June 1997 — Volume 2, Number 4
Varieties of English
Susan M. Gass and Natalie Lefkowitz (1995)
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press
Pp. xvi + 120
ISBN 0-472-08292-2 (paper)
ISBN 0-472-08325-2 (paper)
Learning a second or foreign language not only implies studying grammatical aspects of the language, but also dealing with the culture of its speakers. A language cannot be taught without taking into account its sociocultural system: appropriateness of language, gestures, social distance, values, mores, taboos, habits, social institutions, registers, dialects, and so forth. For example, when teaching vocabulary, teachers have to decide what sociocultural factors are involved (Gairns & Redman, 1992, p. 59). The word stupid, for instance, may be semantically and culturally stronger in Spanish-speaking countries than in English-speaking ones. Furthermore, some words may convey different affective or connotative meanings in the target culture, e.g. “Anne is a single woman” differs completely from “Anne is a spinster.“
Gass and Lefkowitz’ textbook, Varieties of English, is a coursebook that aims to incorporate these social aspects of language into the teaching and learning of English. The goals of this textbook are a) to help high intermediate to advanced students use the language within the social context; b) to make students aware of how English speakers use their language in terms of style, register and dialect; and c) to encourage students to analyze their culture and the culture of English speakers in order to be able to cope with crosscultural misunderstandings. The authors hope to achieve these goals through classroom activities in which the content of study is the sociolinguistic nature of language itself. They claim that through these activities the four language skills can be exploited in all areas of language.
Varieties of English consists of seven chapters, each following the same format for the presentation of material: a) an “Opening Activity” section that focuses on raising students’ awareness of the topic; b) a section called “A Look Behind/A Look Ahead,” which reviews material dealt with in the previous chapter and gives students an overview of the contents of the current one; c) a “To the Student” section, in which content objectives are presented and students are given some responsibility for their own learning by being encouraged to check whether they accomplish these objectives; and d) a “Content Heading” section in which language [-1-] skills are practiced through activities based on topics related to the English language itself.
The first chapter, “The Context of Language Use,” deals with ways language is used depending on the relationship between speakers: different forms of address, greetings, and converstion closings, as well as conceptions and misconceptions about standard and nonstandard language. Classroom activities help students develop their reading abilities (finding definitions and understanding main ideas) and listening comprehension (intonation, stress and fast speech).
In chapter 2, Gass and Lefkowitz treat the concept of register, focusing on the styles of language that are used for different purposes, which vary according to dimensions such as setting, role of speakers, topic, mode (speaking or writing), and so forth. Students work on vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar as they are asked to understand register differences, and they also develop reading skills (predicting meaning from context, scanning, outlining, and finding synonyms).
Chapter 3 focuses on regional differences in English. Students are invited to work on origins of American place names, definitions of dialect and idiolect, and the two major dialects of English. At the same time, they are engaged in developing language skills (vocabulary about place names, prefixes, suffixes), and reading strategies (guessing meaning from context). They also study differences between British and American English in terms of spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
Chapter 4 concentrates on American English dialects: the description and location of the main dialects of American English, differences among these dialects, their origins, and how American English has been enriched by other languages and varieties. Students have the opportunity to work on language areas such as the pronunciation of sounds typical of American English, Latinate vocabulary, listening comprehension, and reading skills.
Language and sexism is covered in chapter 5. Students are expected to become aware of sexist language and to understand the difference between generic and sexist terminology, as well as title conventions (Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss). At the same time, they learn how to scan written texts and find topic sentences and supporting arguments. Vocabulary development is based on words referring to male and female. Students will thus be encouraged to avoid sexist use in oral and written English (e.g., using chairperson instead of chairman). One of the classroom activities I find interesting is the one in which students are presented with gender-specific words and have to create gender-neutral terms. [-2-]
Chapter 6 explores attitudes towards different social dialects. People have a tendency to judge others on the basis of their speech features, in both positive and negative ways. These attitudes are not only noticeable within the social varieties of a single language, but also among languages. In this chapter, Gass and Lefkowitz raise students’ awareness of the nature of attitudes toward speakers of other dialects or languages. Students also study common social varieties of American English through classroom activities such as differentiating between accents or writing thought-provoking introductions.
Chapter 7 deals with ways people play with language (secret codes, euphemisms, puns, riddles, tongue twisters, humor). Students are expected to describe language play elements that reflect culture and to compare them with their own. One of the activities encourages students to think about situations in which secret languages are used (e.g., on a date with a chaperon or at a funeral). Another element of culture exploited in this chapter is that of taboos and euphemisms, where students again compare the target culture with their own.
The main strength of Gass and Lefkowitz’ textbook is that it incorporates linguistic and sociolinguistic content into language learning. In Varieties of English, this content is based on the target language per se. With this approach, students work on three areas at the same time: second language acquisition or learning, content knowledge, and cognitive development. The approach appears to be successful in increasing motivation and in promoting effective language learning. I tried several activities from Varieties of English in a course called Introduction to Sociolinguistics and in an advanced English class (fifth-year university students). In both of these situations, students found the activities to be enjoyable and relevant to the subject matter.
The only weakness that I noticed has to do with authenticity and non-authenticity of some the texts used in Varieties of English. Authenticity to me means that nothing of the original text is changed; even its presentation and layout are retained. For example, a newspaper article should be presented as it first appeared, with the same typeface, the same space devoted to the headlines, and so forth. In addition, authentic materials are not originally intended for teaching purposes. Some teachers would argue that because students perceive authentic texts to be more difficult, their use may decrease motivation for learning. However, the difficulty of a reading exercise depends on the activity that students are required to do, not on the text itself. That is, teachers should grade exercises rather than texts.
Paradoxically, adapted texts may not only reduce interest and motivation but also increase difficulty for students, because they do not develop the reading strategies and skills required in real [-3-] life situations. Harmer (1991) says that most coursebooks use non-authentic materials so that students can concentrate on specific grammar items. He argues that such materials should not be used to try to help students become better readers or listeners, because non-authentic material will not necessarily do that. This does not mean that we as teachers should always provide students with authentic materials, but at least we should try, whenever possible, to use less artificial materials.
Although there are some authentic materials in this book, including cartoons and postcards, some of the texts in Varieties of English were adapted and simplified from literature in the field and seem to be controlled in terms of style, vocabulary, grammar, and non-linguistic features. For example, the use of the passive voice makes the passage about taboos and euphemisms seem controlled: “taboos are associated with,” “these acts are forbidden,” “concept is viewed,” “they are considered.” Moreover, in most of the written texts there are few unfamiliar words, which may hamper high intermediate to advanced students in the development of extensive vocabularies. For example, in the 280-word passage on page 60, an average high intermediate student would find only a few difficult words (settle down, intermingling, blending).
Despite this weak point, Varieties of English appears to be effective in the teaching of a second or foreign language. The topics covered in the book heighten students’ awareness of the social aspects of language; students thus become more interested in the syntactic, semantic, lexical, phonological, and pragmatic aspects of the language they are studying.
Gairns, R. and Redman, S. (1992). Working with Words. A Guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Harmer, J. (1991). The Practice of English Language Teaching. London: Longman.
University of Quintana Roo, Mexico.
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