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Danny's 'Do you want to learn English'?

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English teachers are a bit like snowflakes.

Okay, so the above sentence is probably not the most lucid way to start an article, and on the universal scale of clarity, where one is the sound of a finely-tuned church bell on a crystal-clear summer morning and ten is an explanation of quadratic equations translated from Japanese into Russian by a Scottish sheep herder, it would probably fall somewhere between an eight and a nine… but let me explain myself...

I don't mean that English teachers are cold and spiky (although they could be), but that they are pretty much unique. No two teachers teach in the same way. They don't explain grammar in the same way, they don’t deal with vocabulary in the same way, they don’t even sit in the same way. Which is just as well, seeing as foreign students are a bit like snowflakes too. Or fingerprints, if you don't like the snowflake thing...

There is, however, one thing that all English teachers have in common with each other and, by extension, one thing that all foreign students have in common with each other. I believe that, at some point during the first lesson with a new class – normally within the first ten minutes - every English teacher in the universe has asked the following question...

"Why do you want to learn English?"

And, therefore, every foreign student in the known universe has, at some point during that first lesson and normally within the first fifteen minutes, provided the teacher with an answer.

The question is purely perfunctory. The answers are always pretty much the same – I have to learn English for my studies, I need to pass an exam, I need English for my job or I have to learn English because if I go back home after eight months without knowing what the future forms are, my parents will teach them to me by booting me into next week. Of course, every now and then, someone will give an original answer. My personal favourite was 'English? You mean this isn't a course in woodwork?'

It occurred to me, this morning, as I started yet another course with yet another new class, that maybe it was time for a new question. I realised, you see, that every answer started with 'I have to', 'I must', or 'I need to'. Not one of them started with 'I want. Sometimes, if you want a better answer, you need to ask a better question. So, I took away the 'why...

"Do you want to learn English?"

The entire class looked at me as if I was a sandwich short of a picnic. Eventually, a hand slowly went up and someone hesitantly said, "Um...yes?"


"Because I have to..."

Back to square one. I told the class to forget about their future exams, and jobs, and dreams of traveling the world. I asked them to forget that English was a global language. I demanded that they ignore the fact that it was a beautiful sunny day and that being anywhere else in the world would probably be better than having to sit in a classroom for the next ninety minutes listening to a rambling lunatic asking ridiculous questions. I told them that I knew that they had to learn English, that they needed to learn English, and that they must learn English. But did they want to learn English?

There was a long silence. And then one person muttered, very quietly...

"Not particularly".

Now we were getting somewhere.

"Why not?" I asked.

And I was suddenly and savagely bombarded with answers – English is too difficult, there are too many rules, there are too many exceptions to those rules, it's not logical, the tense system doesn't make sense, articles and prepositions don't make sense, English spelling doesn't make sense...and who was the evil maniac who thought that phrasal verbs would be a good idea? And why this, and why that, and why the other...?

Sometimes, rather than ask why something works, the answer can be found by asking what would happen if it didn't work. Don't ask 'why?'...ask 'what if?' Being a teacher, you see, is not about supplying answers, and it's not just about asking questions...it's about asking the right questions. The ones that lead to the right answer...if there is one.

"Yeah!" said a student, looking at me accusingly, apparently under the impression that I had single-handedly invented the language myself and thrown in the tricky bits just to ensure future employment. "Yeah! Why does English have phrasal verbs?"

Ask a better question…

"What would happen if English didn't have phrasal verbs?" I countered.

"We could use other words. Definitions. Maybe more formal words. Longer sentences".

I grinned, perhaps just a little evilly.

"We would have to. Because phrasal verbs are the opposite of all that."


"Because they are, in fact..."

"Straight to the point. Less formal. Short and simple… oh, I see".

It may not be the right answer, but it might just lead to an answer which will do.

Here's the thing...teachers are inside the language looking out, and students are outside the language looking in. Sometimes, teachers forget to step outside and take a look at the language from the students’ point of view. And while all this may sound like the Zen Buddhist approach to language learning, it's given me an idea...

For the next few issues of English In Your Inbox, I'm going to try something new. I'm going to attack various grammatical areas from the outside rather than the inside. Instead of asking why it works the way it does, let’s find out what would happen if it didn't. Instead of asking how it works, let's shine a light on how it doesn’t work. And instead of wrapping language around real life, let's try wrapping real life around the language. Let's look at things from a different angle, and ask a different question.


Me too.

By Danny

Link: Danny's 'Seeing a doctor'