Stand by your ‘an’

As an English teacher in Latvia, one of the hardest things to teach is articles (‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’ for the grammatically-challenged among you). They don’t exist in Latvian or Russian so students have a hard time knowing when to use ‘the’, when to use ‘a’ or ‘an’, and when to leave them out entirely – zero article. So you’ll hear things like ‘I like walking in forest’, ‘I love the mushrooms’, ‘I went to the bed’ and ‘the women should be kept barefoot and pregnant in kitchen’.

Of course, I can understand the problem. There are a lot of rules and if you’re not used to them, they can be really difficult to get your head around. But because they’re difficult, students develop a ‘Meh, they’re not important. People can understand me if I don’t use them’ attitude.

But, not one to give up so easily, I try to give them some examples to illustrate that yes, incorrect usage can make a difference. Picture the scene: you’re standing in a bar and a cute guy comes over. Things are going well until he comes out with ‘I like beatles’. You think ‘Great, why do I always attract the bug-collecting whackjobs?’ and make a hasty exit (before things get to the ‘it rubs the lotion on its skin’ stage).

Whereas if he says ‘I like THE Beatles’, you think ‘Well, I’m more of an Elvis girl myself but…’. The point is, at least you’re not running for the door. However, trying to convince my students is often a losing battle. And being the only one who gives a damn in a packed classroom can be a very lonely feeling. So, in an effort to cheer myself up, I thought I’d adapt (butcher?) the Tammy Wynette classic “Stand by your man” to reflect how I feel about it all. Here goes…


Sometimes it’s hard to be a teacher,

Especially when you teach a Latvian,

They say they had egg,

You say it’s AN egg,

They smile and say it’s just an ‘an’.

But though a part of you is dying,

You grit your teeth and keep on trying,

When tears start raining,

Just keep explaining,

‘Cos after all, they’re Latvian.


Stand by your ‘an’,

And ‘a’ and ‘the’ and ‘zero’,

Make articles your hero,

Although it can get lonely.

Stand by your ‘an’,

And show them that you mean it,

Keep going ’til your marker’s dry-y-y-y,

Stand by your ‘an’.

Come to think of it, maybe if I spent more time concentrating and less time making up little songs in my head, my students would learn more. But for now, it’s Friday night so Tammy, take it away…

About BerLinda

Adjusting to life in Germany, after living in Latvia for four years. Should be easy, right?
This entry was posted in Humor, Humour, Language, TEFL and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Stand by your ‘an’

  1. Irena says:

    Hi, Linda!

    Thank you for your amazing blog. I came across it only a couple of days ago, and being a Latvian expat myself, I can agree with almost every line you´ve written. I know this particular post is almost a year old, but I wanted to comment anyway.
    It´s true that there are no articles in the Latvian language, however the same idea of definiteness or indefiniteness is often expressed through adjectives. Whenever we use an adjective before a noun, it has to come with ¨noteiktā¨ or ¨nenoteiktā galotne¨ (definite or indefinite ending). Your students may or may not know the term, but it comes naturally to them in speech. For example, two guys are chatting, and one of them says ¨Es redzēju skaistU meiteni¨ (I saw a beautiful girl, notice the ¨u¨ in skaistu), it means, just as in English, that it was some random girl, most probably some chick in a leopard print dress he saw earlier that day, whereas if one of them says ¨Es redzēju skaistO meiteni¨ (I saw the beautiful girl, notice the ¨o¨ in skaisto), again just as in English, they both know or at least have some idea who they are talking about. It won´t of course explain why in English we say ¨Let´s go to bed¨, but ¨There´s a big spider in the bed¨, but it might shed some light on this complicated subject. And it could even explain why we say ¨a big spider¨ instead of ¨the big spider¨. Grammatically it would sound weird to a native speaker if someone said ¨Gultā ir lielAIS zirneklis¨ instead of ¨Gultā ir lielS zirneklis¨, unless, of course, they knew what spider they were talking about. Anyway, great post.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hi Irena, thank you so much for your comment. I knew Latvian had different endings but I never knew about the ¨noteiktā¨ or ¨nenoteiktā galotne¨ endings! Interesting stuff. I’m going to amaze my students in the next lesson on articles when I bust this out 🙂 Linda.

  2. John says:

    I always give them the example of “I was in THE gym last night” versus “I was in gym last night”, the second, especially when coming from a guy, sounds like he was doing something naughty with his boyfriend Jim. Latvian students, most of whom run for the (very small) hills when the topic of homosexuality is mentioned, usually pay attention to that one and you can build on it. Also “I have few friends in Riga” versus “a few friends” , “little free time” versus “a little free time.”

    Don’t settle for the old “but articles aren’t important” crap, “the” is the most commonly used word in the English language. How can you speak a language correctly without using the most common word correctly? Also, if some of them are planning to do IELTS, CAE etc in the future, they’ll get crucified for not using them. If they give you a “but people will still understand me” hit them back with a sentence like “vakar es iet veikals un es pirkt divi sarkans rozes” … yes people can understand it, but grammatically to a native speaker it sounds horrible.

  3. Džuris says:

    I’ve only used internet/gaming English for last five years and become increasingly bad at English English. May I ask a dumb question?
    Why is it “hardest things to teach is articles”? Why articles are not “are” but is “is”? I would have written “are the articles” 😦

    • John says:

      A lot of native speakers would make the same mistake. The reason is because the sentence is “one of the _______ is” The subject of the sentence is the “one” not the “articles.”

    • Expat Eye says:

      Hi Dzuris, yes, what John said! The part of the sentence you copied doesn’t make sense – it would be ‘the hardest things to teach are articles’ but ‘ONE of the hardest things to teach IS articles’ – grammar lesson complete 😉

  4. Bob Lewis says:

    Judging by that dazzling smile, Tammy must be Latvian!

  5. So funny! I think this is generally true when learning a new language; it’s those small but significant differences. I have the hardest time remembering if it’s Der or Die and good god if I can ever remember if something is feminine, masculine or neutral! 🙂

  6. Hehe I love this. I feel your pain. Those tiny suckers ARE important. One of our friends here isn’t too good at the english, plus she has extreme pregnant- brain and mixes up he/she, so she we get some whacky convos. The Easter in the April, she can have “pick nick”. (I secretly love it.) Also, I butchered that entire song in the wrong key to J. I like your version better.

    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha ha, love it! Yeah, sometimes it can be kind of cute – I don’t tell my students that though! I had a hard time the other day convincing a student that ‘freedom’ was an actual word. He thought ‘freehood’, ‘freetion’ and ‘freeness’ sounded much better… 🙂

  7. traveller says:

    Haha! Such is the fate of small words. I can imagine your students thinking articles, prepositions, small bits and bobs, difficult to remember, ohhh who cares?
    Is it just me of there’s something wrong other than the articles in “the women must be kept pregnant and barefoot in kitchen?” 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha ha, yes, there’s plenty wrong with it! Some of the statements my students come out with make my toes curl – and not because of the grammar! This country is turning me into a raging feminist 😉

  8. pollyheath says:

    Your song was great 🙂 I feel your pain… sometimes the only way to get through the language butchering is laughing (while simultaneously crying…)

  9. Saryne says:

    the hardest things to teach is articles (‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’ for the grammatically-challenged among you). Articles, is a meta-language term, not, by definition, a grammar term.

  10. Very good! I was singing along. 🙂

    • Expat Eye says:

      Ha ha, great! I’ve been singing it all night, line by line, trying to make sure the rhythm was right – neighbours must be going mad 😉

  11. Darcel says:

    Great post, I enjoyed reading 🙂

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