Sunday, January 13, 2008

Limiting Use of Modals with ESL Beginners

I make it a regular practice to teach modals to my intermediate and advanced ESL students. I describe modals as those words that give "feeling" or extra meaning to verbs. I also explain how they can be used to sound generally more polite, especially when making requests.

However, I limit my teaching of modals when I work with beginning ESL students. Although, I may suggest that they memorize certain phrases like, "May I have a cup of coffee."

I'm thinking about modals tonight because I was watching my all-time favorite reality show, "Amazing Race." In short, this is a TV show about pairs of people racing around the world. I love this show because it's yet another way for me to travel vicariously.

Tonight, the teams were in Taiwan. Only one of the teams had a member who spoke "Chinese," so most of the others were stumbling along and looking for help from the locals without speaking the local language. One team member asked for directions by saying to a local, "Would you be able to show us?" The American was obviously trying to be polite by using the modal, "would." However, I thought that a more simple way to say this in English would be something like, "Please, show us," or even, "Could you please show us."

When speaking to beginning English language learners (not necessarily when teaching, but just when communicating), native English speakers need to find a balance between being polite and the use of modals.


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