Practicing “will” future can fall into, dare I say it, predictable areas (“How will Manchester United do this season?”, “What will the weather be like at the weekend?”) and I find it a good opportunity to get into the discussion of real technologies and how they could change our lives as well as possible future developments, if only to keep myself awake. Depending on the group, I’ve used everything from 3D printers, jetpacks, teleportation and superconductors. I find that this theme can stimulate the brains of even the least scientifically minded student. If they find the grammar a little challenging, perhaps they would feel better about also being a little challenged by the content. Personally, I found it demoralizing to discover, after much mental strain in my attempt to understand German grammar, quite mundane facts about German Bundeslände, and that leaves turn red in the Autumn in Germany too (God they made us sing an actual SONG about it!).
Thinking up new diagrammatic representations for grammatical concepts is excellent fun. I try not to worry about super-scientific accuracy, as the goal is to give the student a visualisation of a concept, but I do like to get them consistent and meaningful. Venn diagrams, mind maps, tree structures, flowcharts and graphs, all wonderful things. I enjoy the element of thinking on my feet, as a grammar rule emerges, finding a clear and accurate representation on the fly. My students aren’t really picking up any science as such with this one, but I think of it as training for when I start slipping in equations.
Many students need to practice reading out and writing down numbers over the phone, but I find it a little boring to always ask for phone numbers, or to get them to make up numbers, so in the last minutes of a lesson I sometimes set simple maths puzzles, or we calculate Pi together, work out some statistics among the class, the percentage of students who live in Berlin, converting it into a fraction, the probability of getting the right answer to a grammar question by just guessing, anything like that. Whatever fits with the situation. I find it pretty easy to come up with simple statistical or probability questions, regardless of the theme. It gets them to practice using numbers in a real world setting, and they may even pick up a bit of nerdy number love on the way!
Saying hello is only monkey business, and it helps to keep that in mind. An attempt to combine zoology and business greetings.
In a typical business english class, I’m often tasked with not just teaching the polite small-talk of pre-business meeting introductions, but also of persuading Germans that it’s necessary to use this rather subtle style of social interaction, rather than the relatively brusk german approach.
This is where the wonderful zoologist Desmond Morris comes in. In his book The Naked Ape, written way back in the 70s, but still brimming with anthropological nuggets, he posits that human greetings are an extension of our primate grooming instincts. An ape will approach with an extended begging paw while quickly smacking its lips, symbolising the act of collecting and eating the flakes of skin and parasites from the areas the other ape cannot reach. Many primates other than ourselves have also ritualised this grooming activity, using it as a social bonding exercise, and, perhaps partially due to our lack of fur, we have further transformed it into handshakes, waves, nods, bows, removal of hats and enquiries about states of health.
In Germany the firm handshake takes care of much of the grooming process, allowing Frankfurter financiers and Berliner bureaucrats to get straight down the the meat of the matter. Good for them, I say (I’m a big fan of directness), but how many other cultures hold such heavy stock in the old paw clasp?
The british, for example, have developed an elaborate greeting performance (in common with that other little island nation, Japan, where there is crucial significance in the depth and duration of the bow, resulting in a repeated series of “reply” bows, calling to mind an image of two nodding donkey pumps). In Britain, the overly direct handshake is either softened or often completely replaced by a complex, chattering dance involving asking how someone is, replying in the positive then asking back, also replying positively, then muttering about weather, inquiring about travel conditions, apologising for the paltry selection of snacks, and so on.
This exotically polite word ballet is often mistakenly assumed by the hapless german interloper to begin with a genuine health enquiry, thereby bringing the ritual to an abrupt halt with an honest medical assessment as reply, usually a complaint about a cold that is taking for ever to go, a lack of sleep the night before, backache, a stiff neck, or any other ailment that germans enjoy dwelling upon.
Bearing this in mind, my goal is to help my students understand the value of gauging the social grooming dance correctly. Each culture has cultivated our genetically programmed, furry urge to remove dead skin and ticks from one another into rituals that may vary, but they all serve the same purpose. A shake; a bow; a “How are you?” – “I’m fine, and you?”. Regardless of the culture, if all goes well, the result is metaphorically tick-free fur, and a social bond, with everyone ready to get down to business.