Sometimes my students of junior high school age bring me their school tests to have a look at. I praise or commiserate as appropriate and then, when they have gone home, I go bright red and get all blustery and angry as I rant to my poor wife about how it is little wonder so few people here develop any confidence in speaking English.
Today’s blood-pressure raising annoyance was the all too common occurrence of a student writing an answer that is absolutely correct and being marked as wrong because it isn’t the answer the teacher had in mind. I have seen a child have the word ‘dad’ marked wrong (it should have been ‘father’), and the answer, ‘I am from Tokyo,’ marked wrong as an answer to, ‘Where are you from?’ (it should have been ‘I am from Japan.’) to give just two previous examples. This time, a student was supposed to answer a question on a test with the phrase, ‘Do you want me to ask him to call you?’ but the student wrote, ‘Shall I ask him to call you?’ and was marked wrong. Now perhaps, perhaps if what they were doing was attempting a direct and extremely inflexible translation (and those certainly seem to be the most popular kinds here) I could see the teacher’s point. But they weren’t doing that. They were asked to insert an appropriate phrase for asking if the caller wanted the unavailable person to return the call. And I think, ‘Shall I ask him to call you?’ is just fine in that regard.
Now, I know teachers have to teach to tests and have an eye on entrance exams and whatnot. I don’t blame them for an educational system that means communicative competence has to take a back seat to fill in the blank exercises or the existence of ‘oral communication’ classes in which there is no speaking. I’m not ranting that everything must change and now! I am simply stating that students who are at least making admirable attempts to do well and writing good, correct English should be allowed the small joy of being rewarded for their efforts. What good is there in knocking the confidence out of a teenager who comes to realise he not only has to learn a language, he also has to guess the one and only correct answer out of many possibilities? Or perhaps he doesn’t have to guess. I haven’t checked but perhaps the question, ‘Do you want me to ask him to call you?’ was the one in the textbook and therefore the correct one to remember. But you just can’t be that rigid, for heaven help the students when they try to speak to real people and discover that those people might not engage in conversation entirely in phrases from a Japanese English text book. Mind you, I suppose it might be quite nice if they did, as Japanese people’s English communicative ability would suddenly improve immensely, almost like a magic.