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Sunday, November 18, 2007

What a Pity: You Fail

Last week I gave a class with two goals: to teach my students a few popular English idioms, and to get them to stop saying "what a pity" anytime something goes wrong.

"What a pity" is one of a myriad of phrases that, while accurate, are maddeningly overused here in China by English students. If something is even remotely palatable, it is "delicious." If someone barely passes fugly on the attractiveness scale, they are deemed "beautiful." So I wanted to try eradicating this asinine "what a pity" paradigm and replace it with something English speakers actually say.

I typed up an idiom worksheet, keeping the language as simple as possible: cold shoulder, butter someone up, Eureka!, once in a blue moon ... all of these and more. Each sheet had the idiom in bold, a simple explanation underneath, and an example sentence to show the idiom "in the wild." I had students pair up, with one reading the idiom and the example, while the other guessed it's meaning. I had a lot of idiom worksheets, too, so after a few minutes, the sheets were swapped, the guesser became the reader, with the former reader now having to guess a new set of idioms. The reading and "teaching" of the idioms to one another helped them practice speaking, the guessing helped them think in English, and overall, I think it all worked out pretty well.

I also had some vocabulary on the board, all meant to replace "what a pity:" What a shame, how disappointing, I'm really sorry to hear that, etc. We followed this vocabulary up with readings from the (otherwise disgracefully useless) textbook and a dialog of my own design. At the end of this part of class, we had a fat list of alternatives on the board, and even more in our book. Not new vocabulary, really, just new phrases and patterns. Simple, really.

So, the first half of class: reading, speaking, and practicing dialogs with "what a pity" alternatives. Slow, steady, but drilled deep into their skulls.

The second half of class: idioms.

Now class: idioms are on the worksheet. "What a pity" alternatives are on the board and your textbook. Everyone got it? Really? No questions? Good. Let's review one more time.

OK. Now: make a dialog with your partner. Use one idiom, and one of our new "what a pity" alternatives.

Now remember: idioms, paper. Alternatives, textbook and blackboard. Got it? Any questions? OK, go to it.

Two girls in the back of one class, two extraordinarily lazy students who have done nothing but sleep, talk, and text message for the months we've been in class, were going to be in trouble when it came time to read the dialogs in front of the class. So I spent a lot of time helping them with this: we went over nearly a whole page of idioms, we talked about the dialog in our book and review the new phrases: despite all the evidence to the contrary, they assured me they "明白" (understood).

As the other groups worked busily, I saw both of these girls sitting, heads down on the desk, arms dejectedly covering their head, in that totally exhausted "I don't give a shit" look so common with Chinese students. I was really hoping they'd pull it off, because I'd given them as much help as I could give two lazy students in a class of thirty, and in the end there were no new words, only new phrases and new ways to use very simple vocabulary.

Prep time finished, groups began presenting. I emphasized a short dialog to everyone (a necessity if everyone was to go), and they all delivered: terse, lean dialogs that gave the idiom and the "what a pity" alternative with little fluff. Some of the idioms were a little rusty (money "burning a hole in your pocket" seemed especially troublesome), but overall, not bad at all.

The two girls in the back looked as dead as ever. I couldn't avoid it any more: I had to give them their turn. I called their names, and they slowly stood, came timidly to the front, and began:

"So, this evening, how about it? Would you like to come to my dormitory to study?"
"Oh, I am sorry, but I have no time."
"Oh, what a pity."

Heads up, eyes on me, expectant smiles.

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