MOSCOW, Oct. 3, 2003 -- Now, I’m not keen on dumping on the British or anything like that.
Probably well over half the English teachers in English Exchange, the company I work for, are English; and they’re by-and-large pleasant, affable, folk, even though they are for the most part unintelligible.
I’ve had to ask Bill Skyrme, the one I know best and the one with whom I’ve spent the most time, to repeat his statements so often that he recently suggested I get my ears checked. “Theah must be something wraung with yoh herring, Squiah.”
“Excuse me, Gov’nah, did you ask if I’m wearing the wrong earring?”
Actually we owe the British a lot:
The south portico of the White house, for instance. If the British hadn’t burned the president’s mansion in the War of 1812, we probably would never have added it.
And “bloody,” the ostensibly naughty British word that some say derived from the butchered pronunciation of “by my lady.” Without it, we would have to have our Sunday morning eggs benedict and bloody Marys with pink mimosas instead.
But most disturbing is what they do to what they have declared to be their very own Queen’s English.
Have you ever heard anything quite as stultifying as the words “whilst” and “amongst”? Whilst the cat’s away, the mice will play amongst the cheese. A cat who used “whilst” would probably be too old and feeble to catch mice amongst anything.
Or anything quite so personally degrading as, “mustn’t grumble, must we?” What kind of tradition does this reflect? Is this a nation full of mindless twits who must accept everything they’re given without complaint? Does this represent the pluck of the British? I vouchsafe it doesn’t. In fact, I aver not.
I can’t keep my skin from crinkling just a smidgeon when I hear that “Her Majesty’s Government have proposed a change in the labour law.” Or that Manchester United have beaten Liverpool. How many governments does Britain have, and what makes one team plural?
And as a teacher of English as a Second Language whose only textbooks have the misfortune of having been authored, edited, and published in Her Majesty’s realm, I have to keep apologizing to my students for the British failure to use “whom” as the objective case of “who.” For example: “These worthless tomes were written by who?”
Equally annoying, they are apparently unable to make a distinction between reality and unreality by using “were” as the past tense of the verb “to be” in an unreal condition. And so we find such churlish constructions as, “I wish I was using American English books.”
Would that it were so.
The dream of every ambitious Russian business student is to get an MBA in America. If they’re really rich and really smart, they might get to Harvard; but they’d happily settle for almost any university in the country.
Of course, to be accepted, they have to take a test called TOEFL, “Test of English as a Foreign Language.” It’s a purely American test, so of course it requires the proper use of “whom” and “were.” It’s also a diabolically difficult test. It purports to determine the foreign student’s ability to sit in an American classroom and take legible notes on what’s being said, which even most American students can’t do, so I don’t know why they single out foreign students for discrimination.
I’m at present the only person in English Exchange (Remember, only the names have been changed to protect the innocent) who has any experience teaching TOEFL, and one of my colleagues, who is also sort of an administrator, asked if I would meet with a new teacher – a very pretty young British lass -- who is going to be teaching TOEFL for English Exchange at a Moscow university.
We chatted for a while about the general format, and then I started giving her lists of things that TOEFL is especially watchful for, like subject/verb agreement; pronoun/antecedent agreement (what’s an antecedent, she asked); introductory participial phrases modifying the subject of the following clause; and the use of relative clauses as subjects of the independent clause.
I opened the book at random and found the following sentence as an example of the latter, in which there is one mistake -- which the student is supposed to find:
That the museum includes displays of the papyrus-making process are yet another reason for not missing it.
“Oh, this is a really good example, I said. Now the first thing we want to do is find the subjects and the verbs of the two clauses. What’s the subject/verb in the first clause?
In her quite proper British accent, she appropriately identified “museum includes.”
“Okay, now where’s the verb in the second clause?
Her finger roamed, and paused at “making.”
“No, that’s an adjective.”
Then it stopped at “process.” No, that’s a noun. Then “missing.” Another noun.
At last she fumbled onto “are.”
“Okay, good. Now what’s the subject of are?”
Displays? Papyrus? She never found it.
“Okay, the subject is the entire clause. Now, is it a singular or a plural subject?
She didn’t know. She simply countered with, “Why does it start with ‘that’?”
“Another way of saying it,” I said, “would be, ‘the museum includes displays of the papyrus-making process. That is yet another reason for not missing it.’ But that’s short and choppy. This is a much more sophisticated way of saying it.
“So,” I continued, is the subject singular or plural?”
She accurately assessed, “Singular.”
“So is the verb correct? ‘are’ another reason?”
She finally got it.
She obviously has no idea what she’s doing. Is this really a product of the vaunted British education system? Are the Russian university students, who probably know more English than she does, going to laugh, cry, or demand their money back?
Maybe she’s just another literature major who thought it would be fun to teach English in Russia for a year or two.
It doesn’t inspire confidence in British English if you’re an American English teacher or inspire your confidence in the value of the education you’re paying for if you’re a Russian student.
English teachers are in constantly increasing demand in Moscow because every ambitious young Russian knows that to get anywhere in Russian business, you have to acquire two skills: computers and English.
But in Russia, there are basically two approaches to teaching English: The lower grades approach, which teaches children to translate English -- Aesop’s fables, for instance, before you’ve even learned how to conjugate “to be” -- but never to waste time speaking it; and the university approach, which tries to teach you to speak it using rules that went out of date 50 years ago.
The conjugation of “will,” for instance, is “I shall, you will, he/she/it will; we shall, you will, they will.” Only the Queen of England still says, “I shall, shan’t I?” And they absolutely insist on “taking” a decision. Even my British education director doesn’t know where this came from. But they all use it.
And just yesterday, Yegor insisted that the proper way to say, “I didn’t used to,” is to announce that “I usen’t to.” And to prove it he showed me the rule in Practical Grammar of the English Language by Kachalova and Israelivich.
So native speakers are in great demand.
And the bottom line for the Russian student is that everything must have a rule, and if you correct your students, you’d better be able to cite the rule for it. I daresay my British colleague is in for a bit of a drubbing from the rules committee, since she obviously doesn’t even know the grammar, much less the rule for it.
A more horrific example of teaching malpractice was the multi-degreed and experienced British educator who taught my month-long CELTA advanced teacher preparation course.
If you’ve studied English at the college or university level, you know that dependent clauses are either identifying or non-identifying. For example, in The woman who is sitting in the chair is my mother, the clause "who is sitting in the chair” is necessary for you to know who “the woman” is. It’s an identifying clause. On the other hand, in My mother, who is sitting in the chair, has been to China, “who is sitting in the chair” is not necessary to identify the woman – you only have one mother; so it’s a non-identifying clause.
In any case, punctuation is absolutely crucial to understanding the sentence.
But in the CELTA course, my British instructor dismissed the entire clause-punctuation issue with “I never could figure it out. Don’t worry about it. It’s not important.”
In all fairness, American teachers may be just as bad. I just haven’t been exposed to them. On the other hand, maybe not. Sasha, former student cum best buddy and sex partner, had as an instructor at English Exchange a University of Washington graduate, who, by the way, seemed quite limp wristed. Sasha said he and I were the two best teachers English Exchange had, leading him to surmise that “Only gays know how to teach English.”
Well, that’s probably a bit of a push, but I’ll take it.
Anyway, another appalling example of expertise – though neither British nor American – came to my attention a year or two ago. A very butch little number from Australia was sitting in the teachers’ resource room wrestling with what appeared to be a major problem. Finally, she asked, “What’s the best way to identify a clause?”
Trying very hard not to show my shock at the basic level of the question – she’d already been teaching several months -- I replied, “well, first, you have to find your subject and your verb.”
To which she replied with wide-eyed perplexity:
“What’s a subject?”