Teaching nuance

Amidst all the election and Kindle Scout angst, I had been wrestling with a problem at work, which you’ll recall, is teaching business English to very intelligent adults. Vocabulary building is a big part of the lesson, but sometimes my students resist this, because the exercises we use are very elementary, bordering on childish. “I know what those words mean,” they tell me, in exasperation. And yet they don’t: they can’t seem to come up with the precise word they need in a conversation or meeting, and so, use too many ordinary words to explain themselves. And what I realized they’re missing are the slight shades of differences in many words, the hidden nuances.

Think for a moment of that word which is the curse of novelists and creative writers everywhere: said. Do you want to read pages of dialogue full of “he said,” then “she said”? Teachers are fond of handouts listing alternative words to ‘said’: told, mentioned, cried, whispered, uttered…Synonyms for said, it’s true, but do they mean precisely the same thing? Of course not. Some synonyms can be used interchangeably, but some are very specific to the situation. But how do you know? These nuances are things we pick up from speaking English for many years, they have to be sensed almost, rather than learned. In direct conversation, body language and facial expressions help out a great deal, but not in emails and telephone conversations. But how do you teach these shades of meaning to non-English speakers?

So it’s back to vocabulary. But instead of relying simply on the rather vague exercises that the textbook offers, I  thought about it for a while. I decided to simply have a very direct conversation about words in general. I brought with me my old thesaurus—if the dictionary is a writer’s best friend, the thesaurus is an old reliable sidekick as well. I then gave my student a single word, the first one being—you guessed it, said. I then asked the student to come up with as many synonyms for that word as possible. I pulled out a notebook and began writing then down, indicating that I wanted to fill the entire page with words!  We only turned to the thesaurus when we were stumped and couldn’t think of anymore. And then we went through the list, examining each synonym for said, pulling it apart, trying it in different sentences, trying to find out how it differed, if at all, from the original word. We found we could clump two or three of the words together, as subsets of the original word having almost exactly the same meaning; we noted that there were different ways of indicating speech, whether you were actually directing the speech at someone, or at a large group of someones, or simply making sounds with your mouth to no one in particular.

This would be a great exercise for writers. Get rid of all those ‘saids,’ and come up with more enlightening words. I realized now how teaching English is so valuable to my own writing. Even at my age, I still have a thing or two to learn.

One thought on “Teaching nuance

  1. Kathy – you are trying to teach these students not how to write English but how to think and act like an American. You are teaching culture – well, culture as defined by anthropologists. The entire nexus of how we live and think. Its not going to be taught quickly. Which is why you will have a job for a long time . . .


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