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Passing the Time January 17, 2007

Posted by Edwin in English, Grammar, Toastmasters.

Should we correct other people’s grammar? Would we like them to do the same to us? If so, how should we go about doing it?

There has been a rather active discussion on Master Steve’s blog last week about correcting grammar during conversations. Coincidentally, Grammar Girl published a podcast on the same subject around the same time.

My opinion is that it is normally not appropriate to correct each other’s grammar during a conversation, unless the other side specifically requests for it. But yet, I believe having designated times in doing such an activity is very helpful to learners of languages, which by the way, include our own native tongues.

The Toastmasters club is one great example. For those who think this club is only there to help you overcome the fear of public speaking, it provides much more than this. One special area in Toastmasters is the ‘evaluation session’. Every part of the meeting gets evaluated at the end.

Last week, I was assigned to be the chairman of my Toastmasters club meeting. At one point, I said something like, ‘I would like to pass the time to our Toastmaster”. It just happened that another person said the same thing a while later. In the evaluation session, the General Evaluator pointed out that this is indeed not a correct sentence. ‘Passing the time to whoever’ does not make much sence in English. It turned out that I subconsciously borrowed it from a Chinese usage (將時間交給…), which is perfectly correct.

If incidents like this one never happens, I will probably never know my mistake. Therefore, my own opinion on the whole issue of ‘correcting other people’s grammar’ is that, in general, people would love to hear the corrections, but it has to be done in an appropriate way. To me this means at the right place, at the right time, and using the right tone.



1. Osman - January 18, 2007

Good question. I sometimes need to be corrected and my friends know it. But to be corrected in a conversation is not so nice. At least, i don’t appreciate it. Well, if only two persons are there and they both speak to each other, that can be ok but if there are many speakers, it may be a problem for the speaker. Some people look for others’ grammar mistakes. I really dislike such people.
Good post 😉

2. edwinlaw - January 18, 2007

Osman, thanks for your post.

Somehow, I find that non-native speakers have a greater awareness of grammatical mistakes, both made by themselves and by others. This is especially true if they have the same native languages. Just my 2 cents.

3. 米蘭 - January 19, 2007

I really hate being corrected by strangers as it just makes me feel inferior. There’s a time and a place for language corrections, and buying a burger or having a chat with a stranger isn’t that time.

When I speak to my wife, we only use Cantonese now. Even if I make a mistake she often has no problems in understanding what I’m saying. She rarely corrects my pronunciation or tone mistakes as she has gotten used to my accent and style of speech.

Since my wife seems to understand me, I assume other people can too. This makes me very unhappy when I realise that other people give me blank faces as they couldn’t understand certain words that I was so confident on. Out of all the people I speak to, I want my wife to correct me as I have no pressure or embarrassments. Now, I have to constantly ask her to tell me if I’m speaking accurately, or correct my pronunciation.

I recall when I first met my wife her English wasn’t so 字正腔圓. At first I regularly corrected her. Slowly by slowly, I am able to understand 100% of what she was saying and I didn’t correct her anymore. She was rather upset when working in Australia, a guest called up and told her to go back to school to take some English classes.

4. edwinlaw - January 19, 2007

Milan, as a thought, would you think it will be helpful NOT to practice your Cantonese that often outside?

I suggest this because I remember Steve always encourages language learners to do something they feel good at, and stay away from things that would discourage them.

Perhaps the cashiers or waiters may not be good practice targets, since they are always busily making their livings. They tend to be more impatient.

May be for now, you can concentrate on practicing with your wife and your trusted friends, or may be some shop owners who don’t have many customers.

5. 米蘭 - January 19, 2007

Hi Edwin.

Actually my Cantonese is quite fluent – not having an ego in anyway. I can assure my level is much higher than the average broken English I hear responded back to me in TST. It would be much more efficient to use Cantonese as I feel I’m quite capable of speaking it fast on already learnt vocabulary which I estimate to be around 7000 words I merely have tone mistakes that need to be ingrained through more listening and I still lack another 4000+ compound words in my vocabulary.

Issues I find is that I know many advance phrases and words that people assume I have a very advance level of Cantonese. They are quite surprised when I can’t understand some basic words such as 敦促 the first time I heard it. As there are many words to describe the same thing…. My problems start when someone uses a word that I have not acquired yet. Immediately that think; oh “lets use English”. If I speak English – I would be teaching heaps new words in every conversation unless I slow down and use basic vocabulary.

If we reverse this situation. When I teach English, my speech is immediately slowed and re-phrased using simple structures and words. Even though, I often receive “yes yes, I understand”. When I ask them what was the meaning of my sentence; I get a “I don’t know can you explain me?” – notice the absent “to” after explain. Its not that the words are hard (since I already knew them in Cantonese), its just that I think people tend to over-evaluate the average HKer’s English level. I can’t understand how some British people can live in Hong Kong for 30 years and love to speak to people with broken English on a daily basis. On the other hand, Hong Kongers will never slow their speech for me and always use quite advanced vocabulary including 4-letter idioms. As I have pre-learnt over 100+ idioms, they think I should know all of them.

As I’m living permanently in Hong Kong, I don’t consider it practicing but actually using the language. If I was back in Australia, then that’s called practicing. I live in Tuen Mun, and absolutely NO BODY here speaks English and if they do; its limited to basic kindergarten sentences. Especially since my face is not a 鬼佬’s, people usually prefer to speak their broken Mandarin over their English. Just seems that Hong Kongers don’t enjoy sharing their secret code with foreigners. Though we can’t have this as one of my main reasons to migrate to Hong Kong so soon was to 突飛猛進 my Cantonese.

I actually tried using English 7 months ago in Hong Kong and I was greatly disturbed with the amount of broken English that was spoken to me. For people that have been studying English or 20+ years, the quality is not that crash hot. Not to look down on anyone, when my level of Cantonese exceeds someone else’s English; I think its fair to say we should use Cantonese. Now I’m not putting anyone down here, and its not like I’m not patient. I have previously endured hours of broken English in Hong Kong and Australia. I’m quite tolerant. Though the average HKer will simply lose patience if you ask them to repeat their question which was suddenly spoken at 100 miles an hour.

I’m been told that HK people simply want to practice their English with a foreigner since they don’t get much opportunity. My theory is that I am paid to teach and speak English during working hours. Outside this working hours, I gain NO benefits in speaking English and hence will eat away at my valuable Cantonese speaking time. Am I selfish or rude? I don’t think so. In Sydney, I tried speaking Cantonese to the people in China Town and was told to pay them money for the privilege of Cantonese lessons. I never asked for their “lessons” but I was passed off a joker who was only mucking around with them for fun and games.

I met Ho Kwok Wing and he told me it only took him 1 year to speak fluent Cantonese. He said he had to continually speak and think in Cantonese to improve. If he can do it, why can’t I do it?

At home, my wife isn’t going to ask me: 要唔要儲八達通積分? Hence if I’m going to speak anything deeper than the daily home discussions, its vital I go out and about and speak. If I’m capable of speaking to my wife in Cantonese for hours upon hours; I think I’m capable of *practicing* with the locals.

6. edwinlaw - January 19, 2007

Milan, I don’t think I have a perfect solution for you. But let me throw in some brainstorming ideas.

Have you tried talking to the elderly people? You know, those who sit in the parks most of the day. They are probably more patient and have no intention to learn English from you.

How about the sales people? Those who would grab you from the middle of the street and try to sell you something. I guest they will probably try their best to be polite to you. If you insist not to speak English, they have to respect you.

7. 米蘭 - January 19, 2007

Yep. Elderly people are great… However, they usually have some thick 鄉下音. But some are very patient but they don’t know the difference between simple words and advanced words. To them every word is simple, but I quite enjoy it and they love you speaking their language too.

Sales people will usually speak Cantonese. However, they tend to seem that I can understand 100% of what they say. If a sales person insists on English, I tell them that I’ll take my business elsewhere until I get Cantonese spoken no matter how painful. Though usually I’m not this frank. I just tell them I”m from 克羅地亞 which my father is actually from and that their English is far better than mine 🙂

Though perhaps it seems I’m exaggerating. I only have problems with 1 or 2 people every few days. I’m quite happy with my achievements up-to-date.

Thanks man.

8. edwinlaw - January 20, 2007

Oh, so it doesn’t sound so bad. You would meet difficult people from time to time. Stay away from them if possible. 🙂

9. renato - January 21, 2007

I think if you used to correct others grammatical mistakes,in sense of teaching them the correct form respectfully, and not being a stupid clown. It is totaly valid to try to correct.

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