Why don’t English Language Teachers have all the answers?

In his first post for us, experienced English language teacher Martin Wilson discusses the irregularities of English – and how even teachers of the language don’t have all the answers.

When I originally graduated from university and started teaching English as a foreign language, I felt I was reasonably intelligent and cultured; I had a good degree from a respectable university, I had always enjoyed reading, and I felt in my naivety that I had a pretty extensive vocabulary. Then in one of my first classes, when I was teaching a group of advanced level students, I had a very humbling experience when one of them asked me in front of the entire class for the definition of the word ‘commensalism’. I was stumped, embarrassed and felt like a complete fraud as I couldn’t answer their question.

When I relayed my humiliation to a more experienced teacher in the staff room later that day, I was met with laughter and told that she is asked such questions all the time, and generally tells her students that it is for this reason that she loves her job because she is always learning new things. Why didn’t I think of saying something like that as a response? I will readily admit that I have subsequently used her answer on many similar occasions since that incident.

But why is it that educated native English speakers, who have read all the great classics of British literature, still come across words that we don’t know? I have done my research and can offer one solution. The native language spoken in the British Isles is a mismatch of words introduced as a result of the various invasions from other European countries that have occurred over the last two thousand years. And it is the fact that our language is not ‘pure’ that there are so many exceptions and irregularities, and that modern English has one of the most extensive vocabularies in the world. I am now on my way to reaching a stage where I can accept that I am not a computer, and that I don’t have all the answers.

But I am always looking for more convincing answers to offer those students who ask me tricky questions related to grammar, spelling and pronunciation, other than just telling them ‘it is an exception’, or ‘one is the formal style, and the other is the informal style’. I do remember one specific occasion on which I advised an IELTS student to never begin a sentence with ‘And’, but to use other more academic-sounding conjunctions such as ‘Moreover’, ‘Furthermore’ or ‘Additionally’ in order to connect her ideas. She later sent me several photographs of examples of text that began sentences with the aforementioned word, as well as a screenshot of a text message that had been sent to her by her English boyfriend – in which he had begun a sentence with ‘And’! Oh, the shame! How are you going to get yourself out of this hole, Martin?

Well, I tried politely explaining that on many occasions there are of course exceptions, but then I felt that I was giving a very weak excuse. Could I say that her boyfriend was perhaps not so educated? No, that wouldn’t do. The truth is that if a native English speaker chooses to compose a piece of text for informal or merely functional purposes in which they begin a sentence with the word ‘And’, then he or she is free to do so as they will not be penalised for doing so, but for an academic essay for the purpose of the IELTS exam, consisting of just 250 words, it is advisable to demonstrate a wide range of more academic-sounding vocabulary. This was the best answer I could come up with, and I have complete respect for those struggling to understand and master the rules of a constantly changing language that adheres to a very loose set of structures.

Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at martinwilson@mwlc.co.uk.

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