What to Teach: Pet Peeves

Posted on March 13, 2012 by

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I would bet that if you are reading this, you’ve been taught somebody else’s pet peeves.

Every English teacher has them. Some have what I think of as the “classics” – they’ll tell you not to end a sentence with a preposition, not to split an infinitive, and they will repeat, with a complete unawareness of the attendant irony, the phrase “ain’t aint a word” until they’re sure you ain’t gonna use it any more. My English teachers tried to instill a sense of decent English in their students, and until I studied linguistics I was more than happy to pass this peeve-ology on to others.

Once I had an English teacher correct my use of the word “less.” I had said we need less grumpy old college professors, or something; she pointed out that what I meant to say was “fewer.” For years, whenever anyone would say “less” in place of “fewer” I would correct them – sometimes under my breath, often not. This was obnoxious. I had a friend whose ax to grind was the subjunctive – yeah, I’ll bet you didn’t even know we had that in English – and whenever I’d say something like “I wish I was a little bit taller” he’d say “were” – as in, “I wish I were a little bit taller.” Together, we made a team you almost certainly didn’t want to hang out with.

Of course, the issue is that plain spoken English differs ever so slightly from formal written English; while you don’t want to forget the subjunctive mood or countability agreement rules in a college essay, there’s no reason, in spoken English, to adhere so closely to rules that only a few irritable individuals even care about. You could even argue that in informal written English, such as you might find in blogs or emails, the rules of formal English can be bent or ignored.

So this brings us to another round of the question, what do we teach our students? Do we teach them the “rules” of English, or do we teach them English as it is actually used in most contexts? In other words, do we teach them prescriptive or descriptive English?

You could argue either way. On the one hand, the ostensible reasons for learning English in Georgia are to go to foreign universities or to do business with foreign companies. Both of these goals are somewhat formal and so it would make sense to teach the most formally correct forms of English and discourage our students from using colloquialisms. On the other hand, the stated purpose of bringing English speakers to Georgia is for us to help with speaking and listening skills, not with grammar, and so it could also be argued that our job is specifically to teach English as these students will encounter it in spoken form – and as I said, in spoken form English speakers play it a lot more fast and loose with grammar rules.

So what does this have to do with pet peeves? Well, a pet peeve is something that annoys you when you encounter it, not something that confuses you or interferes with communication. Thus, regardless of how well-grounded your pet peeve is in correct English (and believe me, many pet peeves have absolutely no grounding in reality), your pet peeve is more likely to fall under the category of “prescriptive English.”

In other words, teaching your pet peeve may be satisfying – or not; you may feel like Sisyphus – but you may not be teaching your students anything that will help them communicate. If you’re anything like me, you might hyperfocus on a particular peeve to the detriment of other aspects of the language. If you’re anything like me, you may need to look at a particular mistake that really gets under your skin, and just let it go.

I’ll give you some examples.

I’ve written before about how superlative adjectives are routinely bungled, probably as a result of a single Soviet English scholar who was probably drummed out of the KGB for failing to teach their agents how to pass as American. Is this a problem? Yes. Is it worth a long series of fights with your coteacher and several days of class time? Probably not. Let them keep writing about Giorgi’s the biggest New Year’s wish; by the time these kids make it to college spelling and grammar checkers will be sophisticated enough to just autocorrect that anyway. It’s ugly and clumsy but it gets the point across.

Another one that plagues me is the Georgian way of pronouncing contractions. I managed to teach one of my seventh grade classes how to pronounce contractions last year. It probably only took about ten to twenty minutes of drilling but I got them saying “shouldn’t” instead of “should-nut” (hint: it rhymes with “student”; just make them say “a student shouldn’t” over and over again really fast and they’ll naturally start pronouncing it the right way). Now that I’m gone they’re probably back to should-nut and is-nut and could-nut and must-nut. Is this even worth spending time on? More than anything else in Georgia, that question will probably haunt me until the day I die.

The thing is, there are real pronunciation issues that actually cause confusion – that, I tell myself, is what I should be focusing on. Teaching Georgians to pronounce short “i” and short “u” so they’re not saying “eat is parple” instead of “it is purple” would be a good start. There are plenty of sounds in English that are not in Georgian – those (and plenty of other) vowels, plus the “th” sounds, the f, and the v/w distinction – and we might be the only people these kids encounter in their entire education who are capable of actually producing these sounds accurately and judging whether they have produced them accurately too.

In my TEFL course they told us to focus on correcting pronunciation mistakes only if the mistake interfered with understanding – only if they mispronounced a word such that either I couldn’t recognize the word, or thought they had said another word. I think that’s good advice; even if following it means that I have to listen to chorus after chorus of “It is-nut a cat”.

And of course, this also gets into a question of accuracy vs. fluency, viz., given limited class time, is it better to teach them to do a small amount of things really well (i.e. teach for accuracy) or a large amount of things relatively poorly (i.e. teach for fluency)? Perhaps a topic for a future post. As I’ve hinted before, the question of what we should be teaching our students is vast and complicated and I don’t really have all the answers, but I think it’s worth exploring.

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