Sunday, 23 March 2014

Trust us, we know what's best for you.


Language for giving opinions
At a recent BALEAP conference the plenary speaker said something I found was quite startling. She was talking  about the fact we often teach things to students which are not, according to corpus data, representative of natural speech. That is, when we teach students things like 'language for giving opinions' we may present phrases like "I tend to think that..", "I consider..." and ''in my opinion' as a possible ways of alternatives to "I think" despite the fact they are actually vanishingly rare in speech, and are not really alternatives.   

I was worried when she reached her conclusion as it differed from mine, and I was speaking later that day! I had rather foolishly assumed that this meant we should stop teaching language which was unnatural of uncommon and instead focus on more useful, high frequency items. She didn't see it that way. She suggested that international students using odd or uncommon phrases, -especially if they were female, may sound quite 'charming'.
 
What I heard sounded familiar. I was reminded of my own experiences of learning a foreign language. Learning Japanese in Japan meant I had fairly natural sounding Japanese (brag brag). I only ever heard it from Japanese people speaking and I didn't have a textbook so my only input was them. I would occasionally meet people who studied abroad and would often find their Japanese odd or unnatural. For example, I would say the casual male 俺 ore for 'I' and they would say the more formal 私 watashiI would say "eh, what?" (e? Mou ikkai?) and they would say "I'm sorry but could you please repeat that." (sumimasen ga mou ichido itte kudasai) etc etc. It was really clear to me. The Japanese these people were learning was nothing like the Japanese I was hearing in Japan. 
 
Sometimes Japanese folks would be surprised and say things like 'foreigners shouldn't use Japanese like that.' or try to persuade me that really 'watashi' was a better choice of personal pronoun marker despite the fact none of the guys I knew used it. 
 
I'd also often hear 'you don't need to learn that Japanese' from well meaning folk, who no doubt had my best interests at heart. I later found that in 1988, the idea  of creating a 'foreigner Japanese' called Kanyaku nihongo with all the politeness markers removed was funded by the National Language Institute of Japan. This was no doubt to make it easier, for us poor foreigners trying to learn what is, according to many Japanese anyway, the most difficult language on the planet. Now, anyone who knows anything about Japanese can tell you that removing the politeness markers from Japanese is like removing the alcohol from beer. Technically possible but kind of defeating the object.

I found all of this patronising. I didn't want to learn foreigner Japanese I wanted to learn Japanese. Thus my experience leads me to think that students probably don't like being fobbed off with 'pseudo language'. They pay for and expect the real thing. My experience leads me to think this but I'm only one person and I could well be wrong.
 
It's not fair for me to assume that what I want is what my students want any more than it was fair for those well meaning Japanese folk to decide what I did and didn't need to learn and how I should sound. The danger with experience is always over extrapolation. This worked for me, in this place, at this time, so it must work for everyone.

In the past some teachers told students that they should strive to sound like a native speaker and probably a certain type of native speaker.  Some teachers now tell students not to try to sound like native speakers. In both these cases, the person telling and the person being told, haven't changed.

If student want to sound like their ideal of a native speakers (and many do) then that's fine. If they don't that's fine. It's their money. But even if students aren't interested in sounding like native speakers that's no excuse for us to teach them unnatural language and phrases because it's easier for us to teach like that.  All we are then doing is creating an alternative version of English -not ELF, just a pseudo English bleached and stripped of reality and no one is asking for that, no matter how 'charming' it might be.

2 comments:

  1. Earlier on I read this post and shared. Interesting point and I don't think you are alone here. It took me a long time to realise that what the students do outside the class in English affected the way they engaged in the lessons. I'm sure all of us have heard students saying things like "that's not the way people talk"! Especially because lots of kids in my context, listen to music and what we teach does not sound/look like anything they hear/read (in the lyrics). Quite often they will come up with questions like "what about wanna?" "I heard it in the movie." "I read in the subtitles.". It took me long years before I stopped giving silly responses to their clever comments/questions in order to justify the use of the coursebook and the language they were being taught and expected to use in class.
    In order to connect to what have been doing outside the class, I listen to music more often, I watch tv series/films more regularly, I read the books they like (their recommendations) in English so we can have real conversations, I am introducing them to comic books in English (to encourage them to read)... well the only thing I haven't been able to do is playing games. Lack of time and energy being a full time teacher and mom! But it does change the perspective of the students when you become more engaged with the language outside the coursebook.

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    1. I noticed you mentioned this post in one of yours :)

      I have to say, as a student, it's a horrible horrible feeling to have a teacher who is determined to teach you the 'right' way to speak, despite you wanting to speak in different way. I had a teacher in Taiwan trying to get me to speak like a Beijinger. Why would I go to Taiwan to sound like someone from Beijing?

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