Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sentence Auctions - fun but not without pitfalls!

My last post described how to play 'sentence auction' with your students. It's a fun way to review grammar points, and students are more likely to remember which errors to avoid if they got burned trying to buy incorrect sentences.

I do this activity quite a lot with my learners at the moment, one reason is that I have to teach the same group for seven hours a day, four days running, and it's a nice way to break up the afternoon session, when the urge to take a nap kicks in. The more I do it, however, the more I realise that some of the sentences I choose for the game could be interpreted in many different ways - sometimes they are not grammatically incorrect after all.

Here's an example:

Im working here for 2 months.

A French speaker would say this instead of 'I've worked here for 2 months', so in the game it's incorrect. But I could interpret the above sentence as meaning, 'I've recently started working here, and I will here for 2 months before going somewhere else'.

In every sentence we utter, there's a ton of meaning that isn't explicitly stated, leaving the hearer to derive whatever meaning they consider to be the most appropriate. Compared to the complexity of the world around us, we will never have enough words or enough time to spell out exactly what we mean, and so we often talk in vague generalities. (I'm getting all philosophical here).

If you were revising 'some' and 'any' would this be right or wrong:

Do you have some money?

If you've taught them that 'some' for positive statements, while 'any' is for questions and negative statements, then it must be wrong. But one might hear this kind of construction all the time among native speakers. If I ask the question, 'so you have any money?', my listener understands that it really is a question, I don't know whether he or she has any money or not. But if I ask, 'do you have some money?', what I'm really saying is, 'could you give me some of it if the answer is yes?'.

On the other hand, 'do you have any bread?' would be correct, but completely stupid if the question was being asked in a bakery. Context is everything, so good judgement is definitely required.