ESL and Me
From day one I have had one over arching belief about teaching language; communication is paramount. If a listener understands the idea/thought/point the speaker is attempting to convey, communication is successful. All other worries are secondary.
Reality is far from the ideal
Considering about 80% of English communication does not involve a native speaker it is vital we take into account the reality, not the ideal. That reality is that most L2 learners will never attain a fluent level of English, but they will still need English to communicate. Is poor pronunciation or structure fatal to communication? I do not believe it is, so long as those involved have strategies for understanding non-fluent output. It is a skill that must be acquired. It is a skill many native English speakers don’t possess. It is a skill completely overlooked within the ESL community. The ESL Learner Output Library is an attempt to remedy this oversight.
Primary Language Effects on Inter-language Production
A non-fluent Mandarin learner’s English response will be in their inter-language. Inter-language is the output produced by second language learners who are still learning the target language. Learner errors made during this phase are caused by several different processes. These include:
a. borrowing patterns from the mother tongue (L1)
b. extending patterns from the target language (L2)
c. Expressing meanings using the words and grammar from the L2 which are already known (Richards, 1992)*
In other words, a non-fluent Mandarin speaker generates language from a mixture of learned English and Mandarin structures. Because of this fact it is critical for educators and learners to:
1) understand how the structure of primary language affects the inter-language of an ESL learner
2) learn the skills necessary to decode inter-language.
One day I was speaking to a nearly fluent Korean friend of mine and she said something that perfectly demonstrates the need for L2 awareness and education. She said, “When I speak to Japanese people I can usually understand, they make similar mistakes. I have experience speaking with them, so I can understand them. When other foreign people speak to me, I don’t have any idea what they are [trying to say].”
As she clearly demonstrates, experience with learners from different L1 backgrounds is critical to increasing L2 speakers ability to communicate effectively.
Giving L2 learners a place to have that experience is vital and it is the inspiration for the creation of the ESL Learner Output Library.
The Effect of Culture on Production
Yet another deficiency in current ESL teaching models is the expectation learners conform to the cultural norms of English speaking countries. We must remember the wide spectrum of output within those countries.
If an American, Brit and Indian were all asked the same question, would they respond in the same way? Should a Mandarin speaker respond as an American or a Brit? These are the questions learners grapple with when learning English. Is that fair?
Cultural norms effect how speakers produce language. There should be no more an expectation on L2 learners to conform to our linguistic cultural norms as there is for an American to speak like a Brit. What L2 learners need is awareness of the idiosyncrasies of language output of people from different cultures.
The question thus becomes, how can we help our learners navigate the world’s Englishes so they can communicate effectively? The ESL Learner Output Library is one way to accomplish that task.
Helping Our Learners Through Moderation
By introducing foreign L2 output into our classrooms we place our students on the path to awareness and understanding. In doing so we become moderators, helping students navigate the cultural contexts that lie behind the generation of inter-language output. Not only does this help learners acquire the necessary skills to understand someone’s communication, it’s also humanizing.
There is no limit of uses for L2 output in the classroom. The forum here at the ESL Learner Output Library is meant to be a place to share those ideas. The library has been built with the intention to:
1) help better prepare ESL learners for real communication
2) build awareness of the differences in world Englishes
3) start learners on the path to understanding; linguistic, cultural, and otherwise.
The ESL Learner Output Library is a center for conversation. Let your voice be heard. Give your learners the audience they deserve. Help build a community that will have a fantastically positive impact on the learning of ESL students worldwide. Join today at esllol.org!
*From Richards, Jack C et al. 1992. Dictionary of Language Teaching & Applied Linguistics. Second Edition. Essex: Longman Group UK Limited. p.186
From ESLLOL co-founder Alex Walsh