Transform the following sentences into questions:
1. We have a big house by the river.
2. The doctor is examining my knee.
3. I have an older brother.
I’m assuming you got them correct. Now try to imagine a context for each question:
I don’t think contexts spring quite so readily to mind as they might for such questions as ‘can I have a day return to Oxford, please?’ or ‘fancy a gin and tonic?’ I thought all three might perhaps be uttered by an actor discussing a character she’s developing with a director. Number two might be from someone who’s looking at a fuzzy newspaper photo of an accident he was involved in, and three might be asked by an amnesia patient, or a righteously indignant character in a play, hysterically deploring family disloyalty; ‘out upon thee! Be brother of mine no more!’ They are all a bit of a stretch, though. It’s hard to think why anyone, in the normal course of events, would need to ask if he had an older brother, or not be aware of what property he owned.
Learners of English around the world are faced with ‘transformation’ exercises like the one above every day. Change this tense to that. Change active to passive. Change statement to question and question to statement, handy-dandy, sod the meaning, to hell with the statistical likelihood of the utterance, just make sure you get the grammar right, or else. Colleagues and I railed against this sort of task in seminar after seminar in Greece. It isn't difficult to devise tasks that focus on accuracy and meaning, after all, and it's difficult to justify a language practice task that does not focus on meaning. Their popularity remains undiminished, so we railed largely in vain. In a class I observed five years ago in Greece, I transcribed the following exchange:
Little girl: But what does it mean, miss?
Teacher: We're not bothered about what it means, we're just interested in you getting it right!*
I was reminded of the get-the-grammar-right-and-fuck-the-meaning approach to language instruction this afternoon. I had asked one of my classes - a lovely bunch of people, I must point out - to come up with titles for presentations, and explained that the presentation must analyse the topic, not merely describe. Adbullah and Talal showed me their notes, which consisted of doodles of British houses (semis, terraced, detached) and notes such as ‘Saudi house defferent’. They proposed to compare British houses with Saudi houses.
‘What for?’ I asked.
‘Because defferent.’ Abdullah said.
I have been feeling ratty today, and I hope I didn’t sound too impatient when I pointed out that they were proposing to address a ninety-percent Saudi audience, all of whom are now living in English houses, to inform them that English houses are not like Saudi ones. Late news. What, I asked, is the bloody point of that?
I suppose from their point of view, the point was to assemble words in more or less the right order so as to fill the required ten minutes of the presentation. They have never been assessed on the content of what they produce in English as well as its accuracy. Hitherto, accuracy has been their teachers' only concern. That their ten minute presentation should be informative or thought-provoking had never occurred to them. They were not the only ones who were planning to do presentations on the blindingly obvious and the numbingly banal. People brought up on such ‘display’ tasks as that above have a hard time realising that language without content is, well, language without content; honestly, lads, why bother?
There’s another reason for the lack of analysis. After I had trashed their original plan to tell everybody about pollution for the umpteenth time, one pair came up with the idea of discussing the pros and cons of the death penalty. This was more like it. Unfortunately, neither of them had ever heard an argument against it, far less entertained one. I fed them a couple, and suggested they have a squint at the Amnesty International website. It was sad, but not a surprise, to learn that they had never heard of Amnesty International either. Other pairs had begun to think about education reform in their countries, but when I asked them what they thought desperately needed changing, they were reluctant to criticise the existing systems too harshly. I remembered Brian Whittaker’s book What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East, and the title of the first chapter, ‘Thinking inside the Box’, in which Whitaker quotes the Arab Human Development Report 2002:
When it comes to the sciences, content is not usually a controversial matter… but the humanities and social sciences that have a direct relevance to people’s ideas and convictions are supervised and protected by the authorities in charge of designing curricula and issuing textbooks.
No bloody wonder my suggestions for more controversial ideas on the death penalty and education were treated with a sort of respectful lack of engagement, as if I had said something utterly inappropriate but wasn’t aware of having done so, and they didn’t want to draw attention to my gaffes.
The presentations, then, will be the usual stuff. Slick Powerpoint slides, mumbled formulas ‘I move on now to therred bart off my talk’ and absolutely nothing in the way of intellectual fizz. Anyone free on May 18th? If you fancy a day in a darkened room getting boss-eyed from fade-outs and fade-ins and skittering captions, and brain-numbed from blandness, let me know, and you can stand in for me, I won’t mind, honest.
* 'Δεν μας ενδιαφέρει τι σημαίνει, μας ενδιαφέρει να το κάνετε σωστά!' I swear this is true.