Vol. 1. No. 2 F-2 August 1994
Return to Table of Contents Return to Main Page

Forum Discussion

The following excerpts are taken from a two-hour-long Forum discussion which took place on Internet Relay Chat (IRC) on Saturday, 9 July 1994, beginning at 10 a.m. GMT. The text has been edited for length, clarity, and typographical accuracy. Comments have been selected and grouped according to topic, however every effort has been made to preserve the speakers specific formulations and intended meanings.

The conversation focussed on four main areas: perceived adjustments made as a result of working in a non-anglophone environment, strategies used to maintain and enhance ones language and cultural identity, cross-cultural code-switching, and cognitive dissonances stemming from differing cultural styles and expectations.

Linguistic accommodation

Renner: Do you think that the sound of your English has changed since youve been living abroad, or that you articulate more carefully because of all the time you spend around foreigners?

Hadzima: I think my intonation of sentences tends toward question- rise final because I am never sure if others understand me.

Robb: In my case, I know that Ive tried to clean up some of the clear NJ-isms. For example, wont is pronounced /wu:nt/ and Ive got a /t/ in France like /frants/ if Im not careful.

Hadzima: I tend to simplify my vocabulary in lieu of articulating more carefully.

Hurst: I think I tend to be careful when I articulate, because my pupils are beginners, but I have them all four years, so I get up to high intermediate.

Sutherland: I think I spoke fairly clearly in public situations before I came to Germany, but I am certainly aware of making an effort to do so here.

Hadzima: Ditto.

Robb: One problem Ive had is that I (at one time) tended to speak clearly even when I returned. After a TESOL presentation one of the participants told me that they thought my slow pronunciation was cute! Once I learned that I was doing it, however, I think that Ive been able to adjust my tempo better.

Sutherland: Tom, Ive had people in the States tell me they didnt trust me because I seemed to spend too much time thinking about what I was saying.

Robb: Hmmm. I dont think that I have that problem yet! There was a phase though when I felt that I couldnt express myself very well. Everyone else seemed to speak much more eloquently.[-1-]

Hurst: Tom, I certainly have found EVERYone else to be much more eloquent, too.

Robb: When I return to the U.S., I find myself consciously listening to the English used by others.

Hadzima: I also pay close attention to the grammar and word choices others use, partially to see how they use language as a control over others. I remember noticing that an aunt would always use this instead of that as a way of making her seem more like an expert.

Sutherland: Thats the kind of delighted attentiveness I think Carol was talking about the other day.

Hurst: I tend to find, when I return to an English-speaking country, that I speak TOO fast, because Im so *relieved* to be THERE!

Hadzima: I think I speak slower when I return to the U.S. as I am so overcome with mother culture stimuli that my brain slows down.

Renner: What affects my English, I think, is having so many British colleagues.

Sutherland: Carol, you and I both use forms we would never have accepted as correct or standard at home... Ive got, or holiday when we mean AE vacation, for example.

Renner: Has anyone ever been taken for a foreigner when they went home for a visit?

Hadzima: No.

Sutherland: I have been taken for a British speaker (in the U.S.).

Hurst: No, but I have been taken for a Britisher in the U.S., and for an American in Great Britain! Although I think I sound like NEITHER!

Robb: One factor in the equation is how well the individual can adapt to the accent of the other speaker. I tend to get more British in pronunciation and usage when I talk to a Brit. Also use more British vocabulary, etc. The funny thing is that they do the same. *I* end up saying nappy and they say diaper!

Renner: Oh, I sometimes wish a few of my colleagues were as willing to use AE vocabulary as I am to use theirs.

Hadzima: Their unwillingness to use AE vocabulary. May be rooted in their culture?

Robb: I think that the milieu makes a difference. Here in Japan, I think both varieties have about equal status, although generally students want to learn the AE variety.

Hurst: Here in Geneva, I was refused for a recording session, because I had TOO American an accent. Even though my voice was trained.

Renner: When I first came here to Germany, BE was definitely preferred: more cultured, more pleasing to the ear, more dignified, etc. Now there has definitely been a change. About half our students now opt for AE, and half my native speaker colleagues are also Americans.[-2-]

Hurst: Has anyone ever encountered the raised eyebrow and the query Oh, is THAT how you say that?

Hadzima: I think my reactions to what others say in the U.S. can seem strange. I recall asking for information in LA airport and using almost a textbook dialog, and got the strangest reply.

Language maintenance

Sutherland: How often and for how long do you all get back to English-speaking territory?

Hadzima: I return to the U.S. about once a year for about 3 weeks.

Hurst: I return to an English-speaking country every year, for about 1 to three weeks at one go.

Sutherland: When I taught at the university, I was able to spend 6-8 weeks at home and that seemed to be enough.

Renner: About getting home... Funny, that I still call it home... I try to visit every couple years. My family is pretty large (five of us) so more frequent trips are difficult on the budget.

Hurst: I almost forgotwe spent one year in Oxford, during my husbands sabbatical, and that was a real boon, in particular for smoothing over the kids English.

Robb: One thing that definitely helped me recently was my 3-year stint on the TESOL Executive Board. There I could observe (and participate in) *real* discussion and get lots of *comprehensible input* :-)

Hadzima: Lilliam, do you find yourself using a wider variety of compensation strategies for vocabulary you forget when you are in an English-speaking environment?

Hurst: Ann-Marie, I dont find I have forgotten much vocabulary, because Im a terribly gabby person, plus I read voraciously, and I mean A LOT, so the vocabulary isnt a problem.

Robb: We have been talking a lot about accent and vocabulary, but the thing that bothers me the most is the idioms and cultural references that I dont understand. How do you all deal with this?

Hurst: Yes, Tom - that IS more of a problem. Someone in London told me that there had been a Sweeny Todd, and I could only look nonplussed!

Hadzima: I try to keep up with language changes by watching videos of Saturday Night Live and reading the scandal sheet The National Enquirer.

Hadzima: I think TESL-L and TESLK-12 have great potential as resources for understanding new idioms and cultural references.[-3-]

Hurst: I read Newsweek, Time, National Geographic, Scientific American, watch films in English, read (mainly) in English, and log-on addictively to TESL-*. And, lets be totally honest, here, I will also read trash - it does help!

Hadzima: I also read the Columbia Journalism Review, which challenges my critical reading skills as I am forced to figure out what the journalistic problem is they are discussing.

Renner: Generally, Tom, I dont think Im missing too much. We have a satellite dish so I can see a lot of Am and Br TV, and the rest I just put down to age. After a while you just cant keep up with the teeny language.

Sutherland: Is there anything to take the place of Johnny Carson?

Robb: I tend to watch a lot of TV when Im staying in a U.S. hotel, but here in Japan Im pretty isolated. No time to watch TV even if I COULD get talk programs...

Hurst: As regards teeny language, I have a contact (son of a school friend from way back when), and he keeps me up to date.

Robb: I guess I would have to say that I rely on Time and other magazines, too, to keep informed, but I dont really think that that is sufficient. Im at the point where I really think I need a years leave just to go back and soak up the culture

Renner: Tom, that is exactly why I did my faculty exchange. I had the desperate need to see what my other life might have been like, had I stayed in the U.S. and gone into teaching there. The funny thing is, it was almost a physical need. So in 1992 I did a faculty exchange with a professor from Iowa. I had never been to that state before, so I couldnt compare it with anything I had known before, but what surprised me most about the 6 months. I was there was that so little had changed.

Robb: What do you mean by so little had changedyour language?

Renner: By so little had changed I meant that I still felt completely functional. The supermarkets, the every-day life, all that was completely familiar. However, after saying that the feel, smell, and look of things all seemed so much the same, I also have to admit that some of my students (I was teaching American Civilization, too) perceived me as ANTI- AMERICAN. That was quite a blow.

Hurst: Tom, I agree with the years leave idea, but our Dept. of Ed. just did away with all leaves for teachers at my level, so, even though my husband had a leave, I couldnt go with him.

Robb: Theyve just made things easier here, but in most schools in Japan, there is no paid sabbatical system and even when there IS, it doesnt apply to the resident native speakers! (I mean expatriates by that.)

Hadzima: I think at national universities in Taiwan it is possible to have an unpaid leave.

Hurst: Carol, all my admiration. I feel like a worm. Youre braver than I am. I have several colleagues who have gone on exchanges, but I have a husband and two kids, and a house and [-4-] a dog, so moving to the U.S. or to England is not feasible on unpaid leave. My husband is a Classics Professor here in Geneva, so its difficult.

Renner: My exchange was hard on the family. My husband didnt want me to go, and he couldnt take a leave to come with me. I have 3 kids. I took my oldest ,18, and my youngest, 6, and they went to school in the university lab school. That was also so important to me.

Hadzima: How did you find your exchange?

Renner: A former colleague here had gone back to the States and taken a position in Iowa. He knew that I was interested, and he arranged it. I wanted my children to experience (physically, not just intellectually) the background I had grown up in.

Sutherland: What about the immediate language environments we live in when were not at work? What language do we live in?

Robb: In my case, mixed English and Japanese since my wife is a bilingual Japanese. Sometimes we switch mid-sentence which isnt good, probably.

Hadzima: I am primarily in an English environment, with healthy doses of Chinese.

Renner: Two of my children are reasonably bilingual. One had a speech development problem when he was little so I only spoke German to him. Of course, they all have English in school. At home we generally speak German or mix things.

Hurst: After our year in England, we decided to have a two-language home. I speak English to the kids MOST of the time, and their father speaks French. I felt TERRIBLE a lot of the time, though, because I insisted on the kids speaking to me only in English, including in urgent just-back-from-school situations...

Hadzima: Lilliam, such a wonderful communicative urgency that must create!

Hurst: Yes, but they complained loudly at the time, Ann-Marie!

Sutherland: Until they decide that Moms language (or Dads) is as real as the one they hear being used outside the home, they seem to resist?

Hurst: Yes, Janet, but then, recently my younger daughter thanked me for insisting.

Sutherland: That must have felt good!

Cross-cultural code-switching

Hadzima: I find when I return to the U.S. that the Chinese way to express something is sometimes much more convenient that the American English, but no one knows what Im saying. It takes a while to censor myself.

Sutherland: When we are in bilingual environments, we tend to [-5-] develop our own variant of the language that incorporates the best of both languages?

Hadzima: Jan, it does incorporate the best of both languages, in my mind at least.

Renner: During the years I have come to see the bicultural, bilingual life I lead a wonderfully enriching sort of schizophrenia, what about you?

Hurst: Carol, lets keep the wonderfully enriching and leave out the Schizophrenia, OK?

Robb: The problem is knowing when to turn it off. A colleague of mine sticks in a lot of Japanese hesitations when speaking English anoooo... ano... and isnt very good in turning it off.

Cross-cultural cognitive dissonances

Sutherland: Lots of the time here I feel as if my face has turned to stone from trying not to reveal my feelings.

Robb: Thats true here too, in Japan. The Japanese dont look other people directly in the eye, which Americans usually DO do. Im really not sure what it is.

Sutherland: Thats interestingGermans tend to use longer, more direct eye contact than Americans, and in the U.S. I am sometimes considered aggressive for that reason!

Hadzima: Ive often found myself laughing at something which would be OK in a Chinese situation, but should not be laughed at in an English situation.

Hadzima: I find it uncomfortable at times assuming the more authoritative stance that teachers are allowed in classrooms here.

Renner: Here my students see me as generally supportive and friendly in an American sort of way. Some of the students I had in Iowa found me overly critical and aggressive. It got me thinking that I had probably acquired some of the body language of the German classroom. Of course, in the German classroom students get a lot of negative response. They are pretty used to it. To them I imagine I am the soft, friendly American, but for the American students, I had obviously acquired just a bit too much of that critical response.

Sutherland: Absolutely! And my students at the Polytechnic get really confused at first because I tend to sit on desks and do other things that dont fit their image of what teachers are all about.

Robb: Japan has that thing about sitting on desks, too.

Hadzima: So does Taiwan!

Hadzima: Jan, do you think your unexpected behavior (of a teacher) influences whether students trust your expertise? [-6-]

Sutherland: Absolutely!

Renner: Yes, yes, yes. It means that at first we are not taken seriously.

Robb: I still do it, though...

Sutherland: Me, too! Im convinced that part of our value lies in accustoming our students to other behavioral norms.

Renner: The students who return from a semester or a year at a university in the U.S. or G.B. are almost never satisfied again with the teaching of their own professors here.


Return to Table of Contents Return to Top Return to Main Page
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.

Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work.