Saturday, December 27, 2008

Bad Advice for ESL Teachers

The Times of London, p. 8, July 22, 1938
I was at the Times Online Games page (Why? If you have to ask, you shouldn't be reading this blog), and saw a link to the Times archive titled "1939: English for Foreigners". I'm going to quote the article in its entirety as the link appears a bit squicky, but don't feel obligated to read it all. [Blog continued below]

English For Foreigners - The 250 foreign students who are attending the annual Holiday Course in English at the University of London were advised by Professor Sir Denison Ross, in his inaugural address yesterday, to tackle the crossword puzzles in The Times and to read the books of Mr. P. G. Wodehouse. This far from disagreeable syllabus of studies was commended as the best avenue to knowledge of what Sir Denison Ross called "the neglected background" of the study of English, as of any other tongue-the secret repertory which formed, as it were, the physiognomy of a language, just as grammar and syntax formed its anatomy. Acquaintance with the background demanded familiarity with proverbs, catch phrases other than purely idiomatic phrases, contemporary slang, history, folklore, and the daily life of the people using the language. He wondered how many of his audience had noticed the crossword puzzles in The Times, and how many had tried to write the answer to even one question. It was, he thought, almost the greatest possible test of knowledge of a language to do a crossword puzzle in that language; and he had met none in any language as good as those in The Times and one or two other English newspapers, for they were really an intellectual exercise. Merely putting down a synonym required the kind of knowledge possessed by anyone with a rich vocabulary. But the kind of question The Times asked in the course of a puzzle was the kind of thing he asked his hearers to study in order to acquire the neglected background. It was composed mainly of allusions, many of which presupposed a familiarity with English history and English poetry of what he would call the taken-for- granted type. The men who set those puzzles had a distinct notion of what poetry the English reader was familiar with. He advised the students during their course to try to tackle one of them--though he himself had hardly ever completed one. CRICKET IN ITALIAN Another test of English, Sir Denison Ross continued, was the writing of Mr. P. G. Wodehouse, one of the greatest writers of the English language. Mr. Wodehouse always took for granted the repertory that formed the English background. He would give you a quarter of a quotation, he would give you half a word, and you would know the rest. That was why the speaker maintained that Mr. Wodehouse could not be translated into any other language. To illustrate this contention Sir Denison Ross read the account of a cricket match from an Italian translation of "Piccadilly Jim," with the technical terms all rendered with perfect literalness and therefore unintelligibly. "Since Mr. Wodehouse is one of the most delightful authors in the world," he added, "quite apart from improving your English, let me recommend you to read him as much as possible. And if you would go through one book by him you would know twice as much English, as when you began it." DR. GEORGE SENTER, chairman of the University Extension and Tutorial Classes Council, who took the chair at the opening session, introduced Sir Denison Ross as a great traveller, a great linguist, and one of the most interesting men in this country. "I think I am within the mark," he observed, "in saying that he could speak to each of you in your own language." Dr. Senter also said that the largest number of students that could he admitted to the course (which is being held at King's College of Household and Social Science, Campden Hill Road, W.8) was 290, and that in the existing very difficult inter- national circumstances it was remarkable that there were present 250 students, of 26 or 27 nationalities, many of whom must have found great difficulty in coming. The university attached great importance to the course as some contribution to international understanding and friendship. At no time had a contribution to that end been more necessary. ENGLISH FOR FOREIGNERS 'THE TIMES' CROSSWORD PUZZLES SIR DENISON ROSS'S ADVICE

On first glance, I held out great hope for this article, mainly on two grounds: I am a frequent crossword-filler, and even a sometime constructor, back in the days before the internet and crossword-making programs took the fun out of it; and during my voracious adolescence, I read most everything written by "Mr. P. G. Wodehouse" and can even tell you those initials are for Pelham Grenville without looking it up. And his friends called him Plum.

Crosswords, after all, have a place in ESL teaching--just as they do as vocab review for any classroom. But let's not pretend we're fooling anyone; vocab review is vocab review, whether it means writing the words in horizontal blanks, choosing the correct letter a) b) c) or d), or drawing a line from the word to its definition or its picture.

A Times crossword, however, with its hundred-plus clues and arcane words, is a different animal than a worksheet with fifteen theoretically familiar, well-rehearsed terms with textbook clues. Even a small-town paps "13 by" crossword relies on cultural, idiomatic and "crossword-ready" terms totally past kenning for 90% of ESL learners. Y'know, ken, three-letter word meaning "to descry."

With regard to Mr. Wodehouse (later Sir), it is easy to argue that his work speaks to universal themes--in fact, I'm so certain it does, I'm not going to try. It's beyond the ken of this blog, anyway. While my beloved Plum writes on love and human foible, he does so in a milieu so foreign to, say, a Korean or Chinese, that explaining about manservants and Spinoza may well have diminishing returns. The window-dressing, so delightful to those of us from the West, makes the picture opaque to the viewer with occidental eyes.

Sir Denison Ross gets something right, though: we should teach proverbs, catch phrases, slang, history, folklore and daily life. Done properly, these topics are ideal fodder for well-made ESL lessons. But I can promise you I won't be bringing a full-out Times crossword into class anytime soon. Unless I'm working on it!


Tanner Brown said...


Tuttle said...

Yes. Squicky. Were you building up to a pont? Is it that you don't consider squicky to be a word? Is that it, my tanned, brownish friend?

Well, our friends at Google find over 33,000 instances of squicky, and if that doesn't make it a word, well, then, what does?

Oh, sure, you could talk about your OED, or your Webster's or--G-d forbid--your Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, and I could listen to you blather on about all that for days and days.

But what it finally comes down to, I mean, really, in the final analysis, is: did Tuttle use it as a word in his blog? If he did [if I did, I mean], then it is a word. Period. In exactly the same sense, only better, that if the President does it, it means it isn't illegal.