New York City is home to thousands of manicurists from faraway places. Normally there is little conversation between people having their nails done and the people doing the job. For one thing, manicurists often have limited English, but in addition, many people prefer to read, listen to music or just stare into space while in the relaxing environment of a nail salon. I broke through that wall last week when I accidentally said something ungrammatical to the manicurist and then quickly corrected the mistake. She scoffed at me and told me grammar was the last thing on her mind. "I just want people to understand what I say," she told me. As though a dam had burst, she then described how painful it was not to understand subtle things in your second language--subtle things like humor. "I'll be watching a TV show, and people are laughing, but I don't see what's funny," she said. "I'm a humorous person in my country (Korea), but here I never see the joke... read more
Fall is here, and many of my students have left for college, new jobs and other ventures. Those who studied with me this summer brought a special color and texture to my teaching life, and like scattered autumn leaves, I will miss each of them. A teacher treads carefully, learning more about a student through his or her writing than through personal questions. After all, we are there to work on English grammar, or essay organization, or some other aspect of the many-leveled experience of language. Yet, although we are seated at a plain table in an impersonal space, each student's uniqueness emerges as the hours and days pass. It may sound trite, but I feel such a sense of privilege getting to know these terrific and highly motivated people and doing what I can to help them reach their chosen goals. I hope they know--these students from Korea, China, Colombia, Spain, Japan, Russia and the US--that I will never forget any of them.
As I write through the mental fog of jet-lag, one thought is clear: every English language teacher should be required to visit a country whose language she neither speaks nor understands. See how confidently and easily the natives speak their own language! What little thought they seem to give to the words filling the air! While we, the visitors, strain to recognize sounds that contain even a hint of meaning. A teacher must never forget that an adult language learner is a fish out of water, a mature being at home in a different sea. This thought has sprung from my visits last week to Italy, Spain and Portugal. I was impressed with the level of English I heard, but sorry I had not had more time to master a larger number of non-English phrases. As it turned out, body language often saved the day. I now return to my teaching sessions doubly impressed with the efforts my students make to learn the language I speak so easily and confidently.
Why do we say we're "on the train" or "on the plane"? We're traveling inside the train or plane, aren't we? Why don't we say we're "in the train" or "in the plane"? We don't for the same reason that we do say we're "in the car." But why don't we say we're "on the car?" The car is a mode of transportation like the train and plane, isn't it? The answer is: Usage. Usage dictates that even if it isn't logical or strictly grammatical to say something a certain way, we do it anyway, because that's the phrase that the culture has agreed on. When a phrase is always used the same way by speakers of a language, it is known as an idiom. A lot of idioms are prepositional phrases.The preposition that begins the phrase may not always seem the best one to use, but English language learners should memorize them if they want to go with the flow--that is, if they want to sound American. Here are a few more: "In the mood;"... read more
Once again I am humbled by my students' efforts to conquer the hills and valleys of English. Case in point--the TOEFL test. Not only do students have to show their mastery of spelling, vocabulary and sentence structure, but they have to do it in a relatively TINY amount of time. Talk about pressure! Who can remember the difference between "this" and "these" when the bell is about to ring? Last night I sat down to listen to some TOEFL practice lectures. Each was 2 minutes long. My task was to take notes, so I would have details to write about when contrasting the lecture with the reading part of the exam--or when adding information to the reading. Remember that I am a professional journalist. For 25 years I took volumes of notes while interviewing people. But I could barely keep up with the TOEFL exam practice audio lectures. If I just squeaked by with my note-taking, how could new English speakers handle it? My student this morning gave me the clue. Her... read more
So you've mastered subject-verb-object word order, learned at least a thousand new vocabulary words and are doing pretty well with verb tenses. Still, readers frown at your writing, and why? You forget to use articles. Yes, those pesky "the" and "a" words that English demands before most nouns. They don't exist in your language, and you never missed them. If only the rules always applied: use "a" when it's the first reference to something or when the noun is not specific ("A house is not a home"), and use "the" at a second reference or when the noun is specific ("The house we lived in had no attic"). Textbooks explain when not to use an article (before street names, company names, languages, mealtimes, etc.), but they always leave out the hard stuff. What do you do with "revenue," "history," "art" and other intangibles? The answer, as usual: It depends. While you're learning, it's better...
Have you ever stared at a word for so long that its meaning disappeared? Have you ever tried to write backwards across a page? If so, you can begin to understand the task facing English language learners, for whom everything about English is strange and new. Some may even have to learn a new alphabet before beginning to understand the sounds we make and the words we write. I am filled with admiration for these students, who are willing to take on our arcane rules: why we use "the" in front of some nouns but not others, why some adjective phrases take hyphens but others don't, why we turn nouns into adjectives and don't even change the spelling! As a teacher and writer, I no longer take anything about English for granted. Textbooks don't even begin to cover every rule or exception. Each session is a flight into a new question, something I promise I will research in order to bring a coherent explanation to the next session.