Aug 18, 2013

Lettuce, olives and other things

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.
The Carmel Market in Tel Aviv where the story took place.
Photo by Tzvi Meller

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…?"
"For starters…"

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.


  1. Yes, I think it is quite normal to consider knowing a lot of vocabulary equalling a better shot at L2 fluency. This does likely stem from our own language learning schooling as well as what's easiest to prepare a lesson from when you're a new, untrained teacher abroad.

    I'd argue that when it comes to higher level students, however, their fluency (whether it's ability to understand a university lecture, reading or write substance that doesn't sound narrative) often does come down to a lack of vocabulary. If there's a majority of the content words you don't know, all the functional language in the world isn't going to help you, except maybe during office hours or tutorial when you can ask for help.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Tyson!
    In no way did I want to imply - and sorry if it came across that way - that learning vocabulary is not important. And as a regular reader of my blog you probably know that I'd never advocate such a thing :)

    Rather I was making a case against preoccupation with infrequent concrete nouns - often presented in lists - on communicative courses. I agree with you that with higher level EAP/ESP students you can't make much progress without knowing the content words.


  3. hi leo

    i would say it is the experience of using a word that lays down a stronger memory trace. so perhaps your market lady has indeed used the line "You see, I don't know English. Sometimes I remember, sometimes I forget" in more situations than "lettuce" or "olives"?

    a post here reminds us that even with a lot of things which have direct translations in the learner's first language without the experience that goes with that word then knowing that word is much more incomplete?

    if your stall holder has need to sell "lettuce" to English speaking buyers she will learn it very easily :)


    1. Hi Mura

      Thank you for your comment. Always good to have you here!

      Certainly, experience that goes with a word makes learning it more effective. The number of encounters is very important too. I am not surprised she forgot "lettuce" after one week - after all she'd encountered it only once - and no doubt she has used the line "You see, I don't know English. Sometimes I remember, sometimes I forget" many times. (reminds me of my own line in Greek "I used to speak Greek but have forgotten most of it" which I have used quite a lot!).

      The question is even if she had lots of English-speaking lettuce buyers don't you think she wouldn't be able to complete a transaction by simply pointing at the lettuce and saying "Would you like this?" or "Do you want one or two?". My point being that these transactional expressions are more important than knowing the name of the object in question.

      I'll check out the post you mention.



  4. Hi Leo,

    I thought about my first two years as a teacher while reading your post. When the lesson focus was 'vocabulary', I did my best to put together realia, slips, long lists provided by the course book and a lot of memory training. For trainee teachers who rely a lot on course books, that seemed to be the best way to do it.

    Years later, after training courses and a lot of teaching practice, I must agree with you. It's not the number of words you know, but the ability to communicate when you remember/forget those words. Lists of words contextualized with a clear communicative objective are extremely important, true, but always with a communicative objective or can-do statements which are transparent and raise students' awareness in the learning process.

    Thank you for the great post!


    1. Hi Eduardo,

      It seems like a common vocabulary teaching pitfall many novice teachers fall into. But only novice teachers, I wonder?

      I wouldn't say that the number of words is not important. After all you actually need more words to say to a shop assistant:

      "Can I have that thing over there, please?"

      if you don't know the word "screwdriver". And also see Tyson's caution above.

      But I agree with you that if our aim is to get our students to communicate we should teach them how to communicate with the words they learn / know. You might also find this other post of interest: In context or with co-text?

      Thank you for your comment and compliment!


  5. Hi Leo,

    Do we teach vocabulary at the expense of functional language? Of course! Let's say you were teaching a communicative language course for nurses. You would probably teach a huge number of concrete nouns. But if you recorded nurses talking to each other in the field, they would probably say things like, "Will you hand me that?" and "Does he need another can of Nepro?"

    When our students are actually using the language in a real life situation, the language they use and what they learn in class are going to be very different. But knowing those concerete nouns when they are needed is also very important. I guess a good teacher somehow finds that magic balance so a nurse can speak about things (which usually requires those concerete nounds) as well as communicate quickly (which will depend much more on set phrases, transactional expressions, and circumlocutory strategies).

    In general I'd guess we often short change the communicative aspect because it would be pretty strange to have a class in which our students were spending huge chunks of time saying things like, "No, not that one, the other one!" and "The one on your left...No! Your other left!" We all like to feel like professionals. Mastering terminology is one of the ways we get to enjoy that feeling. But finding that balance is probably one of the trickiest parts of teaching a language and something I struggle with all the time.


    1. Thank you for your well-argued comment, Kevin.

      I don't think we should abandon teaching concrete nouns altogether but a balance should be struck somewhere. More importantly, students themselves should understand the importance of learning functional phrases. I don't think my students would produce Will you hand me that? - more likely something like *Can you bring me that?

      What about role plays where they have the opportunity to use and recycle both concrete nouns (or terms on ESP courses like with nurses) and functional language? Or writing dialogues?

  6. Hi Leo,

    What an interesting blog post on something which teachers in every teaching environment come up against - a battle with learners' confidence in their own language abilities. The preoccupation with correct usage of individual language items so often comes foremost in a learner's mind, when fluency and an ability to communicate spontaneously is so much more effective. Something which I increasingly notice is how lack of confidence affects one's ability to express onesself. I have a B1 and C2- learner in the same department of a local company, and who are equally underconfident. Both therefore continue to undertake weekly, individual language training and a lot of our time is spent identifying strengths and demonstrating where they are making progress. Appropriate tone, active participation in communication and negotiation of meaning are the key skills which I believe teachers and trainers need to focus on.


    1. Hi Gabrielle

      Thank you for giving us a Business English angle to this discussion and raising the issue of confidence. I wonder though if the ability to use paraphrase, circumlocutions and functional language would make students more confident when speaking OR if it is more confident students that are more likely to use these strategies in the first place. A sort of 'egg-and-chicken' question - would make a good topic for TESOL research.

      Thank you for the comment


  7. Hi Leo,
    Very interesting question.I am having this issue in China where I have very little beyond lexical items I use by just pointing or saying "I want " or "I don't want" (and by the way want/need is the same in CHinese! I can also say "too big" "too small" and believe me that goes a long way.I perceive of my Chinese of course as being incredibly limited.However ALL the Chinese beam at you as soon as you say a single word and compliment you with "Ooh your Chinese is so good"!.

    1. Hi Ruth

      Thank you for commenting and sharing your insights as a learner. I imagine the problem with learning names of things in Chinese is compounded by the different writing system. With the Latin alphabet I suppose you could more easily pick up the names on the labels in a supermarket - at least for visual learners among us :) When I spent a month in Latvia in my youth I quickly picked up the names of foods (bread, milk, cream etc) but my functional language didn't progress beyond "Thank you" and "You're welcome".


  8. Very interesting debate. I've just come back from holiday where I had a chance to brush up on my Portuguese. A large number of dormant vocabulary items started to surface, which were certainly useful. I agree that we can sometimes set students to learning lists of items that they are never likely to use but a good vocabulary is at the root of everything, and will enable you to elicit more language from others, leading to more learning and so on.
    However, one moment sticks in my mind. I was at the airport handing over bags, belts and so on to go through the scanner. The woman had asked for my watch, but it's quite tricky to take off, and I wasn't quite ready. 'Espere ai.' I said (hang on) and she looked at me round eyed and said (in Portuguese), 'I didn't realise you spoke Portuguese.' The point being that I think it's the little functional phrases, delivered appropriately, which give the impression of fluency, rather than knowing the right vocabulary items.

    1. Hi Rachael
      Thank you for your detailed comment. I hope I experience the same awakening of my dormant Spanish next time I am in Spain :)

  9. Hi Leo - I just enjoyed reading the whole "page" :-)
    I guess there's both a question of what you can do in a classroom, and at the same time - lets not forget ELF. I mean, yes ,"hang on" gives an impression of fluency (to a native speaker) but "wait a minute" does the job just as well for the RoW. (you see, the last speaker gets all the attention)
    In the classroom, what do you hang your functional language on, if there's no vocbulary there ?
    Apart from learning that stuff is uncountable and things countable, LOL, I don't think the students on a 24 hour course (my teaching situation) would be best pleased with a swap to functional phrase book learning - as you pointed out - that's the aspect which is probably easiest to pick up when in a situation of language immersion.
    This being said, when a relatively weak students said to me (in an appropriate situation, and totally out of the blue) "I'm not daft y'know" in spite of my years of language awareness - it really stopped me in my tracks!
    He actually couldn't say much else in English - but talk about a useful expression

  10. Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth
    My argument was not also about the importance of functional language but the ability to circumlocute, i.e. find your way around the words that you don't know or remember - something I find we (teachers) don't do but that's what expected of learners in exams (e.g. IELTS)
    I hope we can continue our discussion at TESOL France in a couple of days? :)

  11. HI, Leo,
    I think realia and real life definitely helps with acquiring vocabulary.
    My own children and students constantly ask "how do you say/call this."
    I like how your shopping spiraled into an authentic learning experience

    1. Hi Tanya
      Thank you for stopping by.
      Realia really helps when learning new words, especially concrete nouns. My concern is though how do we balance the learners' need to know how things are called with helping them say something meaningful with these words.

  12. Hi Leo,
    Many teachers do concentrate on teaching vocabulary and only later teach phrases. When someone uses difficult vocabulary, we do assume that they have a good language.
    I have never thought about the fact that often I cannot recall a word in English (especially after living in Israel for nearly 10 years), but never do I forget phrases.
    I teach from Kita Zayin to Kita Yud bet and in my experience the kids arrive with a certain amount of vocabulary but it is very difficult for them to compose a sentence. This leads me to conclude that they are focusing mainly on vocabulary in the primary schools. In class, we work a lot on phrasing and everyday speaking.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts on the topic, Glynn

      Your experience shows that they focus mainly on vocabulary seen as single words in primary schools (mainly presented in lists).


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...