Not seeing the meaning for the rules
There are times when you just feel like hiding away from it all or putting your head in your hands and this week was one of those times, I’m afraid. If you cannot understand the title of this article you are in the same situation as I was on Wednesday. I had been looking over exams with students at the university with the idea that by looking at the work they had done, they would be able to see where they needed to focus their energy in preparation for the next exam, or, if they had done well, they could see what had been particularly successful. All was well for the first half hour or so, until the door opened and in came a student who had failed our B1 written exam (It was not the first time this had happened to her, of course, and we’ll see why in a minute). One of the parts of this test involves sentence translation, not to see how proficient learners are at translating but to see if they can express B1 level messages in English. I will not bore you with all of this but here is one of the sentences that was on this paper. If you speak Italian, this is your chance to stop and translate it into English for yourself:
“Non mangerei mai dei funghi raccolti nel bosco perche’ forse non sono buoni.”
You may wonder how releveant this is to the learners, but if you live in the north of Italy mushrooms do tend to figure every so often on your radar and quite a few people pick them, but,anyway, that would be another discussion. OK, so have you translated it? Well, if you have you’ve probably written something like this: I would never eat mushrooms picked in a wood because they might not be edible/safe to eat (At a B1 level even “good” would be acceptable here.) What you would not do was to write what this student had written:
“I have never eaten it mushroom taken in sauna, no good.”
The problem, of course, is that there is no real meaning here, so there is very little communication taking place. When I asked here why she had written “I have never eaten”, instead of a conditional she replied “because ‘never’ takes the present perfect.” In fact she showed me how she had studied all the rules, and had pages and pages of sentences that she had practised with. I then asked her about the ‘sauna’ and she shrugged and said she didn’t know the word for ‘bosco’ so she’d put another one!! It soon became quite clear that she didn’t know other words either such as ‘look for’ or other quite basic items, and this was the point where I started to get a headache and felt like hiding away behind my Iatefl programme. Later on, though, two things becamse very clear to me. Firstly, she was a victim of this pervasive belief in the infallibility of basic grammar rules, that tends to be reinforced all the way through school and then even university, with a real focus on form to the detriment of meaning, and secondly, her total disregard for choosing the right lexical item was also probably the result of a system that prizes grammar rules above lexis. So, what it made me think was that in this case, and evidently many others, the we in the education system had failed our students.
The CEFR was a breath of fresh air, as far as I’m concerned, in that it moved away from this type of structural syllabus to focus on what you ‘can do’ at the various levels, and it seems to me, reading between the lines, that what we are aiming for as we move up from one level to another, at least as far as the productive skills are concerned, is more articulate, specific expression. Let me give you a quick example of what I mean (This is only an idea and not at all scientific so please feel free to tell me what you think) . Here is an utterance that might change in complexity and therefore become more ‘communicative’ the higher the level is:
A2: I like Verona.
B1: I like Verona because it’s a beautiful city.
B2: Verona impresses me because it has lovely architecture and there’s a great atmosphere in the town centre.
C1 I love the town centre atmosphere and the mix of colours and styles in the buildings, as I wander along the romantic, old, city streets of Verona.
C2 I can’t get enough of the lovely Veronese town centre, and I love soaking up its atmosphere and breathing in the unique mix of colour and light you get as you wander round the city.
Ok, do you get the idea. I think what we are aiming at is expressing ourselves as clearly and specifically as we can, and obviously the more we are exposed to language and the more specific lexis (by which I mean words and their patterns) we learn, the more articulate we become. At the A2 level an utterance such as ‘I like Verona’ does not really give us much insight into what the speaker really means or wants to communicate, but the more language we can use the more clearly we can say or write what we mean. This is what I think we need to be aiming for in our world where English is being used by so many different people from different backgrounds. If we want to be able to understand each other we have to be able to see what we mean.
So, the next time I go to the sauna, I’ll be sure not to pick any mushrooms 🙂