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Saturday, 19 April 2008

Telling Lies For A Living

I tell lies.

Probably every day, certainly every working day.

In a way I do it for a living because I teach English for Speakers of Other Languages. And each and every day I lie to my students. The degree to which I lie depends on the level of class I am teaching. I lie less to advanced classes than to beginners classes, but nevertheless I lie.

Let me clarify with a few examples.

I refer to the present continuous as a tense when I know that it's an aspect of the present tense. Ditto for perfect "tenses". By the time I'm covering the passive the class is usually advanced enough not to be confused if I call it the passive voice.

I tell lower level students learning the present continuous that in a sentence with "is" + verb the verb MUST end in –ing. For them I conveniently forget the passive altogether.

I tell students that the plural of "tiger" is "tigers" and don't mention that they might well see "I bagged a couple of tiger last week." ( I have an old edition of Partridge's Usage and Abusage with a discussion of this. He calls them "snob plurals")

I tell lower level students that "cheese" is an uncountable noun and wait until they are in a higher level to point out that we also use it when we mean "kind of cheese" so that then it can be countable. (My three favourite cheeses are Chedder, Danish Blue and Cheshire.)

Lies. All of it lies. (Including the selection of cheeses. My favourite is really Emmental.)

The reason that I am sitting here in my virtual confessional awaiting absolution for these sins is that earlier in the week I was teaching a Level 1 class. Despite its name this is actually quite an advanced level (below it are four levels – in descending order they are, Entry 3, Entry 2, Entry 1 and Pre-entry). What was I teaching? Glad you asked. I was teaching them some of the features of direct and reported speech. When and why to make tense shifts, for example.

The class was going well.

Everyone was getting it. I love it when that happens.

And then I used a grammar exercise pulled from a text book for them to use as a bit of consolidation and things started to, if not exactly go wrong, at least get a little confusing.

It occurred to me that the exercises from the book – and from every other book that I checked after the lesson – far from making things clearer, seemed designed to make things more obscure. The problem is that they are always founded on a fundamentally unrealistic task – the ability to convert sentences from direct to reported speech and worse still from reported to direct. The former of these is a skill that you may need a bit when telling someone about something someone else said – but even then the tendency is to paraphrase rather than convert, but I couldn't think of a single real world use for going the other way. Even in the former you add in lots of information that you know about the conversation that is not contained in the utterance itself.

Let me use some examples to illustrate why, with sentences ripped from their context, this task is impossible. (I'll make some slight adjustments to the questions to avoid identifying the specific text book.)

Task 1: Rewrite the following sentences in reported speech

a) Mary said, "I can't come to the party, tonight."

b) He asked, "Can you come and help me to move house, next weekend."

Task 2: Rewrite the following sentences in direct speech.

a) She told me that her mother was coming to stay.

b) John rang to say that the football had been cancelled.

Let's start with 1a).
How do we change "Mary said, "I can't come to the party, tonight." into reported speech.

If this were a lower level class they would have been taught how to change the person and that they must change the tense.

Mary said that she couldn't come to the party tonight.
But is that right? It depends on when Mary said it and when the party was/will be.

Did she say it yesterday, of a party that was last night? In that case it should probably be
Mary said that she couldn't go to the party last night.

Did she say it a week ago?
Mary said that she couldn't go to the party last (insert day of week).

Did she say it this morning about a party tonight?
Mary said that she can't come to the party tonight.
(Now there isn't even a tense shift necessary.)

There are other possibilities but what about sentence 1b)?

Did he say it to me, yesterday about next weekend?
He asked if I can help him move house next weekend.

Was it to me a couple of weeks ago?
He asked if I could help him move house last weekend.

Was it to me about a weekend that is further away but that is already identified to you.
He asked if I could help him move house that weekend.

Or ditto but without establishing when exactly.
He asked if I could help him move house the following weekend.

Perhaps he wasn't talking to me at all. Perhaps he was talking to someone else altogether.
He asked if he can help him move house next weekend.
He asked if he could help him move house last weekend.

Or maybe is friend is female and we need to substitute "she" for "he".

There are a lot of possibilities here and in real life you would ALWAYS know all the background information needed to pick the right one.

See what I mean? Stripped of all the background information that you would know in real life this task is impossible. Impossible and, I would suggest, meaningless. It simply isn't a real world skill that anyone ever needs. Yet it is the standard model in text book after text book for practising this structure.

Going the other way is even more ridiculous. Let's just take 2a)

She told me her mother is coming to stay.
How the hell can you tell from this what she actually said.
"My mother is coming to stay."
"Mom's coming next week."
"Darling, I hope you don't mind but I've invited mother over for a few days."
"Oy, me mam's 'ere tommorer and 'er's stoppin' the night!"

Who knows, what she actually said? You can't even begin to guess.
This exercise is plainly nonsense but again it's a standard model for the ESOL and EFL text books.

I don't have an answer to how to teach this. In my more advanced class we could sit down and discuss the above, albeit in a slightly simplified form, and talk about how to express your meaning rather than how to follow some kind of conversion rule. That worked as a strategy with the particular class I had last week but it certainly wouldn't work with lower level or weaker classes. They like rules. And in English Grammar most rules are lies.

I tell lies. I have to. I'm a teacher.

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