MODAL VERBS: PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS FOR TEACHERS AND STUDENTS

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Nowadays the issue of learning English is very important. More and more teachers teach English at school or in private institutions such as academies. Most people who teach English are in fact non native speakers of that language. They are state school teachers in countries around the world. Also, more and more learners of all ages begin to learn this language. But as language, it presents difficulties not so long for non native speakers but for native speakers of English. For instance, there are several problems that ESL speakers have with English verbs. Basically, however, the English verb system is fairly simple (more simple than most western European languages) but a little more complicated than most oriental languages. One of the most difficult aspects of learning English is modality. In this essay we will expose the main problems that students and teachers of EFL have with this kind of verbs and how to deal with them.

To understand better the problems with modal verbs it is better to have a little idea about them. A modal verb is a type of auxiliary verb that is used to indicate modality (that is, an auxiliary verb that can be used to change the modality of a sentence). The key way to identify a modal verb is by defectiveness (a defective verb is a verb with an incomplete conjugation). In addition, modal verbs do not take the inflection –s or –es in the third person singular, unlike other verbs.

English modal verbs can be divided into two kinds of auxiliaries: the primary auxiliaries(be,have and do)and the secondary auxiliaries (can, could, must, have to, should, ought to, be able to...)

One of the most common problems with primary auxiliaries is the first position of the auxiliary when we formulate a question (“Does this mean we have to do it again?”) because some languages (such as Spanish) do not need them. As Michael Swan and Bernard Smith said “Spanish and Catalan have only one category of verbs and they all show the normal range of tenses (present, past, future, conditionals). There is no separate category of modal auxiliaries as in English and learners find the concept difficult to grasp”.

As we said before, the three main auxiliaries are BE, HAVE and Do. But sometimes they are auxiliaries and sometimes they are “proper” main verbs. This is another typical mistake of learners of EFL: to confuse auxiliary with verb. For instance:

-He did nothing (verb)

-Why did you do that? (auxiliary)

-I have a dog (verb)

-I have sold it (auxiliary)

Modals are difficult to grasp because as modal and modality are rarely explained to an EFL student, the form of modals does not follow the conventional rules of grammar, and there are so many meanings of modals that students often get confused about which modal to use.

According to Longman’s Dictionary of Language “Teaching & Applied linguistics”, one of the main problems with modals is problems with formation. There are few problems that EFL students have with the formation of modals. First, combining a modal auxiliary with a simply present verb, “to” is not necessary. That is, using “to” unnecessarily.

He should to eat his dinner/He should eat his dinner

Second, subject-verb agreement does not apply to modals (that is, you cannot create a third singular person formulation, a past form, etc)

She can jumps/She can jump

Marina cans cook/ Marina can cook

Third, two modals cannot be used together in the same sentence.

Will can fly/Will be able to fly

Fourth, “ought to” only appears in this form. There is no past tense. It is entirely independent (that is, no connected with other verbs).

Firth, to combine lexical verb in past with the modal verb.

John could heard the bell

Also, there are problems in the phonological context although they are not so important than the previous problems. For instance, strong and weak form of “can”:

-Can /kæn/, /kən/

-Could /kʊd/, /kəd/

-Must /mʌst/, /məst/

Students usually use weak forms but it is not allowed to use always the same form. For example, in questions it is usually used the strong form to make the question and the weak form to answer the question.

As we said before, one of the biggest problems (if not the biggest) of EFL students face with modals is their meaning. Each modal can have more than one meaning and each meaning is a member of an inter-related system. When a speaker chooses to use one modal, s/he is deciding not to use any of the other modal verbs. As Cook proposes The problem lies not in the surface positioning of modals nor in their wide range of meanings, but in associating the right modal with the right meaning (Cook, 1978). So, that is one of the main problems with modals: each modal verb has many functions and their meaning is difficult for EFL students. Many of them are not aware of the subtle shades of meaning that are found within the meaning of a modal and thats are found within the meaning of a modal and thats due to the most common way to teach modals in a list. As Byrd suggests The difficulties in interpreting an already complex system have often been compounded by teaching methods that present modals as a list (Byrd, 1995). When they are taught as a list they are presented like regular vocabulary. Lets see it with an example. The opposite of you must be here at 8 (obligation) is usually you dont have to be here at 8 (lack of obligation choice), while must in you must not drink the water (prohibition) has a different meaning from must in you must not be a native speaker (deduction). This complexity takes considerable work for most English language learners. What we can deduct from this is students memorize the modals with their accompanying meanings but they may have no idea of the subtle social and cultural information each choice conveys. So a better way to teach them is as a system.

Modals can also appear in the perfect aspect with a have + en construction (Bowen, 1977). This can also be a difficult area for students: The problems students experience with the perfect modal construction can be attributed to the fact that they often believe the addition of the perfect construction adds perfectiveness to the meaning (Bowen, 1977).

Generally, the students understand or produce a grammatical utterance but the meaning may be incorrect or misunderstood by the student. If the teacher does not present enough information about the perfect form and its complexities in meaning, then the student may overgeneralize the rules.

Also, the negation of the modals can be complex for students. There are two main reasons for this: Adding not after the modal does not always give the opposite meaning (because it can overgeneralize the idea/rule again).

In the scope of intercultural issues, modals require that the characteristics of the social situation can be taken into account. Power distance, for example, can determine which modal to use in a given situation. In some languages where modals do not exist (such as Arabic) students have to confront the English modal system and the dynamics of power relationships are different.

Something to take into account is that, when teaching modals, there are not be an issue of comprehension of the modal system and although not all languages have modal auxiliaries, the concept of modality is universal.

Also, another way that students understand better the idea of modals is to use dialogues showing the different cultural context that are relevant to communicating (using all the different uses of modal verbs).

Explaining how modals are as system through the use of definitions and EFL linguistic theory is a good way to explain modals. We cannot forget about a greater exposure to real life through school, organizations, TV...For communicative learning is much better than any list.

To conclude we can say that in the realm of grammar, teaching the modal system of English can be compared to walking a tightrope. The balance normally required in pedagogical grammars when presenting material, that is simplified enough for students to understand is magnified to fold in the modal system. “The teacher is required to present an extremely complex system with enough intricacy to illustrate the relationship of the modal and auxiliaries to teach other and their place in a semantic field” (Jarnis, 1972). The intercultural aspect of teaching the meanings of modals has not been documented extensively to our knowledge and maybe the best is to suggest that this is yet another dimension to consider in teaching the modal system: How modals broke up in English (e.g. probability v social interactions) how other languages express modal auxiliaries... modality is a universal concept but that all no languages have modal auxiliaries.

De Carrico suggests in her article “to take advantage of what is systematic in modality and stress this to students” (De Carrico, 1986). Teaching modals requires a thorough knowledge of the modal system and how it is systematic. Even though the prospect of teaching modal auxiliaries is overwhelming, if you understand the modal system and its systematicity, then teaching modals well is accessible!

4 comments:

m said...

10/10

MA English student said...

Thank you, very beneficial

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