Grammar Moves on the Dance Floor

Suh-tee-bun! That’s my name (스티븐) pronounced in Korean. Each consonant must be followed by a vowel sound, which means my two-syllable name has three syllables when spoken in Korean. Perhaps I’m a bad ESL teacher for not always correcting my students’ pronunciation. “No,” I could say, “Stee-ven,” and I could tap my front teeth and show them how to place them on my bottom lip. “Vvvvvvvv,” I could say. But as an ESL teacher, my goal is not to teach middle school students perfect English (what does that even mean?), but instead to help them communicate.

As an English major I encountered the following question, but as a teacher, it’s something I’ve consider far more: What is the purpose of language? Maturing in our native language allows us the freedom to express poetic sentiments, emotions, philosophical arguments, but at the core of all of that is communication. Every time we speak, write, or even raise our eyebrows, we convey meaning. But what does this mean for the non-native English speaker?

All too often, students of English become overwhelmed by the bizarre grammatical rules and seemingly infinite number of exceptions and spelling quirks. At least once a day I’m asked a grammar question. Recently, I’ve heard comments like:

The word ‘moves’ isn’t a noun. ‘Movement’ is a noun, but ‘moves’ is a verb. So why is it okay to say, ‘He has good moves?’

When asked, ‘How’s it going?’ why do you reply with ‘I’m fine.’ You must reply with ‘It is going fine.’

And regarding the reading of the picture book, I Like Me:

You should explain to students that the proper way to say this is, ‘I like myself.’

Of course, these comments are all easily explained. “Moves” isn’t just a verb, it is also a noun. Spoken language isn’t standardized and English is riddled with slang, so replying to How’s it going? with I’m fine, is simply ungrammatical casual talk. And the same goes for the the title of that children’s book–it’s just slang. I often accompany my answers with an explanation that in America, grammar isn’t as nearly important as it is in Korea. Sure, we’re taught the basics, but on the whole it’s not a major component of our language education.

I know it sounds cliché, but if you ask my students what their favorite subject is, most of them will say either math or science. My middle school students are doing math that most Americans do in high school. Math and science follow rules of logic and there is always a correct answer. Adding two and two will always be four. The chemical composition of water is always two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen.

But ask someone, How do you go to school? and the answers are numerous. I go to school on foot. I walk to school. I go to school by walking.

“Teacher,” they say, “Those are all okay?”

“Yes. Those are all okay.”

And they proceed to write down all variants of the same answer.

Just the other day I asked one of my best students, “How do you say be quiet in Korean?”

“Jo-youngii haseo,” she said.

“How do you say, Stop talking?”

Yegi hajimaseo” she said. “But that is strange. It is better to say jo-youngii haseo.”

“I thought that was be quiet?”

“Yes teacher,” she replied. “No one says yegi hajimaseo. It’s meaning is be quiet. Just say jo-youngii haseo.”

I hope I’m not misrepresenting the Korean language, but more often than not, their language is very formulaic and follows a fairly simple set of rules. For example, if I want to say I am a teacher, I would say, “Sunsang-neem imnida.” If I’m introducing my wife and want to say that she is a teacher, I could say the exact same thing. The listener must pick up on the context of the conversation.

Now imagine trying to teach English–a non-formulaic, exception riddled, highly specific language with almost one million words— to native speakers of a language that is nearly the opposite. This is typically approached by teaching grammar and general phrases (as seems to be the case for most formal language learning classes), but my role as an ESL teacher is to engage students in conversation. While there is a time and place to teach the rules of a language, these can often be ignored when trying to encourage students to communicate.

Korean students are often quite shy to speak in English, even if they’re perfectly capable of it, simply because they’re preoccupied with speaking grammatically. It’s like they’re at their first sock hop, but everyone is standing at the edges, too shy to dance because they’re afraid of looking silly. But the purpose of language isn’t to adhere to grammar, it’s to communicate, so what difference does it make if a student says, May I go to the bathroom? or Bathroom I go?

To me, it makes little difference. I want students to be comfortable enough to use what English they know to communicate. English is not a math problem. You can’t just take a the parts of a sentence and throw them together and it will make sense. Or else you could get something like this: Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo, which is grammatically valid, but entirely nonsensical.

Proper grammar is great, but what is the importance of learning it if it hinders use? I don’t constantly correct my students because I don’t want them to think they have to follow the rules in order to communicate. They don’t. They don’t need to use two syllables or say the V correctly when pronouncing my name, nor do they need to make grammatically correct sentences when we sit down to have a conversation.

With language, it’s great having good grammar moves, but you don’t need good moves in order to dance.

Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.


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