Tuesday, July 06, 2010

So You Think You Know English?

English--as a second language--is still a challenge to me. There are many common mistakes that I am guilty of using, like my blog entry title. For people like me, who want to improve their English language, let's find out what we ignorantly use in our everyday conversations. Read more below.

INDIRECTLY SPEAKING / More common mistakes students should avoid

Mike Guest / Special to The Daily Yomiuri

I hate to say it, but Mickey Mouse was wrong. We don't go around saying, "Hello" as a greeting. Think about it. When is "Hello" a default phrase? When you answer the telephone. When you enter an empty shop or some other building. When you think someone is around, but you are not sure (as seen in any suspense/horror movie). When you cry out for help without another person in sight. "Hello" functions as a type of hailing, checking or confirming that someone is indeed there (much like "moshi moshi" in Japanese). So when my students pass me by in the halls and say, "Hello" it sounds rather strange.

True, some may use "Hello" as a greeting, but such cases are marked, usually by exaggerated intonation--think of how grandma greets the kids after a lengthy time apart (the other notable exception is when EFL teachers use it with students). So what do we say as a daily greeting? "Hi." "Good morning/evening." "How are you doing?" It's pretty flexible.

Yes, this is part two of my "common Japanese student mistakes" column. Of course, the type of person who reads articles such as this in an English-language newspaper is unlikely to make these errors, but if you are an English teacher, you can be sure that your students will. In fact, if you live in Japan for any reason, you will certainly come across them. So, with today's first item completed above let's continue down the list:

2. "Are you OK?" This is fine when checking someone's mental or physical condition but it is not when you are trying to gain someone's agreement. "We decided to go out for Mongolian vegetarian food tonight. Are you OK?" does not work in such cases. Here, "Is it/that OK (with you)?" must be used.

3. "How about Canada?" If "How about..." is used as the opening form in an exchange, it is a suggestion or an offer. "How about a shot of Calpis?" or "How about turning off the World Cup for just a few hours?" are both fine. But "How about your university?" isn't (unless you are in a position to offer me an entire university). In this case we should ask "What's your university like?" or "What's Canada like?" The confusion stems from the fact that if the "How about..." question is the second in a series it can mean the same thing as "What's >>> like?" For example: "What's winter in Norway like?" "Cold, of course, but quite beautiful." "How about (in) Canada?" "Terrible. We stay in our log cabins all winter except to go out and play hockey."

4. "I am Mike." "I am..." is OK for first-time introductions ("Hi. I'm Mike and I'll be your overly friendly waiter this evening!"), but not for identifying yourself, as when calling someone you know on the phone. "Hi, Arnold. I am Mike. What are you doing this weekend?" does not work. "This is" or "It's" must be used instead. When we hear "I am..." in a case of identification, we expect either a title: "I'm the king of rock 'n' roll" or some predicate or complement: "I'm writing an article and can't think of a good sample sentence." By the way, we begin introductions of others with "This is..." and not, "He/she is...."

"Bob, this is Marlon, my butler, and Lulu, my maid."

More on "this is" below.

5. "Here is Japan!" Oh, did you just find it? Where was it all this time, under the sofa cushion? No? OK, then you should use, "This is Japan."

"Here is..." tends to imply you've just found or noticed something (or are about to unveil something exciting). Most Japanese learners of English fail to use the existential "There is/it is" opening patterns enough, which means you'll often hear convoluted forms like, "The number of people in the room is 20" instead of "There are 20 people in the room," or tend to use them in the wrong position (i.e., as a deictic or "pointing" form, such as in--"I don't like Roppongi because there is full of foreigners").

A place should be referred to as "it" as in "...it is full of foreigners."

6. Don't use Mr./Mrs./Ms. with first names unless that person is the host of a children's TV show. And while we're at it, you can't call a teacher "Teacher!" or in my case, the rather unsettling "Guest Teacher." Unlike "Doctor," "teacher" is not a form of address in English.

7. "They" implies a plural. Right? Not always. Note this: "A single robber entered the gallery last night. Apparently, they were seeking out the Picassos." A general or unknown single person is also "they." Every year students are confused by instructions such as, "Ask your partner where they come from" believing that "they" implies multiple partners.

8. "And so on." You need a sufficient number of examples to make "and so on" meaningful. For example: "What country's food do you like?" "I like Thai food and so on." This doesn't work. I have no idea what "and so on" means here. If you add "Vietnamese and Indonesian," I can safely assume that you like Southeast Asian cuisine because then you will have established a pattern, but until then "...and so on" could just as easily imply rotting Icelandic shark.

9. "I like to sing a song." Really? And which song is that? "I'm allergic to a cat." Try petting a different one then! Japanese students are regularly taught about countables and uncountables and that they should use the plural form when there is an explicit plural number present (or with "many" as in, "I have never eaten as many baked beans as I did in Manchester!") but don't seem to be aware that the plural form has to be used in cases of (countable) generalizations, as in singing songs and allergies to cats, too.

10. Q: What have you learned from this article? A: I knew that I have to use the last name with Mr. or Ms.
Wait a second. If you "knew" that, you couldn't have learned it from the article because you must have already been aware of it. Students make this mistake regularly when writing summaries and reports. Using "knew" instead of "learned" or "found out" implies that the content was known to the student previously, that it's nothing new for them.

But you already knew that, right?

Guest is an associate professor of English at Miyazaki University. He can be reached at mikeguest59@yahoo.ca.

Originally posted here

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