A Neglected Area of Language Teaching

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* First published in FORTELL, May 2011 issue.

Till the 1970s or even 1980s perhaps, teaching idioms and proverbs was an essential part of language teaching. No doubt, it was done in a rather boring and mechanical way and one had to just memorize idiomatic sentences often without really understanding the meaning of the idiom or proverb being used. Then, with the popularity of direct method and more recently of communicative method and computer-assisted language learning, the teaching of idioms and proverbs went out of fashion. This is not a plea to go back to the old method of teaching such expressions.

However, one must realise that the language used in a substantial part of our day today, is actually formulaic. If you analyze any piece of conversation or a written text, say a story by Prem Chand or Ruskin Bond, you will soon realise that a substantial part of the text is socio-culturally rooted and frozen in idioms, proverbs and such formulaic expressions as greetings, opening and closing turns in conversation etc. The problem with such frozen expressions is that they constitute a list that has to be consciously learnt as opposed to the rest of language which is generative in character and where if you have internalised one set of rules you can produce an infinite number of sentences. Again, the meaning of such idioms and proverbs is NOT compositional in character i.e. there is no way you can even remotely tell the meaning of the whole from the meaning of the parts.

For example, if you know the word ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ and the verb ‘see’, you will have no problem in making sentences such as:

The cat saw the dog.

The dog saw the cat.

The cat will see the dog.

One could go on ad infinitum. But not if you come across a sentence such as

‘It is raining cats and dogs’

This sentence is quite another matter and requires serious consideration.

Consider the case of a large number of idioms involving body parts. There are for example over a 100 each involving the use of ‘hands’ and ‘eyes’ (as is the case of many other body parts). Consider ‘not bat an eye’ in sentences such as:

My father did not bat an eye when I got my Ph.D.

She can spend thousands of rupees without batting an eye.

In this case, the same may mean different things in two different contexts. Commonly used expressions like ‘hand in hand’ or ‘hand in glove’ may actually mean something very different from what we can gather from the individual words used in them.

Thus a substantial part of language as it is actually used has to be ‘learnt’ as opposed to say ‘acquired’. We must find innovative ways of teaching such frozen expressions. The old method of teaching the list of idioms and memorizing proverbs limited the knowledge of learners to the use of the frozen expressions that were frequently asked in examinations.

We need to find more creative ways of negotiating this important component of language use. One possible way of doing it is to engage learners in small projects when they come across frozen expressions in their texts. Let’s turn to body parts again. Suppose you come across ‘bat an eye’, some learners could be asked to collect as many idioms as possible using ‘eye’; others could be asked to focus on other body parts such as: teeth, ears, face, tongue etc. The sheer number and variety of meanings here is overwhelming. They could also be asked to find out if comparable expressions exist in their own languages also. Generally what happens is that learners (often teachers too) pick up some vague idea of the proverb or idiom from the context and rarely if ever gain the capacity to use it productively.  In the case of proverbs, it is possible that many Indian languages will have equivalents of proverbs such as ‘a bad workman quarrels with his tools’, ‘burnt child dreads fire’, ‘empty vessels make the most noise’, ‘barking dogs seldom bite’ etc.

Finally, if there actually exists comparable expressions across languages, cultures and geographical regions, we have something to think about the human mind and human societies.

* Rama Kant Agnihotri, formerly senior professor of Linguistics, department of Linguistics, University of Delhi.

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