Prescriptivist views of language are alive, well and, apparently, worldwide. A student approached me yesterday. He's a bright kid in one of my strongest classes. He often comes to talk to me and, unlike some of the others, wants to talk about stuff that interests him... mainly movies and comics. This time though he started by telling me how sorry and ashamed he was. I was baffled. I had no idea what he was apologising for. After some questioning it seems that after our last conversation he had gone home and been working on a Chinese website that teaches English grammar. Here he had read that you must absolutely never say “I know” because it is appallingly rude. You must always say “I understand”. He had used the former rather than the latter when we were talking.
I reassured him that this is complete nonsense, just somebody's wrong-headed idea, but he didn't seem convinced.
I'm still having real trouble teaching some of my classes. The levels are just so ridiculously mixed. My classes are what is labeled “senior two”, which means the kids are sixteen and seventeen. Each week I have dumbed the lessons down a bit more to try to find the level they can cope at. This week I have been teaching a lesson that was designed for, and successfully taught to, “junior 1” in other schools. That's eleven-year-olds. Some of them still can't do it. The only way for me to simplify it further is to teach primary school or kindergarten lessons.
In every class I have a few students who are pretty good, a few students who are OK and a lot of students who can't do their end of the conversation that goes
“How are you?”
“I'm fine thanks, and you?”
“ I'm fine too.”
And that's the very first conversation every Chinese kid learns in kindergarten. Three-year-olds, come up on the street and initiate that one.
Teachers regularly ask me grammar questions. They are often quite interesting and though I (almost always) know the answers, occasionally I can't easily explain. And some give me a little pause for thought.
Like the one today.
The teacher showed me four sentences in turn and asked me what the differences were.
Sentence one was this: A bicycle has two wheels.
That was nice and easy. I didn't explain it in exactly these terms but the gist of it was that it is saying that any member of the class “bicycle” will have two wheels.
Sentence two was this: The bicycle has two wheels.
My immediate interpretation was the obvious one.
This particular member of the class “bicycle” has two wheels.
Sentence number three was: A horse has four legs.
Just like sentence one my immediate interpretation was that it means that any member of class “horse” has four legs.
And, of course, sentence four, predictably, was this: The horse has four legs.
Unlike the “bicycle” example my interpretation here was that “horse” is a member of class “animal” and that all horses have four legs.
He nodded. My assessment was in line with what he'd read.
What he wanted to know was
a) can sentence two carry a similar interpretation to sentence four and vice-versa (The answer is of course, yes)
and b) why did I pick the different interpretations rather than the same one.
And that's where I couldn't answer. I could only say that they seemed like the correct interpretations to me even though the other one remained a possibility in each case.