Teaching grammar is a challenge. Making grammar fun is the real challenge, especially when deep questions about existence emerge during a lesson.
One of the things I do as an ESL instructor is to try to find a fun application for a grammatical point I am teaching. Recently, I came up with a great idea for teaching punctuation. After I finish teaching a class on punctuation, I ask the students to imagine that they are a punctuation mark and pick which one best defines them. I prompt them to say: “If I were a punctuation mark, I would be…” This exercise is not only fun (there are a lot of giggles when I introduce this), but helps reinforce the students’ knowledge of the role of punctuation and use of the conditional. Students say things like: “I would be a period because I like things to be clear and definite” or “I would be a question mark because I have a hard time just accepting things. I want to know why.” Although I could usually predict what punctuation mark a student would select, there were times when I was completely flummoxed. Usually, it was the shy and reticent student who barely opened his or her mouth all semester proclaiming: “I am an exclamation mark!” I would try not to show my surprise.
Then it struck me that such self-assessments could be true. How would I ever know what the student was like in his or her native language? Maybe some second language speakers express themselves so differently in the second language that they seem to assume a different personality. Certainly, many of my Chinese students loved giving themselves a new name, so why not a new personality? I had students name themselves Venus, Melody, etc., names unrelated to their original name. Also, maybe the students who were so quiet were not so by choice; maybe it was their difficulty expressing themselves that made them seem so reserved. And how often do we fall into the trap of making cultural assumptions? You know: the Chinese students are so reserved and shy; the Brazilian students are loud and outgoing. We should remind ourselves—there is always individual variation and sometimes students act the way they do, regardless of the way they actually are, because of societal norms. For example, in many Asian countries, students are not encouraged to ask questions or participate in class (it would sound insolent) and thus when they come to Canada they seem more retiring than they actually are.
Then there was the big question: Is it possible that we assume a different personality when we speak another language? This is a difficult question because, as I mentioned previously, there is always individual variation. Some of my students were outgoing in their native tongue and in their second language, regardless of their difficulties, and some were always very shy. This is definitely a question worth exploring.
It is actually a question I could ask myself. Many years ago, when I spent three months studying Korean language in Seoul, I had to communicate primarily in my second language. When I look back, I realize that my family and friends in Korea treated me differently from the way I was treated back home. Because I was struggling with the language, I probably sounded more child-like and naïve, and thus my relatives were more protective than they should have been. It was probably a cycle—I could have been responding to their expectations by acting more child-like, which would have confirmed their initial impressions. So, if we decide that one of our ESL students is shy, maybe we unconsciously reinforce this impression.
My experience in Korea and my experience teaching ESL in Canada has brought me to the realization that it is foolish to assume that you understand a situation (or a person) completely. Whenever I played the punctuation game with the students, and asked them to associate me with a punctuation mark, they almost always chose an exclamation mark (I am very enthusiastic in the classroom). However, at the end of the day, I prefer to think of myself as a comma, because there is always something more one can add to the picture, and your perspective is never complete.
Ruth Yu has been a lecturer at the Kings University College for two years. She teaches University Writing in English to international students and is also the ESL grammar specialist or the “grammar yoda” for The Write Place (the King’s writing support service). She also taught high school English for ten years.