NEW KINDS OF MEANINGS FOR INTERMEDIATE CLASSES
Chapters 5 and 6 have drawn attention to several special characteristics of Intermediate students:
1. They need to extend their knowledge of vocabulary related to common areas of experience (food, clothing, transportation, health, human relations).
2. They have already learned many of the basic words, so the teacher can (and should) use simple English explanations for introducing new vocabulary.
3. Some Intermediate students have learned more English than other members of the same class; therefore, different activities for individuals and small groups should frequently be arranged. (Techniques for doing this have been suggested.)
4. Intermediate students have reached a point in their language study where many become discouraged and lose interest. (Techniques for dealing with this problem have been described.)
5. One reason for the Intermediate studen’s possible discouragement is the increasing difficulty of the vocabulary which must be learned ─ especially vocabulary related to the lives of people for whom English is the native language.
English is sometimes used when no native speaker is present. A Japanese businessman may speak English with a Brazilian, for instance. Nevertheless, a major goal of most students is to understand English as it is used among native speakers.Learnes hope to be able to read books and magazines intended for native speakers. They also want to understand the radio and TV programs that native speakers listen to.
Those who write textbooks for Intermediate classes generally keep that fact in mind. Vocabulary lessons – and reading selections ─ introduce words like picnic, sandwich, supermarket, car pool, baby sitter, and many others that represent common features of life in English – speaking countries.
If the customs respresented by such English words are not part of life on the local scene, such vocabulary may be hard to understand. On the other hand, the English words may have a special appeal if they represent new experiences that are becoming part of the students’ own lives. (We noted in Chapter 2 how easily an expression like rock star is learned when it stands for a new idea for which the students’ language has no special name.)
Textbooks generally provide help in teaching words for special aspects of life among native speakers of English. Modern textbooks contain short readings (in simplified English) that deal with common life situations. The most helpful readings are very short stories that show what people do and think and say in those situations. The most helpful readings are very short stories that show what people do and think and say in those situations. The teacher’s job then is to encourage students to think about the reading selection. If the story introduces the term baby sitter, for instance, we ask, “Why did the family need a baby sitter?” “Was the baby sitter really a servant?” “What part of the story shows us the age and economic status of the baby sitter?” “How do we know that baby sitters are treated like guests in some ways?”
In addition to acquiring such new voIcabulary words, Intermediate students need also to learn new meanings for many of the English words they already know. In particular, they need to become aware of what those common words mean to native speakers of English.
WHAT COMMON ENGLISH WORDS MEAN TO NATIVE SPEAKERS
Let’s consider a few of the English words our Intermediate students already know: words like family, breakfast, and kitchen.
When we say that the students know the word family, we mean that they have associated it with a word in their own language, the word that corresponds word in their language means to them. But very often there are differences.
In many languages, the word for family regularly represents several related persons ─ uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents, as well as father and mother and their children. But this is not the group that English-speaking Mr. A has in mind when he says, “I wish I could spend more time with my family.” (He means “with my wife and our children.”) The other relatives ─ in most cases ─ do not live with Mr. and Mrs. A. Perhaps they live hundreds of miles. This knowledge is needed for any real understanding of the English word family. Without it, one does not get the full meaning of a sentence like “The American family has many problems today.”
The word breakfast, too, is only partly learned when students know it represents the first meal of the day. To develop anything like full understanding of breakfast, one must get answers to such questions as these:
What kinds of food and drink are (and are not) commonly found on the breakfast table?
The answers to such questions are not in dictionaries. Yet they help to form the meanings that the word breakfast has for speakers of English.
In the same way, we could ask questions that would help to reveal the English – speaking person’s meanings for kitchen ─ the social meanings that are not supplied by a dictionary. One cannot find full meanings for any word, even in dictionaries for learners of ESL. One such dictionary (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English) does include a helpful fact about kitchens that is seldom found elsewhere. In addition to starting that a kitchen is a room in which meals are prepared, it indicates that in many homes the kitchen is a general purpose room where (for example) meals are eaten by the family.
No dictionary, however, has space for all the facts that make the word kitchen mean what it means to native speakers. There is not space enough to explain that
All of these facts, and more, contribute to the social meanings of kitchen.
How to Help Students Learn Social Meanings
It is hard for students to learn the social meanings of words like family, breakfast, and kitchen. It is especially difficult when English is being studied in a country where it is not the language of daily life. But teachers can help, even if English is not their native language.
We can help, first, by making students aware that social meanings exist. We can also help by drawing students’ attention to the special meanings that are revealed in stories and other readings about English-speaking people.
Here, for instance, is a paragraph that reveals some of the meanings of the word school. It shows what may be expected to happen in a classroom in an English-speaking country; it shows what a teacher may be expected to do and not do; it shows that people are not surprised when classes are conducted in that way. All of this is part of the meaning that native speakers of English attack to the word school:
Some eigtheen year old students are having a discussion lesson. There is a teacher there but he refuses to say very much. He never interrupts even when a student is saying something rather stupid. Occasionally he asks a few questions; that is all.
Suppose the word for school in the students’ language represents a place where discussions are not considered a proper part of a lesson, where teachers are expected to talk much more than students, where students who say something stupid should be interrupted immediately. In that case, the social meanings of the English word school should be noted. Students’ attention should be drawn to them through such questions as these:
Through such questions, we can call attention to the ideas, feelings, and customs that combine to form part of the meaning of a common English word – a word that may have a somewhat different meaning in the students’ own experience.
It is mainly through stories that students learn what certain phrases mean to speakers of English in the United States: in the west and from the south, for instance. (Other languages have words for north, south, east, and west; but those terms represent ideas and feelings quite different from the social meanings associated with the American English words.)
Learning Social Meanings from Native Speakers
Stories can help us teach social meanings because a story provides a kind of indirect contact with native speakers of the language. Of course, direct contact with native speakers can be even more helpful. Where English is not the language of the community, it may not be easy for students to meet English-speaking people. Even there, however, occasionally an English-speaking visitor can spend a few minutes in the ESL classroom. Furthermore, the class may have a pen pal with whom letters are exchanged.
Unfortunately, such opportunities for communication are often wasted because students do not know how to use them. They do not know what information could be gained, or how to phrase questions for obtaining it.
Here are a few of the many questions ESL students might usefully ask in letters to pen pals – or in conversations with young persons whose native language is English:
These are only a few of the questions that could lead toward understanding of common words like school, home, family, and food in relation to English-speaking life. (Additional questions are listed in Appendix D.) Answers to some of them can be found in the stories, dialogs, and readings that modern textbooks provide for Intermediate students. Answers can also be obtained through correspondence and conversations with native speakers, when full use is made of such opportunities.
Learning word meanings is a lifetime job, even for native speakers. From every experience we gain more understanding. When direct experience with speakers of the language cannot be arranged, much can still be learned from the indirect experience that stories provide.
As teachers, we can help students notice what certain words, mean to speakers of English. That is one of the special aims of the Intermediate vocabulary class. Other objectives include the following:
When these aims are accomplished, students are prepared for the Advanced stage of English instruction. Techniques for Advanced classes will be suggested in the next chapter.
1. Here is a dialog that appears in a reader for Intermediate students:
Dan: It’s almost vacation time. Have you found a summer job yet?
Joe: I suppose I can work at the boys’ camp where I worked last summer. But camp jobs don’t pay much.
Dan: I think I can get a job at the Edgewater Hotel. A friend of mine was a writer there last summer. The pay wasn’t good, but he got lots of tips.
Joe: My sister worked there last summer, making beds and cleaning bathrooms. She didn’t like it, but she earned quite a lot of money.
Dan: A friend of my sister’s did that one summer.
Joe: What I want is a job outside. After sitting in college classes all winter, I’ d like a job in the open air.
Dan: The high school kids earn a lot of money every summer cutting grass. My brother is only fourteen but he gets five dollars every time he cuts somebody’s grass, and it only takes him an hour. He just rides around on the machine that he bought and the machine does all the work.
Joe: That’ s pretty good. I used to cut grass when I was in high school. But know I thought I might work for a road-building company, or something like that.
Dan: It would be good experience. You could earn a lot, too.
From such a dialog, students can learn learn some of the social meanings of a word like vacation. (For instance: To a native speaker of English, a middle-class student’s vacation often means a time for working ─ in a hotel, at a summer camp, or as a gardener or builder of roads.) What social meanings are suggested here for the words job, student, waiter, machine, and experience?
2. Ask three people from the same English-speaking country what they usually eat for lunch. Are there any kinds of food that are mentioned by all three people? Compare their understang of lunch with your students’ understanding of that word.
3. To show your students what social meanings may be attached to a commonly used word like cat, help the students find out how native speakers of English would answer the following questions:
4. Discuss the answers to the questions about cats. Consider how the answers might help your students understand what a native speaker of English might really mean by a sentence like: “I have three cats.” How do the social meanings of cat compare to the meanings of the corresponding word in your students’ language?
5. The words and phrases listed below should be understood by students who have completed basic courses in English as a Second Language. Each item in the list refers to something very common in the experience of people living in the United States. Which of the items (if any) would need to be explained to your class because the students’ own life experience has not prepared them to understand those vocabulary items?
1. Halloween costumes 6. a three-story house
2. jack-o’-lanterns 7. floor wax
3. trick or treat 8. a laundromat
4. a front lawn 9. rare steak
5. a shingled room 10. a Thanksgiving turkey
6. Examine the textbooks which are used in your own ESL program. Which words and phrases in those books refer to areas of experience with which your students are not personally acquainted?