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Bad Language We Teach to Children

You know the scenario. There comes a creaking from the basement below, a menacing scratching sound, then a heart-stopping thump. Nervously, she peers down the dark stairs into the abyss. “Hello?” she calls. “Anyone there?” And you, the movie-viewer, know there is.




But why, “Hello?” Is she actually greeting the intruder?


ghost talk


Note that when we answer our phones, particularly when we don’t know who the caller is, we use the same “Hello?” Again, why? 


Well, we do so because it’s the default term when we can’t directly see our interlocutor (which is why we might also use it to catch the attention of people who appear to be losing consciousness or use it  sarcastically to those who are in some way out-to-lunch). We use it when a connection is failing. “Hello” is a type of hailing, a way of establishing a connection to someone who is not fully in our presence.


So why then as it taught to children worldwide as if it were the standard daily face-to-face greeting among English speakers? If students at my own university use it when passing me in the hallway it serves as an immediate indicator of limited English skills (students who I have taught will know to say “Good morning/afternoon” or “Hi” instead).


Sure, I’ve met a (very) few native English speakers who use the term as a greeting, but this is always highly idiosyncratic and usually marked. One New Zealand colleague used it as her regular initial greeting of the day, always in a bright and cheery sing-song  lilting voice. It was her oeuvre, her ‘thing’ – not standard native English practice. Think of the way Grandma greets 4 year old Betty, who she hasn’t seen for a long time: “Hel—lo little Betty!” Grandma sure doesn’t say “Hello!” when she greets her neighbor Bob when taking out the trash in the morning.





Actually, there are several other English classroom/textbook phrases commonly taught to children that mystify me. Foremost among these are those prevalent ‘present tense-indicative mood’ models of the “I play soccer” variety (usually accompanied by some similar activities, but let me use soccer as the example here).


The problem is I’m not really sure what this utterance is supposed to mean as a stand-alone item. “I am playing soccer,” accompanied by a picture of a kid partaking in a game, is fine. “I played soccer in high school” is reasonable, but would be better with some expansion (“at lunchtime” “in PE class” “on the school team”). 


Some similar grammatical forms are fine. “I play the bass guitar” is semantically sound as it clearly implies a special skill mastered and/or performed, but what on earth does, “I play soccer” actually mean?  (Or, even worse, “Can you play soccer?”)


‘There are plenty of other possibilities that are far clearer semantically’


Does “I play soccer” mean you play regularly on an established, organized team? If so, let’s add, “on a team.” Does it mean that on occasion you have a pick-up game with friends? Does it mean you kick a ball back and forth outside on the street sometimes? If it’s the latter, I suppose I can say “I play soccer” because every now and then I kick a battered volleyball back and forth with my daughter on the driveway, but is this what we really want to imply when we use the present tense and indicative mood to express habitual acts? If we want to teach or practice how to express habitual or common activities and behaviors there are plenty of other possibilities that are far clearer semantically:

Work: I teach Bulgarian.

Regular repeated habits: I take sleeping pills.

Principles acted upon: I instill my children with traditional Cambodian values (even though I’m from Cleveland)


A similar problem exists with questions like, “What do you eat for lunch?” especially when it is used as a type of cross-cultural inquiry. “What did you eat for lunch (today/yesterday)?” is, of course, perfectly fine but, why frame the question as if the contents of one’s lunches were automatically fixed or habitual? Who eats the same thing for lunch everyday? Why ask a question that forces the respondent to make a monolithic claim for something that is very likely subject to change and variety? (Since breakfasts tend to be a little more fixed it makes more sense to ask, “What do you eat for breakfast?”).


The uptake of using this question is quite interesting. One Japanese teacher noted that when Taiwanese kids asked “What do you eat for lunch?” as a part of a cultural-exchange  set discussion with their Japanese counterparts, many of his students answered “Sushi”, even though Japanese very rarely eat sushi for lunch. Why? because they weren’t really answering the question. It is not a ‘good faith’ question so they responded with the expected ‘culturally appropriate’ answer. Japanese eat sushi. Americans eat hamburgers. You know the drill.




Now I can sense an objection. You might argue that you simply want kids to use and practice a particular tense or auxiliary verb (since the present simple might be seen as basic or some sort of grammatical ‘priority’). But if the goal is to merely ‘teach the present tense’ (which, to me, is a bizarre, ass-backwards, ‘teaching goal’ for children’s classes), let’s select samples that clearly and commonly denote a meaningful, easy-to-connect-to experience or state. The examples I’ve mentioned previously are semantically and pragmatically vague — why burden beginners with that kind of baggage? (And, no, there is no good reason to assume that the present tense is always easier or somehow more basic than others).


“What is your hobby?” – a ‘bossy’ question?


Another item that should be blacklisted from beginner’s textbooks is “What is your hobby?” This seems to me to be a rather bossy question, which assumes that people can be gauged by the single all-consuming pastime that defines them. It holds connotations of a governmental decree: “The Dear Leader has announced that you may enjoy a single defined hobby. Citizens must choose one within 24 hours.”


It is only slightly improved if pluralized: “What are your hobbies?” but even fails to capture the essence of what the questioner is trying to uncover. Take my own interests as an example:

  1. I’m a big hockey fan and I’m very knowledgeable about it but hockey is not ‘my hobby’
  2. I love traveling to odd places (Summer in Bhutan!) but I don’t/can’t do it enough for it to be considered a hobby.
  3. I’m very much into modern jazz, progressive, and avant-garde music but I’d be loathe to say “My hobby is listening to music.”
  4. I’m very interested in craft beer and wines. I’m interested in varieties, how these are made, local characteristics, and of course, drinking them. But if I say “Beer is my hobby” I sound like a drunken loser.
  5. I feel compelled to write stuff (I’ve written a novel, several papers, and a few books) but would be hard-pressed to refer to this as a ‘hobby’.


Perhaps then, “Tell me about your interests” would be a better form of inquiry. And if this is combined with, “What do you usually do in your free time?” we can get a much more well-rounded, accurate picture of the person we are asking. Also palatable are more directed qustions such as, “What kind of sports/music/food do you like?”


It is precisely because the standard hobby question is so limiting that my Japanese students tend to come up with lame responses such as, “Listening to music” (as if the majority of people actually don’t enjoy listening to music), “Watching movies/TV” “Driving” or, most infamously, “Sleeping.”



My Hobby


“Eating food” is another ‘hobby’ response I hear frequently in Japan, as if it is some rare talent or personal peccadillo. Of course, if Taro is a notorious carrot maniac, that may indeed be worth noting as it says something of note about Taro. Or, if Yoshimi is a total foodie then, cool, that’s worth hearing (followed up by further enquiries of course). But the standard ‘hobby’ question doesn’t really allow for such ‘humanizing’ nuances.


And therein lies the basic problem with teaching, or inculcating, these allegedly ‘simple’ ‘basic’ forms among children and other beginners. Proper usage of these forms require interactions and relationships that are far more nuanced and subtle than the teacher or textbook expects them to be. They force people into responses that are infelicitous, unnatural, forced — and yet they continue to be standard fodder for teaching children.


So why do it then? I mean… Hello!!


Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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