Thursday, 12 November 2009

You Ought Never Shoulded To Have Must

EFL teacherly stuff, this. Some of you might want to go and play somewhere else.

I was taking the register with my Algerian group yesterday morning.

'Faisal don't come this morning,' said Cherif. 'He's diseased.'

I took this to mean that Faisal was a trifle indisposed, rather than gangrenous or syphilitic. At first I thought he'd said Faisal was deceased, but this could be discounted a) because of the casual delivery and b) because 'deceased' is not an item of vocabulary I would expect this group to have encountered.

Faisal turned up late explaining he'd had a bout of the shits. He did not put it like that exactly: I think he told me in French. Anyway, he's alive and reasonably well. Someone else had to leave at the break.

‘I go to the bullies,’ he said.
‘The bullies?’
‘Yeah, bullies’ registration.’
‘Ah, police registration, Ok.’

We had to do grammar yesterday. Let us turn our attention, gentlemen, to modal verbs. The primary modal verbs, for those lucky people who need not concern themselves with this sort of thing for a living, are:


Then there's a bunch of hangers-on known as ‘marginal modals’:


It might have been Henry Widdowson, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of London, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Vienna, and quondam Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Essex, who said 'modals are a cunt' - or maybe my memory is faulty here. Whoever said it was right, though. This area is a minefield, as every modal verb has several meanings plus a baggage of formal peculiarities that distinguish it from 'normal' – known to their friends as ‘lexical’ - verbs:

He writes / * He musts
He wanted / * He musted
He’s trying / * He’s musting
He doesn’t know / *He doesn’t must
Does he know? / *Does he must?
He won’t tell / *He won’t must

The asterisk denotes an illegal form, and obviously the potential for errors here is considerable, but – and I can’t help thinking this is unfortunate – most of the possible illegal moves remain unmade. You could get such pile-ups as:

*Sorry, I don’t will can to come.
*Teacher, shall we must to write this down?
*Goddammit, I shouldn’t ought to have musted!

But you don’t, in my experience at least, probably because the above manglings are just too complicated semantically. By the time students are ready to consider formulating in English the concept that last sentence attempts to convey, they are experienced enough to know it’s probably more like ‘I shouldn’t have had to’. Pity.

Here is a little taste of the semantic complexity we are dealing with here:

Meanings of ‘can’:

Doris can juggle and ride a monocycle. (Ability)
Can Bertram come to the party? (Permission)
She can be a right old cow sometimes. (Possibility)

Meanings of ‘must’:

Darlings, you must come to Capri this year! (Invitation phrased as an obligation)
I must lose a few pounds. (Obligation)
He must be loaded – look at the car he drives. (Logical deduction based on evidence)

Many a course book in use around the planet presents all modal verbs and all their uses at once, thus guaranteeing that large numbers of students will never sort out the tangle. There is in some countries a view that language learning should be made as difficult as possible, or at least that no attempt need be made to grade, to contextualize, or to demonstrate meaning, rather than endlessly explain it. Talking about English modal verbs in Arabic might give students the feeling that they are really being pretty damn clever, and the teacher who has mastered them can certainly feel very superior, but such learned discourse is not, in most instances, going to produce learners who can actually speak. It’s like sitting in a classroom and talking about driving instead of getting out onto the road. In any case, if you do check understanding of the language you present – by no means a universal habit - you have your hands full making sure that everyone agrees on the differences between ‘permission’ ‘ability’ ‘possibility’, ‘obligation’ and ‘deduction’ and so on, before you even start. That in itself, believe me, is one hell of a task, and I shall never again attempt it, even with the most advanced of groups.

Well, my Wednesday Algerian group is not advanced. We did fine with ‘can’t be’ must be’ and ‘might be’, all presented via a magazine article illustrated with a photo of three attractive young ladies, one of whom says:

‘People think I might be a teacher or a hairdresser. When I tell them I’m a policewoman, they say ‘you can’t be a policewoman! You’re too short!

You see? Some discussion of the text before reading, some guided speculation about the three women’s jobs based on their appearance, to be confirmed or rejected on reading, and the meaning of these verbs is pretty clear without the gales of explanatory hot air many Arab, Greek, Korean, Chinese, Japanese etc., etc., students get from their teachers. You just need to ask a few questions to tidy things up. ‘Are people sure she’s a teacher? How do you know?’

Good! I felt pleased with the progress the students made, and smug for having facilitated it. Such consummate professionalism, such linguistic and pedagogical sensitivity – we adjourned for lunch early as my reward. However, a disinclination to spend lunchtime photocopying instead of going round to Marks and Sparks for fruit, coffee and wine, meant that I didn’t look or think far enough forward in the book, where we get into how you avoid:

* ‘I don’t will can’ and
* ‘I didn’t can’ and
* ’I haven’t could'

by replacing ‘can’ with ‘be able to’ when talking about the future and past. I rashly attempted to present all this, wishing I had not started. It was a lost cause, the students showing signs of acute mental indigestion. A sure sign of failure is when you start getting into explanation mode with students who don’t have the language to follow your explanations, and detecting that this was about to happen, I ditched the bloody modals and had to busk for the remaining ninety minutes, a bloody long time to must, sorry, have to improvise. As ‘tis well said, ‘modals are a cunt’.

I was well pleased with today, though. I have a class of Saudis and Libyans in which the ladies and the gentlemen always sit on opposite sides of the room, the nine ladies all huddled around one table, gassing in Arabic and treating the lesson as if it were the telly in the corner, to watch or ignore as they please. So I decided to rearrange the tables into a horseshoe shape to split up the ‘knitting circle’ as my two colleagues and I have named the ladies’ table. This afternoon we did an activity in which students mill around the room talking to as many people as possible to complete a survey. I suggested Khalid and Abdullah go and talk to the women, and they bravely crossed the imaginary dividing line down the middle of the room and did just that. And before you knew where you were, there were males and females intercoursing all over the place. Great stuff.


Unfortunately, this proved to be rather like the Christmas Truce. Next day, it was business as usual.


Anonymous said...

I love modals, an absolutely fascinating aspect of our language; my students don't, they agree on the cunt bit.


vilges suola said...

I agree with you, and my students agree with yours.

Michael said...

I can't imagine having to teach that, don't know how my mother does it. I would go absolutely crazy, lose my patience, and start shouting at them, implementing words that are too big for them to understand my frustration, of course.

Do you hate it too?
"If you're going through Hell, keep going."

vilges suola said...

Your mother does this too, huh? I've been at it 30 years, so I should have known better than to embark on 'be able to' with such a low level group. All because I wanted to go shopping in the lunch hour.


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