdate, or employer. I encourage my students (who tend to render questions from my hobbies/interests/activities/skills template as "What's your hobby? What's your interest? What's your skill?" respectively, without even thinking how odd these would sound in their mother tongue) to pursue more open-ended enquiries such as "What do you do in your free time?" "Do you have any interest in _____?" or " Are you at all interested in X/What kind of X are you interested in?". And I refuse to even discuss queries like, "Do you like music?" or "Do you like movies?" (I mean it's possible- I know someone who claims not to really like food much- but come on!)

'What do you think of... the universe?'

Another one that causes consternation and brow-furrowing is, "What do you think of Japan?" First, I hope the speaker is not fishing for compliments but it may well be presumed so, which means that most answers will be circumspect and insubstantial. But more importantly the topic is simply too wide. It's like asking "What do you think of science?" or "What do you think of peace?"- that awkwardly loaded autopilot Hiroshima school-trip question. And does the speaker want to deal with a possible "It sucks" response?

I tell my students that questions such as, "What do you think of Japanese fashion sense/public buildings/medical system?" are better since they are focused-- providing one is hoping for a substantial answer. And I tell them never, ever to ask the nattou question-- you know, the one that really means 'Just how Gaijin are you anyway?' and should disqualify the speaker from conversation with foreigners for life.

By the way, not only can I eat nattou, I rather like it. Eating it is my hobby. What do you think of my hobby? Hello!?

« More Weapons of Mass Instruction (Part 2- #6 to 11) | Main | Ya ya- We university teachers laugh too! »


Nice job, Mr. Guest.
Do you like Japanese food?
Can you use chopsticks?
Yesterday I cleaned my room.
I saw my friend. He visited my house. (Just the house, not me, it seems.)

Hi Mike,
It's a very interesting topic! Thanks for sharing your ideas. I found a similar article on the BTB Press website (Teachers' blog). I thought you might be interested. I tried to post a link but I couldn't. You can find it pretty easily if you google it.

Thanks for the comments. I think a lot of confusion or irritation would disappear if speakers were lead to communicate content-- an interpersonal skill-- rather than simply complete sentences.

As for the 'chopstick' type comments I do tell my students that an opening like "I guess/assume..." hedges such comments in a way that makes them much more palatable.

Recent Columns

Recent Comments




World Today