The English Language – An Innocent Abroad (Blog)

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Teacher, teach thyself”  🙂

It was October 1997 and having just moved from South Africa to Bavaria I was beginning to wonder if I could retain my sanity simply spending my days learning German, walking the dogs and clearing the snow from the pavement outside our house (mandatory in our town).

One morning (just in time)  I received a call from the local Volkshochschule where I was a regular language pupil three times a week.  As one of only three English people in the little town of Kulmbach (population around 1000) they wondered whether I’d consider taking on a class teaching English to mature Germans.

“I’m not qualified,” I protested, seriously doubting whether my grasp of grammar was up to the challenge, but my protests were waved aside.  “Not asking you to teach grammar, it’s just a conversation class.”

But I knew the German mentality even then.  Their need to ‘dot the i’s and cross the ‘t’ s’ was equal to, if not greater than my own need to know ‘the in’s and out’s of the cat’s arse’, as one of my staff had helpfully described it to me, during a two way appraisal exercise.

I sent off for some grammar books.  Just in case.

My first class comprised 15 ladies and one man, playfully described as “the rooster in our hen house.”  He loved it!  Once my nervousness subsided, I truly began to enjoy our 90 minute sessions each Wednesday morning, and would spend hours structuring exercises to keep their interest.

I usually started each session by asking students to volunteer an account, in English, of an activity they’d engaged in since our last meeting.  The enthusiastic ones ritualistically prepared a topic, and it became an exercise in itself to tactfully curtail their accounts as they threatened to take over the whole 90 minutes.  The less confident, with a little coaxing, eventually opened up too.

One day, one of my better pupils was speaking about her weekend activities.  She mentioned that her grandchildren had been playing with a “plastic red big nice ball.”  I used to correct them immediately when they got something wrong (irritating though I always found that when I was in full flight in my German classes) so I stopped her.

“That would be ‘a nice big red plastic ball’,” I said.

And inevitably came the response.  “Warum?”

“Because that’s the way we say it,” I responded, but clearly that wouldn’t be enough for them.

“How are we to know these things?” said another testily, one with whom I’d had a lengthy and heated debate on the inconsistencies of “bough, cough, tough, thorough, through, etc” not to mention the vagaries of “lay, lie, laid, lying“.

Indeed, how were they to know?  I’d always made it clear I wasn’t a qualified language teacher, but I must confess to a feeling of inadequacy here, and promised I would give it some thought, and further study.

Back to the newly imported grammar books where I was surprised to find that there is in fact a protocol for adjectival order.  Let me say at the outset that these rules are not absolute, but they would be (and indeed were) a useful guide for people learning our language.

First of all, opinion comes before fact.

So you’d have a ‘nice red ball’ and not a ‘red nice ball’.

But when you get to the ‘facts’ – they too have their order.

First comes size.  So it’s a ‘nice big red ball‘  and not a ‘nice red big ball‘.

And then you address ‘how old?’, followed by ‘what colour?’.

So ‘a nice new red ball’, (opinion + age+ colour) and not ‘a nice red new ball’.

Next in order, you address the issue of origin – where from?

So, changing the descriptions here, (and restricting the number of adjectives in the example)  it’s a ‘nice old Russian doll’ not a ‘nice Russian old doll’ or any other permutation you want to make.

If you wanted to describe what something was made from, that too would have its place in the adjectival chain.  Hence you have, ‘a nice old white cotton blouse’ (opinion+ age+colour+made from) as opposed to ‘ a white cotton old nice blouse’.

Adjectives of size and length would be placed before those describing shape.  Thus you might buy a ‘large round table’ for a ‘long narrow dining room’ but not vice versa.

If you are describing ‘type’ that would come fairly late in the pecking order, as would ‘purpose’.  We’d say ‘excellent public putting greens’ (opinion + type + purpose) not ‘public excellent putting greens’.  Purpose tends to be the last in the adjectival chain for obvious reasons.

Sometimes adjectives may be formed from participles, (furnished, tailored, dried, shattered etc) and these too have their own order.  We’d tend to rent a ‘small furnished apartment’ rather than a ‘furnished small apartment’.  Or we’d have ‘escalating emotional problems’ rather than ‘emotional escalating problems’.

It’s something of a minefield, but with the help of John Eastwood’s Oxford Guide to English Grammar ISBN 0 19 431351 4 © Oxford University Press 1994 and Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use ISBN 0 521 43680 X © Cambridge University Press, I was able to put together a series of exercises comprising wrongly positioned multi-adjectival sentences to help my students become accustomed to putting their adjectives in the right order.

The first of these books publishes a rough guide to order:

1                   Opinion

2                   Size

3                   Quality

4                   Age

5                   Shape

6                   Colour

7                   Participle Forms

8                   Origin

9                   Material

10                 Type

11                  Purpose

Adjectival order is something that we learn instinctively as we learn to talk, so this whole exercise was a huge eye-opener for me, as well as my students.  I hadn’t expected to learn quite so much from teaching my own language to others.

Within a very short time, I was asked to take a second class, immediately following that one, and my preparation work doubled, as the second class comprised slightly older ladies who needed different stimuli.  And then an evening class was added to my schedule – once again a whole different ball-game in terms of class preparation, as this class was a much wider mix in terms of age range, interest and ability.

For this class I devised a game to be played for the last 20 minutes of each session, where we had a list of categories, (adjective, verb, flower, tree, etc) and I’d choose a different letter with which they had to begin an English word in each category. Hence, (p = prompt, put, pansy, poplar etc).   Two points were awarded for a word that no-one else had thought of, 1 point if someone else had, and no points obviously if you hadn’t thought of one.  Dear God, how competitive were these people?  Some of them were turning up at classes with long lists of adjectives for every letter of the alphabet, and competition became so fierce and so challenging that the session stretched into half an hour of ferocious civil war, and I had to start changing the categories without warning!

Soon I began to accumulate private students, many of whom brought their own insights into the difficulties of learning a foreign language.  I remember one young woman who simply couldn’t understand the use of the word ‘to’ in the infinitive.  She became increasingly irritated with text books that listed verbs as ‘to run’, ‘to laugh’.  “What is this ‘to?’ she would demand.  “What does it mean?”  I never did find a satisfactory explanation for her.

But my fondest memory was of teaching English to two company directors whose small but progressive company had been taken over by an American firm.  They wanted to impress their new colleagues with their grasp of English, but more essentially American English.

One day they proudly rehearsed a presentation they had prepared for their senior colleagues across the pond.  “We,” proclaimed the Managing Director proudly, “are an offensive company.”

It turned out they’d been studying American football and wanted to put across the ‘attacking’ nature of their approach to the market.  I never did find a suitable substitute for this word (dynamic, go-getting, proactive didn’t quite cut it after  ‘offensive’) and eventually when I became frustrated with arguing the relative merits of ‘sidewalks’ versus ‘pavements’ and ‘highways’ versus ‘motorways’ I found them an American woman who’d moved into the area and was more than capable of providing what they really needed.

You need to know when to give in with some students.

But it seems I’ll never give up learning about English.

About Sandra

I used to cruise the French waterways with my husband four or five months a year, and wrote fiction and poetry. Now I live on the beautiful Dorset coast, enjoying the luxury of being able to have a cat, cultivating an extensive garden and getting involved in the community. I still write fiction, but only when the spirit moves me - which isn't as often as before. I love animals, F1 motor racing, French bread and my husband, though not necessarily in that order.
This entry was posted in By the Way ..., Just Sayin' and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The English Language – An Innocent Abroad (Blog)

  1. sue Cottrill says:

    Wow , thanks for the english free lesson. Ooops wrong I think. This blooming language. I loved this one Sandra. I am still learning at a ripe age, Thank you


  2. Sarah Ann says:

    It’s interesting what we take for granted as native speakers, and how the rules, once they are spelt out, make you think and seem to confuse everything. Or is that just me? Great post, Sandra!


    • Sandra says:

      How well would you have to know a foreign language in order to become involved in espionage or something similar. A simple thing like adjectival order could really trip you up. Thanks for reading Sarah Ann.


  3. Abraham says:

    Hi Sandra,
    Some time in the past few months, I thought of an English class in primary school where we were taught the order of adjectives. I don’t know what brought it to my mind then.

    As for “How are we to know,” I guess it’s just by hearing language in use. But you already know that, I imagine.

    When I was maybe 8 or 9 or 10, we (my sister, our neighbours and myself) used to play a game similar to the one you describe. We had papers with columns for various categories – countries, boys names, girls’ names, food etc. Someone would pick a letter of the alphabet and we would race to fill a row with words starting with the chosen letter. First person to finish would say Stop and we would award marks.
    Ich habe auch einige Deutsch spaeter gelernt.

    Maybe I should just make this a blog post.


    • Sandra says:

      Ich habe alles mein Deutsch vergessen, Abraham! After learning German I went on to live in Spain and then France so I now speak an amalgam of four languages. Interesting that you too played the same game; we as a family played it when I was a girl. I think we were as competitive as my German students! Thanks for commenting, it’s good to know there are people out there! 🙂


  4. Abraham says:

    Reblogged this on Baba Amor's Thoughts and commented:
    Some English, anyone?


  5. Abraham says:

    I have reblogged this. I hope you do not mind.


  6. I have learnt so much from this post, Sandra. And I had some good laughs.:-) I think the ‘aggressive’ might do instead of ‘offensive’. Companies are aggressive these days in their marketing approach and goal setting. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing this 🙂


  7. Reading this has made my afternoon and reminded me of my primary school days learning English adjectives. I tried learning French and it’s a whole different concept!


    • Sandra says:

      Hi Savvy Kenya, I’m glad this brought back some happy memories. In my time I’ve lived in Germany, Spain and France, so have had to get some mastery of all three. Nothing however compared to when I learned Russian back in college. A new alphabet and SIX grammatical cases – nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental and prepositional. I gave that up after two years study, though I can still remember the alphabet, which has been useful on occasion. Thanks for visiting and commenting.


  8. Greetings from Australia,
    I love this post; it shows great strength of character on your behalf as trying to take on Germans in an English conversation class must be quite a challenge. I’ve also studied German and know that it can be quite challenging from an English speaking perspective. Having said that, at least you’re living in beautiful Bavaria which is an absolutely picturesque and gorgeous place to experience. Take great care and wishing you all the best in your life’s’ journey
    God bless


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