TALKING TENSES: A step by step approach is best when teaching English to beginners
RECENTLY, I had to grapple with the rudiments of grammar and so, I began to realise how deficient my knowledge has been. I started with the past but was soon embroiled with the intrusion of the present. The past can open its door to the present, I discovered. How can that be possible?
One evening, many years now, I was walking home in a quiet street when two cars suddenly wheezed past. I thought they were just some young tearaways drunk on speed, so I just stepped back to the kerb to see them go. But then, not a few yards away from where I was standing, one car suddenly ran alongside the other and nudged it violently to the kerb.
"As I stood there, I see this man pull out a gun and he starts shooting at the other car...," I said.
The persons listening to my story were new learners of English. In fact, they were complete beginners, put under my charge by their employers in the misguided hope that I would be able to teach them "survival English". You know, asking for the price of goods in shops, buying a ticket at the railway station, asking for directions, things like that. But unbeknown to me, they had taken what I had told them the previous day to heart: always stick to your tense and be guided by when the action took place; English makes great demands on that. Events in the past? Verbs in the past, too, yes please.
As they wrote what I was saying into their notebooks, one of them noticed my glaring mistake. "Teacher," he said. "You stood there, but he starts shooting."
I knew I was not making a mistake but I could not explain to them why "as I stood there, I see a man pull a gun out and starts to shoot" was right. We read that style of writing very often in fiction and I myself am not averse to using that jump from the past into the present whenever I get excited about an event, or a narration. The shooting incident barely a few yards from where I was standing shocked me greatly; when I was narrating the event I felt as if I was there once again, as if they were happening in the present. But how do I explain to these not-so-young novices that I was not going against my own previous dictates?
This is the difference between causal knowledge and what cognitive scientist Art Markman calls the illusion of explanatory depth. We are so familiar with the many ways things work that we assume full knowledge. And yet, there are still so many gaps: so, how do you fill them, replenish yourself with real knowing?
One of the ways is through teaching, as I found out. To teach, you must have a thorough understanding or you will be caught out. You must be able to explain things step by step, the necessary causal knowledge, so that what you are trying to explain makes sense, to yourself and to the people who are asking to be taught.
It was only through the sharp eyes and ears of my students that I discovered a way of explaining how past and present tense can be mixed, through a grammatical form called the historical present. If you use the historical present, you can bring back the past as if it were happening here and now before you. I had to look that up.
In reading, say before an examination, I used to revise by reading notes that sounded and felt familiar to what I thought I knew, what I had read. But this knowledge was illusory because I did not really sit down to analyse in detail what I thought I had, I did not put it in my own words and more importantly, I did not read it as if I was going to explain it to another person. Little wonder then that I often produced poor results.
So, I had learned something valuable: read as if you are going to teach. You don't want to be a teacher, perhaps, but teach yourself. All learning is self-taught. You go to a teacher of course but the internalising of your knowledge is yourself. It is you telling yourself that this is the cause of that and so on until it makes complete sense. By trying to explain things to yourself as if you were a teacher you will discover the gaps that you have and then the quality of your knowledge will be superior to what you previously had.
Try reading like a teacher: understand, analyse, refit the parts in your own words. A teacher cannot repeat what is in the books but he or she makes sense of what's written and then explains to the students what it is all about. When you read a book that impresses you, reread. You will probably go through the veil and see the workings of its magic. This is how great writers learned to write: Benjamin Franklin was one such.
Wan A. Hulaimi | email@example.com based in the UK New Straits Times Columnist 08 June 2014