“I hurt a finger on my leg”, a senior pupil informed me, limping into the classroom.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

“I hurt a finger on my leg”, a senior pupil informed me, limping into the classroom. My vivid imagination immediately conjured up a weird image, even though I knew what he meant, and why he expressed himself in this bizarre way. There are various reasons why we EL teachers hear some curious phrases at times. Let us look at this particular topic, The Human Body.

• Several words are mysteriously omitted from the school vocabulary, so the seniors often do not know them: toe(s), chin, wrist, ankle are typical examples of such omissions.
• The language systems in those areas do not correspond to each other, thus producing some difficulties in perception and translation.

How many fingers do people have? Any English dictionary gives us the correct answer: four fingers and a thumb. This simple explanation inevitably elicits laughter in the primary school pupils, because in their native language, people have five fingers on each hand. There are no corresponding verbs formed directly from those nouns, so the expressions like “to finger something” or “to thumb through a book” have to be illustrated and explained or translated. “Tom Thumb” is my language is called “Malchik-s-Palchik”, which perfect rhyme translates literally as “Boy-like-Little Finger”. When one knows something really well “as one’s own five fingers” in one language, we need to teach pupils that the English analogue would be “to know something like the back of one’s hand”. Once the children learn those amazing facts about the hands, fingers and thumbs, they may become extra-cautious about using the words for the legs and feet. Naturally the younger they are, the more persistently pupils may ask that eternal question WHY. Why do they have FOUR fingers but FIVE toes?

The familiar play on a popular expression, “to keep one’s fingers and toes crossed”, may only be understood after we have taught the necessary words and the meanings of the accompanying set phrases. Pupils may have difficulties trying to imagine how their toes may curl, but they will undoubtedly find the concept funny. “To toe the line” and “to find a toehold” may be seen as hysterical.

“Hand” and “arm” are the same word in my language, though educated people would know an obsolete word for “hand”. Thus the common expression “He put a hand on her arm” would present great difficulties in translation, though the image would be clear. The same problem presents itself with the “foot-leg” pair: though two words are still used, one of them is common while the other became more of a specific term, used in medicine for instance. Thus children would use the same word for both foot and leg indiscriminately.

I honestly have no idea why some words are often omitted in textbooks. I do believe that if young children learn any topic in a certain way, it is very hard to teach them differently when they become older. What is wrong with “chin”, for example? Yet time and again, when I say, “Keep your chin up!” pupils stare back at me perplexed. Teaching pupils of any age, including adults, we may improvise, and work with this seemingly simple theme in a novel and fascinating way. The divergence of notions used to describe the familiar parts of the human body in various languages may be a good subject for a presentation, and for a report at a school conference.

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