December 19, 2003

The dread hand of Effle... and boredom

It's a useful concept, Effle -- meaningless English from English as a Foreign Language (EFL) textbooks, with their awkward and stupid-sounding English example sentences made up without regard for whether anyone would ever want to say anything like that. And Norma Mendoza-Denton's story (a native non-standard English speaker from a Spanish-speaking home forced to sit in class all day listening to This is a pencil and A man has a dog, arranging to get himself thrown out and sent to the principal's office just for relief) is heartbreaking. But I'm not at all sure I can agree with everything on the Effle page.

On a minor point, applied linguist Pit Corder is cited there as the source of The farmer kills the duckling, but in fact I think Edward Sapir, the great anthropological linguist, was responsible for that dimwitted piece of example construction (uncharacteristic for Sapir).

But more centrally, surely we cannot accept the maxim, "As soon as we encourage or force learners to say what they do not mean, we break links that will be all the harder to mend afterwards." It's fine to have learners say things they don't mean; that's what playwriting and acting in skits is all about, and it can be tons of fun. Heaven forfend that we should require students to learn entirely by speaking the truth about their feelings. The objection to making students say things like Her food is eaten by her (said to have been actually found in an exercise on the passive) is not that they don't mean it; it's that no one talks that way, and no one would want to say that anyway.

My guess would be that it's not insincerity in example sentences that is the great enemy of language teaching, but boring the crap out of learners. Once a learner loses the feeling that being able to say things in this language is going to be a really neat, and that the learning process can be a lot of fun, the language teacher has lost the battle. She might as well just pack up and go home to wherever her food is eaten by her.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 19, 2003 01:00 PM