Twenty things in twenty years part ten: the main point of focusing on pronunciation in class isn’t to improve pronunciation!
Pronunciation is quite possibly the most neglected area of language teaching. In many of the classes I’ve observed over the years, I’ve seen little or no attempt to work on pronunciation and where it IS focused on it’s often instinctive attempts at correcting mispronounced discrete phonemes of the kind we’re all so familiar with due to the phenomenal success of certain books that hone in one these areas.
Part of the problem, of course, is that after a certain (very formative) point, time spent on pronunciation reaps very scant reward, especially when compared to other areas of language that one could work on. Imagine the degree to which you might expect your communicative competence to be boosted if you were to spend a hundred hours studying, developing and revising vocabulary – and then compare and contrast to what you might expect to gain in communicative terms if you were spend those hundred hours working on your pronunciation. In all but a few rare cases, there’d be no comparison.
Partly this is because – unlike other areas of language skill (with the possible, arguable exception of writing, of course), pronunciation is essentially a motor skill, and ultimately develops as a result of practice, practice and practice. And then some more practice after that – in much the same way as a musician learns a song by going over and over and over the fingering and the strumming and the chords and the notes, drilling them into the muscle memory until they become second nature.
When it comes to discrete phonemes, there is often little we can really do in the limited time that we inevitably have with. If students are struggling, say, to produce a /v/ instead of a /b/ or a /r/ instead of a /l/ we can stop them when they err; point out what they’re saying and show with our own mouths and voices how we would do it differently. We can explain and demonstrate that a /v/ sound is voiced and requires the bottom lip to raise up and touch against the two front upper teeth, for instance, and we can encourage students to practise, pointing out when they’re still doing it wrong – and once they nail it, telling them and encouraging them to remember the feel in the mouth the sound makes and to practise it at home. We can correct it again next time we here it, but really after that they’re pretty much on their own.
Some people seem to have a much better ear for the degree to which what they’re producing resembles the output or models they’re exposed to, and there’s also surely some kind of sociocultural / psychological element involved which must affect the degree to which many speakers try – and deliberately don’t try – to accommodate themselves to particular kinds of native-speaker norms. I’ve often pondered how it is that the manager of my beloved football club, Arsene Wenger, can have lived in London for almost two decades and can have learned English to such a remarkable degree and yet all the while has clung to more or less exactly the same kind of French-inflected accent he first arrived with.
Well, part of the problems seems to be the fact that accents stick very early on, and once we’ve passed a certain point, changing this is incredibly hard to do. Research findings on this obviously vary, but there does seem to be a considerable body of evidence to suggest that we start being primed in our own first language from our very earliest moments here on earth, and this priming seems to last. This, coupled with the kind of lingering class-bound prejudices and perceptions that once led George Bernard Shaw to observe that “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”, might explain the proliferation of accent reduction courses that prey on the insecurities and fears of NATIVE speakers. Obviously, if your priming in L1 has led to the production of sounds radically different to English, then you may well have problems unless quite an intense focus on pronunciation is made a central part of your early experience of learning the language. Debate rages on about whether or not there actually is a cut-off point beyond which it’s all-but impossible to acquire native-like pronunciation, but there does seem to be a fair amount of evidence to suggest that by the early twenties accents in a foreign language are already pretty fixed. All of this may well go some way towards explaining why I’ve met only perhaps three or four non-natives who didn’t live in a native-speaking country until they were adults who could nevertheless be mistaken for natives (as well as why the vast majority of non-natives I know who do live in native English-speaking environments are easily identifiable as non-native – often to their great annoyance – despite speaking amazingly good English). It also accounts for the Chinese and Thai students I somehow teach whose learning thus far has been both almost entirely based on written sources and also very much in vain as the English they have acquired is rendered unintelligible by their accents, which are rooted very strongly in the tonalties of their mother tongues.
To add a further level of complexity to these obvious issues, recent discourse about ELF – and particular the work of Jennifer Jenkins, who has written at length about what she sees a phonological core of ELF that allows communication unimpeded by lapses in intelligibility without forcing strict adherence to the native-speaker RP construct (as she sees it) – has (and I’ll be gracious here and add unintentionally) led to a furthering of the Why bother? attitude to pronunciation. The vast majority of discrete phoneme mistakes don’t affect intelligibility; natives can’t even agree on how to pronounce grass and castle, while the Irish (allegedly!) say TREE TREES to describe these things:
We’ve all got accents, even native speakers . . . so what if my students sound French or Russian or what-have-you? That’s because they are. I can understand them all, why bother? And so the self-justification continues. Given all of this, you may yourself by now be thinking why bother. What’s the point of slogging on with something so unrewarding and that offers so few noticeable signs of improvement in return for such hard work on your part?
Well, on one level, the point is that even incredibly fluent students, like the Finnish woman Hanna who I recently taught on a Pronunciation & Presentation Skills course, still fret (in what may, to many native speakers seem like an unnecessary manner, but this does not detract from the reality of these emotions) about their accents and feel they could be improved – often by moving closer to some perceived idealised native speaker mode, which often means RP. Interestingly, actually, non-natives seem far more concerned about the finer details of pron than most natives for whom a diversity of options is a norm. I’ve lost count of the number of times after a talk I’ve done a non-native teacher has asked me whether I say ofTen or off-en, for instance.
So there’s that, but even this argument about student desires, persuasive though it may be, still actually misses the point.
Because the main issue here is that the REAL reason for persisting with pronunciation is NOT because it has that much of an impact on students’ own pronunciation.
It’s because it’s help students LISTEN better.
For students, listening is hard for one of two reasons: either they’re hearing language that’s simply unknown to them, and thus they fail to understand it in the same way as they would if they were to see it written down – or else they’re hearing language that they’d be able to deal with if they saw it written down, but cannot grasp as it comes out in the acoustic blur of normal speed speech. This is often because their main exposure to language has been the written form; and because listening – and more crucially the inter-relationship between listening and pronunciation – has been neglected during the early stages of their language learning experience.
If students cannot hear language that they are able to process when written down, it is rarely if ever because of issues with discrete phonemes. If it’s outside of the classroom, it may perhaps be because of a particularly unfamiliar or strong accent, though inside the classroom such accents are generally filtered out. This means that it’s down to what happens when we speak at speed: the use of weak forms, the elision of sounds at the beginning or end of words, the way words ending in consonants are linked to following words if they begin with vowels, the way we add in /w/ and /j/ sounds to link between vowels across words (as in the /j/ English or go /w/ ahead) and so on.
What this means is every time you take your time when modelling and drilling (both chorally and individually) the weak forms and linking and so on in a phrase like IT’S A BIT OF A NIGHTMARE or HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW, you’re helping the students get that little bit more used to how words sound when run together and said consecutively.
And while your efforts may or not impact positively on their own actual pronunciation, the chances are they’ll slowly contribute to your students being better able to distinguish language they have already studied when it comes at them think and fast in future listenings.
As the use of English as a Lingua France – or as an International Language, take your pick – spreads, and as more and more people around the world come to speak at least some degree of English, so the arguments about appropriate norms and models for the classroom – and about the relationship between language and culture – has rages long and hard.
The main thrust of these arguments, as they have been put forward in varying ways by Luke Prodromou, Jennifer Jenkins, Barbara Seidlhofer, Vivian Cook et al is that as more conversations in English are now held between non-native speaker and non-native speaker, the imposition on English language teaching of a tyranny of NATIVE SPEAKER norms, standards and cultural values is no longer appropriate or justifiable. Instead, we all need to be teaching Globish – Global English – or EIL – English as an International Language or even ELF: English as a Lingua Franca.
Now, personally, I stopped believing in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy when I was a kid, and my belief in ELFs is also non-existent. And I suspect I am not the only one, for the bulk of the arguments that have dominated conferences over recent years is founded on a series of myths and misrepresentations of reality, and it is my aim in this post to strip away some of the misconceptions surrounding the subject, explore the damage they can do and suggest some alternative ways of viewing the inexorable spread of English.
The idea that native-speaker English somehow exerts a tyrannical hold has become increasingly popular over recent years – and yet where is this dominance reflected? Are our coursebooks really full of Cockneys saying ‘Cor Blimey Guv’nor’ and Geordies saying ‘Wa-Hey man’? Now, of course, the majority of actors who record EFL CDs and cassettes for a living are indeed native speakers, and many of the biggest-selling coursebooks are both written and published by native-speakers, but speaking as a native speaker myself, I can honestly say that the vast majority of EFL material is many, many miles away from the English I frequently encounter in exclusively native-speaker-only contexts. I mean, have the people who rant about native-speaker dominance ever actually been in a classroom and taught from the dominant coursebooks? What, for instance, is native-speaker like about this little exchange?
Your surname’s Jones, isn’t it?
> Yes, it is.
And you’re 27, aren’t you?
> Yes, that’s right.
You weren’t at home last night at 8, were you?
> No, I wasn’t. I was at the pub.
But you don’t have any witnesses, do you?
> Yes, I do. My brother was with me.
Your brother wasn’t with you, was he.
> How do you know?
Because he was at the police station. We arrested him last night.
It must be very strange to be back home after such a long time.
> Yes, it is. I . . . I mean, it’s lovely to see everybody and I really appreciate my bed.
Let’s have a look at these photos, then.
> Well, they’re all mixed up at the moment. I’ve got to sort them out.
Um, this looks nice. Where is it?
> Where do you think it is?
Ah, well . . . it must be somewhere really hot. It looks like paradise. I suppose it could be Thailand or Bali, or it could even be India.
> No. I’ll give you a clue. It’s an island in the Pacific Ocean.
> No, I didn’t go to Hawaii.
Oh right. I thought you’d been everywhere. It’s probably Fiji, then.
> That’s right. Oh, it was lovely. This man wanted me to marry his daughter. She was beautiful.
EFL material is littered with similar examples and those of us who have been teaching long enough develop very good radar for sensing the exact points at which normal, native-like conversation ends – and grammar-dominated nonsense takes over. Now, I am NOT saying that EFL materials SHOULD be based completely on native-speaker norms – and that’s a point I will move on clarify in due time – but what I am saying is that the accusations of native-speaker norms dominating ELT are really not borne out by the evidence.
The screeching about the dominance of native-speaker English has had a seriously detrimental effect on the way teachers view their jobs. In his book World Englishes, Andy Kirkpatrick claims that he feels “sorry for poor learners of English who spend hours of classroom time trying to master the RP sounds of /th/ and /th/, as these are difficult sounds to learn if they do not exist in your own language and, it turns out, they are not used in many varieties of English anyway.” My first thought on reading was where on earth are these classes where students spend HOURS trying to learn these things. In most classes I observe, you’re lucky if you see any pronunciation at all being taught, let alone whole hours devoted to minimal pairs! So, again, I feel, the nature of reality is being distorted here to suit a particular kind of argument. My second thought, then, was how easily these kinds of comments can lead to teachers feeling it’s simply not worth the effort. That there’s no point bothering with all manner of aspects of English as students “might not need it anyway, especially in conversations with other non-natives and that, besides, some natives don’t even bother with this stuff at all.” At heart, I fear much of the current debate about ELF has an anti-teaching sub-text close to its core.
Obviously, these are slippery slopes for us to start to go down, but ones I think many teachers find themselves on and I see evidence of it all over the place. At a recent conference I attended in Poland, I heard someone put forward the notion that “in international contexts, the simpler, the better”. It put me in mind of Orwell’s monstrous Doublespeak, the language imposed upon us in some parallel or futuristic totalitarian world where words are to kept to a purely functional minimum and where we end with ‘good’, ‘ungood’, ‘plus good’ and ‘doubleplusgood’. A world few of us really want to inhabit, surely.
This desire to simplify and strip away the language we teach runs deep among the ELFers – and, of course, at lower levels we obviously do need to ensure that things are kept simple for students – and that we don’t end up teaching things with only limited utility when items that are more useful, items with broader surrender value, are available instead. However, it seems to me that one of the most problematic areas for the proponents of ELF or Globish lies in their attitudes towards level – and what should be taught at each level. Jennifer Jenkins writes of an Advanced-level French student who uses the word ‘chill out’ instead of ‘relax’, and she suggests that this is a “native-like” form. She claims that this student may well be rewarded in exams for use of such language, but that in the real world, when he engages in conversation with other non-natives, he’d be at a disadvantage as he would not be accommodating himself to the listener, who might well not understand the expression. Similar arguments have cropped up again and again in recent years. Luke Prodromou has argued that as corpora based on conversations between non-native speakers shows far less use of phrasal verbs and idioms than corpora based on the language of NATIVE speakers, these areas of the language have no real place in ELT materials. Such ideas were echoed by a teacher at a school I did a talk in last year who said “I see in your Advanced-level book, you have some idioms. Well, what happens if my German student learns, say, “I felt like a fish out of water” and uses it with a Greek speaker who doesn’t understand him?”
What happens in the real world is exemplified by a conversation I overheard in Istanbul airport last December. My flight got delayed and I was killing time when a German man approached the counter near where I was sitting and asked the woman on the desk “Excuse me. Is there an ATM machine near here?” The woman looks slightly scared and said “Please?”. The German guy tried again “A cash machine? To get money?”. “Sorry. I no English” came the response. At this point, the German guy took his card out and acted putting it into a cash machine and asked once more “Money?”. At this, the woman replied “Oh! Yes! Yes!! Go there” and waved with her arm.
Now, this conversation was clearly an example of English being used as a Lingua Franca by two non-natives in order to conduct a transactional exchange. What can we conclude from this exchange? Should we deduce that the German guy has somehow learned too much English and is adopting too “native-like” a model of English? This would seem to be the conclusion that many of ELF’s proponents would draw. If we follow the logic of Jennifer Jenkins’ claims, a seething can of worms opens before us. If an ADVANCED student should use ‘relax’ instead of ‘chill out’, are students also wrong to use – and are we as teachers, by extension, wrong to teach – items such as “great”? Surely “very good” will suffice! And what about “boiling”? Why bother when you can just say “very hot”? Let’s forget about “Do you mind if I?” with its strange positive response of “No, not at all” – and let’s just stick to “Is it OK if I . . .?”. Let’s purge the syllabus of “I can’t stand it” and “I love it” and stick to “I don’t like it” and “I really like it”!! Whole areas of the lexicon can go as they are essentially other ways of saying simpler concepts: so it’d be goodbye to ‘SPARE time/key/room’, no more ‘I overslept’, forget ‘sort out’ and why worry about ‘unemployed’ when you can just go for ‘He doesn’t have a job!’.
Obviously, there is an absurd reductionism about such arguments and it leads to a kind of Basic English no-one in their right mind would suggest would be sufficient to allow non-natives to carry out all the many and varied conversations they may wish to have amongst themselves!
I would suggest instead that perhaps we should admire the German man’s ability in this instance to accommodate himself to his listener, to paraphrase his meanings and grade his language down when required to – and I would deduce that perhaps it’s the Turkish woman here who needs to work on her language.
The point here surely is that whether we are native OR non-native speakers, when talking to others, we HAVE TO start from the assumption that they speak English at roughly the same level that we do. To do anything other than this is to patronize the person we are talking to. What would Jenkins and co suggest the German man should do in this conversation? START by just asking “Money?” What would YOU think if he started like this? Presumably you’d assume that HE couldn’t speak English! And how would you THEN feel when you discovered that he could? Talked down to, at the very least!
Starting from the assumption that the people we are talking to speak English at roughly the same level as ourselves doesn’t mean we will necessarily always be understood, but it does suggest that if we find that we AREN’T, we are all capable of grading down. In fact, I would suggest that in general fluent NON-natives are often better at doing this than many NATIVE speakers! In general, the more language we know, the better we are at paraphrasing and stripping our language down.
There is, however, a wider – and more complicated issue that also arises from Jenkins’ comments about ‘chill out’ and that is that the difficulty students face with language – and the degree to which they perceive items as idiomatic or “native-speaker-like” depends to a considerable degree on the learner’s own first language. In French, for example, I am reliably informed that “chill out” is actually used – as a loan word that has become very common. On top of that, “chill out” has also become an international word through music. In other words, the French speaker, far from trying his hardest to be a native speaker, could well have just been using the word which came most naturally to him in the circumstances!
To complicate this matter further, whether we are aware of it or not, students themselves often seek out idioms and colourful expressions in English. All languages contain idioms, expressions and metaphorical or unusual ways of saying things, and learning equivalent ways of saying these things in English is part of what makes language learning fun and interesting. In a recent Pre-Intermediate level class, one student arrived late – and left the door open, letting a draught in. One of my Chinese students became very animated and asked “How to say in English? In Chinese, have expression: How long your tail!” “Oh yes. I know what you mean. We usually say “Were you born in a barn?” I’ll write it up on the board.” “Oh. Very useful.” In this instance, of course, the idioms were quite different from one language to another, but in many, many cases, as with “I felt like a fish out of water”, for instance, you find that the expressions are very similar in Arabic, French, Spanish, Chinese, English . . . which is always nice to know.
An additional problem revolves around the fact that students often simply translate directly from their own language and don’t realise that things are not always the same in English – and this occurs even when they are talking to other non-natives. What would the anti-“native-like” teachers do, for instance, when a German student shouts to a Japanese “Huh? Do you think I have cucumbers on my eyes?”. Even if this sentence is intelligible from context, which wasn’t the case when this happened in one of my Upper-Intermediate classes, there’s then the risk that the other student will think this is the actual ENGLISH expressions and learn this, when they’d be much better off – if you believe that students should be learning things that have maximum utility among fluent users of English, the expression “Do you think I was born yesterday?” or “Do I look like I was born yesterday?”
One ELF argument has been that a student who uses an expression like “Do you think I have cucumbers on my eyes?” or, say, “He drinks like a horse” is somehow being creative or else expressing their cultural identity and that to correct these utterances is to stifle both identity and the creative impulse. For me, this is to willfully misunderstand what creative means. There is nothing creative about simply translating an idiom word for word from L1 – or to misuse a common idiom such as “eats like a horse”. Creativity surely comes from KNOWING idioms and expressions in the first place and THEN subverting them. Anything else is simply interlanguage!
Note, by the way, that I am NOT saying here that I believe that idioms like “Were you born in a barn?” or “Do you think I was born yesterday?” should necessarily form part of coursebook material or be in the syllabus at these low levels. Simply that there are often times when as teachers we are forced by circumstance to make principled decisions about them in the classroom.
The next issue to address here is the fact that the French student who used “chill out” was an ADVANCED student! One of the major problems that ELF / Globish people face is the whole issue of vocabulary. Who gets to decide that something is “native-like” and who gets to say what is supposedly more “neutral”? If we are teaching ELF, should we just never teach “chill out”? If so, what DO you teach at Advanced level? And how do our students ever get to be like the non-native speakers such as Barbara Seidlhofer who speak incredible English? How do they end up becoming like the any number of businessmen or politicians such as Javier Solano, Ban-Ki Moon or Kofi Annan – or other high-fliers such as Pedro Alonso or Arsene Wenger? As an Italian guy said at a conference I attended recently, “You must remember, International English is what you speak when you are trying to speak something else!”
To move closer to the heart of what models are most appropriate for our students, let’s consider the notion that the majority of conversations our students engage in will be with other non-native speakers. Despite the fact that this may well be true, it certainly doesn’t mean they will NEVER talk to native speakers. Take Spain, for example. Over 1 million Americans and SEVENTEEN million British people visit Spain on holiday every year – and obviously many tens of thousands of Spaniards travel to Britain or the States. Every year, around 100,000 British people leave the UK and join the 1 million-plus Brits already living in Spain, whilst the UK hosts around 100,000 long-term Spanish residents. Now, all of these movements of people are bound to result in people talking to each other! When you start doing the maths, that’s several million conversations a year in which non-native Spaniards will find themselves engaged in all manner of conversation with native-speakers, conversations which will cover all manner of subjects and which are bound to be both transactional AND interactional – and obviously the better the Spaniards English (and, of course, the better the native-speakers ability to grade language down, where necessary), the more smoothly these conversations will go.
Add to this the fact that many, many Spaniards themselves already speak something approaching native-like English – and that they may well often engage in conversation with other non-natives who speak similarly excellent English – something that happens all the time at conferences like this one, for example – and you do really have to start questioning exactly what kind of English ELF fans would like us to teach.
One of the many problems I have with ELF / Globish proponents is that it is never entirely clear whether they are actually arguing for greater tolerance of variation from Native-Speaker norms or some alternative model. My hunch over the last few years has been that it’s the latter. Andy Kirkpatrick, in World Englishes, argues that the variations in Native Speaker English make it invalid as a model and many other writers have suggested that far more attention be paid in classrooms to World Englishes – or Emerging Englishes as they are also often called. However, as I have already suggested, whilst the fact that English is used a global Lingua Franca is beyond doubt, the notion that there might be such a thing as ELF is far more contentious. Any attempt to define ELF as an entity distinct from native-speaker norms is doomed from the outset. If native speakers are no longer to be the model, who is? Kofi Annan? Angela Merkel? You non-native speaker teachers out there? And, if so, then WHICH of you? Or is the Nigerian security guy at my university who almost none of my students ever seem to be able to decipher? Or is it the Somali cab driver I had drive me to the airport last week, who spoke broken pidginised English? Alternatively, as some suggest, should we just be exposing our students to all of the above and more, liberally sprinkling Singaporean English, Malay English, Nigerian English – whatever these labels may mean – and so on into our classroom stews – and leaving our students supposedly free to decide which they wish to copy?
Ivor Timmis, who works at Leeds Met, has carried out some quite extensive research into the attitudes of both non-native students AND teachers around the world. Intriguingly, but perhaps not that surprisingly, he found that the vast majority of both – though especially of STUDENTS – see native-speaker competence as their goal, regardless of their ability – or lack of – to reach such lofty heights and also regardless of whether they envisaged themselves in the future talking to natives OR non-natives. Of course, such research does not go into what we actually mean by NATIVE-SPEAKER English, but there is no doubt that for almost any serious student of any foreign language, the educated native speaker remains both the desired model and also the ultimate goal. Much as well-meaning liberals may pretend that all versions of the language are equal – honestly! – if only we weren’t all so prejudiced – the reality is that that some forms are more equal than others and it is useful for our students to learn the models which most grant them insider-status!
Similar arguments to these have flared around the issue of how best to teach working-class kids in the UK and African-American kids in the US. In the 60s and 70s, there was a well-meaning, but severely misguided, attempt to teach working-class British kids in their own dialects, whilst the Ebonics movement in the US had similar aims for black Americans. This idealistic dream led black activist and politician to claim that there was a conspiracy afoot which was both “foolish and insulting to black students throughout the United States” and that the result was “teaching down to our children”.
My feelings about ELF are very similar. Whilst Jennifer Jenkins may well be correct that certain sounds are not necessary in order to be understood whilst speaking English in an international context, and whilst Barbara Seidlhofer may well also be correct when she notes that communication is not hindered if students drop such “nativised” grammatical annoyances as the 3rd person -s or if they confuse who and which, add redundant prepositions, use definite and indefinite pronouns differently or warp the use of tag questions, we have to ask ourselves is merely “being understood” what students want in the word of globalised English. Last term, for instance, I had an Indian couple in my Proficiency class, Manooj and Praena. They both spoke exceptional English and had been using the language since they were children. They were planning to go back to India after a six-month stay in London. When I asked why they felt it necessary to continue studying a language they already spoke so well, Manooj looked at me like I was crazy and said “I do not want to sound like a curry shop waiter! If I can sound more like you, it will be very good for me and my career back home”.
Obviously, there is a huge difference between haranguing students for making these grammatical and pronunciation mistakes and imposing endless correction on them (which I personally believe happens very infrequently) – and deciding to consciously not teach them. I feel that a lot of the ELF rhetoric has come about simply as a response to bad teaching. If there really are teachers out there who spent hours on /th/ and /th/, then they should stop it! If you do what one of my elderly colleagues used to do with her Elementary students and lecture them for half an hour on the difference between ‘bath’ and ‘bathe’, then don’t! If you spend hours and hours at the same level fretting about whether or not students use the third person -s in all given contexts, then you’re wasting both their time and your own.
Clearly, we only have a limited amount of time to spend in class, and we all do need to make decisions about what we think is useful for our students. As such, it’s seems sensible to ensure that what we teach is language which is as widely used as possible. This means that raw native-speaker data is not actually that useful. Rather, we need to be informed by educated native speaker usage and to make decisions about how best to ‘cook’ it for students’ consumption based on informed intuition. If that means, for example, that we end up teaching I’m meeting a friend tonight instead of I’m meeting up with a friend tonight . . . or I just need to finish some work instead of the more native-speaker-like I just need to finish off some work, then that’s fine by me – especially at Pre-Advanced levels. In the same way, I would personally always opt for teaching a standard range of question tags over the lower-class London standard one-size-fits-all tag of ‘Innit’. And I would tend to prefer “There ARE lots of problems” over the increasingly common “There’s lots of problems”. There may well be aspects of native-speaker speech you decide not to teach – perhaps because they’re too high level, perhaps because they’re regarded as too lower class, or perhaps because they’re regionalisms. This may be especially true if you’re teaching in a non-English speaking country. Does this mean, however, that such items should be completely removed? Even at Advanced and Proficiency levels? I am not so sure. In the end, of course, I can only decide what goes on in my classrooms and what goes into my coursebooks. It is the educated, often non-native speaker, teachers who then have to make the decisions about what to teach in their own classes. I hope that what I have done today, if nothing else, is to make the choices teaches face just a little bit more principled and informed.
In his 2009 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claimed that around ten thousand hours of deliberate practice makes a superstar. Failing that, at the very least, 10,000 hours of practice is the key to mastery – and putting the hours in is far more important when it comes to creating – or realising – success than any innate talent. As you’d expect, Gladwell provides plenty of pop culture examples – The Beatles played together in Germany for nearly 10,000 hours before they emerged seemingly fully formed to conquer the world; Tiger Woods had put in his 10,000 hours on the golf course before he was even old enough to learn how to drive a car, and so on.
Now, I have no idea how valid the research Gladwell bases his claims on is, nor any way of – or interest in – counting the exact number of hours The Beatles spent playing to drunk seamen on the Reeperbahn, but there’s surely something in this claim: the notion that nothing comes of nothing, and that any degree of success in anything requires a considerable amount of hard graft!
Yet how counter to much of our contemporary culture such claims run! We live in an age of instant gratification, of the belief that money buys us access to whatever it is we most desire, of shortcuts and of blagging. You see it everywhere, from the Pop Idol wanna-bes who crave fame for simply being themselves, and hope for a career in music without first having done the long hard hours learning their craft and gigging out on the road, to the folk who’ve learned a bit of Photoshop and think this makes them a graphic designer and in the desperate CVs we get sent at work from people who’ve not even done a CELTA but have instead done a two-day taster course somewhere and yet who think this entitles them to teach English in a university (I’m reminded here of the applicant a few years ago who, on being informed that we usually only took on teachers with DELTAs as a minimum requirement, spat back at us with “But I don’t want to be a teacher trainer or anything. I only want to teach!”). Examples are easy to find almost everywhere.
And the English Language market has been quick to capitalise on the myth of instant success. The web is full of courses that promise that you too can learn English in ten days – or effortlessly or even in your sleep! Published material and even schools are also quick to make such rash promises in search of student dollars. Naturally, students themselves are desperate to buy into these quick fix ideas. We’ve all met the students who think that simply working through Murphy’s English Grammar In Use (often for the third of fourth time!) – or translating and memorising random lists of single words – will unlock the door to fluency, or the students who arrive at Pre-Int level demanding IELTS 6.5 by the end of the term, and who are very very resistant to the message that increasing just 0.5 in the exam will take a MINIMUM of 150 study hours!
And when the industry is not busy promising the world, we as teachers are all too often simply downgrading our standards and hoping that getting by with less will become the new fully fluent! As I’ve already said elsewhere, I think the roots of this are complex and socio-culturally and historically rooted, but I do also feel that much of the debate around Globish / English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) over the last decade or so has inadvertently fed into a latent laziness on the part of many (frequently native-speaker) teachers! How can it be that such a well-intentioned (but I would argue misguided and flawed) project can have had such an impact?
Well, by attempting to list the elements of speech which are deemed to be non-essential to international communication (the third person -s, say, or the different /th/ sounds in mother or theoretical) and by stressing the fact that much use of English in the modern world will be between non-natives, the ELF theoreticians have inadvertently created a monster, feeding directly into the ‘why bother’ school of thought that afflicts teachers for whom teaching still sits awkwardly with their sense of self. Why bother correcting grammar if I can already understand what students are on about? Why bother with idioms or awkward sophisticated bits if lexis I’m not sure of myself if they’re only going to be talking to Greeks or Chinese or Germans? Why bother with the endless corrective drills of /th/ sounds? Let’s just focus on acceptable communication and activities and fun and be done with it. So the cries go up! And so the goals and targets that we teach towards go down!
I’ll be blogging more about ELF and the pernicious influence the whole debate surrounding it has had in the week to come, but hope there’s enough here to spark at least some kind of a debate.
I’d like to know how YOU feel about the value and purpose of the ELF project, the degree to which you think it’s been harmful / beneficial to the field and whether or not I’m right in my paranoid assertions that students are becoming more desperate in their hunt for shortcuts to success.