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”.