Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

After years of cogitation and research, I’m absolutely convinced that the best way to teach English is by the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) method. Below I’ve detailed four basic KISS principles, and I look forward to like-minded ELT realists adding more at the end.

1  Innit? – the one-size-fits-all question tag

Question tags are a bore and a chore and at last something has arrived which is a genuinely useful and easy-to-use replacement.

Whole units of coursebooks, millions and millions of pages, have been devoted to explaining how question tags work – they’re negative if the main verb is affirmative etc etc – and giving ‘realistic’ examples.

You’re American, aren’t you?

She dances divinely, doesn’t she?

They didn’t do it, did they???

As if that wasn’t enough, if you want to be sarcastic, the rule changes, and you use affirmative-affirmative or negative-negative:

So, you missed the train again, did you?

She doesn’t fancy you, doesn’t she?

Innit? replaces (almost) all of these. The beauty of innit? is that it isn’t recognisably an existing question tag. Obviously, it’s derived from isn’t it? but is different enough to feel right in all situations. Innit?

You’re American, innit?

Phoarrrrr! She can dance, innit!!

At the moment, it doesn’t sound quite right with negative statements …

They didn’t do it, innit???

… but it’s just a matter of getting used to it.

It doesn’t really work with the sarcasm examples, so if you want to indicate this particular feeling, I recommend replacing the tag with the words Ha! Ha! Ha!

So, you missed the train again? Ha! Ha! Ha!

She doesn’t fancy you? Ha! Ha! Ha!

By making innit? the default question tag, we also come into line with other languages that only use one question tag – French (n’est-ce pas?), Spanish (¿verdad?), German (nicht wahr?), Mandarin Chinese (ma?) and Italian (no? + hands wildly outstretched).

So, say goodbye to question tag misery with innit? (and occasionally Ha! Ha! Ha!)

2     The was/were fiasco

One of the joys of teaching English is to be able to tell your students that past tense verb forms are all the same. Once you’ve learned the word went, it’s good for all persons (what a funny way to use that word!). This compares favourably to languages which have as many as SIX forms of the past tense, even with regular verbs, such as wildly extravagant Spanish.

To be able to use the past tense of a regular Spanish verb like cerrar (to close), you need to learn ALL THESE FORMS: yo cerré, cerraste, el/ella cerró,
nosotros cerramos,
vosotros cerrasteis,
ellos/ellas cerraron

With an irregular verb like ir (to go), it’s even harder – yo fui, tú fuiste, el/ella fue, nosotros fuimos, vosotros fuisteis, ellos/ellas fueron

What a nightmare! So, if you’re trying to decide which foreign language to learn, and it’s a toss-up between English and Spanish, you’ve just seen SIX good reasons not to choose Spanish.

But in English, there is always something that needs simplifying, and it’s an awkward fact that one verb DISOBEYS this past tense rule. Yes, the verb to be blatantly continues to have two past tense forms, was and were.

But help is at hand. In many parts of the UK, people already use just one form of the past tense of to be. Which word they choose depends a little bit on where they live, and is different in the south east of England and the north west.

Chelsea fans voting to ban the use of 'were' during interviews with the police

If you’ve ever heard football fans speaking, you will be aware of the regional difference. A Chelsea fan being questioned by a local police officer, for example, might have the following conversation. You’ll note that the police officer is speaking the same local dialect:

So where was you when the fighting started?

I was in the pub.

And where was your mate?

He was with me.

So you was both in the pub.

Yes, we was.

So you wasn’t fighting the United fans.

No, we was in the pub, innit!

Manchester United fans, on the other hand, would employ the northern version, using were.

So where were you when the fighting started?

I were in the pub.

And where were your mate?

He were with me.

So you were both in the pub.

Yes, we were.

So you weren’t fighting the Chelsea fans.

No, we were in the pub, cloth-ears!

You can see from the last line of the authentic exchange that there is still some reluctance amongst northerners to accept the usefulness of innit? Cloth-ears works in some, but not all, circumstances.

Anyway, you can choose to use either was or were, depending on which English soccer team you like (or hate).

3    The third person –s fiasco.

A lot of students say to me: ‘Ken, it’s all very well having the same word for all past tense forms of verbs, but why don’t we also have the same word for all forms of PRESENT tense verbs??’

They are of course referring to the third person –s, the single most irritating thing about learning English. I have to say I’m at a loss to explain why we need it. And to complicate matters, we don’t use it with modals (can, must etc), so why do we bother with other types of verbs?

We already have the ridiculous situation where singular nouns are followed by verbs ending in –s, whereas plural nouns, which end in –s, are followed by verbs with no –s.

A doctor treats ill people.

Doctors treat ill people.

It’s absurd and embarrassing.

I say, let’s get rid of the third person –s. Let’s face it, we’re already half way there – there’s a lot of support for only using don’t when making negative present tense statements.

Many people, including eminent rappers and other role models for young people, eschew the need to use the word doesn’t.

She don’t love me no more.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Don’t is all we need. Stop using doesn’t immediately. You know it makes sense, innit?

4    Why isn’t is enough?

And while we’re about it, there are FAR TOO MANY forms of the present tense of the verb to be – am, is, are – how is one brain supposed to deal with them all? Surely is is enough to deal with most functional requirements.

Thankfully, again we have a great role model in Ali G, the urban rapper and DJ.

Ali G, rapper, DJ and expert on modern English usage

Here’s an extract from a conversation between Ali G and MP David Carlton:

Carlton: Tell me, Ali, do you have a job?

Ali G: Unfortunately, I is recently on the dole…

Carlton: Really? When?

Ali G: Eight years and three months ago.

Carlton: It says here you claim disability benefit, are you disabled?

Ali G:  Yes, I is got a terrible DJ’ing injury – I still ain’t got full mobility in me main mixing finger…

For an insightful view on language, check out Ali G’s interview with Noam Chomsky – http://youtu.be/fOIM1_xOSro

Feel free to add any other KISS language simplification techniques.

Comments on: "The KISS method – how to make learning and teaching English easier …" (25)

  1. A copuple more suggestions.

    Pronunciation. The southern thing of needing two sounds for “u”. I vote for Scouse vowels were “to putt” when playing golf and “to put” the salt on the table are exactly the same. If your students are Spanish, they appreciate this.

    If your students feel uncomfortable with having only one “you” form for one person or more than one person, then once again, the highly sophisticated Scouse dialect has come to the rescue with “yous” which is essentially the same as “vosotros” and “vous”, “voces”, “voi(?)” etc.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Ah – educated Scouse, as spoke by David Crystal. Nothing to compare with it. I would add that all shortened vowel sounds are easier for most students, innit?

      As regards, ‘yous’ – I think it was David Crystal who told me that the Scouse translation of the title of the film ‘Silence of the Lambs’ was ‘Shut up, yous!’😛

  2. Ken,
    This sounds like your version of Orwell’s Newspeak, great!
    The ‘don’t’ for all has been used in music for ages, innit?
    She’s got a ticket to ride, but she don’t care.
    It’s fairly simple to understand the preference, it just sounds a lot better, fluent, it’s more musical and it has rhyme potential. What rhymes with doesn’t?

    I would like to see the sudden death of -er and -est after involuntarily short adjectives. After all, more hot, more cold, the most tall and the most short are perfectly intelligible.

    @Kirsten, I like the idea of ‘yous’, would work perfectly with brazilians as well.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Goodness, Willie – the thought that my idea is going in the direction of Newspeak made me shudder a bit – puts me on the side of Big Brother, right? (I mean, innit?)

      And regularisation of comparatives – genius! Gets rid of all those irritating rules about spelling – small + er, large + r, big + ger… nightmare!!

    • Willy is wrong. It would be sensibler the other way round. Also in Scotland past participles have fell from use completely.

      • Ken Wilson said:

        You may be right, but there are already too many words beginning with -er in English – teacher, driver etc – and even some that are confusing because they’re comparative adjectives AND nouns – cleaner, lighter etc.

        ‘More clean’ looks likelier… um… right…

  3. Can we get rid of articles? They’re ridiculously difficult for people who speak languages without them, such as Russian, and explaining the rules (even the Scott Thornbury simplified ones) is enough to make grown students cry.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Great idea, Tony!

      I remember when Goran Ivanisovic won Wimbledon, having been given a wild card. In his thank you speech, he said: ‘I want to thank Wimbledon committee for giving me wild card for tournament.’

      Not only did the crowd understand him, they gave him a huge round of applause.

      There’s no doubt – rules for articles can make grown men cry. Rule for definite article can make grown man cry, in fact.🙂

  4. What about all this “I have some money”, “I don´t have any money”, “I have no money”, “Do you have any money?” Any could be replaced by “no” couldn´t it? Innit!? Singers have got there before us, with such beauties as “We don´t need no education” etc. Most languages have double negatives, but we strangely opt for the maths thing of two negatives make a positive.

    @willy, that newspeak thing is scary! Are you saying that EIL is newspeak? I wonder how that would go down in a conference Q and A sesh.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Personally I love double negatives and think they should be allowed – ‘I never said nothing’ is so much more emphatic than ‘I never said anything’. And in the true spirit of EIL (ie let anything into the language that works for someone somewhere) I think they should be allowed.

      • Conversely, in Spanish, you can’t have a single negative. I taught a guy in a bank once and we were talking about what he did during his holiday, which was basically lie on the beach and drink beer. Do nothing.

        In Spanish, it’s got to be ‘no hacer nada’ = literally, not do nothing!

  5. dingtonia said:

    Drop the question form – just encourage rising intonation on closed questions. Most people do it anyway, innit?

    You had a good day?
    You want to come with us?

    And the question word in open questions do it for us.
    Where you been?
    What you want?
    Why you crying?

    • Ken Wilson said:

      in fact, the question forms you suggest can be reduced even further without compromising intelligibility – ‘Had a good day?’ is perfectly clear.

      And the wh- question examples you’ve given remind me of my version of God’s message to the Babylonians in my Pecha Kucha – http://youtu.be/6EjQr9jRZ70

  6. This is all good, Ken, innit! Can we get rid of tricky ‘th’ sounds too? Be much more easy with just a ‘d’, innit?

    In fact, my gran once asked my brother why he kept saying ‘dis, dat, dese and dose’ to which he replied ‘because I can’t pronounce the sound ‘th’

    I think that anecdote probably works better when told face to face!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Students who have problems with the ‘th’ sound should be allowed to pronounce it in any way they wish. The voiced version can easily be represented by /d/ and the voiceless by /s/. I mean, what can go wrong?

  7. branka said:

    Hi Ken!
    this is genial, absolutely genial!
    All of our students would really be happy if we told them to use either was or were, not to use -s in third person singular… to say /d/ instead of -th… innit?
    It drives me crazy when they can’t get it, I usually tell them to imagine a person learning serbian language, jesus, it’s much worse than spanish…
    And, making questions in past simple tense:
    – He saw what happened.
    – Did he see what happened?
    it’s ok,
    But,
    – He was there last night.
    – Did he be there last night?
    now, why is the verb “to be” different, why doesn’t it make question form in the same way as other verbs do?, they usually ask…
    Hugs

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Branka,

      genial? ObriGADo🙂

      Your point about ‘to be’ highlights how most languages seem to have messed up the connection between the verb itself and the verb forms – to be/I am; être/je suis; sein/ich bin etc. Spanish is a BIT better.

      I think ‘did you be’ is not only a very intelligent mistake, it sounds good – and I reckon there are country folk in the west of England who probably speak like that.🙂

  8. Anastasia said:

    Ken, another great post of yours I enjoyed!

    I’m sure people all over the world would be happy once English becomes simplified to the degrees mentioned, but…
    Being a NNest I fell in love (literally) with English partly because it’s about details, like correct use of articles, and some certain grammar-related things which, when mastered by anyone speaking English, make it sound SO beautiful!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Anastasia,

      now you’ve made me feel guilty about wanting to simplify things🙂

      But I guess there is a serious point here, which EIL and ELF people are trying to address. People like you fall in love with English (and other languages, I hope) and sink into it as if it’s a warm pool.

      Others struggle – the simplified version is for them.😛

  9. Ece Sevgi said:

    Counting the Uncountable

    My students would definitely feel better if..
    .. sheeps were eating grasses
    ..the polices were combing their hairs
    ..their teacher gave them useful informations and advices
    ..they packed their luggages and rearranged their furnitures
    and
    ..they ate toasts during the break, innit?

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Ece,

      these are EXACTLY the sensible changes that we need to make students feel they can CONNECT with the language they’re learning.

  10. Ah, Ken – I see you’ve been converted to English as a Lingua Franca, Jennifer Jenkins’ hobby-horse!

    But I agree. No more articles, third person -s, difficult q-tags, auxiliary verbs, etc. It could knock YEARS off the process of learning English!

    Which is BAD news for us teachers…

  11. Lorna said:

    Are you sure this isn’t a cunning plan to lead us NNSs into a false sense of security? I often have this suspicion, when reading about proposals to teach ELF by permitting learners to make ‘authentic’ mistakes!

    So far, no sign of TELF. I could just imagine the reaction if I announced to my students (who are business people): ‘From now on I’m going to teach you a simplified English, a quick fix variety. Don’t worry about a few mistakes in your presentations, or some silly mix-ups in your negotiations with key account customers. Just tell them it’s ELF! Or KISS!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Lorna,

      well, this is becoming a serious discussion of ELF, and that’s a good thing. Clearly, your business people need a kind of English in keeping with the work they do.

      I just like the idea of making English simpler for NON-business people.😛

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