The Beauty and Horror of Explaining Mixed Conditionals (Among Other Grammar Points) by Madeline Castillo

One of the most misused grammar forms is the mixed conditionals, and this is not really much of a surprise. The use of one verb tense in a sentence is already difficult, so imagine having to put together two verb tenses in one sentence — it’s almost a nightmare!

For most ESL teachers, myself included, a mixed conditional sentence is a classroom conundrum. I have seen how it transforms into a total horror show as you try to explain not only how the sentence is constructed, but also what it means. I have watched as my students’ faces scrunch up in confusion when I mention how these situations or conditions (mostly imaginary) affect results (either in the past or the present). I have looked for signs of me second-guessing myself as doubt sets in.

The last bit, perhaps, is the worst. More than the form or function of any grammar point, the biggest challenge for a ‘non-native speaker’ teacher is the fact that any explanation you give can easily be trumped by a ‘native speaker’ teacher’s “That’s just how it is.” Even though some tend to have a less structured ESL background, ‘native speakers’ are usually preferred to non-native English speakers. In the ESL industry, there are many instances when one’s value as a teacher is primarily determined by ethnicity, and not knowledge, experience or skill. The privilege of having been born in a ‘native English-speaking’ country has long been a standard and not having the ‘right’ nationality, a stigma. As a result, gifted and proficient teachers are sidelined for less experienced and less effective ‘native’ individuals.

However, ‘non-native speaker’ teachers know mixed conditionals well, not just because we studied them in school or because we teach them in class. We know this lesson topic well because we have learned to live with a few conditional questions ourselves: Would I be more credible if I had been born and raised by parents whose primary language was English? If that company I applied for saw me as a native English speaker, would I have gotten that teaching job? Had I been born in the US or the UK, would I be a better English teacher?

Almost a year ago, I joined Learntalk, an ESL startup, and was tasked to create a written grammar exam for our teachers. As it is a way for us to check our overall proficiency is as a company, everyone had to take the test. Most were pretty happy with the results – save for my boss. Born and raised in the UK, he thought that he’d be one of the few who’d ace the test. When he got the results, they were pretty mediocre, with some of our teachers scoring higher than he did! What’s remarkable is that we are all Filipino ESL teachers: all ‘non-native’, different backgrounds, same passion. That incident was one of the many instances that prove that it doesn’t really matter if you’re a ‘native English speaker’ or not. Knowledge has never been just skin deep, and never will be.

I’ve been teaching English for more than six years now, and mixed conditionals are still a pain to teach. Students still get confused occasionally and at times I still doubt my own understanding. However, there is comfort in knowing that my grasp of conditionals and English grammar is just as good as my understanding and acceptance of my own self as a teacher.

madelineMadeline Castillo is an ESL teacher, lifestyle writer and dancer from the Philippines. She has been teaching English to both children and adults for more than six years now. In 2016, she joined Learntalk, an EdTech startup that harnesses technology to give students a fully immersive language learning experience without the need to travel and live in a distant country, while at the same time providing all the grammatical rigor of a classroom setting. The company operates in three segments, providing language training to individuals, corporates and education institutions around the world.

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2 thoughts on “The Beauty and Horror of Explaining Mixed Conditionals (Among Other Grammar Points) by Madeline Castillo

  1. Gordon Dobie says:

    Thank you for an interesting and useful article! I’d suggest that translations into the students’ L1 can usually quickly clear up most of the conceptual problems fairly quickly, and occasional translation exercises followed by pair or group comparisons in English provide good reinforcement.

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