Polite requests

Many EFL textbook activities include some section on ‘polite requests’. Recently, I’ve found the word ‘polite’ problematic. Here is a simple activity I do that highlights this, I think, effectively. On five pieces of paper write five increasing amounts of money, eg. 10c, $1, $10, $100, $1000. In pairs, one student picks a piece of paper and requests to borrow that amount from the other student. Invariably, I’ve noticed that (Japanese) students will vary their level of politeness according to the person they are talking to and not according to the amount that is written on the card. If they are in the same pairs, they will often use the same request for each amount of money. They are often surprised when I point out that, in English, we might expect a more polite form for a larger amount of money. What this means for the classroom, I think, is that the very word ‘polite’ can often have very different connotations for the teacher and the students.

Take the phrase ‘just being polite’, for example. In English, this generally means small talk without any real deeper meaning. What I think it also means is that English places value on the very act of talking itself, which itself varies regionally. If you go into an Australian clothes shop you are often met with a barrage of conversation. This, for the staff, is just ‘being polite’. In a Japanese shop the opposite is true. You are met with one word ‘irrashaimase’, regardless of the type of shop. I read somewhere (I forget exactly where) that the highest level of politeness when offering tea is to anticipate the other’s needs and pour silently. The culture values not speaking as a marker of ‘politeness’. This can, of course, make ‘conversation’ classes challenging…

Advertisements

About eflfunc

I'm an EFL teacher in Japan and this is a blog to record some thoughts on using Systemic Functional Linguistics in the foreign language classroom.
This entry was posted in Classroom Activity. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s