Monday, February 17, 2014

How to Spot a Rotten Language Teacher

It's not easy to be a good language teacher. Most people I know think that the English language is the easiest language to master. It's the language that comes most naturally to the highest percentage of humans regardless of our ethnicity and background. While many of us are able to get our grammar largely correct in speech and writing, very few of us can make good teachers of the language.

I must, at the very beginning, make it clear that I have never been a professional teacher. While I consider the teaching profession a truly noble one, I have never, not even for an hour, taught for remuneration. I have to specify that because I have taught, for short spells, (under the umbrella of the church) in a penitentiary and also to the children of drug offenders. My little forays into the world of teaching tell me I'm a bad teacher and I have difficulty communicating effectively with my students especially when they aren't really interested in their work.

But I'm not a professional teacher and I've not earned a single cent from teaching and I have no intention of becoming a professional teacher and so it doesn't bother me in the least if I make a bad teacher. But the language experts of the Ministry of Education (MOE) are different. They are paid teachers of the English language and they have contributed to two disgracefully flawed books on grammar and as I have said repeatedly in my previous posts, MOE should do something about these teachers.

I will refer to one more example from the book ENGLISH AS IT IS BROKEN by MOE's "panel of English language specialists". This is the format of the book: first a question is asked by someone who has written to the Straits Times newspaper. The question is immediately followed by an answer given by MOE's panel of specialists.

Let's examine the effectiveness of the teaching method of MOE's panel of English language specialists according to two criteria. First, we'll look at the teacher's personal knowledge of the subject. Does the teacher understand English grammar? I'm not even asking if the teacher knows enough to teach. I'm merely assessing if the teacher himself or herself has personal knowledge of what he or she is talking about.  Next we will see what is really taught to the student and how effective it is.

The question in the book is a perfectly legitimate question asked by a student who needs help in grammar. Why is "ring" in the present tense? Let's look at the answer of the experts and examine it under the two criteria I have laid down.


The writers of ENGLISH AS IT IS BROKEN and ENGLISH AS IT IS BROKEN 2 are consistent in referring to such a verb (in the above case it's "heard") as a catenative. I am positive I have seen it repeated elsewhere in these books. The verb "heard" as used in the example given by the questioner is NOT a catenative. By classifying the verb as a catenative, the experts from MOE have demonstrated immediately their ignorance of this aspect of grammar. They are wrong from the very outset.


Since MOE's language experts are ignorant of this part of grammar, it naturally follows that whatever they teach cannot be effective. But I will examine their teaching method all the same.

One thing I really hate about ignorant teachers is their tendency to throw smoke bombs at the students just to confuse them, perhaps in the hope that the students do not discover that these teachers are really clueless about grammar. They love long technical words even if they don't know what they mean. The verb is not a catenative but even if it were, what good would it do to talk about catenatives? The student wants to know WHY the second verb is "ring" instead of "rang". Notice that MOE's experts totally fail to give any answer as to why the second verb is "ring".

Catenatives have a different set of rules altogether and they are much more complex and varied than the example given by the student of the verb "heard" which must always be followed by an -ing construction or a bare infinitive. Why is that so? What other verbs fall under the same category? What are the exceptions to the rule? Any good teacher of grammar should be aware of the exceptions to almost every basic grammar rule. MOE's language experts are totally silent on these questions. It's only after the teacher has covered these questions that he is at liberty to proceed further and talk about catenatives and why the student must not confuse them with the verb "heard" as given in the student's question.  They must learn not to be as ignorant as MOE's experts.

In order for a student to understand the rules governing catenatives, he needs to have a good grounding in verbs which MOE's experts evidently haven't got. That's not really necessary for a student who is not studying English language at uni level. A good teacher will not use complex sounding terms just for show but he will answer the question properly and in a way that the student can understand.  MOE's experts, on the other hand, employ technical terms that they themselves don't understand.  And the worst thing is they leave the question unanswered.

MOE's English language specialists fail on all counts of what makes a good teacher.

How can one tell that a language teacher is rotten? If he displays ignorance on the subject he is teaching and he uses technical terms that he doesn't understand and that have no direct bearing on the immediate question asked and he doesn't at all answer the question, you know you're better off asking a chimpanzee for help. At least it won't teach you the wrong thing.

For a list of my blog posts on grammar terrorists, click on this. Please note that this list of grammar terrorists will be updated every time I publish a fresh post in my blog on the subject.

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