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ENGLISH, A MOST EXCEPTIONAL LANGUAGE

Kristin Lems

 

 

I don't mind teaching the rules and regularities of English in my ESL classroom. What I'm getting tired of is teaching the exceptions! Overall, it must be said that English is a most exceptional language.


Let's take uncountable nouns, for example. You give your students the list of uncountable nouns.....and it isn't even a week before you come upon a sentence using "a good time," so you say cheerily. "Oh, but in this sentence time is being used as a countable noun." And your students give you that funny look. Sure, you could hand out a big list of nouns that can

be countable or uncountable right at the beginning of the unit, but it might tip the balance of many students' sanity into the crazy column. So mstead.you give the list of uncountables only, knowing full well that you have set a big elephant trap into which they will all tumble sooner or later. When they do, you will fish the poor victims out of the trap by introducing the

new level of complexity to them.


Then there's the case of nonaction, or nonprogressive verbs. When students are at the low intermediate level, they need to know about verbs of the senses, and other nonprogressive verbs, for a variety of reasons. As soon as they know the rogressive tense, in fact, they need to know which verbs cannot take it. So you dutifully give them the list of nonprogressive

verbs, and everybody is happy. For a little while. Sure enough, that day will soon arrive when a student says, "But you said weigh is nonprogressive, Teacher, and this article says "Here are the judges weighing the winning cow." You take a deep breath and say, "OK, it's time to tell you about verbs that have a progressive and a nonprogressive meaning," and you lurch forward into a new level of complexity—and confusion. By now, they're taking Tylenol during the break.


At this point the reader may be saying condescendingly, "Well why don't you just spare them, and tell students the exceptions at the very beginning? Why allow those big holes if you know the students will fall into them? Moreover, why leave yourself open to all the loss of faith these exceptions will create?" Indeed, I have thought that myself, and I have

even valiantly tried to introduce whole categories of exceptions at the same time I'm introducing a rule. Have you ever tried that? If you have, you also know that eyes glaze over,  pencils drop, and the cognitive dissonance becomes so loud that it screams above your explanations, drowning them out.


So I teach the grammar point, knowing full well that it contains a gaping hole, and. just wait for the students to tumble into it. When they fall into it, then at least I know they have grasped the full implications of the original rule!


The same exasperating problem with exceptions occurs with many other items in English. No sooner do you teach beginning students that auxiliary verbs are used only in questions, negatives, and short answers, then some wiseguy comes in with an example of the emphatic "do" and asks for an explanation. Or try articles. The pathetic article rules you dare to float before  he class are quickly shipwrecked by the much larger number of exceptions.


The best defense of a scoundrel? You can always say, "English is a changing language." Or better yet, just grin at your student and say, "Don't you think that‘s quite exceptional?" Then you can proceed to explain the nature of an English pun.


TESOL Matters, (probably) 1995/96

 

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