Why do we make children tell data about themselves in front of uninterested strangers and regard it as a language learning staple?
So, how do you introduce yourself in English, anyway? Not so easy to answer, is it?
“Good morning. My name is Roland Dropkick, I’m Junior Vice-President of regional bottling and fermentation at Obi Ale Works. My hobby is raising prize watermelons. I’m married with three kids.”
Umm, that comes across as just a little too much information, doesn’t it? Can you think of any situation in which Roland would actually feel compelled to provide all this information, in this order, without being a complete social doofus? And yet we English teachers regularly force children (and other English-learners) to stand in front of others – often strangers – and give data about themselves. For no other reason than this is somehow considered a staple of introductory English classes.
Offering an assortment of data about yourself to an audience who has not asked for, nor is particularly interested in, the details of your life is strange behavior. It violates all the social norms we associate with relevance and redundancy. Is there any introductory situation in which we might provide the combination of full name, job position, hobbies, and family life? Therapy perhaps?
Hang on a second, you say. There are many activities we practice in English classes that aren’t expected to mirror the real world, nor are they expected to bear immediate, instrumental fruit on the English street. True enough. You merely think it is important for English learners to be able to retrieve and offer this data when necessary and self-intros allow you to practice these forms.
But there’s the rub. Being able to retrieve and offer this information when necessary implies the bald fact that only certain types of information, offered in a certain order, within specific situations should be our pedagogical goal. In other words, what makes introductions either effective or appropriate is not the fact that a grammatically correct sentence has been uttered, but rather that the most suitable choice of amount and types of information have been suited to the particular situation.
Let’s look at our opening sample sentence again: “Good morning. My name is Roland Dropkick, I’m Junior Regional Vice-President of bottling and fermentation at Obi Ale Works. My hobby is raising prize watermelons. I’m married with three kids.”
So, when would we normally use the opening gambit “Good —, My name is…?” First of all, it implies a first meeting (which is why getting emails from students you know well writing, “My name is Kanako Mizutani, 3rd year student” appear odd). This form is thus most suitable when arriving at a hotel desk or restaurant entry when you have a reservation. It is this type of situational and contextually determined usage that students should learn.
‘Good morning, this is…” on the other hand, implies a telephone call, slightly formal/business-y, perhaps one that’s somewhat expected. Again, this is what should be inculcated when teaching introductions.
In Japan, it is true, one is often asked to give a self-introduction at parties or functions where new members are appearing but I can’t recall any time in my life when I’ve done anything similar in English. So why teach a Japanese social formula to Japanese (or whoever) students who want to know how to use English? In English it sounds more like some kind of confession (to be followed by “and I am an alcoholic”) or the ramblings a nervous potential suitor at a speed dating event.
Not exactly priorities for our learners, correct?
“Why support an unproductive tradition?”
Now, you might well be asking yourself, ‘but what damage does it really do?’ Well, I think it can be considerable. Most readers will agree that traditional English education too often focuses upon grammatical accuracy and memorizing lexical items at the expense of understanding the management of interactions, contexts, interpersonal relations, and other features of discourse that determine our actual choices of speech forms. Why support an unproductive tradition, which is what you do when you treat self-introductions as nothing more than ‘a bunch of correct sentences containing data about oneself’?
Well, here’s a true story highlighting how much of a negative impact it can actually have upon language learners:
About seven years ago, a 4th year English for Medical Purposes (EMP) class, made up of 9 fast-tracking, English-proficient medical students, were hosting a scheduled 1 hour English discussion with visiting medical professionals from numerous countries. I was not leading this particular session but attended to see how our 9 students would manage discussing medical topics with the 5 foreign visitors.
Unfortunately though, the discussion ‘moderator’ began by asking each of the student members to introduce themselves (apparently they had been ‘practicing’ this as if it were some legitimate, set speech event). Duly, the first student stood up and said something like:
“Good morning. My name is Watanabehiroyuki (this is how it was heard – as an acoustic blur), I’m a 4th year student at Miyazaki University. I’m studying medicine because I wat to be a doctor. (Pause) I’m a member of the badminton club, and my hobby is wakeboarding”.
This was followed by some awkward pauses before he made a gesture to the 2nd student to begin. So, next, this student stood up and said:
“My name is Yamazakikanami. I’m a 4th year student at Miyazaki University. I’m studying medicine because I want to become a doctor. I’m a member of…” This formula was repeated by all 9 students. The visiting medical professionals looked about as interested as Keith Richards at a curling match. Time had been wasted. Atmosphere had been sucked and sapped dry.
And they looked bored and frustrated with good reason…
The students had committed a rather egregious violation of interpersonal discourse norms (which, I believe, is actually illegal in some southern states). They had ignored their audience by offering redundant (known) information, meaningless information (why would a cardiologist from Madagascar be interested in Kanami-chan’s hobby?), and the most pertinent information, the name, was offered as an inaudible blur, again ignoring the rules of social discourse. By completing a formulaic speech that ignored both the purpose of the encounter and the wishes and expectations of the participants, the students had misfired. Badly.
“Who inculcated them with this belief?”
So why did they do it?
After discussing the event with some of the students afterwards, they told me that they had long believed that it was obligatory for them to introduce themselves in such formal situations and that self-introductions typically included such information. Who inculcated them with this belief, and why it is perpetuated by so many, both native and non-native, English teachers, is beyond me.
Having no sense of audience, no sense of situation, no sense of relevance of content, or awareness of what to include or omit in one’s speech is a fundamental violation of what we mean when we claim to be utilizing a ‘communicative method’. The entire notion of teaching self-introductions like this either has to be revamped or done away with completely.