Category Archives: Languages

Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant Hapus!

Alright, I regret to say I’m not a Welsh speaker. Despite the flags strewn along the shopping streets of Cardiff (or properly, ‘Caerdydd’- ‘fort of the Taff’) this part of the country is home to far fewer Welsh first-language speakers than its western and northern regions. I have to go quite far back into the annals of my south-east Wales family history to find Welsh speakers, while I have living relations in the north who are only the most recent of a long line of people for whom Welsh is the language of the home (and the pub).

Questions and discussions relating to the Welsh language frequently crop up in my English lessons, especially from those students who were unaware of the existence of the language until their arrival here. Wishing it to be viewed as more than a source for confusion, I often recount a very simplified (such as my knowledge allows) version of the history of Welsh, from it’s Brythonic beginnings through the middle-ages to the modern era. It provides, amongst other things, an opportunity for an exercise in which the students compete to jott down the narrative tenses I use as I ramble on. After the story has ended, I invite suggestions as well as recollections of the actual sentences the tenses formed part of so that we can put them up on the board for analysis. The students can then prepare a similar talk of their own as a mini-presentation, perhaps on an unrelated topic, employing the same narrative tenses.

Occasionally, a student might ask what this or that is in Welsh and even more occasionally I might actually be able to answer them. The topic can lead to interesting discussions about the language(s) of the students’ own countries, particularly when there are those in the group who speak ‘first’ a language which is either ‘second’ or ‘not spoken’ among the general populace. With a map, one can draw the students’ attention to ‘pre-English’ words that are seen in Welsh but in place names outside of Wales with questions such as “what’s the connection between Aberdeen and Abertawe, or Statford-Upon-Avon and Aberavon?” and draw out speculative language through their suggestions.

Well, there are only a few hours left of St. David’s Day (St. David was incidentally the only indigenous British patron-saint… another post!), so I wish you Dydd Gwyl Dewi Sant Hapus, Happy St. David’s Day, and hope the weeks and months ahead are filled for you and your students with happiness and learning.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

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There’s more than meets the eye (to idioms)

Everybody loves idioms. There’s that moment of recognition, often following some considerable guesswork and translation, when, having discovered one that’s used in another language and not our own, the meaning becomes clear and we are able to identify with the people/ culture from which it originates. There’s a wonderful, relatively modern expression used in China/ Chinese that describes a person recently fired from their job as a ‘stir-fried squid’- the imagery is just too perfect…

Students often enjoy learning idioms in lessons for pure fun, a little light relief perhaps from being embroiled in the study of some difficult grammar topic. They are insightful of culture and amusing, but ask your students how useful they think are the idioms they are playing around with and you may be surprised by the responses. “People don’t really say this though, do they?” is one that might just crop up and cause the teacher some consternation, especially when the answer should honestly be “no, they don’t.”

Some items of idiomatic language are obviously more practically applicable than others, but what do we do with those old favourites, the real corkers, the ones that even the elderly lady in the bus stop refrains from using for fear of sounding old-fashioned? Are we to relegate the likes of ‘raining cats and dogs’ to the status of a trivial source of distraction? I don’t think this is necessary, not if we invert the approach of ‘hanging’ idioms onto a topic and instead try relating to a topic through an idiom.

I was recently teaching some pre-intermediate students vocabulary centred on the subject of ‘house and home’. We had looked at flashcards depicting various kinds of abode (including igloos and yurts), when an image of a traditional Welsh cottage appeared.

We discussed some of the characteristic features of such a building and used dictionaries to identify the things that were unfamiliar. One such was the thatched roof, which the students complained was ‘stupid’ as the rain, especially the torrents we enjoy in this part off the world, would make its way into the house. I explained, in novice
terms (being as I am unfamiliar with the art of roof-thatching) that in fact the water rarely penetrated through. I then remembered the idiom of idioms, and the curious account I had once heard of its origin.

If it was raining heavily and persistently enough, it was not only the rain that might come through the roof, but anything else that happened to be up there, including small animals (though the likelihood of the dog being involved is questionable to say the least.) This entertaining prospect incited some great discussion among the students and lead me to re-evaluated my attitude towards the value of teaching such idioms. They can be utilised to illustrate and give colour to examples, to elicit language from students and create talking points, and, why not, to give some relief from that difficult grammar topic.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies

“Stop correcting me!”

The student tutted dismissively before continuing with his answer. He’d been going for barely a few seconds more before he hit upon the same snag- third person singular ‘S’.

“Is it ‘he always eat’ or ‘he always ‘eats’?” the teacher enquired gently after the student had finished his sentence.

The student huffed, visibly irritated by the question, causing a palpable shift in the jovial mood of the class…

Although the situation is imagined I’m sure there are those who have encountered it, or something similar. It is the kind of circumstance which raises questions about spontaneous correction- in particular, how verbal correction of students ought to be differentiated.

Many schools profess to employ a method of correction, but I’m interested to know how this works on the ground when the ‘method’ receives different responses from different students. Students often implore to be corrected whenever they’ve committed a spoken error, as, frustratingly, their native-speaker friends or colleagues refuse to do so no matter how many times they’re asked to!

Agreement is fairly unanimous over the idea that cutting in on every mistake is counter-productive, but what does the teacher employing a correction ‘method’ do when faced with a student who does not wish to be corrected in frontof their classmates, for whatever reason?

Perhaps it is in these sorts of scenarios that the atmosphere engendered in the class by the teacher is brought to bear above and beyond application of teaching methods. It’s not impossible to imagine, if the degree of camaraderie is sufficient, the other, more-willing-to-be-corrected students being sympathetic about the fact that one of their classmates prefers not to be corrected in the way that they do. That is, without the unfortunate sentiments of “why is he being corrected like that when we’re corrected like this?” manifesting themselves amongst the group.

The teacher in the story above might have elected to meet with the student in question after the lesson to discuss the problem and to encourage them to regard being corrected differently. I think he would if I were him, so what if it was you? I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has had to put a correction method aside for the sake of differentiation.

Tristan Francis
Director of Studies