When I heard that a colleague had bought an apartment of 900 square feet, I hear what he was saying, I understand the English words but yet I do not know exactly what they mean. In my classes we never bothered to calculate measurements into the American or British custom. I know exactly what an apartment of 90 m² is though.
It is the same when people talk about the weather in Fahrenheit, six gallons or 8,500 miles, I hear what they say, but I don’t know immediately what they mean. Obviously these things are culturally determined. I don’t have a good understanding of Fahrenheit etc, because I was raised in a country where we use Celsius, meters, liters etc. This is similar for most of my students but then the other way around. The question that dawned upon me was: to what extent should we, as language instructors, teach our students the decimal system, kilograms, meters, liters and temperature in Celsius?
In my Beginning Dutch class, we talk quite early in the semester about how people look. Students should be able to give a description of themselves and others around them. But when it comes to height and weight, I face another problem. They have learned the numerals and we have to practice them. But when an American student is not used to the European way of expressing this, and starts guessing, he might say in fluent Dutch that someone is 2 meter 15 and 60 kilograms, I raise my eyebrows. This cannot be true! I almost forget to pay attention to their grammar and pronunciation.
Is calculation the answer? On the internet there are many sites to convert Fahrenheit into Celsius and vice versa, and to convert into the decimal system. Should students first look up what they want to say in the correct terms, and then talk about it? Do I need to teach my students math? How long will it take them to be able to get a feel for all these measurements? A long time, I think. Especially when students don’t live in the country and don’t hear it all the time.
My question to my fellow-instructors is: how do you deal with measurements? Are there mnemonics that you use? Do you ask students to describe people in the European manner? Don’t you bother or do you force them to use certain measurements they are not used to?