Many years ago, one of my colleagues came down to the factory in southern Poland where I was based, in order to teach an intensive English course with a manager called Dorota. Her level of English was incredible: she was extremely fluent and accurate, and didn’t seem to need an English course at all. By the end of day 1, my colleague was feeling bad: he felt that he hadn’t been able to teach her anything new during the whole day.
When I spoke to him at the end of day 2, however, he was feeling much better. He had identified Dorota’s main weakness in English. She never used articles (a/the).
Dorota was Polish, and Polish people are well-known for having problems with articles; after all, there are no articles in Polish. But Dorota didn’t have a problem with articles – she simply didn’t use them at all.
So my colleague spent that evening photocopying whatever worksheets he could find that would help him teach Dorota about articles. There was a list of rules, there was a worksheet on articles and geographical names (e.g. __ Himalayas, __ Mount Everest) and a text with all the articles removed (e.g. My uncle is __ postman. He lives in __ small village in __ England). Armed with all these materials, how could he fail to teach her about articles and improve her English?
After day 3, I asked him how it had gone. “It was a disaster”, he said. She had refused to look at the rules,
and hadn’t touched the worksheets. “As you said yourself, I speak very fluently and accurately”, she had explained to my colleague. “Everyone understands me. Why do I need articles? If I start worrying about which articles to use, it’ll slow me right down. It’ll make my English worse, not better. What purpose do they serve? How do they help me? If you can’t answer my question, I’m not going to learn your stupid, complicated rules”.
And that was the problem. My colleague couldn’t explain how articles would help her, and why she should even consider becoming less fluent in order to worry about these meaningless little words. That evening, he asked me for my advice, and I was also unable to answer Dorota’s question.
But that wasn’t the end for me. I then worried about Dorota’s question for several years, and searched everywhere for an answer. Over the years, I’ve had quite a few insights into the purpose of articles and how they work – perhaps still not enough to satisfy Dorota, but I’d certainly be able to give her a sensible answer now.
So that’s the purpose of this series of blog posts. Articles are one of the most misunderstood parts of English grammar. One day I hope to write a whole book about them. So be warned: this series could be quite long.
To be continued ...
Isn't there more to articles than learning about names of mountain ranges?