Monday, November 5, 2012

English Grammar

Sometimes I think that I'm not really fit to be an English teacher. I mean, I studied some linguistics in college, and I am a native speaker, but I've never had an English grammar lesson in my life. Not even in grade school was I forced to tell the difference between the present continuous and the present perfect continuous.

Often, when the students ask me a question about a specific incidence of grammar, my mind goes blank. I know one is right and the other is wrong, but I can't for the life of me tell you why.

My motto being 'fake it till you make it', I always find some way to get through. And it isn't like I don't know the answer. Somewhere deep inside me is a treasure trove of grammatical rules that will eventually bubble to the surface in a time of need. But it always takes a while.

An example I will give you is my most recent lesson, which was a combined lesson between me and my co-teacher.

It was the day before the exam and we had been hinting heavily to the students that if they didn't show to class, then we would totally understand. Unfortunately, three students in each class showed up genuinely wanting revision. To a teacher, there is only one thing to do at this point – you want to blow off class by giving them a BS assignment and telling them to do it elsewhere, but these kinds actually want to learn. So we had to actually teach them.

My co-teacher and I combined forces and started to do some grammar revision. My co-teacher, Carol, is very good at grammar because she is taking the DELTA (think of it as a MA for ESL teachers). I sat by the first half of the class as she fielded these questions like a pro. The answers to which, I had no idea.

When it came to my turn, the first question I got was about this sentence: “When I woke up this morning, the sun was shining.”

“Why do we use past continuous in this sentence, teacher, instead of present continuous.”

Present continuous, would be 'the sun is shining', in case you, like me, would not know the answer off the top of your head.

I surprised myself, though, by going into this whole spiel about the intricacies of the two grammatical structures. Complete with diagrams.

One of the on-going headaches I've had is trying to explain when you do and don't use the present continuous instead of just regular present simple. Sometimes you can say “I live in the Kingdom” and sometimes you can say “I'm living in the Kingdom”.

The girls, understandably, can't see the difference. I'm sure you, as mostly native English speakers, can tell me the difference between the meanings of the two if you think about it. The second implies a temporary situation, whereas the first is talking about a permanent situation. BUT! You can also say “I live in the Kingdom, now” which could also imply a temporary situation. Or at least one that has changed recently.

Also, you can't use this subject + to be + verb-ing structure when you are using certain verbs. You can't say “I am thinking you are mad at me” or “I am knowing how to say this”. But can you tell me why?

Verbs that are stative (that describe a state of mind or being) cannot be used with present continuous.

Try telling that to girls who have grown up hearing “I'm loving it!” every five seconds on the TV. This is grammatically incorrect, by the way. 'Love' is a stative verb.

Inevitably I get the question: why, if it's incorrect, do so many native speakers say things like “I'm loving this weather!” or “I'm enjoying your company”?

I tell them what my Latin teacher told me when I asked him why Latin poets don't feel the need to use any type of grammar at all:

Language is born from speed and laziness. People will say what is easiest, and what is quickest, and other people will hear them and say it too. Language isn't something that you create one day and put in a museum for everyone to admire. It's a living, breathing thing that changes the more you use it. Think of it, I told them, as you would think of a pair of leather shoes. The more you wear them, the more they change to the shape of your foot and the way you walk. In the end, they aren't the same shoes they were when you started wearing them, but they fit you better now.

It's not a coincidence that the most common verbs are also the most irregular.

I always view this as a good thing. If a language can't evolve, then it dies, just like anything. That's what makes it so hard to pin down. If it were just about memorizing rules, then learning a language would be easy.

I still have a long way to go but I think this is a great learning experience. Teaching adults helps you iron out these things for yourself.

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