Eat, Drink, Have

Imagine the situation:

An English-School classroom, with a Beginner or Elementary class. The teacher has put a picture of someone with a glass of water to their lips.

—What is she doing?

—She is… drinking the water.

—Yes, very good! Now, next…

The teacher now displays an image of someone sitting down to a meal.

—Ok, now can somebody tell me what this person is doing?

—Eating.

—Yes, very good! So, we eat…

—food.

—Yes, and we drink…

—uh, drinks.

—Yes, excellent!

That might seem pretty logical. To eat and To drink are two very common, basic verbs, and students need to understand exactly what they mean and how to use them, don’t they? Well, yes, but how do we really use these two verbs? How often do we really use them?

To drink is probably the more commonly used of the two:

We’re going out drinking tonight.

What are you drinking?

Do you drink?

He has a serious drinking problem.

As you can, see when we use to drink as a verb, it’s often associated with alcohol. When we use drink as a noun, it can more generally be used to refer to any drink, but even still, if we say I need a drink, there’s usually only one way to interpret that. If you’re thirsty you might say I’d like some water, or I’ll have a cup of tea. But would you ever say I’d like to drink some water or I’ll drink a cup of tea? Of course not: that would sound strange, wouldn’t it?

Similarly, we don’t use to eat as often as one might assume. We can use it in a general sense:

Would you like something to eat?

What did you eat for lunch?

Where shall we eat?

But when we start to talk about specific food, using to eat sounds strange:

I’ll eat the steak please, and can I eat some fries with that?

I ate a sandwich for lunch.

We’re going to eat lamb for dinner tonight.

Of course it would sound more natural to say:

I’ll have the steak please, and can I have some fries with that?

I had a sandwich for lunch.

We’re going to have lamb for dinner tonight.

So while to eat and to drink have their uses, in everyday speech it’s more common to use to have, especially to refer to specific meals, foods, or drinks. And yet, it seems so natural to teach students to use to eat and to drink at an early stage of their learning, like the example above. And it’s not such a bad thing, as it does clarify the meaning of the verbs and allows students to construct grammatically-correct, coherent sentences, even if they don’t sound completely natural.

The problem is when we don’t move on and teach students to use to have in these contexts, and they get into the habit of using to eat and to drink all the time. As teachers we don’t always think to do that, as we don’t always question whether there’s a gap between using to eat and to drink to always refer to food and drink, and how native speakers refer to food and drink. It’s a problem even the best teachers can have: looking at the language being taught to their students in isolation, and not considering what they themselves actually use in real life.

By extension, it’s then a problem for students too. At early stages it’s most important to be understood, but once learners get to a certain level, they need an extra push from communicating in a simple yet comprehensible way, to sounding more like a native speaker. Many students find it difficult to move between those two stages, often because they consider the language only in an abstract sense as something they learn in the classroom, but don’t consider the real-world applications of the language. That’s why someone who’s learned English for many years, understands all the grammar, and has a rich vocabulary, might still say I’m going to drink some beers tonight!

And as teachers we need to bear the burden of ensuring that they can make the transition to using English in a more naturalistic way. We need to find a healthy balance between providing students with the basic rules and theory of the language, and demonstrating how native speakers actually use it. Not only would that help students to improve their level of English; it would also engage them more in their learning, by making the language more relatable, more practical.

Sadly, the experience of most English speakers of learning a second language is entirely without this practical, relatable aspect. Whatever language(s) we had to learn in school, it was difficult to understand why we were learning them, as we never used them in our lives. This unfortunately means that many English teachers teach English in the same manner. And yet the advantage a native-speaking English teacher has is that they use the language every day (and perhaps their students do too, if they’re teaching in an English-speaking country), and can bring that experience to bear on their lessons. They simply have to take a step back and reflect on how they use English, and communicate that to their students. Just some food for thought you can eat have.

 

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