Sunday, October 21, 2012

Fun with grammar

One of my MA classes this semester is Advanced English Grammar. But wait - aren't I a native speaker of English? Yes. But for the most part, the non-native speakers in that class kick my butt. They already know how to talk about English as a foreign language, since that's what it is to them. For native speakers like me, it can be difficult to take a look under the hood of the automatic and almost effortless process that is speaking English.

For example, when was the last time you (assuming you are a native speaker of English) thought about these issues? These are the kinds of things we are learning about in this class.

1. Why do we say "I went to school," "I went to church," but not "I went to home," hmm??? WHY??!?

2. How many tenses does English really have? Does English even have a future tense?

3. Speaking of tense, do you know what "aspect" is? If I said to you past perfect progressive, would you know what the heck I meant?

4. Have you ever noticed that there are different kinds of verbs? For example, there are verbs ("activity verbs") that describe an ongoing action: run, walk, swim, study, etc. Then there are "accomplishment verbs," that describe an activity that has a well-defined end point: paint, make, build, write, and (according to my book), grow up. I love that last one - well-defined end point, indeed! How about "achievement verbs" like recognize, realize, and find? These are things that happen in a moment, not a process. Finally, there are "stative verbs." These I had heard of before. Stative verbs describe ways of being, indefinitely, and they include verbs like have, contain, seem, want, and like. One of the commonly taught aspects of stative verbs is that they don't take the progressive aspect (be + ing). However, language can change over time, and McDonald's slogan violates this "rule" about stative verbs: "I'm lovin' it."

5. Did you notice that the second sentence of this blog spot contains "aren't I"? Shouldn't it be "am'nt I"? Or "ain't I"?

6. Try to dissect the shades of meaning in "Stan sells vacuum cleaners," and "Stan is selling vacuum cleaners." How about "Did you go to Yankee Stadium?" and "Have you gone to Yankee Stadium?"? Or "She has completed her homework" and "She completed her homework"? And why can't we say something like "William has bought it last Saturday"? Why is it more polite to ask someone, "Could you close the window?" instead of "Can you close the window?" Use grammar to back up your answers.

And that's the most difficult part of this class - at no time is the correct answer "just 'cuz."

Thank goodness I have a background in linguistics or I think this stuff would truly be gobbledy-gook to me. I'm looking forward to the day when a student asks me why English does this or that and I can answer him/her with confidence...perhaps after checking my super jumbo size textbook (from which some of the above examples were taken): Celce-Murcia, M., & Larsen-Freeman, D. (1999). The Grammar book: An ESL/EFL teacher’s course (2nd ed). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

16 comments:

Susanne said...

Great post! OK, now can you please come back one day and answer all the questions you've raised? Or should I say "could you" if that is more polite? :)

elliespen said...

Okay, my geek is showing here, but that sounds really cool. I'd love to listen in I that class sometime.

Sarah Rose Evans said...

I had a similar experience in Korea-- I'd be assigned a chapter to teach called something like 'past perfect progressive,' and I'd be like, "I have no idea what these people are talking about." So then I'd have to read the chapter and figure out how to use the rule before I could actually teach it. And sometimes I didn't do a lot of prep, so I'd be trying to figure out whatever it was while simultaneously trying to teach the class. Ahh English.

Señora H-B said...

I have definitely experienced this teaching Spanish as well. I learned as a missionary and never really took a lot of formal grammar classes. Studying linguistics has certainly helped a lot, but I confess that in the past I would have said, "Because that's the way it is," when asked a question that I couldn't answer. Now I know to say, "Let me ask my linguist friends and I'll get back to you."

Man, I love language!

Kathy Haynie said...

Hoo boy, can I relate. My high school students think I should know these things since I'm an English teacher. I'm afraid I revert too often to the "because that's the way it is" lame response. One of my students is from Thailand, and he studies English very hard, mostly on his own. He was making a bunch of verb tense errors in his papers earlier this year, and I told him to be careful of using the gerund (ing). He actually knew what I was talking about. My native speaker kiddos wouldn't have had a clue.

Kathy Haynie said...

PS - and to be honest, I only know about gerunds from teaching Spanish for five years. I learned far more about the grammar rules of English in Spanish class than I ever did in any English class.

Jen said...

Annnnnnnnnnd, now I have virtual whiplash.

In a good way. =)

Katie Lewis said...

I had to stop reading this post partway through because I was having flashbacks of my college grammar class. Which may or may not have made me cry.

Bridget said...

Yes!! This has happened to me lots of times.

Bridget said...

Yes, I learned a lot about English grammar after studying German. :)

Bridget said...

What did you major in? I never had to take a straight-up grammar class in college.

Elena Bebe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elena Bebe said...

This book is my worst nightmare and I still know nothing about grammar. =(

Liz Johnson said...

After learning Spanish, I became entirely convinced that English makes absolutely NO SENSE. Seriously. How did we muck up this language so much?!

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Do students of English have to diagram sentences still? Sentence diagramming was second only to math word problems (a train leaves Chicago at 7:00, etc.) in the torture department of my childhood.

Amanda Ball said...

I just read this post to my mother who has a masters in something about teaching kids how to read, and she added several questions: Why do we say "on a bus" and "on a plane" but you can't say "on a car"? Who decided that dogs and cats could be plural but not deer or moose?

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