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World Englishes and standards

July 25, 2010 26 comments

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The idea of world Englishes, or even Globish, seems to be everywhere I look this past month. Not only was there an article by David Crystal on the Braz-TESOL magazine about world Englishes and the importance of learning a bit more about the variety of English of the country you’re going to visit – vocabulary and other features. In addition to that, the cover of the Newsweek magazine has on its cover a picture of the world saying, “Speak Globish?” what does this mean to our learners?

A couple of things that spring to mind are some conversations and articles I read a while ago when people said that nowadays people shouldn’t be so concerned about achieving native-like proficiency as there are many different varieties of the language. Non-native speakers of the language outnumber native speakers by far. Some years ago, Newsweek published an article talking about the rise of English as a lingua france where they said that there are 3 non-native speakers of the language for every native speaker. I guess there might be 4 or 5 nowadays. The trend, then, is to understand and acknowledge the differences. But this has always been something that kept me wondering: if I’m learning a language in order to be able to communicate with people from other cultures, and if this is the so-called lingua franca of the world, should teachers let their students get away with something that’s really distant from native-like pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar usage?

The first time I thought about it was probably about ten years ago. One of my students was in the Brazilian navy and he told me that anytime they met and had to talk to people from other ships, they spoke English. Now, he could easily communicate with Italians, Chileans, Spanish, French, and people from other nationalities using English. However, every time they had to talk to Americans, British, or Canadians, for instance, they couldn’t understand what they were saying and vice-versa. I’m sorry if this goes against what some people might believe in, but I truly believe there’s something wrong with this.

We learn to speak a foreign language to communicate. We study a foreign language because we want to be able to function in a foreign country using that language we’ve spent so long studying. When I think of native-like English, I’m not saying people should work exhaustively to reduce their accent, by no means! However, There are certain standards I feel that should be taken into account. Learners from languages whose rhythm is syllable-timed should learn that English is a stress-timed language. They should be taught some of the individual sounds which do not exist in their L1. And teachers ought to expect nothing but the best these students can produce.

I’ve always thought that language teachers are the worst listeners out there. Language teachers want to (and have to try as hard as they can) understand what their students are saying. We’ve got to do this if we want to recast, repeat, provide correct form, or do anything else that teachers have to do to get learners to learn the language. Things are not like that in the real world, though. One of the problems I can see there is that teachers might end up limiting their learners. By not showing learners that they do need to improve their pronunciation, to learn new words, and to change their speech to make it sound more natural, teachers are telling learners that they may be able to do whatever it is that they might want to in the foreign language. Well, sometimes simply being able to communicate and say, “me wants water” or “have a possibility is true” may be way less than what our students will need.

What if your learners end up having the chance to work for a multinational company and are chosen to become spokespeople? I’m pretty sure their chances will be way slimmer if they can’t speak English with native-like pronunciation and correct usage of vocabulary and grammar. There’s a huge gulf between being chosen by a non-profitable organisation to speak in public mainly due to your contributions to a cause and being hired by a company. It would be naive of us to say that people don’t judge you by the way you talk. This doesn’t mean using obscure words and complicated structures will get people to hold you in high regards – but being able to use the language properly and naturally certainly will.

What should be done about world Englishes and all of the varieties of English one might encounter in the world? Well, I think teachers should look at things from two different perspectives: productive and receptive skills. When it comes to productive skills (speaking and writing), learners should be taught according to high standards and, in my view, respecting the rules of the two mainstream varieties of the language – British and American English. When it comes to receptive skills (reading and listening) the more varieties we can expose our learners to, the better. If teachers can show students examples of both natives and non-natives using the language, the better we will be preparing them for the world of ‘Globish’. If you ask me, the question is not really “Speak Globish?”, but it should be “Understand Globish?”

Over to you…

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