I overheard an awkward conversation between a native speaker and some tourists this morning in the centre of London. It was one of those exchanges that, as an English language teacher, I often feel compelled to intervene in, although this time at least I managed to resist the temptation!
“Excuse me. You can tell me where is Leicester Square?” the most confident – and youngest – of the tourists asked a man in front of me. “Yeah. Course” he started. “You’re best nipping down the back here and then popping out down opposite where Les Mis is on, alright?” The tourists looked totally confused and managed only to reply by asking “Best?”
Realising he may have been slightly optimistic in his use of everyday English, the local managed to grade his language second time around and explained – whilst also waving and pointing more – that they needed to walk down the small street in front of them, then come out onto the main road when they could see the theatre where Les Miserables is playing. They looked grateful, as well as slightly scared, and went off in the right direction.
I walked off to meet a friend thinking about how bad many native speakers are at speaking to non-natives, a point made in a recent BBC article, but also thinking about the fact that the only part of the initial message the tourist had grasped was the word BEST. To me, this is symbolic of a problem lots of language learners face – and it’s to do with the way grammar is often presented. Most learners will learn BEST as a superlative form of GOOD. They may see sentences like It was the best pizza I’ve ever had or That’s the best film I’ve seen this year.
They probably also do a lesson on giving advice, where they learn YOU SHOULD. They may do a slightly strange practice that involves a conversation a bit like this:
I have a headache. What should I do?
> You shouldn’t panic. You should stay calm and you should take some aspirin.
How many should I take?
> You should do take two. You shouldn’t take more than that.
But because too few classes treat spoken language seriously or try to teach things that are often actually said, what they WON’T learn is that we often give advice by saying YOU’RE BEST …. –ING! It’s also common to say YOU’RE BEST OFF instead, which means exactly the same thing. Here are a few examples that came up from a quick Google:
You’re best taking an umbrella. It’s going to chuck it down later
It’s a long enough flight across at least five time zones — surely you’re best paying for quality
You’re best off treating folk the way you’d want to be treated and leaving their choices to them.
If you want to grind up whole spices on your own, you’re best off using a coffee grinder.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach best as a superlative or that it’s not useful to learn You should. What I am saying is that if you want to really develop your fluency, you need to see patterns beyond the traditional canon and you need the chance to practise using them in meaningful contexts.
- Have you ever had trouble trying to understand native speakers when abroad?
- What three things do you think visitors to your town / city are best (off) doing? Why?
- Why do you think non-natives often find it easier to talk to other non-natives than to natives?