a story about bad grammar and non-existent punctuation and my TEFL adventures
Coursebooks are funny. Sometimes they can be the best thing ever, but sometimes they make you want to throw them out the window. People are funny too. Some people believe everything they read, and some people think they don’t need the coursebook. Sadly for everyone involved, I’ve noticed that these four quadrants all meet in one very unhappy place: idioms.
For the life of me, I can’t understand what goes through people’s minds when they are teaching idioms – coursebooks and teachers. If you are in the EFL field, chances are you have taught the idiom raining cats and dogs. And I ask you, with tears in my eyes, why?
Have you ever actually dropped that idiom into a conversation? Do you hear other people regularly dropping it into conversation? I’m guessing the answers to those are no, because we are all living in the same era and in this day and age those fours words are rarely spoken in that sequence. Yet we continue to find it in our coursebooks and (*shiver*) in our classrooms.
Yes I understand it’s a funny saying and we can draw it on the board and have a giggle about why someone thought it made sense to call rain cats and dogs, but that’s about the extent of its usefulness. Seriously. That’s not the only one, to be fair. And Murphy’s Law says I can’t think of any others right now, but trust me, there are many sneaky little randoms that pop up every now and then. The problem with this is that eventually they will pop out of your student’s mouth, and then what will they do?
Exhibit A (from Chia Suan Chong in ETP):
Case in point: When John McClane in Die Hard 3 hears the building supervisor saying that it was raining ‘dogs and cats’, he immediately susses out that the building supervisor was not Amercian, thus leading him to conclude that he was German and belonged to the villain’s gang.
However, before you get your knickers in a knot, I understand this may be a cultural thing and, as a South African, I’m not familiar with UK or US usage, but I don’t think that accounts for the level of crazy teaching I’ve been witness to. Besides, if I don’t know these idioms and I’ve been speaking the language for over 30 years, chances are my students will never come into contact with them either.
To me it seems quite logical actually, but many teachers seem to enjoy teaching quaint, old-fashioned sayings. They’ll spend 10 minutes drawing pretty pictures and telling lovely stories on the origin of the phrase. Idioms and idiomatic language are hard enough to deal with anyway, without having to learn loads of them which you will never use, just because they are easy to explain or the teacher thinks they are funny. This goes for the meaning of the idioms too. The meanings of the majority of idioms are weird and archaic and nobody knows them anyway. Does that help your student learn the meaning and the use of it, anyway? In a word, no.
So there: rant over.
To end on a practical note, there is loads of advice out there on how to teach idioms. Before you think about that, stop for a minute and think about this:
Have I heard this idiom in the last 20 years?
Have I ever said it?
Will my students survive without this knowledge?
Is there anything else more meaningful they should be learning?
I repeat: think before you idiom.