IMG_2042By Erin D’Amelio

“Teacher, I no understand.”

It’s a common phrase that I hear in this position, alongside a plethora of other errors that my students make when speaking or writing both inside and outside the classroom. Right then and there marks the struggle I and every other ESL teacher faces every day: Do we correct the grammar, or, because we were able to understand them, do we not?

The battle of communication (making your ideas understandable) versus grammar (expressing those ideas correctly) affects all language users, not only in their native tongue but in any subsequent language they may learn. The debate boils down to the question I raised above: does it matter whether something is said properly, or whether you can basically understand it? Rules are put in place to maintain order, but rules are made to be broken, right? (Coincidentally, there are hundreds of exceptions to the “I before e, except after c” rule.) So should it bother us if someone says “I ain’t going nowhere!” instead of “I’m not going anywhere!”? Certainly there are specific feelings expressed in the former sentence that are lacking in the second, but the principle remains: should we care about grammar if the meaning is the same?

Anyone who knows me knows that I can be a stickler for grammar sometimes. I value words and their power, and as such I try to uphold to the rules put in place that make communication highly effective. I don’t try to be judgmental of people who use grammar improperly, but there I can’t help but feel a latent irritation when someone mistakes “their” for “they’re” or misplaces a comma.

As an ESL teacher, though, I find myself becoming more lenient with these mistakes. Obviously I don’t want them to happen in the first place, but if one of my students forgets to use include an auxiliary verb when s/he is talking to me, I don’t want to stop them mid-sentence to tell them that they are wrong. Here’s why: that student won’t talk again if I do. The Malaysian school culture, as with many others, puts high importance on right vs. wrong. Students desperately want me to give them examples so that they know the right way to do an exercise. They also won’t offer an answer if they are unsure about its correctness. So, if I were to tell them as they were speaking, “You know, it’s actually “Teacher, I do not understand,” then my student would immediately clam up and be ashamed that they got the “answer” wrong, and then they will question their other responses and suddenly won’t even bother trying to speak again.

Many a time have I insisted that there are no wrong answers, that my students can say or do whatever, because I don’t care two hoots if they misspeak. I just want them to try. Learning a language is all about making mistakes, because we get most of our education in those attempts. Most of my students- and probably all beginning language learners- try to translate their thoughts in their native tongue to the new language before they speak. While this works sometimes, it fails miserably in most cases. For example, in Bahasa Malaysia, there is no conjugation, and to make nouns plural they just say the word a second time (e.g. flower = bunga, flowers = bunga-bunga). So when my student wants to say, “My sister goes to the market to buy flowers,” it comes out as, “My sister go to the market buy flower.” But this is an excellent learning moment for us, because I can introduce the concept of plurality and the infinitive, and hopefully the next time that student needs to use those concepts, s/he will be able to remember the lessons I gave.

Like I said, I don’t care whether or not my students give right or wrong answers, I just want them to try. This is a lesson I have been continuously telling my students: that they need to practice, practice, practice. If they don’t know the exact word that they’re looking for, whatever! I love it when that happens, but I also love it when they can circumvent the ignorance and describe what they are trying to say in other words. In both situations they are exercising their brains to communicate. If I can understand them, then I am a happy camper.

But I’ll still teach them the difference between “their” and “they’re”.

My name is Erin D’Amelio and I’m going to Malaysia for ten months as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. Over the next 10 months I will be submitting regular journal entries of this incredible adventure, documenting my thoughts and experiences. The views and beliefs I will present in these articles are my own; they do not reflect those of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State. Below are the articles, in order of publication. Just click on any link and continue the journey with me.
An Unforgettable Journey

How Does One Get a Fulbright, Exactly?
And Then We Wait
Sensory Overload
(Almost) Hitting the Ground Running
Mercurial Days
Language and Tennis
Land of the Wholehearted People
A Mighty and Powerful Mango Tree
The Beauty in Spontaneity
The Eternal Battle: Communication Versus Grammar