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April 11, 2011

A response to Kumiko Torikai's Asahi News interview

Kumiko Torikai's interview with the Asahi newspaper
regarding a 'new English education paradigm' has generated a fair bit of discussion. Today, I offer my two cents (Oops! Sorry for the American colloquialism!)...

Points of agreement...

Let's start with those places in which I agree with Prof. Torikai.

First, there is no doubt that native speakers of English, and in particular native speakers from so-called core countries, no longer represent the majority of English speakers. This is well-known by most practitioners in the EFL field. Most teachers, and certainly anybody with a more than passing interest in linguistics, should be well aware of the phenomenon.

Therefore, I also agree that models of English should not revolve solely around American locales in which Hyper-Anglo-Saxonesque Toms and Nancys are ordering hamburgers and going to high school proms. But, having said that, making generic American or British English your target English will never hurt you.

I further agree that this weakens the chauvinistic notion that American or U.K. English somehow represents the standard by which all other Englishes should aspire to (more on that later).

I agree that the English spoken by (many, not all) Filipinos, Kenyans, Singaporeans, Sri Lankans- in fact within any community where English is used as a preferred or default mode of communication- is perfectly legitimate as a variety of English.

I accept that local flavour will colour the local English variety and that this should not be discouraged or regarded as a type of malformed English.

I agree that many Japanese are more likely to encounter non-native English speakers or speakers from non-core English-speaking countries than they are generic Brits or Americans.

I agree that English pronunciation need not conform to Barack Obama or (shudder) Margaret Thatcher's styles in order to be acceptable or understandable. Japanese accented English is fine (and I don't mean katakana-ization). I accept that any locally-accented English is fine. Coming from multicultural Vancouver, it is easy to say this.

I agree that teaching American colloquialisms to students in Japan should be considered a peripheral teaching item at best- and only for students with definite plans to visit or live in the U.S.

I accept that one need not have perfect mastery of English to teach it effectively.

Strange attributions...

But then Professor Torikai's rhetoric starts to drift downhill. She says:
"Should they insist on forcing their own standard on the rest of the world, they would be seen as just a bossy, self-serving minority.... I'm sure they aren't happy about strange English gaining legitimacy..."

Whoa Nellie! I'd like to know where she gets this idea that Americans and Brits are 'forcing their standard on the rest of the world'. Now, I'm quite sure there are knuckle-dragging language purists out there in the Anglophone general populace who think that the Queen's English (whatever that is supposed to mean) represents the only pure standard or that all 'normal folks' should sound like Walter Cronkite. But among language policy makers, linguists, and language teachers (at least pretty much every one that I know) such chauvinistic viewpoints are as dead as Watney's Red Barrell (sorry- British cultural reference!).

And why the blanket statement: "I'm sure they are not pleased about..."? Please, Professor Torikai, don't 'assume' what I or 'we' core-country English speakers are supposed to think. Don't put words in our mouths and then use these alleged beliefs as your straw man. This is a bit like someone saying, "I'm sure the Japanese aren't happy about having foreigners in their neighbourhoods", as if the national consciousness is driving around in a collective black soundtruck.

Is this what we core country English speakers are supposed to think?

Frankly speaking, every gathering of core-country English teachers that I've ever been a part of has expressed a great deal of acceptance and respect towards non-core varieties of English. Why assume that core-English country people must be ethnocentric throwbacks, wringing our hands over the loss of our linguistic dominance? To be honest, I'm tiring of this swinging-at-thin-air salvo tossed out by too many non-core English academics, as if by virtue of being core-country English speakers, we must also be narrow-minded colonialist relics.

Moreover, if the point about the legitimacy of non-core English speakers is to be made, shouldn't it be targeted primarily not at the allegedly intolerant attitudes of native speakers but at those policy makers or managers in Japan (and in some other non-English countries)? I'm talking about those managers and emplyers who wrongly assume that American or British English represents the apex of correctness- and thus might eschew a Nigerian, a Hong Konger or even a Japanese-American as an English teacher job applicant?

Who exactly are Torikai's 'native speakers'???

Actually, Professor Torikai seems to be very confused on the issue of 'native speakers'. For example, she states: "English is no longer the language of Americans and British and other native speakers alone. There are 400 million people whose native tongue is English. But English is also the official language of countries such as India and Singapore...".

Come again? Is she implying that Indian and Singaporean English speakers are not native English speakers? Is she placing such people in the same linguistic category as the non-native speaking Japanese? Surely, Singaporeans and Indians would have something to say about that!

Furthermore, is she confusing the term 'native English speaker' with core country English speakers only? This infelicity is underscored moments later when she adds, "The age is long over when native speakers of English alone determine what is acceptable and what isn't.... I regret to say this to Americans and British, but English has ceased to be their private property." The conflation of 'native speakers' (widely defined as growing up with and continually using English of some sort within a community) with Brits and Americans would seem to imply that Prof. Torikai does not see Singaporean, Indian et al English speakers as native speakers (which certainly pulls the carpet of political correctness from under her own feet) - but in fact treats their English as if it were on par with non-native speakers, such as the Japanese. Hmmm.

Is there really a 'Japanese English'?

Ok, but what about the legitimacy of this non-native speaker English? This is where Torikai goes way off board. I'll say it straight- non-native English is invariably malformed English. Now read that closely. I did not say malformed British or American English but malformed also by the standards of Singaporean, Filipino, Pakistani, Jamaican, Samoan and Trinidadian varieties. If one is not a native speaker of any language, the language skill is likely (and this will differ according to individuals, not ethnic groups or nations) to be imperfect by any standard- by any community using English as a default means of communication, whether core English-speaking country or not. And whether you've worked hard to learn it or not makes no difference! Claiming legitimacy for your non-native idiosyncrasy simply because you haven't mastered a difficult discrete point of a second language is a cop-out by any standard, in any language.

Anyway, Japanese English is simply not a legitimate English variety! Why? There is no community of Japanese people (in Japan) where English is used as a default mode of communication. Of course, the way in which Japanese speakers render English as a second language will reflect their mother tongue and culture, but this is merely interlanguage, a stage of development, a matter of partial competency, not an indigenous or organic outgrowth from the populace. Likewise, when native English speakers speak Japanese it will reflect the norms of English (or another first language)- but this is a product of incompetence. I can't imagine anyone arguing that Gaijin-poi Nihongo should be seen as a legitimate variety of Japanese!

"This is how we say it in Japan!". Come again?

Thus, the scenario Torikai brings up in which an American speaker of English says, "We don't say that in America" to which the Japanese is invited to respond with, "But we do in Japan", is a false dilemma. If this hypothetical American responds to a piece of highly local English in, say, Pakistan, in the same way the Pakistani would be well within his or her rights to say "But we do here in Pakistan" because people there (not all, mind you) do use English as a normative means of communication.

But Japanese people don't speak English to each other in Japan- they speak... and hold on to your seats for a shock here... JAPANESE! With only very very rare exceptions, Japanese people in Japan use English to one another only when in EFL classrooms- which is of course an artificial, learning and development setting. When Japanese people use English in Japan they will inevitably be communicating with non-Japanese, and therefore importing bits of Japanese in English will have little or no communicative value.

Is teaching 'interlanguage' OK? Should we be teaching instrumental English?

Professor Torikai's argument also deals with the question as to how much English should be taught for communicative purposes versus the more academic, detailed approach. I find her response to this issue problematic too- as Torikai seems to argue in favour of teaching interlanguage, any amount sufficient to communicate. Now, please note that this is clearly no longer an issue of language variety legitimacy or any similar geopolitical issue but is rather a matter of teaching methodology. Nonetheless, Torikai seems to think that compulsory language learning in Japan should be basically instrumental. Should it?

Now, if you are a tourist or are using a language only for immediate, disposable, limited-expiry-date (read: instrumental) purposes, the answer to this question might well be 'yes.' But any integrated English course with a holistic focus, with any presumption about the intrinsic teaching of English, should not teach approximate English. (*Note that this is a very different pedagogical point from high-handedly demanding perfection in English minutiae as a grading standard on tests or in role-plays- where proximity should be rewarded).

'Approximate English' ok for evaluation; doubtful as curriculum

Now, it is true that even if articles (to use Torikai's example) are omitted or misplaced, we can sometimes still make ourselves understood in English. But it is also true that misplacing or omitting articles can change the intended meaning considerably.

Let's look at a parallel example from Japanese again: The particles 'wa' and 'ga' can be troublesome for non-Japanese native speakers, right? And, yes, sometimes even if you mangle or omit them, the meaning can be clear to any Japanese person. Would Torikai then say that English speaker's misusage of Japanese particles constitutes a legitimate local variety? And would non-Japanese speakers really feel happy about learning Japanese in which the importance in difference or usage is not taught. Would you be happy with 'approximate' Japanese being used as a model when you are hoping to master the language (and not just ordering takoyaki during a stopover at Kansai Airport)?

And of course none of this even begins to address the issue of written English, particularly of professional documents and other formalized modes of communication.

Why a legitimate English variety doesn't imply a 'World English'

Finally, something to think about when discussing varieties of English and applicability...

Most of you are probably familiar with Singlish- Singaporean English. Influenced by the local culture and non-English languages, Singlish is common parlance--- in Singapore. Yes, it is a fully legitimate member of the family of World Englishes. But it cannot and does not represent a legitimate World English (singular)! Why? Because, as any Singaporean will tell you, it has no currency outside that island. And this is why any Singaporean using English outside that country will switch to a more neutral form (and, no, not an explicitly British or American variety) in order to be understood.

Let me spell that out again for emphasis: being one of the world's English varieties does not mean that it is acceptable as, nor should it be conflated with, a 'World English'. Neither, for that matter, would be local varieties found in the U.S. or Britain. In other words, the notion of a viable World English is not connected to recognizing the legitimacy of one's own, or showing respect for another's, linguistic community, but is a matter of a language having communicative viability outside of one's immediate community.

If you feel that I have misrepresented Prof. Torikai's position in some way, please feel free to tell me so. And your own opinion too!

April 26, 2011

The F word on trial

Here's a news item that caught my attention
. It regards a British teacher in Australia who was fired for using the ‘f word’ as a topic during an ESL lesson but won the ensuing ‘unfair dismissal’ court case.

In my opinion, this teacher did everything right. Let me explain…

Students love slang

Most teachers know that students are unusually enthusiastic about learning ‘slang’, especially those words that carry weight that they’ve seen in movies. Some teachers have used this inordinate interest in the underbelly of the English language to bring the offending words into the classroom, giving a type of legitimacy to the normally uncouth. When done egregiously or gratuitously there is likely some juvenility in the teacher’s motive, that titillating pre-teen thrill of breaking socially-acceptable barriers. Webster, the teacher in this case, used it much more judiciously (although I thought that in Australia the word almost constituted a standard greeting!). To wit he:

- Used it only peripherally (20 minutes in a two-hour lesson), which is where slang, colloquialisms, and idioms belong
- Used it only upon request from his students
- Explained it only in his advanced class
- Offered some extended details about its actual social usage and function, including mis-use
- Wisely recognized that his students were overusing the term, quite possibly because they were copying what they had heard in movie scripts (where people resort to dramatic or shocking expressions far more than people in real life do)
-Told non-native speakers not to use it

Rough language- swinging and missing

The last point is crucial. Using rough or socially questionable language should be left to those with excellent control of the language. I don’t say this because I’m a prude (I’ve been in enough locker rooms and bars to inure myself to the force of the word) but because if you don’t use it perfectly, in the right time and place, with the right speed, intonation, and collocations you can put your foot in your mouth big time. It’s like, to draw an analogy with something I actually saw recently: taking a huge swing at a ball at a batting center, whiffing on the ball completely, and having your momentum be so strong that you actually fall down into the protective netting separating yourself from the ground. Which is longhand for saying you can look pretty stupid if you miss (I also recall a non-native English speaker vehemently telling a co-worker, “I do not receive that shit!” as another potent example).

Being out of your language league

Let me tie this in with something a little more extensive as far as English teaching goes. Verisimilitude. What I mean is this-
I’m sure you’ve had students who spent some time abroad, perhaps enough to tickle their Wernicke’s area but not enough to develop fluency. But… they still want to sound natural. Fair enough. So, they liberally pepper their speech with ubiquitous ‘gonnas’ and ‘wannas’ having learned that these reduced forms (suprasegmentals?) are commonplace (especially if you happen to be Bryan Adams). It stands out from the rest of their cautious, uncertain speech like a bongo player in a string quartet. As such, they come off sounding much more cavalier, even trashy, than they intend it to be. In other words, there is a time and a place for wannas and gonnas but it has to harmonize with their overall language skills in order to avoid them sounding like Forrest Gump addressing the graduating class of Cambridge University.

I’m willing to bet that many readers have had experiences in Japan where they used rough ‘n ready Japanese in a way that initially seemed appropriate (Hey, it even says ‘tomare!’ on the roads!) and yet were rewarded with looks of embarrassment (probably because you tried to sound like some Yakuza but you came off like a complete wuss- or English teacher- instead) or got the receiving end of that schoolmarmish ‘We do not use such language here!’ expression (where you’re not sure if the underlying violation was that foreigners are somehow supposed to sound extremely polite OR that you really went waaaay over the top) from your Japanese peers. The bottom line is when you’re not in complete control of the lingo you’re like a knife-thrower doing an exhibition after downing several pints with a bunch of Scottish football supporters.

Where do colloquialisms fit in?

Actually, I’m not a big fan of “teaching” colloquialisms at all (as I mentioned in my earlier reply to Kumiko Torikai). I don’t mind mentioning them or pointing them out when they appear in a wider context but, like Torikai, I see them as being too localized and narrow to be much more than filler in the Japanese education system.

Lest some readers take this as an endorsement of some formalized rigid version of English let me point out that I do support the pedagogical value of speech grammar- the non-canonical way in which all manner of native speakers arrange their spoken interactions, use ellipsis, employ pragmatics using environmental cues, engage in negotiation, backchanneling, repair and other dynamic strategies and other forms that distinguish the spoken from the written word. But novelty items, which I would classify colloquialisms as being, do not suit the agenda.

So there is a place for discussing the use of profanities in the classroom, if only to steer our students away from potentially putting their feet in their mouths or even getting a beatdown. This was Luke Webster was doing. As for Mercury College, who had employed Webster, well I'm sure he has a few choice words for them.

About April 2011

This page contains all entries posted to The Uni-Files in April 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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