ELT Elephant-in-the-Room Fundamentals Part III: Which English?
October 22, 2012 3 Comments
Part Three of a four-part series on fundamental ESL/EFL teaching principles which are easy to forget – or tempting to ignore
So far, we’ve examined the subjects of Motivation and Repetition as examples of simple but essential principles of the language learning process which tend to be “crowded out” of lessons, either by the constraints of an imposed curriculum or by the distractions of trendy but sometimes superfluous educational technology. In this installment of the series, we take a look at the old British English vs. American English divide, and show how it is just about as relevant to today’s learners as a debate over the respective merits of the teletext over the telegraph.
We know that language is a living, breathing, changing thing; an expression of humanity and culture that does not recognize national borders; than can morph, splinter and merge; and often does not – should not – respect every rule set out for it in some other age.
Accordingly, we cannot persist with anachronisms like teaching a “national” (read Imperial) variant of English, because English has become so much more than just the official language of the United Kingdom, the USA, Canada or a number of other countries. It is today, and will be for years to come, — beyond its lingua franca status in the domains of technology, diplomacy, business and so many other fields — the international language of opportunity, as described so clearly by Jay Walker in his TED Talk on the global focus on learning English.
As such, in our lessons as well as more generally in our curricula, we need to expose learners not just to common collocations and idioms in all main variants of English. They should also be able to, at the very least, recognize that “color” and “colour” are the same word; that “pissed” has a very different meaning depending on which side of the Atlantic you find yourself; and, ideally, be able to project linguistic intelligence in adopting the appropriate expressions and spellings depending on the context in which they are using them. Target lexis should also include the most-used English language slang, idioms, cultural references and buzzwords as spoken around the world, so they are no more at a loss understanding the requests of an Australian boss as they are capturing the irony in an Irish colleague’s lament.
We need to help learners distinguish between more formal written communication and more informal verbal dialogue, and all the stops in between, and to know how and when to use each type. And, perhaps most of all – and this ties back into motivation — we need to position English not just as yet another subject to pass or test to pass, but rather as the language of future academic study, professional endeavor, friendship, travel and problem-solving for our learners as they make their way forward into an ever more globalized, interconnected world. To us, that may sound like a cliché, but to a 17-year-old having spent the last four years hearing about youth unemployment, massive government debt, austerity and hollowed-out economies, having a linguistic passport to alternatives is a very real and compelling motivator.
Part of this effort is to somehow impart to our learners the awareness that by now, most speakers of English around the world speak it as a language other than their native one. We need to convince our learners that there is a high degree of tolerance out there for English as an acquired language, even if it is not 100% fluent, accurate or spoken without accent. Self-confidence, or rather a lack of self-consciousness, is something that will create a virtuous circle for our users. The more they hear and use English of all types, the more they see themselves as speakers of English engaged in a continuous process of familiarity with the language, the less afraid they will be to use more of it, with language competence occurring at some point without them even realizing it.
Next and last in the Series: Teacher Introspection