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October 30, 2003

Learners Need 'Natives' to Guide not Dictate

David Hill

The vast majority of English spoken in the world today does not involve a native speaker as an interlocutor. Every communicative act among the users of English is an act of negotiation as to the future of the language. However, this state of affairs seems to have had a negligible influence on our teaching, at least so far.

Teachers of English cannot afford to ignore this development with the excuse that emerging "global English" is still unknown, and so unteachable. Global English is likely to present ELT with its greatest challenges in coming years, so I would like to share my proposals for how we respond in class now and in the future.

Error correction
It is a truism of the "communicative approach" that we should focus on successful communication, not on "failed" grammar. So, given that we are not, and cannot be, aware of the nature of the emerging English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), this rule is redoubled in force.

ELF is, by definition, a pidgin. It is a third language used as a communicative bridge between those who do not share a common first language. A common feature of pidgins is their simplification and regularisation of both lexis and grammar: the removal of meaningless inflection, for example.

So if your learners do not remember to insert the "s" in he/she/it simple present, so what? It is one of the last acquired language features even among "native speakers", and it carries no meaning. You may be well-advised to let such "errors" go, as they may be the norm in the very near future - a future in which "native-speaker" English will be seen as just a quaint, archaic dialect.

If publishers won't include texts, written or spoken, by "non-natives", force them to. Make the publishers produce such materials or, failing that, make the materials yourself. For example, record your pre-intermediate class carrying out elementary-level tasks, and use the audio to teach your elementary class. You'll find it is motivating for all concerned, and surely better than a group of actors talking in received pronunciation (RP) in a studio. If publishers to the global market don't include such material, then they are not providing learners with the input that will be of use to them in the real world.

If your student doesn't pronounce the two "th" phonemes, for example, remember that neither do most people in Ireland or the Caribbean. Standards such as RP and "Queen's English" are laughable in the modern world. Optimum global intelligibility may be a better standard. And if you can't tell the difference between a "tree" and a "three", then the context must be weird indeed. Global understanding is the vital thing.

In order to be aware of and show reciprocal respect for the students' first language and first culture background, all "native" teachers should study the language of their host communities. Employers should provide language lessons as part of teacher-development programmes. There will be a pay-off in terms of teacher performance: understanding L1-interference is invaluable.

Patterns of discourse (written and spoken) are culturally determined. Unless she wishes to study in an anglophone environment, don't expect the Hindi student to follow quasi-Aristotelian conventions of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, and don't dismiss her as illogical if she doesn't. It may be her convention to start and finish an essay with quotations from the classics. Recognise diversity and allow its expression through English.

Learner goals
If the student wants to live or study in an English-speaking country, then first-language users will provide a useful model. If the student wants to communicate internationally, optimum global intelligibility is called for. "Native-like" use may even be a disadvantage - in a multinational setting, it is the "native" who is most likely to misunderstand and to be misunderstood. Indeed, English-speaking countries may suffer irreparably if they don't start running courses in effective international communication for their own business people and academics.

Teachers who are "native speakers" are better paid and command greater respect than their locally based colleagues. Yet they have not passed any examination to verify their proficiency in the language, have not achieved the distinction of having learned English successfully themselves, and may therefore lack a certain empathy with their learners. Moreover those who have actually studied the language and achieved hard-won excellence in it may provide a far more constructive model for learners to aspire to. Shouldn't we value the teachers according to their professionalism, not their place of birth?

English is global for highly dubious reasons: colonial, military and economic hegemony, first of the British, now of the US. This is a fact that we must live with, as well as the fact that we have a global language that is not exactly tailor-made for the role. We need to be aware of how teaching can have a political dimension, such as the act of insisting that "native-like" language use is the only correct type. If we are not to be imperialists then we must help our students to express themselves, not our agenda. Only then will the empire talk back.

Corpus linguistics
Be aware of the emerging patterns of usage from such corpora as the University of Vienna's Voice corpus, comprising ELF data. Teach accordingly. Unless teaching in an ESL context, place less emphasis on obscure and idiomatic "native" language. If the language is global, it belongs to the world. If 80% of English used is "non-native", then "native" is a pretty meaningless term, and must be clumsily framed in inverted commas until we start to use an alternative expression. "First-language user" may fit the bill. Let your learners take the language and make it their own. They are doing so anyway. The best we can hope to do, as first-language users, is to guide. If we attempt to impose our values and norms on the world, then our students may well turn their backs on us.

David Hill works as a teacher and teacher trainer for the British Council in Istanbul

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