The summer mini-semester started last week in some disarray. My class was in three classrooms on the first three days (the first had been double-booked and the other person outranked me, and the second was too small), and the expected technology was either absent or not working, or required someone to come to log me on to it (who did some days but not others). As a result, I’ve had to improvise a lot of lessons.
On Friday morning, the last hour’s improvised activity was a ‘vocabulary brainstorm’. Students worked in pairs, I gave them a category and they wrote as many words as they could in that category in a one or two minutes (there’s supposed to be a time limit but there isn’t a clock in the room and it’s too fiddly (and a bad example) to look at my mobile phone too often).
The nature of the activity means that more of the categories and words are nouns than anything else. I wanted to find some way of joining all those nouns in sentences. I have also noticed that my students are not very imaginative about adding extra information to their basic sentences.
This morning, I could log on to the computer and turn the projector on, but the computer wasn’t talking to the projector, so I had to improvise again. I said ‘One of the categories on Friday was animals. What is an animal?’. Someone said ‘jaguar’, which I didn’t expect, but I wrote it on the board – the sillier, the better. I then elicited that ‘jaguar’ is a singular countable noun, which needs a determiner, the simplest of which is ‘a’. I then said ‘Another category was food. What is a food?’. Someone said ‘cat’, I said ‘고양이탕?’ (go-yang-i tang, cat soup*), she said ‘[giggle] Oh, pasta’, so I wrote that. I then drew a very rough picture of a four-legged animal eating from a bowl, and elicited ‘eat’. I then had to elicit a verb tense, and someone eventually offered ‘ate’.
So the basic sentence was ‘A jaguar ate pasta’. But so much more can be added: adjectival material (describe it) to the two noun phrases and adverbial material (where, when, how, why …) at the end of the sentence.** Bit by bit, I elicited more and more information, added it into the sentence and we ended with something like ‘A big, black jaguar ate spicy pink*** pasta with [one of the students] in [our university’s restaurant] this morning, because it was hungry’. Because we built it up step-by-step according to the rules of English grammar, it is a grammatical English sentence, even if it is nonsensical and clearly not true. [see added paragraph below] I then showed how we can change ‘ate’ to ‘is eating’ or ‘will eat’ (requiring changes to ‘this morning’ and ‘was’), or ‘a’ to ‘two’ (requiring change to ‘jaguars’ and ‘they were’), quantify the pasta using ‘a lot of’, or place parts of the adverbial material at the beginning of the sentence (‘this morning’ and ‘because it was hungry’ naturally go at the beginning of the sentence, but ‘with [one of the students]’ and ‘in [our university’s restaurant]’ don’t).
Two more of the categories on Friday were ‘people’ and ‘clothes’, which are easy to join in a sentence. When I asked for ‘a person’, someone said my own name, and when I asked for ‘clothes’, someone else said ‘one-piece’, which is the Korean and Konglish word for ‘dress’.**** I immediately had visions of how the sentence was going to turn out. The obvious verb is ‘wear’, and the verb tense they chose was present simple, so ‘wears’, and, of course, ‘one-piece’ needs ‘a’, so ‘a one-piece’, resulting in the basic sentence: ‘[name] wears a one-piece’. Names don’t readily take determiners or number (though we have two Lee Min-jus and one other Min-ju in the class at the moment*****), or adjectival material, so the subject remained ‘[name]’. The first version of the rest of the sentence ended up as ‘wears a lovely white lace one-piece in a wedding hall every morning because he is cute’.
I kept going, and half-elicited, half-wrote in myself up to and including: “Our teacher, [name], whose hometown is Sydney, Australia, wears a lovely white lace one-piece, which he bought at Lotte Mart, and roller-skates, in a wedding hall for 1 hour every morning except public holidays, because he is cute”. It’s a grammatical English sentence, it’s never been spoken or written before, and if I wasn’t posting this on the internet, would never be spoken or written again.
I would like to think that this was a memorable lesson in English grammar, but the next activity was for the students (working in pairs) to write their own sentences, serious or silly, and there was a distressing number of singular countable nouns without a determiner and plain verbs when there should have been V-s verbs. Still, not bad for making up a grammar lesson on the spot.
[note: It is ‘sensical’ in that it has a meaning which all competent readers of English will agree on, and is either true or false in all possible circumstances.]
* 보신탕 (bo-shin-tang, ‘invigorating soup’), also called 개장국 (gae-jang-guk, dog soy bean paste soup), is really a thing (and it’s really got soy bean paste in it), but 고양이탕 isn’t. I use it as a memorable way to point out the distinction between ‘I like cat’ and ‘I like cats’.
** Some adverbial material can go in other places (see later), but the default position is at the end.
*** The first two offerings were yellow and white, which I rejected as boring.
**** If it was a lesson specifically about clothes, I would have changed that to ‘dress’, but I left well enough alone. As far as I know (not being an expert in women’s clothing), standard English uses ‘one-piece’ only for swimwear.
***** I’ve disguised the name, but it’s otherwise true.