Correction, your English is fine

Like my good friend Michael Griffin I am a man of many opinions.

One particularly strong opinion was nudged into being recently due to a number of separate discussions. First, with my co-teachers, about the abominable English exams they put upon their students. Second, between teaching friends of mine, discussing the correction of students. Third, discussions with my friend Alex Walsh about our upcoming presentation on the ESLLOL.

This opinion regards us, the “native” teachers, and how we “correct”. What is “correct” anyway.

Yesterday a co-teacher came up to me asking about a test question. It concerned a phrasal verb and she was wondering if there were any other contexts with which it could be used (other than the implied “correct” meaning). I, being my typical self, said sure, I could imagine all sorts of scenarios with which to use it. Are they normal scenarios, no. If I used it in conversation with a friend of mine would they understand, YES. And there in lies the problem.

Language is NOT a static element

It strikes me that many of my current teachers would correct students for using language that does not reflect “their” usage. But who’s usage should be permissible? British teachers teach their students maths, Americans math. Where does “y’all” come into the equation? Dizzle? dealio? English language learners are being inundated with popular culture that uses all sorts of “non-standard English”.

Obviously, we wouldn’t write these words in an academic paper, but how often are we communicating through academic papers?!?

How about this example, from a recent twitter discussion. “What does everyone think of this construction?…

A good teacher builds up their students knowledge.”

Everyone promptly responded by that it sounds OK, but not quite native. Responses?

A good teacher expands their students knowledge.

A good teacher increases their students knowledge.

A good teacher develops their students knowledge.

Everyone agreed, the first was OK, but a little off. Let’s call it a “non-native marker”. And everyone agreed that it was perfectly communicable and that there was no problem. AND everyone had their own spin on how they would say it.

However, the question was still asked. That question brought another question, “Have we been “in country” too long? Are we missing errors we should be correcting.” THAT is the crux of the matter.

When first arriving to a new country the local English has many interesting “non-native markers”. After awhile, we grow accustomed to them, and they merge into the milieu of language. That’s perfectly fine.

Not everyone wants to speak like a native

English is no longer “ours”. Collectively we recognize this, but I don’t believe it has sunk in yet. Until we get away from that paradigm we will never offer our students the insight we can as native teachers.

Our job is to be language informants. THAT is where we can shine and THAT is why foreign countries need us. We are the ones who know how the language is used now, we understand much of how it was used in the past, and we can interpret, fairly easily, all the new changes that occur through popular culture and the spread of our language at the present.

Now, please understand me in this, I understand that there are many occasions when a student will need to be taught academic English, business English, or the like and NEED to be informed as to semantic variations of words and the proper way to structure an argument.

My argument is that MOST of our communication does NOT lie in these domains, and it misleads our students to correct them when their language is communicable. What we need to be doing is informing them that certain language is appropriate for conversation with friends or family. If they go to a job interview there will be other demands. In addition, it is our job to show them how to improve the communicability of what they are saying.

Language is an art

No one would say Michelangelo is “more correct” than Picasso. Language is just as much an art, the only difference is that we MUST understand to have successful communication.

Every one of us has our own writing and speaking style. Those styles vary dependent on age, education, region, religion, history and culture.

I love English. I also love playing with English. I am constantly making up words to express myself. It is a way to be unique and playful. Language should be fun. When we take the tact that things are “right” or “wrong” we help to snuff the life out of creativity and fun.

English is a big tent

It spans the world and each and every country will have a different way of adopting it.

Our role as a “native” speaker is to aid our students to be understood in the arena they will be utilizing the language. For the majority of our students, that means communication with other non-natives. It does not mean communicating “as we would”.

Language is too fluid a medium and the world too big a venue for a one size fits all approach.

The brilliance of English is its adaptability  This is what has allowed it to become the medium of communication for the world. It is for this reason that it will continue in that role in the future.

The more people brought under the tent of English the more the language will adapt and morph.

Our job, as English informants, is to help our students acquire the skills to decode and interpret the language they will find in the world of the future.

This is the reason Alex Walsh and I have built the ESLLOL. It is the reason teachers around the world have begun to utilize the technology at our disposal to link classrooms and bring the English of the world to our students. It is only with this exposure, awareness, and experience that our students can be expected to succeed.

This is all a very long winded way of saying that language learning is a never ending process. I am still learning new terminology. I am still learning to decode and interpret non-natives from countries I have not been exposed to. Our students will never be “done” learning English.

I am not arguing for the end of education when a learner becomes communicable in English. I am arguing for the acknowledgement that they CAN communicate, and that they have a lifelong path ahead of them to continue to improve in doing so. I am arguing that we must inform them ABOUT English, not merely correct their “mistakes”.

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4 thoughts on “Correction, your English is fine

  1. Nice post. I like the term “language informants.” I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on correction, and there seems to be little consensus in academia on what the best way to go about correction is. On one side you have people saying that any correction is harmful, and on the other you have people saying that you correction is very helpful and students want it. Both sides claim that studies done by the other side are fundamentally flawed. My school required us to correct every single mistake that students made, and I think a lot of schools in Korea tend to take that approach (especially with written errors) “officially” though differ in enforcement.

    Honestly though, on a day-in-day-out level, I myself have been inconsistent with what error correction, and volunteering at an elementary school now, I see catch inconsistencies from teachers on error correction every day, no matter what their stance is. They respond to the needs of the student as they perceive them in the moment. Maybe that is the best we can hope to do as teachers.

    • Gordon!

      Great to hear from you. Thank you for your comment.

      and thanks for your honest appraisal of your teaching. I too struggle with the correction bug and am not as consistent as I would like.

      I’m not sure it’s the best we could hope for, and I think I missed the point in my own head whilst writing this. I hope you see my addendum that has followed it. I believe (at least upon first reading 🙂 to be more in line with what I was trying to produce with this post.

      Hope all is well,

      John

  2. I like what you have to say. And I like that you are out there saying it. You address really important questions that challenge me to think about the way I approach teaching.

    As Gordon said, error correction is a debate that goes on and on and on and might go on forever. There are good points on both sides.

    As you say, communication is paramount. Included in this is English-users’ (L1 or L2) expectations within the communication. I wonder if you have more to say about this. My specific question is, what are L2 English users’ expectations when communicating with other English speakers, regardless of L1, and vice versa?

    Another point for debate is learner needs. It is possible that /some/ students might need to use English in communication with either a L1 or L2 user in the future. But realistically speaking, right now they’re learning English to pass a test, get into a good high school/ university, and get a good job. How much of our responsibility towards them is to help them in that goal? Laying the future aside of the moment, that’s what they need right now. Or is it more important/ appropriate to ask them what they want?

    I love how you write that “language is not static”. The worry some of us long-termers express about having been here too long is glossed over in your post. Korean English incorporates itself into our lexicon, yes, but if we don’t spot it and make students aware that that isn’t how others use English (without judging ‘right’ or ‘wrong’), they may be at a disadvantage when speaking with people who have not lived in Korea for a decade and are “used to” the way Koreans use English. I think this is a case for, if not correction, awareness.

    I also agree that “not everyone wants to speak like a native”. But I think an important question to ask might be “What do our students want?” The native speaker level is often unattainable, but that doesn’t mean it is undesired. What we want for our students (no matter whether it’s more realistic, achievable (SMART, in fact ;)) might not be what their personal goals are. I would hate to set my standards for them too low!

    You argue very convincingly that “language is an art”. We spoke about this: I would argue that language is also a science. Art and science might not be so different – both have rules and expected outcomes. Both require interpretation.

    Finally, you say that “English is a big tent”. This is another thing we spoke about – is there something intrinsic to the English language specifically that caused it to be promoted to a world language? There have been international languages in the past and English is one of a long line (a few examples: Latin, Arabic, French). Do they all have that something in common? Or is it just luck of time/place/socio-politico-economic and cultural factors? The jury may still be out (but you can probably guess my personal opinion).

    I love a lot of what you wrote in this section. This quote in particular: “Language is too fluid a medium and the world too big a venue for a one size fits all approach.” YES! Absolutely YES and not just English, but all language in my opinion.

    And this: “Our job, as English informants, is to help our students acquire the skills to decode and interpret the language they will find in the world of the future.” I agree that it is indeed one of our jobs. I wonder, though, if at some level, we still need to provide students with the building blocks – the lexis, the structures, the situations – of English. I’m thinking of a couple things: 1) you have to know the rules before you can break them; 2) anything we teach will be a choice based on our own experiences and beliefs.

    That said, I admire your choice to bring world Englishes into your classroom and activate your students’ prior knowledge to interpret language production that is not similar to yours or anything they’ve heard before.

  3. Anne,

    As always your thoughts and comments are thorough and thought provoking. Thank you.

    In response I would say that I don’t believe the students (if younger) do not always want whats in their best interest. That’s not to belittle them, it’s just a recognition of the fact of youth.

    Your point on passing tests and getting into school and jobs is very pertinent. I believe with my new, addendum post, I might have answered some of these questions. I hope so. Please inform me, and Im sure you will, if I haven’t 🙂

    In regards to the English language and why it is preeminent at the moment, I honestly believe it is a fortuitous mixture of time, place, and history. That being said, I also believe the language to be highly adaptable and acceptable, which is actually the basis for the spread of some of the worlds main religions. The ability to adapt and morph is key to covering an area and a population as large as we have here on Earth. Will it stay the preeminent language, I am not one for forecasting, but at the moment it is here to stay.

    Thanks as always, and please keep the questions coming. These are issues that cut right the the heart of why I love being a teacher and the discussion of which gives me endless amounts of fulfillment.

    John

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