Tag Archives: Non-native speaker teachers

In praise of non-native speakers part five: localizing texts

So here we go with the fifth and final installment in a series of posts initially inspired by a desire to counter the appalling Open English advert – and to point out the many potential advantages that non-native speaker teachers, especially those teaching monolingual groups with whom they share a first language, possess. Following on from the last post on translation, which generated a real flurry of responses and debate, I’ve been loath to wrap this series up for fear of going out with a whimper, rather than a bang, but here goes nothing.

The final way in which non-natives (or, of course, bilingual natives who’ve lived in situ for some considerable period of time) can offer students superior value for money – certainly when compared to rabidly monolingual recent arrivals – is through the way teachers tackle texts. All too often texts are included in coursebooks to convey facts about the world outside – and are treated as little more than factual entities to be analysed, ‘comprehended’ and processed, but not really responded to or related to the local environment.

In Britain in the late 70s / early 80s, there was a school of thought dubbed Critical Pedagogy, led by people such as Norman Fairclough, which advocated encouraging students to adopt a critical approach to the teaching materials and methods they were exposed to. Whilst I am not suggesting this is a realistic – or even desirable – goal for most teachers, there are aspects of this approach that can help us bring texts to life for our students, especially in non-native / bilingual contexts.

The most fruitful way to think about the role of texts in the classroom is to see them both as vehicles for useful or interesting language, and also as points of comparison with students’ own cultures and life experiences. Sadly, however, not all globally available classroom material shares this perspective – and this is where the local teacher can step in and help to bring otherwise neutral (or possibly even alien) material to life. Often texts can be fruitfully exploited with the addition of a few simple questions along the lines of: what do you think is the same and what’s different here? / does anything in the text remind you of any stories you have heard about? – and so on. As ever, the teacher who is most aware of the local context will be able both to frame these questions in a way which may well work best with local students, whilst also being more conscious of what kind of answers students might typically come up with, and thus what kind of language would be most worth feeding in.

Let’s look at a concrete example: earlier this year, I was using Headway Pre-Intermediate with a multi-lingual group in London and one particular day, I had the slightly dubious pleasure of teaching a text called Supervolcano – about the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming: a perfect example of the kind of factual ‘global knowledge’ texts that dominate many books nowadays and that seemingly have little point of entry for students. Whilst the book does have personalized questions leading into the text – what famous volcanoes are there in the world? How many can you name? Are they active or extinct? What do you know about them? – and out of the text – Where do you think there might be other eruptions in the future? If an eruption did happen, what do you think you could do to try and survive? – there’s nothing that relates to students’ locale.

Simply asking students what they would tell foreigners about the most famous natural features of their own countries, any extreme weathers they have to deal with and any natural disasters that have affected their hometowns or countries serves as a far more meaningful lead-in and makes students more willing to then engage with a text about somewhere that may very well be outside their realms of experience. Of course, whilst students are chatting, you can wander round, monitoring, picking up on problem areas and using their ideas as a source of board-based input during your round-up stage, thus once again helping them to word their own worlds.

These small but significant localizing twists can be added in to classes time and time again – and all help the local bilingual teacher to bring the coursebook closer to the worlds of their students AND the worlds of the students closer to being realised through English.

In praise of non-native speaker teachers part three: modelling

It’s a wet and windy Monday night – in June (!!) – and I’m sick to the back teeth of the ridiculous Jubilee nonsense that’s all over the TV, so now seems as good a time as any to pen my third eulogy in praise of the potential powers of non-native speaker teachers. As with the two earlier posts in this little series, what I’m trying to do here to lay out ways in which non-natives working in monolingual situations, teaching students with whom they share an L1, can outshine native speakers, especially those who do NOT share the same first language as their students and / or who have only recently arrived in the country they are teaching in.

I wrote in my last post about ways in which non-natives are perhaps best able to explain and get students to practise using new lexis by rooting it firmly in local contexts and today I’d like to suggest an extension of sorts of this idea: another way NNSTs can root the language more firmly in local contexts is through modeling. Now, modeling is often described and discussed as involving simply saying target sentences – especially grammatical ones – during PPP-based presentation stages, so that students can ‘copy’ the model and repeat, supposedly with better pronunciation that before. In this sense of the word, the non-native teacher is particularly disadvantaged – or at least made conscious of any insecurities they may have – as their sole role here is to model pronunciation of a structure – weak forms, elision, assimilation and all – and to then get students to repeat what they hear.

When I talk about modeling here, I mean something rather different – taking your own turn at a speaking task before students are asked to. This might mean, for instance, that before students discuss some personalized questions about lexis just taught, the teacher could ask the class to choose one or two questions to ask them – or it could simply be the teacher explaining a speaking task of some other kind and beginning by saying “OK. For example, for me . . . ”

Now, modeling is a good thing for a number of reasons: it helps to make clear to students what you want them to do; if well graded, it exposes them to useful lexis and grammar that may both help consolidate what they have learned already and that also suggests what may be useful for the turn they themselves will shortly be making; and it also shows that you as a teacher are also a human being. These reasons alone should be sufficient reason to consistently model speaking tasks for students, but in addition to all of this, what we choose to say when we model can offer a key way of rooting the language of the classroom in a local setting, thus making it more real for students.

Let’s look at a classroom-based example here to clarify what I’m on about! A couple of terms back, I was using Cutting Edge Intermediate one day a week with a class I shared with two other teachers. One lesson, we started a unit called Life Stories, which began with a list of vocabulary like leave home, start work, retire, move house, settle down, etc. that students had to sort chronologically. Once they’d done this, there was a short speaking exercise asking them to find four things which they’d done already or were doing at the moment; four which they’d like to do one day; four they would NOT like to do and four they could do at any time in their lives – and to then compare answers with a partner. Without modeling on the part of the teacher, these kind of ‘compare your answers’ tasks can often fall flat and result in students doing just that – comparing answers – and little more!

I started by saying “OK. For example, for me . . . I went to university between 1988 and 1991. I did my degree IN English Literature At Goldsmiths College in New Cross, in south London. It’s part of the University of London. Believe it or not, I graduated with a first-class degree, but to be honest, once I’d got my degree, I didn’t really have much idea about what I wanted to do. I never went to university with a career plan in mind. I just did a degree that I found interesting. In fact, after I graduated, I started working – and my first job was making sandwiches in a factory in Plumstead, right out in Zone 5 in south-east London: I worked a twelve-hour day, doing really dull and monotonous work! The money was awful . . . and all the other people there made fun of me and called me The Professor!”

Obviously, on one level, this could be seen as simply personalizing the coursebook, and admittedly, there’s a fine line between personalizing and localizing – and in some ways it’s not a distinction that’s really worth exploring as both acts help to make the book more real to the students. However, for our purposes today, the aspect of the above that interests me is the fact that the task roots the impersonal language of the book in a geography that is familiar to the students – and if this is true for me, with my multi-lingual students in the UK, then imagine how much more true it is for a NNST with mono-lingual students, most of whom will be studying in their hometown. These kinds of stories send subliminal messages: English is not just for talking about Britain and the British; it can also be a way for us to tell each other – and thus to tell the world – about OUR realities and our lives.

In praise of non-native speaker teachers part Two: localising lexis

Here’s the second of what I’m hoping will be five short posts in praise of non-native speaker teachers. Following on from some of the comments on the first post I did here, I should make it clear that in a sense I’m talking about the IDEAL of a non-native speaker teacher here in many ways. What I’m interested in trying to capture is what I think NNSTs are capable of, what it is they can do in monolingual contexts that natives would find nigh-on impossible, and what best practice might involve in a predominantly L1-oriented situation.

Today I’d like to suggest that non-natives working in their own countries of origin teaching students they share a nationality with have a definite advantage when it comes to explaining and exemplifying new language as they will now far more about both the macro-culture of the country in which they work as a whole as well as about the many micro-cultural worlds their students reside in. This knowledge can – and should – be used to hang new language onto. Just as knowing about Japan helps me explain what right-wing means to a student from Nagasaki through reference to the ultra-right uyoku groups there and knowing about Hikikomori – Japanese kids who become bedroom recluses in their teens – helps me explain what a recluse means, so NNSTs can refer to local cultural phenomenon, characters, events, TV shows, musicians and trends to help their students find English more memorable. What this does is filter the classroom material – whether it be a local or global coursebook or some other kind of material brought into the class – through a local perspective, thus making the language more real to the learners and rooting it in realities closer to their own.

I’ll give you a more concrete example of how I have rooted my own classroom practice in my students’ shared reality of London to show you what I mean.

I was recently teaching an Advanced class and in the midst of a listening (from Innovations Advanced, as it happens) about tourism in Estonia was the sentence:

The food still leaves a bit to be desired – it tended to be quite stodgy and there wasn’t a huge amount of choice, but otherwise, I certainly had nothing to complain about.

Students asked about desired. I explained that if something leaves a bit to be desired, it’s a polite, mildly humorous way of saying it could be better, it’s not as good as you’d like it to be or as it should be. Given that we were in the middle of the worst and wettest April in living memory, I then added that the English weather leaves a bitor leaves somethingto be desired – a locally pertinent example!

The previous day we’d looked at the word bully, and two of my students had given me written homeworks to correct overnight, which I hadn’t yet given them back, so I then – in a mock dramatic way – explained that if I was a bit of a bully, I’d throw the essays back at the students saying Their writing left a lot to be desired – an example connected to the micro-culture of the class itself.

Once the explanations have been given, and the meanings have hopefully been grasped, the next way in which we can facilitate some kind of connection with the language is through our boardwork. I wrote up on the board the following examples:

The food there                                        a bit     

The weather here             leaves         something          to be desired.

Your writing                                          a lot

Once the explanation and the examples have been given, the way to encourage personalization is to ask students to think of other things that maybe leave a bit to be desired. For this group, multi-lingual students studying in England, I asked them to think of things about London / England and also things about their hometown / their own countries that fit the pattern above.  I gave the group a minute or two thinking time on their own and then asked them to compare and explain their ideas in small groups. As they talked, I walked around and picked up on things they were trying to say, but didn’t quite have the language to do so – and used this as further input.

After two or three minutes, I stopped the group and drew their attention to the board, where we had the following:

Public transport here leaves a lot to be desired. The trains are a……….! Half of them are falling to ………… . Plus, it’s a r…..-…..! The cheapest tube ……… is four pounds!

 The media back home leaves a bit to be desired. We like to pretend it’s free and ob…………., but we all know there’s still a lot of c………… and certain things are t………. / off-l……… .

 To elicit the missing words, I basically re-told the stories I had heard students telling, paraphrasing their words and explaining the words in the gaps as I did so.

You might be thinking that this all seems a bit long-winded and will result in a lot of boardwork and a lot of time spent waiting for students to write things down. Well, obviously this WILL be slightly more time-consuming than simply writing up to leave s/thg to be desired on the board, but I’d argue that it’s time well spent. The longer examples make the meaning clearer, they allow interaction with the class – and this means recycling of grammar and vocab comes built-in to each and every class – and crucially they mean that what students then go away with written in their notebooks becomes a kind of record of the way the class manage to negotiate the content of the coursebook. As such, these examples are hopefully more relevant – and thus potentially more memorable – to students than the language found in the coursebooks themselves.

This way of rooting vocabulary in the realities of the class and local cultures also makes it easier when students forget things. Should anyone in the class, on later encountering this piece of lexis again, have forgotten it and need to ask what it means, I can simply say “You remember what we were saying about London transport? Or about Aziz’s writing last week?” Job done.

Now, if I can do this using my students’ generally fairly shaky knowledge and understanding of London and the UK, how much more effectively might a non-native speaker teacher steeped in the world of their students be able to manage this in a non-English speaking country?






The Open English advert debacle: In praise of non-native speaker teachers Part One

Over the last couple of weeks, some of you may have encountered an advert by a relatively new online school based in Brazil called Open English. The advert became semi-viral among many in the ELT community thanks to facebook and Twitter and this sweeping sense of outrage seems to have its intended effect as it’s now been removed from YouTube and I couldn’t find a copy anywhere on the web. For those of you that didn’t manage to see the advert in its true horror, the dialogue runs like this:

These two want to speak English. One of them goes to a traditional school, the other one studies at OpenEnglish. One of them studies with the same textbook his mother studied with, the other one studies online with multimedia lessons. One has classes with Joana (a Brazilian teacher who’s shown to be dumpy and fairly unattractive – and is also, more fatally,  miming a chicken and generally epitomizing a total lack of cool whilst singing “the book is on the table”), the other one has classes with Jenny (who just happens to be a stereotypically ‘hot’ Californian blonde!), who ends the ad by turning seductively to the camera and asking “How about you? What is your choice?”

Quite rightly this ad caused a real stink in Brazil, with even the president of BrazTESOL penning a few critical words on the matter. All of this is well and good and shows the power of the Web at its best. What’s depressingly predictable, though, is the fact that this kind of trash not only still gets made and aired, but still (presumably) sells courses by tapping into age-old prejudices and myths. Whilst to any sane reader, this whole artificial dichotomy seems nonsensical, and we all know that a good teacher is a good teacher, regardless of where they happened to grow up or learn their English, it nevertheless remains a fact of life that there are unscrupulous folk out there making money out of these myths, and that there are also – sadly – both natives and non-natives that buy into such rubbish.

Whilst it’s easy to insist that good teaching is good teaching, I think that the reality is actually slightly more complex that this – and there that are, in fact, several important things that non-natives can do which native-speaker teachers find either impossible or else nigh-on! If we are to finally kill off these kinds of perpetuations of prejudices, then perhaps we need to be rather more appreciative of what it is that the non-native can offer students, and especially monolingual students they share the same L1 with (lest we forget, of course, this is the way the vast majority of EFL classes around the globe are delivered). What I intend to do over the next few posts here is to sing the praises of the non-native speaker teacher and to explore in slightly more depth exactly what these abilities might be.

Before I begin, though, I should make it clear that simply because non-natives CAN do these things, it obviously doesn’t mean that every non-native IS doing them. As such, my aims here are threefold: to highlight excellent practice that non-natives do – or else could – take advantage of; to heighten native speaker teachers’ awareness of these advantages and then to hopefully do my little bit towards ensuring no more NNSTs ever have to be as insulted again as I know they have been by the OpenEnglish advert!

As you all know, there remains in the ELT world a lot of prejudice against NNSTs. All too often, parental expectations lead to a demand for native speakers; this has a knock-on effect on school employment policies, which in turn affects the relative earning power of native and non-natives speaker teachers. Then there is the thorny issue of what qualifications are necessary before one can start teaching. I myself benefited from this mad disparity by flying off to Asia at the tender age of 23, armed only with a CTEFLA certificate following a 4-week course, but officially ready and able to earn many times more than my local counterparts, despite the fact most of them possessed both degrees and Master’s in English and English-language Teaching. In many countries I have visited, a system of semi-apartheid operates, whereby native speakers get the plum fluency and conversation classes, whilst NNSTs are relegated to bilingual grammar lessons. Fairly understandably, as a result of all this obvious bias, many NNSTs end up with an inferiority complex – and, sadly, many native-speakers end up with the opposite! This series of posts will hopefully start to redress this imbalance.

So here goes . . . the first great advantage that I believe non-natives have over their native colleagues is the fact that NNSTS are actually far better – and more realistic – aspirational models of English than natives could ever be! EFL students can possibly aspire to becoming their non-native teacher – a very fluent, articulate speaker of English as a foreign language, able to talk to a wide range of friends and colleagues – by no means just native-speakers, but also Greeks, Germans and so on. However, short of reincarnation, they can NEVER become me – or any other native speaker teacher! Even if I have learned the students’ L1, which does obviously help to set a good role model for them as language learners, it’s still not quite the same as vice versa. Non-native speaker status inevitably means that teachers have actually LEARNED English – as opposed to having just picked it up through fluke of birth. NNSTs also speak their own L1 and are thus far more aware than I could ever be of the kinds of problems – both lexical and grammatical – that students who share their own L1 will have while learning English. These pitfalls and problems are felt in the blood, in the bones.

Of course, a native who has lived in a particular country and who has learned the local language to a good level will also have a considerable degree of similar knowledge. Indeed, any teacher, native or non-native, who teaches students from particular language groups over a long enough period of time, and regardless of whether they speak any of these languages or not, starts to develop an understanding of what impact the various first languages have on users when they attempt to speak English. Only non-natives, though, feel it quite so deeply and can say they have been through the exact same experiences their students are going through in front of them. At their best, these teachers can intuitively feel why a false friend is sounding strange in English, or where the root of a particular repeated / fossilized grammar error may lie – and may well be able to frame this understanding (whether in English or in L1!) in such a way that helps learners grasp their errors most immediately.

Much of the advertising nonsense that exploits the supposed advantage of having a native-speaker teacher plays on the fear that somehow a non-native’s English is bound to be deficient in some way.There are so many flaws in this way of thinking that I don’t know where to begin: with the assumption that knowing loads of language and being able to use it has anything much to do with being able to explain and exemplify clearly? With the way this line of thought deliberately obscures the advantages discussed above? With the notion that what the native may know and that the non-native may not is actually of any use to any EFL student?

I speak English with most of my friends. I read a lot – and all of it in English. I probably know a whole raft of slang and idioms and obscure lexical items that most non-natives don’t. Well, all I can say about that is so what? If you sit and watch a desert with a camel walking across the horizon, from second to second, it’ll be the camel that attracts your attention, despite the fact that it is only maybe 5% of your actual field of vision. We naturally – and, possibly, for good evolutionary reasons – notice difference rather than similarity. As such, many non-native speaker teachers fixate on that which divides us – the 5% – rather than that which UNITES us – the 95%! Much of the 5% that’s specific in my own speech may well be very low frequency among NATIVE-speakers themselves and thus of little – if any – use to EFL students. Possibly, in fact, some of it may even be totally idiosyncratic to me! It takes many natives a while to realise that, and many of us – present company very much included – spent much of our early career thinking that any random idiomatic titbit that springs to mind must automatically be of utility and relevance because . . . well, because it’s somehow ‘real’! One crucial step for any native speaker to really becoming a fully-fledged teacher is to recognise this urge and modify and curtail it!

Finally, I think another fear connected to this whole area is a fairly deep-rooted concern that many NNSTs have: the fear of getting caught out! ‘What if the coursebook I’m using has phrases I’ve never seen before?’, ‘What if students ask me questions about an idiom that I’ve got no idea about?’, ‘What if I try to reformulate what my students are saying on the board and it’s wrong – by native-speaker standards?’

Well, hello?! Welcome to being a teacher! ALL native-speaker teachers find themselves on the spot with alarming regularity. We are all too often asked questions by students that we simply don’t know the answers to, and there is only sane response to this – confess and be done with it! Committing the following fixed phrases to memory has helped me through countless potentially embarrassing moments in the classroom. I recommend you try the same!

“I’m not sure, but I THINK this is how it’s used”

“I’ve never heard that in my life – so it can’t be very useful!”

Oh, and if you REALLY want good adverts for language schools, I would personally suggest that very few could top this banned Dutch one . . .

ELF – and other fairy tales!

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.

Or this?

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.