By @eannegrenoble | eltpics on Flickr
In the middle of the market where I go for my weekly vegetable shopping there is a stall where I buy olives. The owners of the stall are a husband and wife team who know I am an English teacher. The other day the wife – let's call her Lily – pointed at lettuce and asked me:
"What do you call it in English?" (the exchange took place in Hebrew)
"Lettuce," I replied.
"Letters?" asked Lily.
We then worked on the pronunciation a little until she got it right. I thought it was time to move on to new items. I pointed at olives.
"And what's this in English?" I asked. Lily looked puzzled. "Come on. You have a bottle over there with a label in English".
"Olives!" exclaimed Lily – she clearly knew "Olive oil" in English.
A week later it's time for my next trip to the market and a little vocabulary review. "Do you remember the words from last week?" I asked Lily who glanced at the lettuce, tried to retrieve the word from memory but drew a blank. And then, to my utter amazement, she delivered in English:
"You see, I don't know English. Sometimes I remember, sometimes I forget."
I was taken aback.
"So you CAN speak English!"
Lily slipped back into Hebrew and bemoaned the fact she didn't know the names of basic things in English, pointing at the lettuce, olives and other produce in front of her.
This conversation made me think about how people perceive what constitutes knowing a language. The fact that Lily could produce fluently – and correctly "Sometimes I remember, sometimes I forget" didn't seem to matter vis-a-vis her frustration at not knowing single words such as "lettuce" or "olives". Like many others, my olive lady labours under the assumption that knowing a language is primarily knowing names of things.
It also put me in mind of my Spanish teacher who once gave us a list of 50 names of different food items to learn. The only two I still remember are "gamba" (prawn) and "cerveza" (beer). I only remembered "gamba" because the same word in Hebrew means "pepper" and "cerveza" because… well, just because. The whole list proved rather useless when I arrived in
Spain because most
restaurants had English menus. The difficulty was communicating with waiters
and saying things like:
"Can I have…?"
"Do you have…?"
and other, similar transactional expressions.
Learning at elementary levels tends to involve a lot of lists - food names, animals, furniture – all mainly nouns! and lack functional phrases to put these nouns into. Even at higher levels students often think that knowing the words "screwdriver", "hole punch" or "garlic crusher" is more important than being able to say:
"it's a thing you open bottles with"
"it's a thing you stick papers together with"
which I find even upper intermediate students struggle with. (My students often say "it’s a thing to open bottles with it"). Interestingly, when native speakers have "tip-of-the-tongue" moments, it is the names of things they tend to forget and not phrases like the ones above which, together with the all-purpose words "thing" and "stuff", give them much more mileage, for instance:
Can you pass me that garlic thing, please?
Why do you think the notion that knowing a language is all about knowing names of things is so prevalent? Do you think we spend too much time teaching names of objects and not enough time on functional language? Do you teach students how to paraphrase and use other circumlocutory strategies (in order to compensate for gaps in their lexical knowledge)?
I would like to hear your comments and thoughts on the topic.