Saturday, 26 May 2007

English as the global lingua franca

Whose English should we be teaching our EFL students? Go to Japan and Korea, and the preference is clearly American English. In Finland, though, it’s either British or American, largely depending on the teacher. The goal, in either case, is to get as close to a native speaker level as possible. Given that language is not an isolated entity that can be separated from the context where it’s been used, the task of an EFL teacher becomes rather problematic. While teaching a foreign language should we actually try to guide our students to gradually become more and more like Brits or Americans? Ie. should our morose young Finns turn into widely smiling, loud and chatty personalities to be successful in conversing in American English? (Sorry about the crude stereotyping here!) A question of constant disagreement with me and my British husband.

How about meetings where English is used as a lingua franca by people whose native language is not English? English-speakers would probably squirm and resort to the old adage of ‘the most widely spoken language in the world is POOR English’. Yet, surely the main concern is getting your message across. Just last weekend I attended a multicultural meeting and got to talk with a Russian - in English. He had been trying to learn Finnish and was explaining to me how many ‘vocals’ there are in Finnish words. My English teacher’s instinct almost automatically wanted to correct his mistake (’vowels’ in English, not ‘vocals’), but luckily I manage to silence the teacher in me and carry on with the interesting conversation. Later it dawned on me that this must be a fairly common occurrence in such conversations, and why not! I understood perfectly well what he was saying (’vowel’ in Finnish being ‘vokaali’), although had he talked to a native speaker his choice of words would probably have raised some eyebrows.

Which leads me back to my students in the classroom. What English should we teach them? I am getting more and more uneasy about the strict requirements of 100 % correct British or American usage. What is being compromised, with Finnish learners at least, is fluency and the courage to actually say something. Unfortunately, though, the language teacher’s feared red pen is still alive and doing too well in our classrooms. Another interesting consequence of these EFL requirements is a somewhat arrogant and inflexible attitude of some students. I often tell my students that, of course, it’s worthwhile aiming at learning more and more English vocabulary - even getting eloquent. Yet, you have to bear in mind who you are talking to. Reminds me of a student exchange with an Italian school a few years ago. We were spending a camp weekend in the forest and one of our Finnish girls got really annoyed with some Italian girls who woudn’t understand what a saucepan was. She came to me huffing and puffing with annoyance insisting: ‘Isn’t saucepan the right English word?’ After me confirming this she carried on moaning about the ignorance of the Italian girls. It didn’t help me suggesting alternative strategies, eg. showing the saucepan to them to help them understand. Being right and knowing the correct word overweighed being understood, sadly. As a language teacher I couldn’t help taking some of the blame for that… Another girl came back from a multicultural language course abroad, disappointed at not learning ANYTHING, since the other participants had been from southern Europe or Asia and, according to her, didn’t speak very good English. In her opinion, the only reason to speak English was to speak with native speakers to improve her English skills. I can understand her point, but nevertheless it makes me worry about intercultural understanding around the world. Are we creating an English-speaking elite, who will look down on anyone whose English they consider inferior??

All this makes me constantly ponder on the insignificance of the minute grammar points we bang on our students in class compared to the much more relevant communication skills needed in today’s and tomorrow’s world. Why is it so challenging for a language teacher to put aside some of the requirements of the national curriculum and focus more on lifeskills?

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