04 March 2007

Should we teach our students Shakespeare?

Some teachers advocate the teaching of Shakespeare to our students. Shakespeare had a tremendous impact on the English language. There are many idioms and turns of phrase that originated in the writings of Shakespeare. So they feel teaching the old bard would really benefit our students.

It may be useful for a very small portion of advanced English students who are interested in literature studies. It is difficult to see how lower level students, business or non-literature academic students would benefit from such studies as it is likely they have many other basic English needs to develop.

If we take a look at a sample of Shakespeare and the complexity of the language we can see why. Here are the opening lines of Twelfth Night:

If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.

We can see how archaic Shakespearean English is to any contemporary purpose beyond the study of literature. As EFL professionals, we speak at length on the desirability of authentic English samples to use with our students. Personally, as I am not a literature teacher, I would sooner use any ole studio hammered dialog over dear William's finest.

Sitting here in China I wonder if we haven't realized that there has been a divide in the motivation behind English learning today. Some students are intensely interested in understanding the historic culture and the roots of the English language. But I would suggest that 95% or 3-4% more of our students are learning it for employment or travel purposes. I think Shakespeare teaching belongs to the first camp.

Why should it not be taught to the second group? I think it would be nice to teach it to the second group...after they have learned how to introduced themselves and a friend, go the bank, negotiate a contract, make a report to the police about being robbed, give a presentation, make a marriage proposal and talk intelligently with a doctor about their patent foramen ovale. Alas, we may never have time to teach it to this group whose motivation is related to practical daily purposes in our short 3-9 month courses.

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