For a long time, as a child, I didn’t know what a “Yankee” was.
Sometimes, as in the phrase “Damn Yankees!” it seemed to refer to the people from the Northern states during the American Civil War. Other times, as in “Yankee thrift” or “Yankee ingenuity,” it seemed to refer to individuals from only New England states, and then still other times seemed to be directed at Americans in general. If I tried to ask an adult what “Yankee” meant, she would usually respond with another question, “Who said it?”, which just further confused me, leaving me with the impression that “Yankee” was something pejorative, something one shouldn’t say. But of course the adults were right in this case: who a “Yankee” is depends on who says it. If the speaker is from within the United States, she probably means someone from the north, probably New England; outside of the United States, and he’s probably referring to Americans in general. To further complicate matters, at one time in history “Yankee” was actually how the American soldiers referred to the British troops, as in the song, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” which mocked their effeteness. But the context of that particular cultural reference, the American Revolution, has long disappeared.
Much of Language is Context Specific
The question “Where are you from?”also demonstrates the contextualized nature of language in that the answer to this depends on where I am now. If I’m on campus, I’ll reply, “The ESL Department.” If I’m in my hometown, I’ll answer, “The Greenhaven neighborhood.” If I’m in New York, I’ll respond, “California,” and if in Paris, I’ll say, “The U.S.” Mixing the answers up would seem strange, perhaps bizarre (Imagine responding to the copy clerk on campus that you’re from the United States when he asks where you’re from because he needs to know where to direct the copies.) Students should for this reason be taught the contextualized nature of language and how it is based on situation.
What Material Should Be Taught in Teaching Language and Context?
Importance of Context to Meaning
Meaning shifts according to the setting and situation. For example, a number of years ago I passed a young woman sitting on quad of the university where I teach, talking on her cell phone. I heard the phrase “breaking up,” and I thought at first she was ending a relationship with someone—the almost exclusive meaning of the term “break up” when I was in college. Then I realized she probably just meant she was having difficulty with her cell phone signal—a new meaning to the term “break up” in the electronic age.
Multiple Definitions of Words
As can be seen above, words generally have more than one meaning, sometimes multiple meanings. Even words we think of as being simple, concrete, and with one meaning, like “ball,” for example, have actually multiple meanings: besides the toy that bounces, a ball is also a formal dance, or a good time in general, as in “have a ball!” It can also mean “aware” or “clever,” as in “on the ball.” I became aware of this fact when teaching my developmental reading class, and while reading a Mark Twain piece, a young man, a native speaker of English, asked me, “What’s a lark?” Assuming he would know the literal meaning of “a kind of bird,” I launched into the explanation of “In Twain’s day, a ‘lark’ was a good time, on the spur of the moment, like ‘they went to Paris on a lark.’” The student then asked, “So what does Twain mean when he says ‘Get up with the lark?’” Many words have multiple definitions. That’s why it’s important to consider the context of the word as well as teach students multiple meanings of a word when introducing or explaining it. Now I would never introduce the word “Yankee,” for example, without discussing some of the different meanings nor offer an explanation of a word without knowing something about context.
Methods to Teach Context and Language
Explicitly Teach the Multiple Meanings of Words
Teach students that words have multiple meaning for different contexts.
One method to this is to write a single word like “green” on the board. The first definition students are likely to come up with is the color, of course. Then ask students what else it can mean. It can also mean young and inexperienced—as in “a little green for the job”—and environmentally aware, as in “go green”; it can also mean money, as in “I need some green.” Discuss where each of these meanings, under what circumstances, might be used—a neighborhood improvement meeting, for example, is likely to use the meaning associated with the environment, not money. Write all of these meanings on the board.
Then give out cards with different simple, concrete words on them—“home,” “hot,” “dog”—and ask students to go through the same process, of coming up with as many meanings as possible, and share what they come up with their peers.
Match the Appropriate Answer to the Question
Going back to the beginning of the article, start with the question “Where are you from?” and have students select from possible answers—China, Stockton, Grace Covell Hall. Add in variable of the situation (you’re at the airport; you’re at the student union), and the answer changes, depending on the situation given them.
Teach Students to Ask Questions about Ambiguous Statements
If asked politely, Americans almost never mind answering questions about their language, which we tend to be proud of, and will take time to explain a word or term to a nonnative speaker.
Give students their roles and situation, and give out a question: e.g., “You’re at a student party, and Alerberto, you ask Daniella where she is from.” See if they can choose the correct response.
The English language can be ambiguous to even native speakers; this is evident in that we’re sometimes reduced to spelling words out loud (e.g., “I meant the R-E-D book, not R-E-A-D book!”) in order to clarify.
So given that it is problematic to native speakers, it is almost expected that nonnative speakers should have questions. Teaching students to ask questions about our language, as well as teaching them the multiple meaning of words, will actually help them function more independently in the language.