Uncovering Meaning

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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?

Hi, I’m Gwen Zeldenrust. After a brief absence from the profession, I realized that teaching is my passion and the path that my career should follow. Most of my practice has been focused on teaching ESL to adults in Ontario. In addition to that, I’ve been a trainer for an insurance company, a teaching assistant for several professors at university, taught English in Japan and Core-French at the local school board. While I’ve been teaching ESL I’ve also been working on a project which has developed organically among a group of teachers. Under the name of Language Foundations, we’ve produced a video that teaches strategies for interacting successfully in Canada. The video project has inspired in me a true passion for writing. I love being able to reach out with my thoughts, share ideas and discuss different perspectives. I think writing and teaching are very complementary!


6 thoughts on “Uncovering Meaning”

  1. Gwen, such a good point. We tend to see imperatives as a rude way to tell people what to do – In teaching a second language though imperatives are part of what is called ‘explicit teaching.’ They are not meant to be rude ‘do as I say’ commands. Think about it, a question that is meant as a command could be perceived as passive aggressive. After all, the speaker does end up bothered when people don’t do as the speaker asked.

  2. Hi Cecilla,
    Thanks for your comment. We do teach imperatives in second language. They are part of how we communicate. However, the usage of imperatives does not necessarily translate from one language to another. The situation where someone might use an imperative in one language often is not an appropriate situation to use an imperative in English. In Canada particularly, imperatives come across as very strong. (Not to say that we never use them, but some situations call for a lighter touch.) We have several techniques to avoid such direct language. One of the techniques is transforming a command into a question. It makes the command less direct and therefore, it is perceived as more polite. However, you have a very good point about this type of transformation being passive/aggressive. The tone the speaker uses indicates what perspective they are coming from. A rising tone indicates the intent of a command/question as polite whereas, a falling tone definitely indicates a more aggressive intent. Tone is something that really impacts the meaning behind our words.
    I think it is helpful for teachers and students to understand how we use grammatical structures in ways to achieve meaning that is not necessarily apparent on the surface. In saying that, it is sometimes difficult for native speakers to be aware of how what they are saying can be misunderstood. As you pointed out, we do get bothered when we are misunderstood 🙂

  3. “Let’s take a break now.”
    “Please try to finish the handout at home.”

    By adding ” let’s” and “please” you can use the imperative as a straightforward way to give instructions, and avoid the confusion. In the lower levels, the shorter and stronger- the better!

    1. I agree with you Donna, we need to make sure we understand each other in the classroom, especially in the lower levels. But at some point learners need to understand how to use and understand language that makes them sound less direct. It’s particularly important when they are getting ready for those job interviews.

  4. Gwen – I guess I’m not as polite as you in the classroom! My orders are direct, but this has evolved. Starting with the lower levels, I used as few words as possible, getting rid of the decorations. However, I think your use of the indirect gives the learners more authentic exposure to how Canadians communicate.

    I had one student explain a situation she was having about finding a volunteer position. She was concerned about not getting a call-back. What I told her was along the lines of “If I were you, I’d call them…”. She understood that to mean that I, her teacher, would call on her behalf. Conditionals, then, are also something we use to be a little indirect to offer advice, but they need to be understood. That crucial “If I were you” phrase changes the entire sentence…

    1. Hi Jen,
      There are several different strategies we use to make our language less direct . Conditionals are probably the most common technique. It’s something that is very culturally influenced. We learn to use language in more indirect ways as we grow and our social circles expand. The more formal the situation the more indirect our language will be.

      I find when learners get into higher level classes their communication skills usually are quite good and they are looking to learn how to use language to develop better relationships. As you pointed out some of the small things we do such as “if I were you” in your example, makes a large difference when delivering and receiving messages.

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