Past perfect

The textbook’s treatment of past simple v past perfect was very limited, and the students obviously didn’t get it, so I had to look for supplementary material. On one website for ESL teachers I found a worksheet submitted by a teacher, which was reasonable but not perfect. One activity gave ten sentences in past simple, which students had to pair up, then change one half to past perfect, then join them appropriately. 

The first interesting issue was that the sentences could be paired up in different ways. Four sentences were:

Jack decided to have a rest. Peter asked for a cup of coffee. He finished eating. He painted the hall and the kitchen.

The usual/natural/expected pairings are:

Jack decided to have a rest < > He painted the hall and the kitchen. Peter asked for a cup of coffee < > He finished eating. 

But several students chose, and there is nothing impossible about:

Jack decided to have a rest < > He finished eating. Peter asked for a cup of coffee < > He painted the hall and the kitchen. 

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Conspiracy theorems

I have written before about students choosing the wrong word from a dictionary or translator. Sometimes two words in their language correspond to one word in English, or one word corresponds to two.

The class was practicing ‘first conditional’. The first half of sentences were given, and the students had to write a suitable second half. One was “I’ll do the washing up if …”. The expected answer was “you cook”, but I can imagine a number of other answers which would be suitable (eg, “if you do it tomorrow”). One Korean student wrote “I theorem”. This is obviously wrong and he’d obviously chosen the wrong word from a dictionary or translator. But I wanted to find out what he’d meant, he showed me his translator and there were no other obvious words in sight, but I couldn’t guide him toward telling me anything else about this mysterious household activity. Another student from Korea was there, so I got them to talk about it briefly in Korean, but the other student couldn’t explain either.

When I got home I asked my wife about it, she said that 정리 (jeong-ni) can mean either ‘theorem’ or ‘tidy up’. Google Translate gives ‘theorem’ and ‘arrangement’, so 정리하다 means ‘arrange’. I thought about ‘theory’, which Google Translate gives as 이론, but my wife said “That’s a completely different word”. She couldn’t tell me what the difference was (explaining Korean words (her first language) in English (her second language)), but I’m not sure that I could explain the difference on the spot, either (explaining English words (my first language) and English (my first language).

I know that Pythagoras had a theorem and Darwin had a theory. Hercule Poirot might have a theory about whodunnit, but not a theorem.

Could you read this blog post, please?

A few days ago the topic in the textbook was polite requests and responses, which reminded me of an incident which happened when I was teaching English in Korea in 2006-2009. I didn’t post it on my travel blog at the time or even record it in my diary, for no particular reason.

For part of that time I taught at a government high school. The students had varying levels and interests in learning English. One day I introduced the grammar or vocabulary point, set the students going on the practice task and wandered round checking their progress.

One student was sitting by herself, not doing the task and instead applying copious amounts of makeup. I asked, “Could you please put your makeup away and do your work?”. She smiled sweetly and continued applying her makeup. 

A few minutes later I wandered back and she was still applying her makeup. I said, “Please put your makeup away and do your work”. She replied in Korean, so I said “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Korean”.

A few minutes later I wandered back and she was still applying her makeup. I said “Put your makeup away and do your work!”. She looked at me, smiled sweetly and said

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“I don’t think so”

Some sentences might be right, but just aren’t, and it seems a bit weak to say to students “It just isn’t”. One sentence in a grammar review was “I ____ pass the exam”. Alongside one obviously wrong choice were “think she won’t” and “don’t think she’ll”. Several students chose “I think she won’t pass”. 

Actually, it’s not wrong. It’s perfectly grammatical, and makes more sense – I think + she won’t pass the exam compared with I don’t think + she will pass the exam (clearly, I do think something) – and could be used for emphasis: I think she won’t pass the exam. But it is used way less that I don’t think she’ll (and equivalent sentences with all the other pronouns (per Google Ngrams)), which is the usual/natural choice. Saying I don’t think she’ll pass doesn’t mean I think she won’t pass, but that I think she might or mightn’t pass. I’ve said equivalent sentences to my wife, who has picked up on the second half of the sentence without processing the “I don’t think”. PS Australia has had a very long and late summer, but some nights recently have been cooler. As I was drafting this post, my wife asked “Will we need an extra blanket?”. I replied “I don’t think so”.

A similar question required students to put the given words into order. The expected, usual/natural sentence was “Who do you think is going to win the next election?”. One student wrote “Do you think who will win the next election?”. This is wrong – the question word must come first, but compare “Do you think [name/party] will win the next election?”. 

You and I

The grammar point in the textbook was ‘future forms’ (strictly speaking, English doesn’t have a ‘future tense’), the section was be going to V, and the prompt was David and I ________ a movie. Many students saw I and wrote David and I am going to see/watch a movie. But David and I functions are we, so the sentence must be David and I/we are going to see/watch a movie.

One student asked “Should that be David and me are going to see/watch a movie?”. I’m aware of variation within English, but I had to be standard and say “No, David is going to watch a movie and I am going to watch a movie, so David and I are going to watch a movie”. I are sounds wrong even in that context, but so does me are.

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Coldplay = ice hockey?

One of the most important skills in learning anything, including a second language, is figuring out what’s important to know and what can be safely ignored. Students wanting to know is a good thing; I don’t want to discourage that. Maybe I’m just explaining it badly.

Yesterday’s lesson had a lot about pop music, and the activities and our extra discussions were full of singers and groups and songs and words and music. Today’s lesson included a story in which a young woman and young man met while a particular song was playing – “It’s by Coldplay. It’s called Yellow”. Coldplay and the song then play no further part in the story. They could have met while any other song was playing, or in total silence.

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gong hay fat choy and gong xi fa cai

From the time of the gold rushes of the 1850s to about 1989, most Chinese people who came to Australia were from the southern provinces and spoke Cantonese, Hokkien or Hakka. I can remember seeing Lunar New Year decorations and advertisements saying gong hay fat choy (or variations thereof). 

About nine years ago I started teaching at a college which overwhelmingly catered to Chinese students. It being February, I started with gong hay fat choy! and no-one understood me, because they all spoke Mandarin (and/or because my Chinese pronunciation is so bad). Finally one student understood what I was trying to say.

Especially post-Tiananmen Square, more people from the northern provinces came here and Mandarin gradually overtook Cantonese as the most-spoken kind of Chinese. The 2016 Australian census reported that 2.5% of Australians speak Mandarin at home, alongside Cantonese at 1.2%, and Arabic, Vietnamese, Italian and Greek (with between 1.4 and 1% each).

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