Monday, December 13, 2004


English word order is a complete mystery to some of my students. I could understand this if it were some of my Chinese students having the problem - the ones who enter my classes barely knowing the alphabet (or in some cases, not knowing the alphabet at all) - but they rarely do quite so badly, generally. At the very least, they end the year able to put together a simple sentence and communicate in a very basic way.

No, this is the Japanese students, who have all had six years of English language education before I meet them, and I am forced to conclude that this so-called 'education' is the problem.

I have a difficult class on Mondays. It's a very small class by most standards here - just 12 students. The problem is that there are five Japanese students, two Koreans, and four Chinese, and the levels are so different it's impossible to treat it as one class. (There is also one irrelevant student who turned up once, had a wee nap, and never reappeared subsequently. I don't know her level.) Of the four Chinese students, one can hold a conversation with me quite fluently, one is a little lower level than that, but not much, and the other two barely knew the alphabet at the beginning of year. The Korean students are hard-working intermediate level. Four of the Japanese students are mid-beginner, and have some word order problems, but the last one ... well, I don't think she has understood yet that English is a language, rather than some purely random academic activity designed to be particularly tricky.

This student has a way of throwing words together in any form and order, and then asking me to check them, and when I read what she's written, or hear what she says, my brain seizes up. Where to begin? If I give her a 'fill-in-the-blanks' exercise with adjectives missing, and provide some adjectives, she'll ignore the provided adjectives and fill in the blanks with verbs, nouns, adverbs and articles. And perhaps the occasional adjective, by accident. Once I resorted to trying the boring old audio-lingual approach with her (while the others were busy with something beyond her), which generally has some effect with students like that. We did some simple word-substitution drills, which I demonstrated for her first on paper and out loud.

When she seemed to understand, and it was her turn to try, she substituted the wrong word, introduced new words, omitted correct words, and mangled the order when she repeated the sentences, almost every time. She is capable of doing this to a four word sentence. "The man is happy," I say, and she repeats it, leaving out 'is.' I get her to repeat it again, and she substitutes 'and' for 'is.' I do it again, and she finally gets it right.

All fine so far. Then I tell her "sad", and she says, obediently, "Sad and the happy." "Try again," I say. "The man is sad," and she repeats it, after apologizing and hitting herself on the forehead. "Good," I say. Then, "Tall," and she thinks hard and says, "Tall happy by sad."

"Where did by come from?" I wonder to myself. "And tall happy?" I want to scream, but don't, because I'm a kind person and also because I really, really want to get some basic sentence patterns burned into this girl's brain. I carry on, slowly. It doesn't work, of course, but at least I tried.1

Six years of English education! What do they do in those classes?

Last week in class I'd given this group a handout with a lot of examples of very simple definitions. I wanted them to be able to approximate words they didn't know - to be able to describe something they didn't have a word for. After a few demonstrations, I gave the students some words to define. I kept these simple for the lower level students, and gave the higher level students more difficult and abstract words to define. This worked quite well to keep everybody challenged, and they did well, at their various levels. Some needed more help than others, but it went fairly smoothly. I gave them some words to do for homework as well.

My problem student neglected to follow the simple patterns I'd given them and that they'd practiced in class. She also chose her own words, and made heavy use of a dictionary, judging by some of the words she used. (Brimful? Supple?) However, she's done a bit better with the word order this time, at least by her standards. I'm counting this as a success. It's a pathetic success, I know, but with this student anything she produces that starts to make a little bit of sense is a success.

Can you guess what she is defining? (The idiosyncratic capitalization is hers, too.) The first three are pretty easy, I think, but the other two...?

1. this color is yellow. Monkey is favorite Fruit.
2. Sky travel take vehicle.
3. supple move in water. As if by fish.
4. be on fast Move ground. Push against The winds.
5. Brimful Of figure. very Difficult.

Note to self: This student does not have a phonological loop. She has a phonological dot. Perhaps I could gather some data and write a paper about her.


tinyhands said...

I take it there's no aptitude test at the beginning of term where you can 'suggest' someone drop the course?

Badaunt said...

If there was an aptitude test, she would not be at university at all. They have entrance examinations, which are notoriously difficult, but because the student pool is shrinking, lower level places like this accept anybody who can write their name at the top of the exam paper.

If there were level checks, however... at one university I work at they're now (started this year) streaming language students into three levels in their first year, and it's working very well. Also, students with a certain score in the TOEFL test can skip the basic language classes. It works very well.

The reason every university doesn't do this is that it's far too sensible.

tinyhands said...

And since it follows that a sensible person would never accept a University job in the first place...

Badaunt said...

Well, it's true that being a sensible person is not a prerequisite, exactly...