The Invisible Person, or We’re just good friends …
Has anybody else noticed how the first person plural is disappearing from recent beginners course books? Take a good look. It might be in paradigms, or the odd context, but surprisingly few examples of we / our / us appear.
Why should this be? Some of it goes back to the teaching of French and German in English schools. An English kid learning French was traditionally confronted with the full grandeur of the verb to be and in the very first lesson had to struggle with all the shifts in être: je suis, tu es, il est, elle est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils est. Fine. Get it? Good. Lesson two is avoir.
So teachers of French rebelled against teaching all the persons in one glutinous chunk, and text books started breaking tenses down into limited groups of persons. This then came across into English teaching, probably with teachers with degrees in French or German. The nineties fashion was to teach (e.g.) I, you, we, they do in one unit. He / she / it does in a subsequent unit. To me this shows lack of awareness of (a) structural complexity (b) classroom dynamics (c) student need for completion (d) the beginner level.
There are only two shifts in English in these cases (has/have; do / does); three shifts with be (am / is / are) and from then on no shifts to worry about, save that third person ‘s’. For students whose language has six or seven shifts, this is easy. Even for beginners.
Teachers go to great lengths to avoid the next set of persons. They fight to confine the lesson to I, you, we, they. They can’t say What about him / her? What does he think? Does she agree? etc because they’re avoiding he / she. They try but usually fail, and end up teaching the other persons anyway. Only they do it ad hoc without the support of the textbook. One recent coursebook strenuously avoids teaching he / she in introducing the present simple – then has no less than thirty-four proper nouns, including Japanese, Indian, Turkish, Spanish and French given names in the unit. I’d say teach he / she and restrict the proper nouns to fewer than ten.
Student need for completion
The student KNOWS that there must be something for all the persons. They’re waiting for it. You can’t say “Sorry, he and she are tomorrow’s unit.
The beginner level
Many recent course books have been written from the middle out. Pre-intermediate / intermediate books spawn more books above and below. The only sensible way to write a multi-level course is from the bottom up. Those series that begin at genuine starter / beginner level tend to combine the persons and introduce them all in one unit. The writers are beginner specialists. They know it’s the easiest way to work.
So, having separated third person from first and second, what happens next? Well, recent coursebooks seem to be losing we altogether.
This could be a reaction against the patent falsity of practice along the lines of: Are you students? Are you here? Are you in this room? to generate we sentences. Paradigms inevitably force an unlikely sentence for we, e.g.
Affirmative: We’re English
Negative: We aren’t English,
Question: Are we English?
Taking the pattern across into the question produces a highly unlikely utterance. It’s not totally impossible, but near it. You could contextualize an immigrant couple who are just completing the naturalization process in a lawyer’s office …
For the same reason, paradigms in Starter books usually avoid the Am I …? question, which is a shame because students inevitably ask what the form is. Again Am I …? is not impossible to contextualize (Sorry, am I disturbing you? I’m sorry, am I late?), but is difficult at the point of first introduction which might be either Am I + nationality (Am I English?)or Am I + adjective (Am I tired? ). Both look weird in the paradigm, though Am I late? looks fine. In both these first person cases, I find students do want to know the theoretical question. It gives a sense of completion, as well as reinforcing the underlying pattern.
It could be a reaction against drilling through the persons. The result is odd. Books without we. But what about learners needs? At the simplest level, clases with pair and group activities are going to involve the use of we a great deal as students report back on their activities to the class:
T: What happened?
S1: We didn’t find an answer.
T: Did you finish the role-play?
S2: No, we didn’t.
T: What did you decide?
S3: We thought that …
Having travelled all over the world I remember how often people like to use we:
This is Peter Viney. We are friends! (We’ve met once for less than five minutes)
This is Peter Viney. We are good friends! (We’ve met once for more than five minutes)
This is Peter Viney. We are old friends! (We’ve met twice).
This is Peter Viney. We are best friends! (We once had dinner together).
As I co-write nearly all my books, I find myself using we whenever I talk about them. This should not be confused wth the royal we. Sovereigns of England always refer to themselves as we, as in Queen Victoria’s famous saying ‘We are not amused.’ Margaret Thatcher was lampooned for using the royal we to refer to herself, though she was probably trying to stress that whatever she was saying was a team decision by the cabinet.
In communication skills books, differences are made between individual-focussed cultures and group-focussed cultures. Britain and France are at the individual end. The USA is at the same end, but perhaps due to the group-minded education system slightly less to the extreme.
Most cultures have a stronger sense of group identity, whether it be family, region or company. Group-identity cultures like to use we. They like to welcome new aquaintances into the group, ‘We are friends! We’ll enjoy this dinner very much!’
At one level, we becomes more important where a culture is divided. In these cases, strangers have to be classified either as friends or as potential enemies, rather than as simply neutral ‘aquaintances’. Certainly over many of my travels, friend has a wider meaning than in England where it suggests a greater degree of involvement and intimacy. I’ve noticed that pair work partners rapidly refer to each other as my friend … when reporting back to the class. Some text books signal pair work as Work with a friend … which sounds almost patronizing to the English ear, but not to the student.
At another level, people in all cultures use we as a distancing device, replacing the possible one. (The users of one are declining so fast that soon it will only be used by the Royal family.)
In Japan, we don’t wear outdoor shoes in the house …
We never offer people things with our left hands in my country …
We don’t eat that much lamb here …
We drive on the right …
Sometimes we take ourselves too seriously …
But is it only learners who seek to use the first person plural? These sentences were noted in just a few minutes on BBC Radio Four morning programme, and I skipped most of the examples because I was writing down others:
We’ll see some rain, sleet and snow … (weather forecaster)
We’re enjoying ourselves anyway … (footballer)
We have major disruption ahead of us … (Irish banker)
We have 50,000 children in our schools here … (French charity worker in Africa)
We can defend ourselves … (Palestinian from Gaza)
We’ll have to stop you there … (presenter)
Shall we go over to our sports report now? (presenter)
The Palestinian used “ourselves” four times in a short interview.
So, we feel that we need to ensure that we teach the first person plural to our students. After all we use it ourselves all the time. It’s important to us.
If you don’t believe us, look in your current textbook and check the balance. According to a search of words used online, us is the 20th most frequent, our the 41st, and we the 49th. I suspect this is slewed because most websites have a box with Contact us on them, but even so, it shows considerable frequency.