BAD ENGLISH CLASSES.

Anatoly has a post (in Russian) about how when he was studying English in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, they were still taught the antiquated rule that you say I shall, you will, he will, and he wonders if they still teach that nonsense in Russia today. Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes, at least in rural and backward schools, and one commenter shows an image of a textbook from 2012 that has “I shall go to the Zoo. He will go to the Zoo. She will go to the Zoo” and links to this post (in English) by a woman who “quit her job in August 2011 to spend a year volunteering and traveling through all 15 countries of the former Soviet Union” and reports on “A Day in a Russian School”:

What saddened me was what I saw in the English classes. Olga herself admitted to me that she was not trained as an English teacher, but happened to end up teaching the English class because she was one of a few teachers who knew some English. And her English was not close to fluent; she sometimes struggled to understand me as we spoke and she often mispronounced words that she was trying to teach to the students. Her lessons were full of errors that had me biting my tongue to I wouldn’t jump in to correct her. It wasn’t surprising, then, that the oldest students hadn’t progressed much further than knowing a few words of vocabulary, despite having studied English for almost a decade.

Of course, no American has any business pointing fingers at bad language teaching in other countries, and I’m certainly not going to, but it’s still a depressing story.

Comments

  1. Obsolete language in classes taught in other countries doesn’t seem too surprising. Even with lots of two-way travel and a thriving textbook industry, English taught in Russia could hardly be more innovative than UK/US/etc. English, so it’s just a question of how much more conservative it will be.
    In 1984 Orwell has Newspeak replace “shall” with “will,” and I wonder if any Soviet-era curriculum planners were thinking about that when they decided which forms to teach.

  2. Teaching shall/will/will is a dangerous game unless you warn the pupils of those varieties of English which use “will” as the simple future and “shall” for the future imperative, even if you need some lame old joke to make the point.
    I notice that both the older town and older gown near me use shall/will/will quite a bit. I don’t. Another strange local usage is “Aren’t I?” instead of the preferred “Amn’t I?”. Preferred by me, at any rate.

  3. Is there a difference between American and British usage of shall/will, or is it generational? As a close-to-60 Australian, in speech I know I mostly say “I’ll”, but I think I often use shall eg “I shall do that as soon as I get home”. And I think I have only ever heard anyone say “amn’t I?” in jest.

  4. Another strange local usage is “Aren’t I?” instead of the preferred “Amn’t I?”. Preferred by me, at any rate.
    Dearie: May I suggest that “aren’t I” is only “strange” locally to your part of the UK. I don’t remember hearing “amn’t I” south of Watford.
    (For non-UK readers, Watford is a town less than 20 miles north of London and a standard joke in southern England is that the North starts at Watford… sometimes put more colourfully that “the Picts start at Watford”).

  5. George Kennan (great-uncle of the famous US diplomat) had an extraordinary adventure helping survey routes for a proposed Russian-American telegraph line in Siberia in the late 1850s, through two Siberian winters. He finally went from the far east of Siberia to St. Petersburg, again in winter, “eleven weeks from the Okhotsk Sea by way of Yakutsk, Irkutsk, Tomsk, Tiumen, Ekaterineburg, and Nizhni Novgorod. In the eleven weeks we had changed dogs, reindeer, or horses more than two hundred and sixty times and had made a distance of 5,714 miles, nearly all of it in a single sleigh.”
    That introduction for a quote from his remarkable book “Tent Life in Siberia”*:
    “I was not the only person in Irkutsk, however, whose vocabulary was peculiar and whose diction was “quaint” and “bizarre.” … we received a call from a young Russian telegraph operator who had heard of our arrival and who wished to pay his respects to us as brother telegraphers from America. I greeted him cordially in Russian; but he began, at once, to speak English, and said that he would prefer to speak that language, for the sake of practice. His pronunciation, although queer, was fairly intelligible, and I had little difficulty in understanding him; but his talk had a strange, mediaeval flavour, due, apparently, to the use of obsolete idioms and words.
    “In the course of half an hour, I became satisfied that he was talking the English of the fifteenth century—the English of Shakespeare, Beaumont, and Fletcher—but how he had learned such English, in the nineteenth century and in the capital of eastern Siberia, I could not imagine. I finally asked him how he had managed to get such command of the language in a city where, so far as I knew, there was no English teacher. He replied that the Russian Government required of its telegraph operators a knowledge of Russian and French, and then added two hundred and fifty rubles a year to their salaries for every additional language that they learned. He wanted the two hundred and fifty rubles, so he began the study of English with a small English-French dictionary and an old copy of Shakespeare. He got some help in acquiring the pronunciation from educated Polish exiles, and from foreigners whom he occasionally met, but, in the main, he had learned the language alone, and by committing to memory dialogues from Shakespeare’s plays.
    “I described to him my recent experience with Russian, and told him that his method was, unquestionably, better than mine. He had learned English from the greatest master of the language that ever lived; while I had picked up my Russian from Cossack dog-drivers and illiterate Kamchadals. He could talk to young women in the eloquent and impassioned words of Romeo, while my language was fit for backwoodsmen only.”
    *Available free as an ebook on the Gutenberg Project – recommended.

  6. I’m immensely grateful to my grandfather, who bought me Practical English Usage by Michael Swan in the early 1980s (an authorized Soviet reprint). It turned out one of the most useful books I’ve had.
    BTW my English school teachers would have probably marked the previous sentence grammatically incorrect on sequence of tenses grounds. I also remember discovering that “not as good as” is wrong and should be “not so good as,” another obsolete rule.
    But those teachers did warn us of the trickiness of shall/will and the possible non-existence of a future tense in English. I’m not sure if they every discussed the “will” vs. “going to” dilemma.

  7. An excellent quote, Paul, and I really should read that book—Ian Frazier raved about it as well.

  8. That is exactly how I remember being taught in Leningrad the 1980s, and it doesn’t surprise me that things didn’t change much. On the other hand, I belong to the American Council of Teachers of Russian, and their newsletter written by professional American teachers of Russian is full of pretty funny Russian mistakes of all kinds (obsolete usage, very formal phrases in the informal context, plain grammar mistakes, etc.) Here are a couple of quotes from their recent (summer 2013)issue. The text is about Korney Chukovsky: “Корней Иванович был внебрачным ребенком от Эммануила Соломоновича Левенсона, студента из еврейской семьи. У Корнея Ивановича была старшая сестра Мария. Вскоре после его рождения, мать вдвоем с детьми переехала в Одессу.” “Его любимым писателем он считал А.С. Чехова.” “Он получил звание лауреата ряда государственных премий и кавалера орденов.”
    And it is now when it takes a second to check that Chekhov is Anton Pavlovich.

  9. Victor Sonkin says:

    Erik M.: No.
    Paul: Sergei Averintsev once said, when he was a visiting professor in Vienna: “[The Austrians] think that Siberia begins on the other bank of the Rhine”.
    (It’s better in Russian, “что на другом берегу Рейна начинается Сибирь”, but I find it difficult to convey the nuance without breaking the rules of English grammar.)

  10. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I sometimes read that “shall” is dying faster in American English than in British English, but is this really true? I find that in some contexts “will” sounds weird. For example, would you say “Will I drive you to the airport now?”? That seems Irish to me.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Athal, I think that in that context North Americans (at least the ones I know) would not use either “shall” or “will” but would say: “How about I drive you to the airport now?”

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Oops, Athel, of course.

  13. Well, according to the first post-war chancellor Adenauer, Siberia began on the other bank of the Elbe. ;-)

  14. Some authorities used to say that “I shall” and “I will” are both grammatical, with the former being a more emphatic statement. (It’s not just that I wish to do it; I am going to succeed!)
    And that the reverse holds for the second or third person. (Not only are you going to do it, but you’re doing to do it voluntarily!)
    I think I saw this in a book used in a US school in the mid-1960s, but obviously it was already going out of fashion then.

  15. I always thought will and shall were two different verbs, with different meanings.
    Shall isn’t very common in AmE, because its meaning overlaps with really should, really ought to, and must.

  16. mollymooly says:

    The Watford where the North starts is not Watford, Hertfordshire but 50 miles further north at Watford, Northamptonshire (or rather the nearby Watford Gap). Conflating the two is sometimes a deliberate extra layer of humour and sometimes not.

  17. marie-lucie: I think the “shall” of “shall I drive you to the airport?” remains reasonably common in North America, but it isn’t the same as the I shall/you will/he, she, it will alternation. “Shall we go?” is used as a polite way of asking “Do you want to go?” or “Is it time for us to go?” It isn’t equivalent to “Are we going to go (or not)?” as a factual question. Cf. “Will I really keep my promise? You’ll have to wait and see.”

  18. At one time I was told that “amn’t I” was used without humorous intent only by the Irish. (Cannot know whether this is true, but I once knew an Irish girl who did use it all the time.)
    -
    I remember that Fowler’s “The King’s English” (a reprint of a re-edition of a book originally from the early 20th century) had a long chapter on shall/will/will, most of whose rules seemed very plausible to one (such as I) who had learned the language mainly from books. Many subtle shades of meaning could be conveyed in the correct use of these simple words. I remember reading that (even then) it was suggested that “I will” could sometimes replace “I shall” especially if no strong emphasis was intended, but that this was never possible in interrogative sentences. (!!)
    -
    SHALL with 2nd and 3rd person was used to express a strong command, etc etc.
    But what stuck most clearly in my mind was one of the exceptions: the (military) example “The uniform will be worn at all times.” Where, it was said, the very idea of any one breaking that rule was so inconceivable, that it was no longer viewed as a command, but rather as a statement about unavoidable reality, or something like that. Hence “will” and not “shall”.
    -
    I am sorry to say that I seem to have mislaid that particular book, so I am quoting from (ancient) memory, and I may have misremembered this in part…
    But I have always liked this particular exception. Thus one could replace the imperative “Thou shalt not kill!” with “Murders will not be committed.” (Which -to me- suggests that the Deity issueing the order might actually prevent them from happening….)

  19. The person who told me that “amn’t-I” was an Irishism also told me that the one and only REALLY correct from (hardly ever used in practice, though) would be “AM I NOT?”
    -
    Rhetorically imaginable in a sentence such as: “I am still the King, am I not?”
    -

  20. A while ago we discussed the use of “passed” as a euphemism for “died”. Today I saw “… peacefully went to be with her Lord”. But how do they know?

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Erik: About Shall I …?, you are right about educated North American usage, but that is not how everyone speaks.
    (Here I started to write about Amn’t I? as the source of Ain’t I?, from which the verb form was generalized to all persons, but nothing showed up after Amn’t I? as the inital sequence).
    When in school I only learned Am I not? and was very surprised when I heard Aren’t I?, which I never got used to saying.

  22. J. W. Brewer says:

    Northern Italians supposedly sometimes say “Africa begins at Rome” (or perhaps Italians more generally say “Africa begins at X, where X is some landmark just a little bit south of the piece of the country they personally identify with).

  23. J. W. Brewer says:

    In the American English subcorpus of the google books n gram viewer, “shall we” remains more common than “will we” as recently as 2008. Flip the order and “we will” drew ahead of “we shall” circa 1976. This corpus may obviously be skewed toward a more formal register. (FWIW my tests may not have captured sentence-initial instances b/c I couldn’t be bothered to capitalize)
    Even hippies liked shall: “Shall we go, you and I while we can / Through the transitive nightfall of diamonds?”

  24. It’s almost a formula:
    “Africa begins at the Pyrenees.”
    “Asia begins at the Rhine.”
    “Mordor begins at the Rockies” or “East of the Rockies, it’s all Mordor.”

  25. Can “shall” be contracted to “‘ll”?

  26. Can “shall” be contracted to “‘ll”?
    Posted by Greg Lee at October 3, 2013 07:07 PM

    Sure! Of course!

  27. Long ago, Arnold Zwicky wrote an article “Auxiliary Reduction in English”, which connected the various contractions with the articulatory properties of the full forms. The initial consonants that go away in “He (ha)s left” and “He (woul)d leave”, for instance, are glides, which are notorious for eliding, so Zwicky’s theory has (or had) some plausibility. Then the contraction of “will” to “‘ll” is connected to the fact that “will” starts with a glide.
    “Shall” does not start with a glide. So one would not expect it to contract to “‘ll”, approaching matters as Zwicky did.
    There could be all sorts of evidence on the other side of this, for all I know, that “shall” does actually contract, but I don’t know of any such evidence.
    I would need evidence to get to “Of course!”

  28. H. L. Mencken systematically used the shall/will/will rule in The American Language, but treated ‘ll as representing either.

  29. I don’t think “shall” fits into American English grammar at all, any more, except as a weird stylistic variant of “will”. Either people don’t use it at all (like me), or they substitute it for “will” in a mechanical fashion to sound fancy, according to some rule they may recall dimly.
    If it did any more fit into English grammar, it would have a past tense. It may still have a past in British English (I’m not sure), but not in American English. There is no notional past for the modals any longer (except “can”), but you can still find a grammatical past turning up in the “sequences of tenses” rule.
    In converting direct discourse into corresponding indirect discourse, when the main verb is past, the verb of the reported speech gets shifted to the past. So, for instance, “He said: “I love java.”” becomes “He said that he loved java.”
    Similarly, “will” gets shifted to the past form “would”, and “can” gets shifted to the past tense “could”. If “shall” worked this way too, it would shift to “should”. But I don’t think it does.
    Take MacArthur’s famous “I shall return”. Can you report that as “MacArthur said that he should return”? I can’t. The “should” can only be understood in the obligation sense. (I have an intuition, however, that I have seen this sort of thing in British usage.)

  30. @Greg Lee: I disagree with much of what you write. To wit:
    1. I think most Americans would find “Shall I […]?” or “Shall we […]?” to be quite different in meaning from “Will I […]?” or “Will we […]?”. The substitution is not at all mechanical.
    2. Not all the modals have a past tense; “must”, in particular, does not.
    3. The use of “would” for “will” is not governed strictly by a sequence-of-tenses rule; for example, “he said it will be here tomorrow” is absolutely fine (whereas *”he said it will be here yesterday” is not).
    4. The badness of *”MacArthur said that he should return” does not fully support your point, IMHO, because *”MacArthur says that he shall return” is not much better.

  31. I would need evidence to get to “Of course!”
    Posted by Greg Lee at October 4, 2013 12:42 AM
    -
    I may have been misinformed. I have no “evidence” to the contrary… I’m toatally willing to admit that historically, phonologically, scientifically, the form “‘ll” may be derived from “will” and “will” only.
    -
    However, without theorizing about the origins of the contracted forms, one can well imagine that certain syllables disappear when words are spoken quickly or indistinctly, whatever their phonological characteristics.
    -
    So you get to a point in time where I’ll/I shall/I will are all possible.
    Then, when teaching English (British English by the way) to non-native speakers, when outlining the old-fashioned shall/will/will rule, you tell them that the distinction is erased when you say “ll”. Next, add an advice to avoid contracted forms in any sort of formal writing.
    In that way one may arrive at “Of course shall can be contracted to “‘ll”. My answer was given in the way I would have answered a pupil.
    -
    So, Mr Zwicky may well be right; I shan’t (sic) offer any evidence to the contrary.
    -
    Anyway, these days, in spoken sentences one would only use shall when extra emphasis is intended. But in formal written sentences such as: “We shall send you the required materials within the next fourteen days,” I still think we see an ordinary future tense’.
    When reading that letter aloud, I would probably say it as “we’ll send”.
    -

  32. About elision of syllables, how about Worcestershiresauce (pron: Woostersauce). For years I wondered where the “…shire…” had gone, until learning one day that the county Worcestershire is locally pronounced as “Woosters”, the -shire being reduced to a final s. This s disappears when sauce is added.
    -

  33. “[The Austrians] think that Siberia begins on the other bank of the Rhine”.
    I assume he meant “Danube”, unless the Austrians were claiming a) they were actually living in Siberia or b) France is in Siberia.

  34. @Ran – 1. I think most Americans would find “Shall I […]?” or “Shall we […]?” to be quite different in meaning from “Will I […]?” or “Will we […]?”. The substitution is not at all mechanical
    As an American, I agree with Greg Lee. “Shall” is completely obsolete in the speech of any American under 50 years old as far as I can tell. It is only used for humor or in attempts to elevate one’s tone.

  35. Of course, no American has any business pointing fingers at bad language teaching in other countries
    Really? In my personal experience the US has nothing to be ashamed of compared to any other country I’ve lived – Japan, Russia, Germany, Austria, Taiwan – none of them offer exceptional language education (and in Japan it is truly bad). Both my German teachers at my public high school in rural New Hampshire were motivated, spoke excellent German and loved the culture. I understand the Spanish teacher was also very good. My wife received excellent Spanish instruction in a Catholic high school in rural Pennsylvania. My Russian teachers, both in undergrad and graduate school, were also very good. It is fairly easy to teach English in Europe, you can’t escape it – it’s on the radio, advertising, internet, etc. Much more challenging to teach a language like German in a monolingual parochial environment like Northern New England.

  36. Really? In my personal experience the US has nothing to be ashamed of compared to any other country I’ve lived
    Well, I wasn’t so much saying the US was worse than other countries as that it wasn’t any better, but I am encouraged to read your comment; I have to admit I had a bad impression of language teaching here in general (though I don’t know why, because the bad teaching I remember was decades ago, and the language teaching my grandsons are getting is excellent).

  37. “But in formal written sentences such as: “We shall send you the required materials within the next fourteen days,” I still think we see an ordinary future tense’.”
    Who’s “we” here? The one sure thing about shall is that it marks that it’s *not* an ordinary future tense that is intended.

  38. @Vanya: I’m not saying “shall” is an everyday word found in everyday speech, I’m just saying that it doesn’t differ solely in register. “Shall we dance?” may sound fancy, but not because *”Will we dance?” is normal. (I’m also American, FWIW. And, yes, under fifty.)

  39. @Frans Koppenol The English county name Worcestershire is abbreviated not to Worcesters., but to Worcs.. IME (I grew up in that county), people, when calling that county by its name, would normally use its full name anyway, but might say [wʊs] when giving a postal address, say.
    Each of the English county names that end in “shire” has an abbreviated form, but in most cases, this doesn’t just abbreviate the final “shire” to “s.”, but omits some other letters as well. Two anomalies: Oxfordshire/Oxon. and Hampshire/Hants..

  40. @ R.Sabey
    Thank you. You are right I suppose. I’ve never been there. Everything I know I read somewhere. I did know the written abbreviation was Worcs.
    -
    The nearest approximation to the swallowing of the shire-syllable I could find at short notice, was the following:
    Worcestershire [ˈwʊstəˌʃɪə -ʃə] from the Free Online Dictionary. Then it would be that [-ʃə] that got eaten by the sauce…

  41. That Joe Asseany leads to the joke about the teacher in Germany who asks a child where the Hungarian border is, and the kid replies, “In the park with my aunt, and my mother doesn’t like it!”

  42. Before trying to puzzle out how or why the middle syllable of “Worcester” disappeared, shouldn’t we have some evidence that this word was at some time pronounced with three syllables (other than as a mistaken spelling pronunciation)?

  43. I was taught the shall/will/will and will/shall/shall distinction in high school in the Fifties in Victoria,BC and it still feels normal to me.
    Of course I use the contraction in speech.
    I also think ‘The King of England’s hat’ is normal, and ‘Tom’s of Maine toothpaste’ sounds like a joke.

  44. I must add that I’m sure most, if not all, my high school classmates have adjusted their English to what they hear and see. I find it happens to me too.

  45. Greg Lee: In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the city appears as Weogorna ceastre (five syllables), and in Domesday Book, two centuries later, as Wirecestre (four). Since people spelled as they pronounced in those days, a three-syllable stage may be confidently inferred.

  46. So old spelling gives evidence for 4 and 5 syllables, therefore there must have been a 3 syllable form? Hmmm.
    How do you know that “people spelled as they pronounced in those days”?
    Before my previous post, I saw this discussion, http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2012/05/worcester-source.html , suggesting some uncertainty whether “-cester” was ever pronounced with two syllables, and giving some evidence from scansion that Shakespeare’s pronunciation had just one:
    (excerpted):
    Here are some two-syllable examples from Shakespeare: “At worcester must his body be interr’d” (King John); “He is, my lord, and safe in leicester town” (Richard III); “As ’tis said, the bastard son of gloucester” (King Lear).

  47. David Marjanović says:

    I thought “amn’t I” was entirely restricted to Ireland.

    Northern Italians supposedly sometimes say “Africa begins at Rome” (or perhaps Italians more generally say “Africa begins at X, where X is some landmark just a little bit south of the piece of the country they personally identify with).

    Naturally, the Balkan peninsula begins just outside central Vienna at a street named Rennweg.

    Before my previous post, I saw this discussion, http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2012/05/worcester-source.html , suggesting some uncertainty whether “-cester” was ever pronounced with two syllables, and giving some evidence from scansion that Shakespeare’s pronunciation had just one:

    That was 500 years after the Domesday Book, though.

    How do you know that “people spelled as they pronounced in those days”?

    Variations seen in the spelling of “those days”, changes in spelling over time, renderings of words from other languages and vice versa… and soon after Shakespeare the orthoepists who wrote books about how to “correctly” pronounce English. Some managed to write really precise descriptions. And one of them still insisted on pronouncing every gh in 1609.

  48. marie-lucie says:

    How do you know that “people spelled as they pronounced in those days”?
    In the absence of dictionaries (and even of many written texts) and of formal teaching of spelling, people relied on their ear. The invention and spread of printing caused a certain amount of standardization but in written documents such as letters and even contracts there is a lot of fluctuation in spelling as people did not have too many models. When prepared for publication for a modern general audience such texts are usually standardized, but manuscript documents show a lot of variation even within the practics of a single speaker. This is one reason why personal names which are obviously the same word are often written differently by different families, who settled on their own spelling at a certain time and never changed it (eg White/Whyte).

  49. “Naturally, the Balkan peninsula begins just outside central Vienna at a street named Rennweg.”
    This much is true. I remember seeing a Serbian wedding party somewhere to the left of the Rennweg (The Belvedere and the brewery to the right.) There’s a Polish church there and the Russian embassy a little farther off. Not exactly the Balkans but kind of close.

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