Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The hardest words

What would you say is the hardest word or words to say that you've ever come across in English? And when I say hardest, I don't mean the most difficult to say in a given situation (the words "sorry", "thank you" and "please" come to mind). What I mean is the most difficult to produce by your tongue and mouth - the hardest to pronounce, the most laborious to produce. You may think of some tongue twisters like:

  • Red lorry, yellow lorry; or
  • Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
    A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.
    If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
    How many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick?; or (try this one for size)
  • The sixth sick sheikh's sixth sheep's sick; or (if you're really good)
  • The sixth sick sheikh's sixth sheep's sick so six slick sheiks sold six sick sheep six silk sheets!
But, I'm veering off topic here. Anyway, I'm a teacher and a teacher, well, teaches things. And in my ten or so years of teaching, I'd say many things have astounded and bewildered me. But, year in, year out, one just keeps me amazed. I'd say one of the hardest words in the English language for my students to say are these:

"May I come in, please?"

If I'm assigned a Form 1 class to teach, then one of the very first things that I do with them is to get them accustomed to asking for permission to leave and enter the classroom in English. And boy, do some of them really struggle, especially with the coming in bit.

You'd think that it's simple - five words, not very hard to pronounce, quite easy to remember. But, a lot of my students have great difficulty in uttering those supposedly "simple" words. They'd get the structure all mixed up, or they'll leave out one of the words, or they'll mispronounce a word or two, or they'll even draw a blank even after I have repeated the question over and over.

I've tried almost everything that I can think of - breaking up the sentence into short phrases like "May I", followed by "come in", and then "please", and they are able to follow. But, when I ask them to repeat the question on their own they become lost again and the whole drill restarts. From my experience, this is usually a year-long affair - you have to keep reminding them, and keep them practising. They'll sometimes try to cop out and ask for permission to leave the classroom in Malay, but I insist that they ask me in English.

Now, I'm not complaining about my students nor am I condemning them. I'm just wondering what it is that has made them like that. Lack of stimulation? Lack of nutrition? Lack of proper training? Just five simple words to remember and repeat, but they can't.

It just baffles me.


Nick Phillips said...

Wow, form 1 and they're having problems with simple English like that? I'm seriously amazed!

Perry R. Lim said...

Nick: My sentiments exactly. But I'm more curious as to why.