Some of my adult English-learning students have been intermediate or advanced but the vast majority have been very much beginners. Yet, one of the prevailing ideas about teaching English in Japan is that Japanese not be permitted in the classrooms. I understand the reasoning behind this: try to get the students used to conversing only in English, avoiding a dependency on translation, many words and concepts simply can’t be translated, the vast majority of English teachers in Japan have an appalling level of Japanese that they think is much better than it actually is and so on and so forth, but still, avoiding it altogether is oftentimes a recipe for disaster. There comes to be a lot of miming and exaggerated gestures to explain a simple word or sentence, not to mention the embarrassing charades I had to go through when a chap asked me what the expression ‘big feet, big meat’ meant.
A sentence such as ‘I miss my family’ looks easy enough, but for a new teacher with no experience and no recourse to translation it is hard to explain what ‘miss’ means. You can give lots of examples accompanied by bad soap-opera dramatics but you can never be sure that students will get it. And if they try and look it up in their dictionaries they will think that you are talking about unmarried women or that you try to shoot your family but are not a good aim or something. You will say, ‘I am in Japan. My family is in Britain. I never see them. I miss my family!’ and ‘I want to eat some British food. I can’t get much British food in Japan. I really want to eat British food. I miss British food!’ and then ask a student what she misses to check comprehension, and she will say, ‘I miss my dog’ and you say, ‘Oh, that’s too bad. Did it die?’ and the student will say ‘No. It is in my home,’ and you will ask why she misses it and she will say, ‘Because it is very cute’ and eventually you figure out she thinks ‘I miss my family’ means ‘I love my family’. I once spent almost a whole lesson trying to sort that one out, but right at the end of the class she seemed to get it. ‘I miss the before teacher!’ she said.
Problems can, however, also arise when students do understand what new words mean and then try to use them. Of course, this should be commended, but sometimes it can really grate on a teacher’s ears. I’m talking mainly about idioms, slang and little conversation markers which sound very unnatural when used by anybody other than a very fluent speaker.
One of the textbook series I use to has an abundance of the word, ‘Gee!’ I keep coming across dialogues in which one character will deliver a piece of bad news and the other will respond with, ‘Gee! That’s too bad!’, or ‘Gee! That’s awful!’ I’m not really criticizing the textbook writers for this. It’s an okay word, used correctly, it’s not as if the characters are saying, ‘Gee willickers!’ or anything else so unrealistic, and short of introducing swearwords to the dialogues, the options are limited.
‘Gee!’ however, is a word that appears in low level textbooks and, when it crops up, my students invariably ask me to explain it. I do my best to give a brief explanation, and try and drop subtle hints that it is not important in the hope that they will not attempt to use it yet. My problem with, ‘Gee!’ is that it is one of those words that many low level students cannot use without sounding utterly ridiculous.
I once went to a class and a student asked me how I was. ‘Not too bad,’ I said, ‘but I’ve got a bit of a cold.’ The student slumped his shoulders and with overemphasis so great that one might have thought I had just told him I had terminal cancer said, ‘GEE! That’s terrible news!’ I cringed, but I couldn’t say anything because the poor chap was making an admirable effort to use language he’d learned in class and was, in fact, doing so without grammatical error. But he still sounded like a right tit. I didn’t know how to explain this to him. ‘Yes, your English is perfectly correct, but you sound like a cock when you use it!’
Idioms and slang are the same. On my second day with one class, I asked a young businessman of about twenty-five how he was, and he replied, ‘I’m hanging in there!’ with such misplaced intonation that I couldn’t stop myself from asking, ‘In where?’ His previous teacher had taught him to say this. Likewise, I took over one class from a guy who used to think it was fun to teach his students, who could barely even make a complete sentence in English, how to say things like, ‘Gimme five!’ or – oh how dreadful! – ‘Wassup bro!’ Of course, this was entirely for the teacher’s own amusement, but the student thought he was learning cool slang. He wasn’t. He was learning how to make an arse of himself in a second language.
So, and this is a plea to teachers really, think about what you want to teach low level learners of English. Don’t try and include slang and idioms in your dialogues and remember that, as wonderfully creative and colourful as ‘bad language’ can be, only the very best speakers of a second language can pull of swearing in that tongue. Forget this and you’re just inviting ridicule upon your beginner students if they ever actually go abroad and try to talk to someone.