Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Things They Say... (Part 2.) So you think you know how to speak English?

It's a question I ask myself more and more often. In fact, the more time I spend teaching young Spaniards in English, the more I realise how little I know about the (English) language. It's not that I can't speak, read and write English, at least reasonably well. I might not be that hot on the English subjunctive, but I get by without too many complaints. What surprises me (time and time again) is how much I know, but don't know how I know it. An example might help.

Jaume is in the hot-seat. It's a lesson we do every week. One child sits at the front and fields questions from the rest. I translate the questions and answers into English and write the answers on the board. By translate, I don't mean that they ask and answer questions in Spanish...

María: "How many years you haf?"
Me: "How old are you?"
María: "How old are you?"
Jaume: "I haf seven years."
Me: "I am seven years old."
Jaume: "I am seven years old."
I then write, 'Jaume is seven years old,' on the board and we move on.

José: "You haf mascota?"
Me: "Do you have any pets?" (You see how a little knowledge of Spanish can keep your English lesson on the road?)
José: "You haf pets?" (I let this go. He's taken one bit on board, that's plenty for today.)
Jaume: "I haf dog."
Me: "I have a dog."
Jaume: (Suddenly looking at me with great interest), "You haf dog tambien?" (Tambien means 'as well'.)

We usually (eventually) end up with six or eight reasonable sentences which we all read together. Then I choose a couple of children to read them alone. Then I help Jaume turn, 'He is seven years old,' into 'I am seven years old.' Finally, they all copy the passage into their books and at the end of all this we (they) draw Jaume and his family, friends (and dog). I am a teacher of relatively 'mature' years, so the freedom offered here, to resurrect the ancient practice of adding a little 'drawing' to an appropriate piece of work, is something I like to make use of every now and again. I don't remember a diktat ever arriving from London (when I worked in the UK) saying 'thou shalt not draw pictures in your English books,' but the practice seemed to die when English was morphing into literacy. 

Back in my sunny classroom, the regular repetition of questions and answers helps the children to pick up the English structures and over the weeks we write more sentences and make fewer mistakes. They'll each end up with a little book full of lots of information about all their friends which they can take home and treasure (or turn into paper aeroplanes).

But every now and again something happens which makes me really think...

Laura: "What your best toy?"
Me: "What is your favourite toy?"
Laura: "What your favourite toy?"
Jaume: "Emmm..." (Spaniards say, 'Emmm,' where we say, 'Ummm.' Haven't discovered why yet...) "I haf cat."
Now, it crosses my mind that maybe Jaume is getting his toys mixed up with his pets, but, it's also possible that he does indeed have a toy cat. So I delve a little deeper.
Me: "What sort of cat is it?"
Jaume: (Suddenly very excited), "Ees cat beeg!" (He holds his arms out in a 'one-that-got-away' this big pose.) They do this a lot, put adjectives after the noun, it's how it's done in Spanish. I remind him (we've done this before) how to say it 'properly'. 
"Oh, a big cat," I say.
Jaume: "Yes, black beeg cat."

It's on the tip of my tongue to correct him. It's, ´Big black cat,' isn't it? Isn't it?
I went to school in the 1970s. We did a lot of 'story-writing' in our English lessons. (We were also allowed to draw lots of pictures in our 'story books.') Traditional 'grammar' was very much 'out of fashion' although I do remember learning that a gang of geese was called a gaggle while a group of starlings was a murmuration. My favourite was crows. A murder of crows. I waited years to be able to point out to someone, "Hey, look at that murder of crows." They probably thought I was nuts.
Anyway, while I remember learning to put my adjectives in front of my nouns, I never learned that it had to be, 'Big black cat,' and that it couldn't be, 'Black big cat.' Was there a rule? Or was it just something you 'picked up' over the years, like knowing that you didn't wear socks with sandals?

I mention it in the staff-room a couple of days later. María-José is one of our Spanish teachers who speaks pretty good English (miles better than my Spanish). She's a really pleasant, mild-mannered, good-natured type. Always smiling, she often has a nice little story to tell about the children. I raise the question of 'Big black crows,' as opposed to 'Black big crows,' and mild-mannered María-José turns into screaming banshee.
"Oh, I hate that about English," she snaps. Every head in the room turns, María-José never gets angry. "Ooooohhh! I hate it!"
"Hate what?" I enquire, slightly incredulously. You'd think I'd asked her about Scotch eggs or luncheon meat, the way she's reacting.
"Oh, your adjectives and all your silly rules about where they go. I hate it!"
There are four or five of us around the table, the others are all much younger than I am. We exchange, 'What is she on about?' glances, and finally, she explains.
Apparently, there is a certain order in which English adjectives have to be placed. (Although none of us Brit-educated Brits, of ages ranging from the early 20s to the mid 50s, knew this.) She shows us her text book. It's there under 'Adjectives: word order'.
Apparently (remember, none of us Brits knew this) adjectives of opinion (nice, interesting, delicious) usually (now, there's a dangerous word) go before adjectives of fact (young, hot, green). So, you'd say, "A nice (opinion) green (fact) apple," not, "A green nice apple."
Well, of course, I'd never say, "A green nice apple," but I never knew why! And I certainly never suspected that there was a rule!
It gets worse! (I can now understand why María-José didn't like this aspect of English.) A complication arises when you have two (or more) fact adjectives. When this happens, there's another rule for the order! Multiple adjectives of fact, apparently(!), have to be placed in this order:

1. How big?
2. How old?
3. What colour?
4. Where from?
5. What is it made of?

So, you say, "A tall young boy," not "A young tall boy." And you'd also say, "A small black plastic bag," not "A plastic black small bag," or "A black small plastic bag." 


We're all amazed. Well, I'm amazed, the rest of the group have lost interest and are discussing some celebrity 'news'. But I'm amazed. Amazed that I know all this stuff, (I'd never say "A wooden large table," for example), but I don't know how I know it! I certainly never learned any 'rules'.
It makes me think about how we teach/learn languages (how I learn Spanish, for example) and all those exercises in language text books. María-José's book has dozens of exercises; phrases like, 'a sunny day,' and you have to put the word 'lovely' in the right place. (It goes before 'sunny'.) I know (from bitter experience) that this sort of exercise doesn't seem to help me much when I'm trying to study Spanish. Nothing ever seems to stick. I honestly think I 'pick up' more from my usual stumbling 'conversations' than I do from text books and 'exercises' like this.

Not that I'll be doing my 'Adjectives: word order' in Spanish. Oh no. I ask María-José how the Spanish language copes with the order of multiple adjectives.
"It doesn't matter," she says, shrugging, as if it's a ludicrous question. 
Oh well. At least I know that this aspect of Spanish is easier than English.

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1 comment:

  1. Sí, la posición de los adjetivos es un lío. Yo lo estudié así:
    1- Opinión
    2- Edad
    3- Tamaño
    4- Forma
    5- Color
    6- Nacionalidad
    7- Material

    However it also sounds better to me "A tall young man" than "A young tall man". But do you also put the size adjective before the age one when referring to things instead of people? ...?

    Another thing that really annoys me about English is that certain verbs are followed by an infinitive ( Want TO..., tell sb TO..., hope TO...), while others are followed by -ING forms (deny -ING, miss -ING, suggest -ING, love
    -ING)And there seems to be no rule to explain this!

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