Early in my ESL teaching career when I had a new class, I found myself asking: “Why don’t my students do what I tell them to do?” They rarely followed up on the advice I gave them, didn’t come back from lunch on time, or even take a break when I said it was break time. I pondered this for some time. It wasn’t until after being in my class for a bit of time, that I noticed them beginning to follow my instructions. But initially they didn’t, so I thought this lag in understanding was due to them misinterpreting my particular pronunciation.
Then, I had an ‘aha!’ moment. I realized that the problem was – my instruction! After analyzing how I delivered instructions, I understood why the students misunderstood.
Consider the following exchanges:
Me: “Why don’t we take a break now and return at 1:00?”
Students: no response
Me: “Do you want to finish the handout at home, and we’ll take it up tomorrow?”
Students: no response 😐
Me: “Do you mind if we finish class early today?”
Students: “Umm… yes?” 😕
I finally realized that they thought I was asking them a question when I thought I was giving them a command. I wondered: “Why would they think that?”…Oh! maybe because I was!
I started researching why I was saying things in this way. I found out that the reason is very culture-related. One of the things we Canadians are known for, (and value highly), is our politeness. Transforming a statement into a question is a politeness strategy. When a command is formed like a question, it makes it much more indirect and therefore is considered more polite. In fact, it is understood as a suggestion, rather than a command.
Two of the most common ways we use questions as statements are: “Do you want to …tell me how this happened?… hand me that screwdriver?… hold the line?, etc.; and “Why don’t you …call your lawyer?… tell your boss?… come with us?, etc. Although the sentences are formed using a question structure, they really aren’t questions. They are orders that have been modified to fit an indirect approach, which happens to be preferred in Canadian culture.
After a bit of exposure to these ‘question-commands’, learners do get the hang of how to use and understand them. In the beginning, it can be somewhat confusing considering the onslaught of new information that newcomers face.
There are a lot of interesting things we do with the English language, which seem very straightforward to native speakers who are accustomed to the hidden meanings. However, these interesting nuances are not always logical, especially to those who are in the process of acquiring English and still learning how the language is also influenced by the culture. Having an awareness of the importance of syntax in the English language, which disguises meaning, makes language teaching and learning more comprehensible for everyone.
Do you have any experiences that illustrate how confusing language use can be? What tips do you have for dealing with them?