Friday, January 05, 2007

The Curse Of The Three Adjectives (Where in the world am I? [21])

For many years, standards of English teaching have been absolutely abysmal in this country - largely down to its isolationism and its arrogant (or just cheapskate) insistence on trying to produce all of its own teaching materials. Things are only just starting to improve, ever so slowly.

It doesn't help that, compared with English, the local language has a relatively tiny vocabulary. They like to think that there is a single standard translation of each word in their own language, and hence that they're all done with learning new words once they've got a core vocabulary of a few thousand words under their belt.

This is particularly frustrating in the realm of descriptive words: they are taught The Three Adjectives at an early age, and many students never expand much beyond this - even after University-level study.

The Three Adjectives are: interesting; exciting; delicious.

As in the following typical classroom dialogue:

"Did you enjoy your trip to the zoo?"

"Yes!"

"Which was your favourite animal at the zoo?"

"The monkeys!" (For some reason, it's always the monkeys.)

"Why do you like the monkeys?"

"The monkeys are interesting."

"[HEAVY SIGH] Yes.... can you tell me anything else about the monkeys?"

"The monkeys are exciting."

"Yes, yes. [PREPARES TO SLASH WRISTS] Anything else?"

"Well, the monkeys.... are delicious!"

"Oh, god, make it stop, make it stop." [THE MEN IN WHITE COATS ARRIVE TO REMOVE THE WEEPING, GIBBERING TEACHER]

Oh, yes, in time, eventually students add in a few other adjectives - like 'beautiful', 'wonderful', and 'excellent'. But the first three adjectives they learn remain always the ones they reach for most readily in a tight spot.

My friends Caren and Niels, teaching middle school in a provincial capital some way south of here, are waging a brave, lonely campaign against The Three Adjectives. I wish them luck. It's been tried before, and it is a Trail Of Tears....

I think 'delicious' is the one that particularly gets my goat. Students never seem to grasp that it's just a bit too formal for everyday use; or that anything becomes tedious and clich├ęd if you say it all the time. 'Tasty' just never seems to catch on!

It also gets pretty tiresome that - for such a big country! - this place has the narrowest horizons of any place on earth: all local food is "very delicious"; all foreign food is "I think, not delicious" (although they've never tried it).

Some of us foreign teachers here are pledged to a guerrilla war against this intellectual hardening-of-the-arteries; we wage a constant campaign of subtle subversion.

One of my favourite tactics is to introduce rare, technical words which students are never likely to grasp the true meaning of - "This is a good word to use about your local food."

"What do you think of the duck's oesophagus in brine?"

"I think it is emetic!"

Oh, joy, oh, bliss.

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