How Many Balls?
by Liz Millership
If an elementary school kid ever comes up to you asking “station, station, where is the station?” in a rhythmic chant, don’t be alarmed – this is how we’ve taught them to ask for directions. For those ALTs who don’t teach at the elementary level, the grade 5’s and 6’s are taught from a textbook called “Hi Friends”, in which a ‘chant’ is assigned for every chapter. Whilst this sounds like a good idea – the children get to practise fast paced English – in reality the chants are often bizarre and unintentionally funny, such as the balls chant. It’s almost impossible to keep a straight face as the children chant in unison, “balls. BALLS. How many balls?” This might come in useful for those male students hitting adolescence who want to check with their peers that everything is ‘normal’, but beyond that, I can’t imagine many situations where this sentence would be used.
Then there’s the simplistic chants. Of course, we have to keep it simple for elementary, but Lesson 5 of Hi Friends 2 boils Italy down to “pizza, cheese, soccer. Nice country. Let’s go!” Persuasive! In 10 years time when these kids are in their 20’s and (maybe) eager to see the world, we might see a whole nation of travelling Japanese youths, devastatingly disappointed by the cheese that they’ve travelled half the world to eat, having foregone the Colosseum in their journey to find the legendary Pizza, Cheese and Soccer that they learnt about as a child.
Lastly, there is a chant that is a favourite with the students. They like it not because of what is being said (it just says, “apples, apples, I like apples”), but because of the animation that comes with it. It’s an apple, a pair of cherries and a lemon, but with faces – really creepy faces. These faced fruits jump to the chant with maniacal grins reminiscent of an LSD trip, but the kids love them. Personally, I used to like apples but now that face is all I can see when I’m about to bite into a Granny Smith.
So the chants can be irrelevant, simplistic, or just weird, but what about their merits when it comes to practising English? Unfortunately, they disregard the prosody of English, i.e. they don’t reflect the stress patterns of English sentences. “I DON’T like, lemons” ends up sounding like the definitive end of the conversation rather than a continuation. However, the chants do seem to create a feeling of communal learning amongst the students – most of the kids join in and no-one seems to find them too silly. Even the naughty ones pick up target language from the chants, and they generally have fun shouting out in eigo.
And of course, you can always change the chant using the ‘karaoke version’, to whatever you want, as your Home Room Teacher looks on in horror.