Tell me about it!

I like the way language works in real life; I like how people often say something but they mean something completely different. Consider the following situation:

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A married man comes home late at night. He’s just checked out of the local motel where he spent a couple of hours with his mistress. He creeps into the bedroom where his wife is sleeping (at least he thinks so):

Wife: “What’s her name?”

Husband: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Wife: “Do you think I’m stupid?

And this is what they actually mean:

Wife: “I know you are cheating on me. I don’t care about her name – I know already who she is anyway; I just want you to know that I know the truth”. 

Husband: “Damn it. You know indeed. Now I need to gain some time to find out how much you actually know and/or to make up a lie”. 

Wife: “I don’t think you think I’m stupid. I know you know I’ve figured it all out. So, for god’s sake, stop lying to me”. 

Back to the classroom now. Something similar applies to phrases like tell me about it.

A knowledgeable language learner will use the phrase appropriately, i.e. when saying that he or she has the same experience, and/or will resist the temptation to elaborate on it when somebody uses it. However, a student who isn’t familiar with the idiom may embarrass themselves in a situation like this:

Student A: Mondays are terrible. 

Student B: Tell me about it. 

Student A: Well, you know we have so many lessons in the morning plus I have a piano lesson in the evening and …

Student B: Yeah. Tell me about it. 

Student A: I told you already! 

But how and where do our students learn useful idioms? From coursebooks? Sometimes. From the teacher? Maybe. Sometimes they are over-exposed to a phrase in its literal sense but never learn about its metaphorical sense.

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Pracovní listy: státní maturita

 

So what can we do as teachers to help our students become more competent communicators? And when (at what level of proficiency) should we start dealing with idiomatic language?

Here’s a list of 12 phrases which mean something different to what you might think they mean:

  • You don’t want to do that!
  • He can’t help himself
  • Shut up!
  • Go away!
  • I see!
  • See where I’m coming from?
  • You may want to…
  • I don’t buy it!
  • I’m looking forward to…
  • Tell me about it!
  • It doesn’t hurt to…
  • How do you find this…?

If you go to the CEFR Profiler, you’ll get an interesting result: only one word falls into the B2 category, while most of the words are A1. Ironically though, one of the phrases learners are likely to encounter in coursebooks very early on is the most ‘challenging’ one: I’m looking forward to … Methinks: Could this possibly be substituted by I can’t wait to …

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If you think about it, from a grammatical point of view, the structures above are far from advanced too. However, I dare say their figurative meaning is beyond the A1/A2 level. This is a serious mismatch and I think it’s one of the reasons why we sometimes avoid teaching what our students actually need to know. In my teaching context, for example, lower levels usually equal younger age. So it’s not really surprising that metaphorical language is reserved for later. This inevitably creates a sort of artificial language environment and some of the dialogues my students are supposed to drill from the coursebook literally drive me up the wall.

Luckily, our students are smart and they soon become autonomous language learners. They start reading English books and watching YouTube videos. As a result, they eventually make up for the sobriety of the classroom language. And then it’s us, their teachers, who actually need to catch up (see my previous post).

Binge-watching as Continuing Professional Development


In this post, I’d like to make a confession: I’m currently doing a lot of binge-watching. My personal record is something like four episodes of the same TV show in one sitting. I know some people are much better at this than I am, but I have a family, you know, so I have to bridle my passions.

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To appease my guilty conscience, I always choose to watch stuff in English because then I can label binge-watching with a much fancier term – I can call it continuing professional development. Although I can read books and all sorts of online stuff in English, as far as spoken language is concerned, what I hear on TV is sometimes all I get.

If your mother tongue is different than English, you know what I’m talking about. Being a non-native teacher of English, one simply needs to keep step with their students language wise. It’s not always easy though. Teenage students have more time and fewer responsibilities (and younger brains) so they can absorb non-coursebook language at a much faster rate. And the difference shows. Sometimes a student uses an expression (usually a colloquial one) that I have just learned from a movie. Phew! Call me ridiculous but it’s always a small victory for me.

But there’s also a downside to this all. Sometimes students are not able to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate language. They think that if something is used in an American TV show, for example, they can then use it in any context. So you get get a bit of a shock when reading a piece of writing in which a student uses a rather offensive term for sexual intercourse.

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Now, the question is how to teach L2 learners about inappropriate language. It goes without saying that what happens in an L2 classroom is different from the L1 situation. An English speaking child will develop this kind of sensitivity to what is appropriate and what is not because their parents and/or teachers will let them know very early on – sometimes even without having to say anything explicitly. However, if you want to teach an L2 learner what is appropriate, inevitably, you will have to utter the inappropriate (or at least point to an offensive term implicitly).

To be completely frank though, I realize that I myself can’t always tell with an absolute certainty if the line has already been crossed. Or, to be more precise, I’m not always sensitive to language inappropriacy in specific contexts. I once asked my Australian friend (an author of several publications about broadcasting and a former TV presenter) if I can use the word bloody on Twitter. He explained to me that it depends on how I want to present myself and that under certain circumstances, even such a mild expression can sound inappropriate from my ‘mouth’. Go figure.

Anyway, I came across this list of the 47 naughtiest words and phrases and what Ofcom thinks about them. Should I point my students towards such a learning resource or not? Should they study it on their own or should we discuss that in class? I’m sure they’d love to have a lesson on offensive language but is it appropriate?