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Teaching about the language

April 13, 2008

Hello again,
It is a long-held tenet of direct method that we teach the language, not “about” the language. I have no quarrel with this. We are charged with helping...

... our students communicate rather than treating English as n academic discipline. But is it that cut and dried? It strikes me that two points get overlooked if we exercise this principle too rigidly.

Firstly, knowing something about the language can help students use it more effectively and, secondly, students are as likely to be interested in the language and its development as any other topic that is raised in the classroom.

So, first, how can knowing about the language help students use it more effectively? If we look at how English has developed we can see several broad lines of “ancestry” for its vocabulary. We have the Germanic line with its characteristic short, sharp words; the later Scandinavian/Nordic line characterized by velar consonants (cake, awkward, skirt): these two lines formed the bulk of Anglo Saxon vocabulary; and we have the Greek/Latin/French ancestry giving us multi-syllabic words that belonged to the domains of the Church, the court and the law. In practice, the Anglo Saxon words are used much more in the spoken language and are in the domain of everyday life: night, earth, house, bread.

The vocabulary derived from Greek and Latin has a formal quality and is often used more in written language and in special domains such as medicine or law. But it is also much more amenable to dissection and if students learn the common prefixes and suffixes they have the key to many new words. Thus the prefix “inter” from Latin meaning “among”/”between” /”mutually” is the clue to the meaning of such words as: interact, interbreed, interpret, interval. Or the Greek prefix “anthropos” (mankind) can help with the meanings of: anthropology, misanthropy, anthropoid, anthropocentric, anthropomorphic, philanthropy.

The examples given immediately show the different flavours of the vocabularies: imagine how pompous a person would sound if his or her vocabulary was mainly of Greek or Latin origin. This is why phrasal verbs are so important in spoken English as the equivalent Latin or Greek words sound much more formal (switch off the light/extinguish the light).

Next time I will talk about using topics about English for lesson content.

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