This is a title that most Japanese recognize and can relate to. “This is a pen” is the infamous line that is virtually omnipresent in English textbooks in Japanese middle schools, and the prime target of mockery by critics on Japan’s English Education system. The common hearsay is that “this is a pen” is the first complete sentence that Japanese students learn when they first study English. Unfortunately, “this is a pen” is barely used in a meaningful daily conversation anywhere in the world, and in any language. Such grammatically correct, yet impractical lines, so often appear in Japan’s English textbooks that most Japanese students end up memorizing such useless expressions, neglecting the more important aspect of conversation.
However, today in my seminar class, Professor Snowden bravely defended the “uselessness” of the line “this is a pen”. I found it pretty intriguing and surprisingly convincing, and so I decided to write it here to share with everyone.
Indeed, how many times in your life have you ever used the line “this is a pen” in a meaningful conversation? Zero, perhaps. It is undoubtedly pointless to have students memorize lines that do not serve much of a purpose in daily life. However, think about this: If you were to create another sentence to teach grammar to English beginners, what would it be?
Greeting expressions such as “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” are, without a doubt, used often in daily conversations, but if you want to teach grammar in a simple line, what examples can you come up with?
Some possible examples are “My name is Dennis”, “I am twenty four years old”, “I like to learn languages”.
These lines, however useful they are, are only applicable to me. You cannot make students memorize these lines by hard because most people’s names are not Dennis, nor are they twenty four years old, nor do they like to learn languages. Like what Professor Snowden says, these examples are useful to some people (to whom they are true), but useless to others. If you want to make a sentence for everyone, it should be either useful to everyone (which is highly impossible), or otherwise, useless to everyone (so that it is fair to everyone)!
“This is a pen” is not a stupid idea, however useless it might be. Making people memorize “this is a pen” would serve more practical purposes than teaching people to say “I am twenty four years old”. Moreover, from a simple “this is a pen”, one could substitute the word “pen” with other nouns, or even add adjectives to describe the noun.
Therefore, “This is a pen” can extend to become “This is a red pen” (now this becomes more useful), or “This is my pen” (this is even more useful!), or “This is an iPod” (when introducing new technology/ things to others).
Professor Snowden ended up saying “I’ve stopped complaining about ‘this is a pen’.” And I must agree, too, that I’m pretty convinced by the teaching pragmatism of the silly line that has been made the culprit for the poor English level of the Japanese.
You might find it absurd at first, but take some time to think of it. It does make sense.
To add on: “This is a pen” is probably one of the most basic grammar structures in English, or any other language. Another phrase, say “I am 24 years old” includes a “first person pronoun” and grammar changes with pronouns. Moreover, for “This is a pen”, you can substitute almost any noun with “pen” to repeat the exact same grammar structure. And it all makes perfect sense!
Also, “this is a pen” is more universal than “I am 24 years old” because “this is a pen” does not change with time. So, anyone, at any time, can use that phrase. But “I am 24 years old” is strictly restricted to someone who is at that age, and even that person cannot use it after one year.