A few days ago I had a long conversation with a foreign-trained pharmacist from Egypt. Ahmed has recently passed the Canadian and B.C. Pharmacy Board exams and is currently doing an internship at my local pharmacy A long time pharmacist in Egypt, he is very close to achieving his goal of practicing his own profession in Canada. In addition to having passed the board exams, he has achieved the required high reading and writing scores on his IELTs language test. Currently, all he has to do is Improve his listening and speaking skills and do well on his internship. Both of these tasks are well within his reach.
Now, I have absolutely no doubt that Ahmed is going to be a wonderful pharmacist once he gets his license. During our interview, during which we reviewed all of my various medications, I learned more about the pros and cons of my medications than I ever did from any of the dozen pharmacists I have dealt with in the past 20 years. But, I discovered something else that really made me think.
As we were speaking, I used several very common health related expressions that any average customer would use at a pharmacy. For example, I mentioned that I had been run down lately, and was all stuffed up. Although he spoke very clearly and used some excellent academic vocabulary, Ahmed had absolutely no idea what either of those expressions meant.
Now, Ahmed could have done one of two things; he could have ignored what I said and talked about something else, or he could have asked me specifically what those two expressions meant. Happily, he did exactly what I am constantly trying to encourage my students to do. He chose the second option.
After I finished explaining what run down and stuffed up mean, we continued to discuss the kinds of idiomatic expressions he might hear from his customers in his role as a pharmacist. As we were finishing up, Ahmed pulled out a small notebook from his pocket and wrote down the four or five expressions he had learned. He, then asked me where he might find more so that he could practice.
Although I was thrilled that Ahmed was genuinely interested in learning more of these common expressions, I was concerned that he had never learned any of them during his several years studying English.
" I really didn't think they were very important," he told me. " My focus was on learning the academic words I would be tested on in exams. Besides, like many students in the academic ESL stream, I really thought that little phrasal verbs and expressions like run down were only used by people who did not have much education or vocabulary. Of course, now I realize how wrong I was. Everybody talks like that here. I should have learned and practiced some of this natural language when I was in school."
I agree with Ahmed. He should have done exactly that and so should all the other academic stream students who don’t think it is necessary, or important to learn conversational English or phrasal verbs. Many of our adult immigrants who have been influenced by the teachers in their own countries need to pay attention to the language they hear around them. If they did, they might notice that even the most educated of people use conversational English expressions even during their professional working hours
Teachers cannot provide their students with all the necessary natural vocabulary they will need, especially when they are trying to teach reading, writing, grammar, listening, speaking and pronunciation in two and half hour classes. But they certainly can encourage students to truly learn and actively use all those phrasal verbs we use every day. Learners also need to start taking some responsibility for their own learning, and start checking out the internet for idiomatic language related to their own fields. If they have begun to work with English they need to ask what these expressions mean instead of pretending to understand. Yes, it is embarrassing to have to ask what something means, but it’s a whole lot better to experience 10 seconds of embarrassment than to make mistakes that could have long term results. Asking means everybody wins and winning makes us feel good.