September 2001 — Volume 5, Number 2
* * * TESL-EJ Forum * * *
Varieties of English: Definition and Instruction
Karen Stanley, editor
To an increasingly greater degree, people in general and teachers and linguists in particular are looking at the question of World Englishes. Even within the general term “World Englishes” we need to consider not only first language varieties but, among others, institutionalized non-native varieties in multilingual/multicultural environments as well as the types of Englishes that have developed for specialized communication within expert communities around the world.
A number of different issues have arisen surrounding the use of so many different varieties of English internationally. People have researched the roles of English, attitudes towards varieties of English, the use of English for traversing various cultural and social barriers, and the conflict between speakers’ perception of an idealized English and the reality of its use.
In this article, posts to the TESL-L email list for ESL/EFL classroom pedagogy have been selected from the two-year period between February of 1999 and February of 2001. While the definition of varieties, dialects, and standard forms of English cannot truly be separated from notions of classroom instruction of English, the article nonetheless attempts to present an overview divided into two parts. The first section is a collection of posts whose main focus is definition. The second section is composed of posts whose primary focus is instruction.
These posts are not, therefore, presented in chronological order. To avoid confusion and any possible mention of a poster’s name or previous post without permission, I have removed the names of posters or the specific content of any posts for which permission has not been given.
Please feel welcome to exchange ideas with the editor or with the poster of any given message. [-1-]
John Shannon, American University of Sharjah, Sharjah, UAE
Defining language and dialect is no easy task. Mutual intelligibility works in most instances, but there are too many exceptions to the rule for it to be relied upon. For example, in China there are mutually unintelligible varieties that are referred to as dialects of a single language by the Chinese. Colloquial Moroccan Arabic and colloquial Iraqi Arabic are different on all linguistic levels, yet they are considered dialects of a single language. Conversely, Urdu and Hindi are separate languages, yet they are mutually intelligible to their speakers. The language varieties of certain communities along the German/Dutch border are mutually intelligible, yet on the German side the people speak a dialect of German and on the Dutch side they speak a dialect of Dutch. The same can be said for other languages, such as Serbian and Croatian, Bokmal and Nynorsk (Norway), Papago and Pima (United States and northern Mexico) and Fanti and Twi (West Africa), among others.
Even in the English speaking world, this phenomenon exists. During my travels in the British Isles I came across people, especially in Scotland and Ireland, whom I could not understand at first, even though they were speaking English. Initially, their “dialect” was not intelligible to me. Nevertheless, they were speaking the same language as I was.
An important, perhaps overriding, factor in determining dialect versus language is the society in which the variety is spoken. The speakers (or governments or both) determine the choice of terminology, not linguists.
Pablo Toledo, AACI, Buenos Aires, Argentina
There is a gray area as to the definition of “standard English” and the role it would have. I am not a linguist, yet I would like to explain what I understand by “standard English” and why I think the concept is relevant to TESL/TEFL.
First of all, it is not necessarily RP, BBC English or “The Queen’s English”. Oxford English is as local as Kingston Town English (OK, maybe a little less). By standardised English I mean a language that will cause no local/regional associations, and which is accepted and understood by all members of the speaking community. When foreign films are dubbed into Spanish for the South American market, the dialect chosen is one called “neutral Spanish”, in which the intonation, accent and vocabulary are a blend of most Latin American dialects. A foreigner learning Spanish would be on the safe side learning a similar form of Spanish: foreigners (Europeans) imitating a thick Madrid accent or a Mexican one (people from the US) are somehow grotesque. I do not know what such a standard/neutral form of English would sound like, but grammatically speaking the rules are easier to detect and follow.
Michael Novick Central Adult HS Los Angeles CA USA
Questions of preferred pronunciations have a lot of intersections of class, nationality and other social and political issues. When does a consistent set of pronunciations and structures and vocabulary become a dialect? When a separate language, as French is from Latin or Italian? I have a Haitian student currently, for example, who says that in her country, people speak two languages, French and Creole. What is a dialect? When does it become a language? My Mexican students almost uniformly consider Spanish a language, and the languages of various unassimilated indigenous groups to be ‘dialects’ — that is, something less than languages, even though they are utterly unrelated to Spanish, not dialects of Spanish. Will English, as a global and imperial language manifesting many Englishes, do what Latin did and evolve into separate languages? These are all questions in flux. To imagine that the evolution of language has ceased in our day is to be perhaps a bit arrogant. The Romans who imposed Latin on the ‘barbarians” (those whose speech was merely bar-bar-bar!) no doubt thought that Latin would remain the living and triumphant common language of the middle-earth, but it was not to be. People cling to language; and languages are reshaped and transformed by what their speakers attempt to swallow and digest. No arbiter of ‘linguistic correctness,’ not even the fabled French Academy, has ever been able to halt this process. [-2-]
To go back to pronunciation for a moment, Jimmy Carter, one-time president of the US, who had been a nuclear engineer in the US Navy prior to his political career, continues to say ‘nu-cu-lar’ instead of ‘nu-cle-ar.’ Is that a mark of illiteracy or economic deprivation on his part? Did he code switch and say ‘nu-cle-ar’ when he was aboard nuclear subs, or later, had his finger on the nuclear button, and ‘nu-cu-lar’ when he was amongst his fellow peanut farmers in Georgia? No. Was he thought less of by some people because he said ‘nu-cu-lar’? I suspect so.
Jack Kennedy, another former US president, used to say “Cu-ber” for Cuba and Hah-vahd for Harvard. Was he thought better of by some people because of that? I suspect so. Would I teach my students to say ‘pahk you-ah cah’ instead of park your car, or ‘nu-cu-lar’ instead of nuclear? No, in both cases. But I would teach them to notice the differences; I would teach them to understand the social and cultural differences pertaining thereto. I would teach them that the kind of correction of pronunciation that is necessary and desirable in a classroom is probably insulting and unwelcome in other contexts.
Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, Macau SAR, China
I agree . . . that trying to get students to sound like native speakers is impractical and unecessary in an EFL situation but I wonder where you draw the line. In Hong Kong and Macau the more usual pronunciation of ‘crowded’ is ‘crowd’ and this is also the most common written form, as in ‘the room was crowd’. If we accept this as a Hong Kong dialect then should we also accept the ‘keep close’ (keep closed) notices on fire doors. This loss of verb endings is a feature of Hong Kong spoken English and stems from Cantonese pronunciation and Cantonese use of tenses (or lack of use). Hong Kong spoken English also avoids contractions and rarely uses weak forms, making it that much harder to sound informal and friendly.
The question is whether this can be considered a recognised dialect of English or whether it is an interlanguage that has fossilised. The problem is compounded by the fact that a number of teachers in Hong Kong are using this fossilised form of the language (or a dialect, if you wish) to teach their subject matter. Their pronunciation is far from any of the most widely used varieties of English and there are also grammatical features that are non-standard.
I work with Chinese colleagues whose English is accented but does not have any of the features I have listed above. I think that this is because they have had a lot of contact with native speakers. If you take their English as a model for Hong Kong and Macau speakers of English then I’d say they speak English, not Chinglish as their English does not have enough distinctive differences for it to need a special name. If you take an average Hong Kong speaker of English and call their version of the language Chinglish then I would be wary of teaching towards it. In fact I and my Chinese colleagues would be unable to teach it.
It’s that incredibly difficult question of how many and which pronunciation differences from a standard English that you accept. [-3-]
Peter J Brancato USA
I would define a “dialect” as ANY variety of language which is shared by two or more people (one’s own personal language is an idiolect). The boundaries of dialects may be delineated by geographical, regional, social, temporal, generational, or other factors. Two dialects may differ from each other in grammar, pronunciation, lexicon, etc. Two varieties of language are considered dialects of ONE AND THE SAME language if they are mutually intelligible (not a cut and dry determination, but a general principle). If they are mutually unintelligible, they are dialects of two SEPARATE languages.
Since every shared variety of language is a dialect, so are Standard American English and Standard British English. Most non-linguistic use of the word “dialect” is reserved for non-standard varieties.
Although “Patwa” is used by Jamaicans to refer to their variety of Western Caribbean Creole English, I have rarely come across the word “patois” within a linguistic context. Perhaps someone else has more experience with its use. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the word as “1) a regional dialect, 2) illiterate or substandard speech, 3) the special jargon of a group”
I might point out that these definitions leave much to be desired. All “speech,” since it is spoken language, is non-literate. The word “jargon” itself refers to the special language of a group. The third definition is thus circular.
D. Anthony Tschetter-Breed, Chicago, IL, USA
It has been said that a language is a dialect with an Army and a Navy. It’s a cute expression, but it is largely true, politically speaking; it explains why Italian and Chinese have “dialects” whereas Swedish and Norwegian are separate languages. To promote national unity, all romance languages in Italy are called “dialects”, although Friuli and Sicilian are as different from each other as English and German.
Most linguists agree that the Chinese “dialects” are in fact separate languages, same writing system notwithstanding.
Some linguists have said that all the Scandinavian languages are really just dialects of the same language.
Some have said the Brazilian Portuguese, Continental Portuguese, Galician, Castilian Spanish, Asturian Spanish, and Leonese Spanish should, or at least could, be considered to be dialects of the same language. [-4-]
There is no simple answer.
As far as American English goes, I’ve read that there are four major dialects: Northeastern (New England, much of NY, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania), Southern (the South), Central (geographically, the rest of the US), and BAE (Black American English, or Ebonics). A friend of mine considers only two: BAE and (more or less) Standard. Why? Because he feels the three regional “dialects” are too similar to each other — compared to, for example, the German dialects.
Technically speaking, New York City English would probably be a regionalect, not a dialect. However, in everyday use, a lot of people might just say dialect (though I don’t believe I would myself).
Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, Macau SAR, China
I feel that Malaysian English is a dialect of English and its use depends on the task or situation, just like any other “non-standard” dialect. If you want to communicate with non-Malaysian speakers of English you need to be able to drop the dialect, just like Glaswegians and Tees-siders have to in Britain. Students need to be aware of the two varieties of English and their differences, though I’m simplifying a little as there are many more than two varieties in use in Malaysia and the English spoken and written is across a continuum; there is not a sharp divide with a chasm between.
I think that having a Malaysian dialect of English should be a source of pride. It makes English a real language, owned by Malaysians and not a foreign language learned in schools.
Elizabeth Ferguson, U. of Urbino, Italy
Here’s another problem: quibbling about what is correct usage between American, British, Australian, etc. teachers. Very often we are ourselves unaware of different usage by other categories of native speakers. A case in point: I have been correcting scientific writing for over 10 years, and my corrections/the style used are generally accepted either without comment or praised by editors and referees . . . Strangely enough, though, I have seen very critical comments on the style/usage I suggested come back from Australian referees, who found the “standard” forms I suggested incorrect. Several times I have seen suggestions for changes written on manuscripts that left me speechless . . . The forms were not “standard” international usage to my mind, and yet I am sure that my version truly sounded incorrect to the Australian reviewers. Luckily, scientific writers can refer to style manuals and thus can generally identify what is “suitable” for a certain field of study and/or journal. Admittedly, these scientists involved in peer review for scholarly journals are not linguists, but I think I’ve illustrated my point.
I, too, have been guilty of this sort of ethnocentrism: I have at times corrected my students only to later find that the forms they were using are acceptable in the UK or Australia, South Africa, etc. An opposite example: a British colleague once told my students that “to MAKE a decision” is incorrect, and that one TAKES a decision. Of course, the British TAKE decisions, while we Americans MAKE them.
Our poor students have enough trouble learning even just one “translation” — how many of these differences NEED to be taught? And then, we add regional usages . . . Should non-native teachers teach the form recognized as “most correct” on their continent , or in their hemisphere!!? Should several forms be taught? Just what is “international” English? [-5-]
Paul Roberts, University of Hertfordshire, UK
I notice that quite a few [non-native speakers] ask their native-speaker colleagues to check the correctness, colloquiality, appropriateness, etc. of a piece of language.
As a native speaker myself, I would be happy to oblige if I didn’t have the feeling that we may not always be the best informants. Alongside native speaker varieties of English (whose advice do you want, an American, Indian, Australian, Maltese, etc native speaker’s?), there has grown up an International English which seems different from native speaker varieties, if only that it is certainly simpler, less idiomatic and expressive of international business (or sometimes academic) culture.
For those colleagues in the US or UK teaching, say, incoming students who will go on to reside in those countries for some considerable time, it makes sense to teach a native speaker version. For the rest of us, this is not necessarily so useful.
When the time comes, I would like to ask those confident, fluent non-native speakers for advice on areas of a language which I do not own and which is sufficiently distant from the language I was brought up speaking for me to seek occasional help with how it works.
* When contacted later for permission to quote his post, Paul Roberts gave permission, but stated that he no longer believed that there was an International English of the type he describes in this post. As the editor, I have included the concept because it contributes to the overall discussion and adds a perspective.
Bob Yates, Central Missouri State University, USA
I have become interested in the claim by Paul Roberts about International English:
Alongside native speaker varieties of English (whose advice do you want, an American, Indian, Australian, Maltese, etc native speaker’s?), there has grown up an International English which seems different from native speaker varieties, if only that it is certainly simpler, less idiomatic and expressive of international business (or sometimes academic) culture.
If true, this claim has very important implications for the teaching of English. What does “simpler,” “less idiomatic,” “expressive of international business” mean? Where would one find such texts?
As a speaker of American English, I know of some differences between Standard American English and Standard British English, but I just don’t know about this new kind of English. [-6-]
Martin Eayrs, Freelance Consultant, Buenos Aires, Argentina
It might be useful to consider the language/dialect contrast in terms of a continuum. Let me try to explain what I mean, using the UK as an example.
It is not always easy for a Cornish fisherman (SW extreme) to understand a Northumberland miner (NE corner of England) even though they both speak English (I shall ignore the variety known as Geordie for the purpose of this exercise). But let us imagine a line drawn on the map between these two points and an imaginary walk along it.
As the Cornishman walks north-east he will slowly realise that the way the people he meets speak changes and by the time he is half way there may have a bit of difficulty. But the point I want to make is that all along the route there is mutual intelligibility between neighbours on the route – the lack of communication occurs between people at the opposite ends of the spectrum.
I remember being in Atlanta, Georgia once, trying to order breakfast in a Greyhound bus terminal. My sleepy British and the restaurant staff’s American were too far away from each other for us to understand yet we were both speaking English. We were too far apart on the continuum.
English and French are different because they have separate continuums (continua ?).
London British and Atlantan American are dialects of the same language because you can trace a ‘journey’ between them in which ‘neighbours’ will always have mutual intelligibility. There may be slight differences of vocabulary, minor structural changes and light differences in pronunciation but ‘neighbours’ have minimal problems, if any, in communicating.
I hope this idea makes some sort of sense and may be of use – I would be interested in feedback as to how far the analogy holds.
Melinda Gleeson, Australia
Perhaps we should ponder what will happen to different varieties of English in the future. Will they merge and become one as American culture dominates the TV and film industries in many countries, or will varieties of the one language eventually become different languages as they have in the past? Will our view on this question colour our ideas of what we should be teaching our students now?
John Harbord, Language Teaching Centre, Central European University, Hungary
[A listmember] asks for teachers’ opinions on the teaching of various varieties of English and how this reflects on the teacher’s feeling about their own variety.
One would be foolish not to agree . . . that students will benefit from an exposure to a wide range of accents. Any unfamiliar variety of English is more likely to cause confusion than one students have heard before. We would also like to hope that we are teaching students a skill that they may one day have to use, and we cannot predict that they will only encounter people who speak ‘the Queen’s English’, or whatever variety we may prefer. [-7-]
On the other hand, having been born and brought up in Norfolk, I cannot speak American, Australia, Scottish or even Cockney English, and for me to actively attempt to teach these varieities to my students would be folly. Similarly, I once had a teacher in my charge who spoke broad Glaswegian. There was no way I could have required him to speak or teach RP, and his students understood him perfectly well. Yet he and I both exposed our students to other varieties of English, and to the best of our abilities explained the principal differences. If I know that a particular word is used differently in British and American English, I mention this to the students. If I know that ‘luck’ and ‘look’ are pronounced the same in some dialects in the north of England, I may mention this when it comes up.
If I use tag questions, which I do, constantly, as my amused German partner often reminds me, then I need to draw students’ awareness to them. Now that I discover that [one contributor to another thread] does not use tag questions, I must inform my students accordingly. Who knows, one day they may meet him . . .
Helen Hanae, Japan
[A teacher in Malaysia] writes:
> 1. For assessment purposes, should I accept non-native norms
> like the use of ‘warded’ instead of hospitalised?
> 2. To what [extent] should I accept these norms in class?
I have a Malaysian friend who is a journalist. His written English is completely standard — yet he uses several nonstandard constructions in speech. Obviously he has learned two dialects of English.
I would be inclined to flag dialect uses as such, without censure, otherwise your students may never know that their usage may not be understood outside Malaysia. You might like to spend a lesson talking about the culture of Malaysian English, and discuss books, movies, etc. which use that medium partly or wholly, and mention other international dialects of English and show what a special aspect of English they are.
However, I think you should teach and expect standard English (as far as such a thing exists) — it’s a useful skill, and where will your students learn it, if not from you?
Farid Baradja, Institute of Teacher Training and Education (IKIP), Malang, Indonesia
Several weeks ago one poster advocated the use of Chinese English or Indonesian English, etc. provided our students’ English is comprehensible to other speakers of English.
When I was in Singapore several years ago I overheard the following conversation (a prospective buyer was talking to a peddler):
Buyer : How much?
Seller: Twenty dollar-lah.
Buyer : Too expensive. Fifteen-lah. Can?
Seller: Can, can, can! (Yes, you may take it for fifteen dollars.)
Are we going to teach this variety of English to our high school students in Indonesia? [-8-]
We must be crazy if we choose this variety of English! We have to aim at one type of Standard English: British or American. I prefer American English, because this is the variety that I know best and feel at home (I was educated in the United States of America). I do not pretend to be able to speak American English like the native Americans, but I do my best to approximate as closely as possible to the English as it is used in the U.S.A. (General American English). This is my objective, but whether I like it or not my students will be speaking American English with an Indonesian accent (this is the PRODUCT!) If I’m successful, my students’ English will be understood by other speakers of English.
Everybody speaks with an accent, including the native speakers. The Chinese speak English with chop suey flavor, the Indians with curry flavor, the Indonesians with fried rice flavor, etc.
Why do I start with standard English?
I sincerely believe (backed by experience) that it would be easier to jump to other varieties from the standard language than the other way around. I had no problem to understand Jim’s English when I was reading Huckleberry Finn, I was able to understand the English as it was used by African Americans in Detroit and downtown Los Angeles, . . . (with a little adjustment, of course).
The term Chinese English, Indian English, Indonesian English, etc. is really misleading. We have to be careful in our choice of terminology.
Anthea Tillyer, City University of New York (USA)
“Dialect” is a loaded term. If students are paying to learn English, they are not paying to learn dialect. Conversely, if students are paying to learn dialect, they want to learn dialect and not standard English grammar. I have yet to meet a student who asked to learn non-standard forms . . . .but I have had literally hundreds of students who wanted to get rid of their non-standard forms (their “dialects”). The fact is that most dialects ARE considered substandard speech when it comes to the marketplace of jobs and so forth. It is simply a fact, not a teacher’s value judgement.
What learners need to be aware of in their quest to attain “native-like” grammar correctness is that there are many styles of “native” English, and some are more desirable than others if you are paying to learn English and would like to be considered for high-level positions. The fact is that not all “native” English speakers speak what is generally accepted as “good” English. That’s not a reflection on their value as human beings, but it is a reflection on their value as role models to people who want to learn English.
It is true that . . . some dialects are more acceptable than others and that well-educated English speakers will frequently use incorrect grammar in jest, but that doesn’t mean that learners want to imitate either dialects or poor grammar, even in jest. [-9-]
Meng Huat, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia
[A]s teachers of ESL or EFL, we should try our best to approximate as closely as possible to either (the so-called ‘Standard’) British English or American English, or even Australian English. After all, these three varieties of English are most comprehensible to speakers of English. Furthermore, we are the model of English speaker to our students. The way we speak will definitely influence our students’ attitudes towards us. And I would like to share this little experience of mine with all of you. When I started a private tuition class last year in Malaysia, many students quit attending other English tuition classes and flocked to my class. The reason (I found out this year as I was told by my students) was that the English teachers of other classes speak with thicker Malaysian accent than mine. It therefore lends support to my belief that ESL or EFL teachers who try their best to speak ‘standard’ English will have some positive effects on their students’ attitudes towards them and this in turn will enhance the students’ learning process.
I think it really has some implications to TESL. Ellis (1985: 103) also points out that attitudes to the teacher are one of the factors that determines successful language acquisition/learning (in this case). Perhaps a research should be carried out to investigate learners’ attitudes towards English teachers of different accents and what it has to do with successful language learning. Maybe there have been some. If there are really some, I hope the researchers can and will kindly post them to this list and I strongly believe that research like this will contribute a lot to the field of TESL.
As whether or not to teach [a] type of English . . . [such as Chinese English], in my humble opinion, we should not. But I think we should make our students realise that there is the existence of such a variety of English. Of course, we should not tell our students that that is non-standard English. It just differs. Most importantly, we should tell them that for maximum comprehension, we should speak the type of English that is comprehensible to most speakers of English, as mentioned by earlier posters.
So, it’s just a little thought of mine to be shared. I sincerely welcome some feedback from the respected and knowledgeable members here to further discuss this issue. As always, your thoughts definitely inspire me. [-10-]
Meng Huat wrote:
[A]s teachers of ESL or EFL, we should try our best to approximate as closely as possible to either (the so-called ‘Standard’) British English or American English, or even Australian English. After all, these three varieties of English are most comprehensible to speakers of English.
I think this is true, but I also think that language learners past a certain age will always retain some of the phonology (and structure) of the L1 in their English. This gives rise to distinctive “international” Englishes; for example, the English of native Japanese speakers, even at very advanced levels, has some recognizable characteristics which differ from those of the English of native Russian speakers. Of course, the more closely pronunciation and usage approximate those of a native English speaker, the higher the “status” of the teacher in his/her students’ eyes, and the more useful the teacher as a model.
It’s a little trickier in cases where a non-standard form of English has evolved and become established in a culture. I think it’s safe to say that there are many non-native dialects of English that serve well in the context where they arose, but are problematic in other contexts. The English that is lingua franca in India, for example, might be difficult for European non-native English speakers to understand.
My feeling is that the best approach to “non-standard” English is to deal with it in terms of reception only, not production. I’ve found, for example, that teachers sometimes teach forms such as “gonna” and “wanna” indiscriminately in listening exercises, leading students to use them, inappropriately, in writing.
While it is essential for students to be able to understand non-standard language, standard language should be encouraged as a kind of “safety zone” which is not only more often understood, but also more often appropriate.
Andrew Barnette USA
[It’s] . . . a good point . . . that when we talk about “native-like” grammar we keep in mind that there is huge variety in the grammar that native speakers use. We also have to keep in mind that the distinction between native speakers’ “poor” grammar and “proper” grammar is an artifical one determined by class politics as well as sociolinguistic context. The instructor would do well to teach her or his particular dialect of choice while pointing out to learners, where appropriate, that other dialects have other means of expression that students may be able to make use of at some point. I’m from the northeastern U.S. but I’m currently teaching in the south. I regularly teach the double modal “might could” and the phrasal verb “fixin’ to” with no caveats about standard or non-standard usage except to say that they are regional forms. I’m still trying to figure out how to explain “liketa” though, as in “It was so cold, I liketa died.” [-11-]
DZ McCourt NYC, (home of a thousand+ English dialects) Hunter College, City University of New York
[One poster] says that “axed” should be taught, “though with the warning that this is dialectical”. But guess what? We all speak a dialect! Surprise! Yes, you white boys and girls who believe that you speak “real, proper, standard English” speak a dialect! There are several questions involved in this discussion. The most important one revolves around the notion expressed . . . that there is “proper” English and then there are these things called dialects that we should “warn” our students about. And what kind of warning should we give our students? Some “teachers” have implied that people who speak a dialect that includes words like “axed” are “uneducated, low-brow”. Those who have made such comments are simply expressing the old stereotypes — regional and racial — about intelligence and dialect. People in the northern part of America have stereotyped the dialect of those living in parts of the South to amuse their friends (the joke being that anyone speaking this dialect is dumb); and the stereotype runs, in a different version, the other way as well.
What should good teachers do? We should teach students that intelligence has nothing to do with dialect, that there are many, many dialects, and everyone who speaks English speaks one (or more) dialects. We should not be “warning” students about dialects!! If you do this you are simply perpetuating the old racial and regional stereotypes. (It has been sad and amusing to see people involved in teaching ESL in prison as leading the charge to impose one dialect on everyone! Reminds one of those Christian missionaries “helping” Native Americans become “good Americans” by forbidding them to speak their own language!) We should be showing students the amazing beauty, complexity, and creativity of the language! And, finally, all teachers in TESOL should stop to read a few basic linguistics texts, some books on the history of English . . . Many teachers seem to have allowed what they learned in grade school — “there is proper English, Billy!” — to fossilize their minds.
Anthea Tillyer City University of New York (USA)
. . . I strongly believe that most people who are learning English around the world are learning it to improve some aspect of their lives, often their financial situation. IN any event, I don’t believe anyone
learns a language in order to achieve a LOWER status in the target language community than they hold in their original language community. In fact, it seems to me that most adult learners, whether consciously or not, are seeking to raise their status in some way through their learning of this language, or at the very least to make themselves feel respected and comfortable. [-12-]
Which brings me to code-switching. Just because a particular characteristic of a speech community is common in that community doesn’t mean that everyone in that group has that characteristic or that they use it all the time, in all situations. For example, take the word “asked”. Many English speakers, when speaking fast in informal situations where it doesn’t much matter, will say “assed”. But those same speakers might very well code swich and pronounce every consonant in the word when they are in situations that require it.
Most native speakers will do that naturally. Similarly, many Black Americans will say “aksed” in their own speech community, but will code-switch in other situations. There are lots of other examples in all levels of all societies of people code-switching. The problem for learners of the second language is that they don’t know the code, so they can’t switch! I have to say that if I were learning a language and my teacher, out of some sense of misplaced “tolerance” taught me that a particular item of pronunciation was fine and later I found out that it marked me as uneducated or worse, I would be extremely frustrated and angry. I want to learn the language that will make me accepted in most of the places where I want to be accepted, linguistically, anyway. Moreover, I believe that most learners feel this way. In the case of “AKSED”, more than race such as African American (all the poor whites in the area I live in say it too), it indicates that you probably can’t or don’t read! While it is common, usual, in English to drop consonants (as in ASSED) it is extremely UNusual to transpose them. I really do think that pronouncing a word in a way that clearly transposes consonants marks one as uneducated.
I know that other varieties of English have other speech characteristics that mark a person as uneducated or sloppy when they speak. Most of them have nothing to do with race, and most of those characteristics are not what our students are paying to learn. I think that this is where movies come in. I often give my students a work sheet when we watch movies in class, and they have to enter some of the words they hear in the following columns:
STANDARD/FORMAL STANDARD/INFORMAL STREET
Before anyone picks on the minute detail of “street” as a point of discussion, let me just say that it works well in my classes here in New York and that the students all understand that it is used figuratively. Sometimes, I replace one of the columns or add a column “Bad language” and, yes, I play movies that have a lot of the stuff in it, sometimes. I think that we need to show our students varieties of English and to make sure that they know about code switching and situational decisions. After all, they code switch in their own languages, so why not in English?
Eachan H. Holloway ESL Chair Ojai Valley School Ojai, Ca U.S.A.
I agree that we should, as teachers, model if we can.. I also agree that we should inform students of the varieties of pronunciations. “Correct pronunciation” is always a debatable topic. For instance, I have had to “correct” many of my Asian students who learned to pronounce the word “like” as “rike,” or the word “river” as “liver.” In essence, they have learned to model themselves after a non-native teacher in their own countries. This is perhaps not news to anyone. In addition, many students come into my class with a prejudice against English that is not “American.” During my experience teaching in Korea, New Zealand, Australian, British, and even Canadian (!) English were thought of as inferior to American English by many of my students as well. And their main beef was that the pronunciation was “incorrect.” I spend (and spent) quite a bit of time attempting to disprove this fallacy. Therefore, a constraining term like “correct pronunciation” may not exist along certain lines. However, in the case of “l” and “r,” while there might exist acceptable variants, there also exists ones that would, if not “corrected” would serve to do a severe injustice to a learner who wishes to gain verbal fluency. [-13-]
Bill Snyder, MA TEFL Program, Bilkent University, Ankara, TURKEY
“Are these issues of different grammatical constructions from different English-speaking areas very important while teaching EFL?” is a good question and I’m sure many of us can speak to it. I’ll put in my two cents now.
I think [the question] is asking about the grammatical (and let’s add vocabulary) differences between the major standard varieties of English. For EFL purposes, usually British or American English is taught. And in most places, one of the two is the local preference. When I’ve been in places where British English is the preferred form, I haven’t had any problem in teaching it, as long as I made myself familiar with what I would be teaching ahead of time. (It’s not fun being surprised in the classroom by an unfamiliar word or structure, but all of us are always prepared, aren’t we?). Nor have I had a problem with students accepting that I spoke American English, I think in part because I accepted their preferences and tried to work with them, rather than changing them.
I think I’ve also gained a lot by working with teachers who have spoken different varieties of English. I haven’t come across any who have assumed the superiority of their variety (some of the students do that for us). Instead, I’ve generally found people who are curious about different varieties, can joke about the differences, and who have been a great resource when I haven’t known something about one or another (What is an ‘estate car’?).
It is good to check occasionally. I spent almost a year in Russia thinking that ‘home task’ was British; my British colleague spent the same amount of time thinking it was American. It was only when we finally talked about it that we discovered it was a loan translation from Russian that our students had created.
In short, I think familiarity with the different varieties of English is enriching and a valuable side-effect of my profession, but even where you aren’t familiar, being open to difference, willing to ask and learn, and flexible in what you can teach will get you by.
Karen Stanley, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
[A poster] asks what to tell students who have acquired one variety of English and are now in a circumstance which recognizes different vocabulary or grammar as “standard.”
While [the poster] was looking at New Zealand vs American standard varieties, I believe that this is a question that also arises in other circumstances. For example, I had a student one time have an American friend at work tell him that if he didn’t use “ain’t” people around him would think he was a snob, and would not to want to be friends with him. He (a Vietnamese working in a US factory, but aiming towards a college degree) came to ask me if “ain’t” weren’t “incorrect.” [-14-]
At a point like that, I usually spend time in class discussing the fact that many people label varieties of English “correct” or “incorrect”, and the students need to be aware of that. However, I go on to explain that another way of thinking about it is as “appropriate” or “inappropriate” in a particular environment. The factory worker story is particularly helpful in illustrating this idea — I point out that, in that situation, speaking very “academic” English will mark you as an outsider, as someone who might think himself “better” than the members of the group, and would therefore not be appropriate if your goal is to be accepted within that group. On the other hand, there is probably a lot of language used within the factory environment that, if included in a formal academic composition, would get a student a lot of red ink and a lower grade from a freshman composition instructor. In the environment of the academic classroom, you would therefore want to do your best to use the forms of language that the culture has labeled “correct” or “standard” or “academic.”
The hard task for any student of another language, of course, is to recognize which language fits which environment.
Bill Smith, Linguafife – Teaching English in Scotland
The basic question must be, “What is the purpose behind the wish to acquire a second language?” In the great majority of cases the answer will be based on a practical need, such as business, or living in the second-language country. In short, the need to communicate.
I have always believed that in teaching English to non-native speakers the principal aim should be the facilitation of communication, so that the learner can speak and write English which is readily understood by anyone who speaks and reads English, and so that the learner can hear and read English without misunderstanding.
In oral communication, accent is very rarely a barrier to understanding, and the presence of a “foreign accent” has its own charm. Pace, emphasis and intonation, of course, may detract from clear communication, and where they do these must be attended to. But we should not forget that in Britain there are countless accents and dialects, and as a Scot from the Central Lowlands I concede the widely-held opinion that the “clearest” English is spoken in the Inverness area, and I have been almost totally lost in conversation with a speaker of “broad” Aberdonian.
BBC/RP accents are themselves “accents”, usually acquired on top of a local one, but it is presumably this kind of accent that some students wish, for whatever reason, to acquire, just as many British (though considerably fewer than in the past) also wish to acquire for the social status they believe it confers.
As [one poster] implies, eradicating a “foreign” accent and implanting RP involves considerable – I would say unwarrantable – time and effort, and is at the expense of other areas of language development (such as vocabulary, idiom and usage) which are hugely more important if the fundamental purpose is ease and clarity of communication.
For the few students (we have never yet met one) who insist on acquiring flawless “English accents”, we should perhaps warn them that the goal is often unattainable, and then direct them to a Professor Higgins who sees this kind of linguistic engineering as his speciality, leaving us free to teach English as a second language. [-15-]
Ruth Goode, Teacher Trainer, San Francisco
All other considerations aside, I would say that teachers can only successfully model, and therefore successfully teach their students, the particular variety of English that he or she uses. At the same time, I think it is important that a teacher raise students’ awareness of other variants. This has been important for me as a British woman teaching in the US and would also be important in other contexts, the question being, to what degree. I would debate that improving students’ receptive and productive skills with varieties of English other than those they are frequently exposed to is not something to worry about until a fairly advanced stage.
Alison Schwetlick, kaufmaennische Berufsschule, Switzerland
[A poster] asked how to deal with students who wanted to know what was correct.
This is an understandable need. It is much easier to learn if there is only one correct answer. My students often arrive with their own experiences and expectations. I lose some students because of this, too, because they are unwilling or unable to accept the flexibility of language and give up. I think the important thing is to have a goal and to make sure that how you work towards that goal is transparent to the students. What kind of English is being taught and to what end? Does it meet the expectations of the majority of your students?
. . . Perhaps you could call on their superior knowledge of English and say that language is so complicated that, at first simple rules are taught, and then, as students gain more command over the language, that more varieties are taught . . . A teacher has to start with what is most immediately useful and fruitful and simple . . .
It might be a good idea to give your students a project to collect (tape, cut out, photocopy) as much English as possible from friends, neighbours, radio, TV, magazines etc and analyze what is actually being said . . .
(Mr) P. Ilangovan, Co-ordinator, EST Project (British Council), Coimbatore, India
. . . Maybe a NS teaching English to immigrants might not need to concentrate on different varieties of English, but teachers in other locales, espcially non-target countries, need to keep an open mind on the issue. A case in point is the sudden job opportunities for English-educated people in India. Several companies are now offering medical transcriptionists and legal transcription for English-fluent Indians. These companies get medical practitioners’ documentation, surgery, prescription needs fulfilled by such offshore work. Busy American surgeons and physicians send their dictated texts to such companies via the internet, and the trained medical transcriptionist has to take down the dictation without sacrificing accuracy. Thus it would appear that all of a sudden Indians are now encountering American English where before only the Queen’s English had prevailed. What David Nunan called teaching toward a target task can be said to have come to pass in India. I see a great need existing here to teach different Englishes . . . .
Karen Stanley, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
[A poster] asks what varieties of English listmembers might consider “acceptable”. An important factor to consider are the goals and purposes of the student(s). A couple of illustrations come to mind.
A friend and fellow ESL instructor stopped to visit a former student living in a small South Carolina town. The student, a Korean immigrant to the US, had left my friend’s class speaking with what many of us might label a relatively “standard” American accent. When she met him in South Carolina, however, he was speaking with a strong rural accent typical of that area of South Carolina. When asked what had happened, he explained that people often tend to trust those most like themselves. Since he knew he could never *look* like the South Carolinians around him, he decided to sound as much like them as possible. He felt that it had helped him integrate into the community.
About 20 years ago I read a sociolinguistic study of Hispanic teenagers in high schools near Washington, DC. These teenagers had been born in the US, but, in spite of constant exposure to “standard” American English, continued to speak a strongly Spanish-accented English. One finding of the study is that teenagers who began to use “standard” American English were often seen as thinking they were “better” than their peers, and consequently ostracized. Most of the students chose to sound “Spanish” rather than be socially isolated.
Speakers of strongly accented southern varieties of English at my community college take voice and diction because of the various effects a southern accent may have. I saw an interview with a man in this type of class. When asked why he wanted to alter his accent, he talked about a business call he had made to New York. The person at the NYC end *loved* his southern accent, and put him on the speaker phone so everyone could hear. The man realized that people were no longer listening to *what* he had to say, but *how* he said it.
Many of my African-American friends are bi-dialectal. They too realize that the ability to speak more than one variety of English gives them a much greater ability to choose the influence their language use has on those around them.
Of course, people’s goals and purposes change as their lives change, so students’ stated needs are not the only thing to be considered. It is probably a good idea to make sure that students have an opportunity to learn a widely used and widely accepted pronunciation system, no matter how liberal and accepting our own attitudes may be. However “acceptable” certain varieties of English are, if people using a pronunciation of that type experience difficulties in various environments, it is clear that exposure to other varieties would be useful.
Bill Snyder, MA TEFL Program, Bilkent University Ankara, TURKEY
The discussion of standard and non-standard use in teaching has been interesting. I fear, though, that once again certain issues are becoming confounded in the flow of posts and that others are not being considered. [-17-]
Two distinct issues have been raised – what to do with teachers whose pronunciation includes “non-standard” forms and what forms should be taught to learners. Others have pointed out that, in regard to the first issue, discrimination against these teachers would unfairly harm many fine teachers, especially non-native speakers . . . [T]here is no single ‘standard’ pronunciation and we should not attempt to set any such standard as a bar for measuring teachers.
As for the second issue, I agree . . . that we should help our students recognize and celebrate the diversity of language, at least in part because recognizing this diversity will help them as learners of the language in making judgements about it. At the same time we should recognize that our students’ levels of proficiency will impact their ability to handle this diversity. Considerations of time, limitations of the materials we have available, and of our own repertoires also effect what we can present.
You’ll notice that I spoke of students making judgements above. The fantasy of living in a world where no judgements are made about language (and thus, ‘non-standard’ is a bad word) is as dangerous as the fantasy of believing that there is a “culturally-neutral” variety of language. In the world I live in, people make judgements about other people based on their language, as well as other foolish things, unequal distributions of power are associated with particular linguistic varieties, and people report losing part of themselves when they are required to change varieties. It is unlikely that this will change in the near future.
What we can do, is help our students become autonomous learners and empower them to make decisions about the forms they want to use to express themselves, fully understanding what their choices mean. This last phrase is the most important part. One thing we should recognize is that our students are not automata; they are human beings and they make choices – about what language to learn, how well to learn it, what varieties of that language to learn. We should be giving them the tools to achieve what they want in and with the language we are teaching and an understanding of what their choices about language mean. In this regard, how any of us pronounces ‘ask’ means little. Our students will make their own choices.
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