There are many anecdotes and jokes about the confusion caused by the difference between the English spoken in modern multi-cultural Britain and the text-book counterpart taught by native and non-native speakers all over the world. Here is my anecdote from this summer:
Scene: Heathrow airport bus station. A young lady, presumably from somewhere in South America, is boarding an orange 724 bus bound for Uxbridge and beyond.
Young lady: ‘This bus goes to Uxbridge, doesn’t it?’ (lovely rising intonation on the tag question)
Bus driver: ‘Yeh, but it don’t go to the centre, luv. If y’want the centre it’s the one be’ind – the red’un – the double-decker. ‘Ere, it’s just leavin’ – you’d better gerroff quick if you wanna gerrit.’
Momentary confusion due to lack of comprehension. The young lady stands transfixed at the top of the steps. The experienced English language teacher trainer standing behind her recognises the problem immediately and swiftly guides the young lady off the 724 and onto the red double-decker, thus averting a crisis while promoting Anglo-South American relations.
If our function as language teachers is to prepare our students to communicate with native speakers in real world situations, function effectively in an English-speaking environment, or even to be able to understand and enjoy the English-medium films and TV/radio programmes available in their own countries, rather than to pass an exam, we must pay attention to natural language and the way it is used by native-speakers in their own country. We must acknowledge the fact that there is no such thing as ‘standard English’ and that only a small proportion of the population of the UK speak ‘Southern English’, ‘Oxford English’, ‘BBC English’, ‘English with RP pronunciation’, or whatever ‘standard’ English is equated with.
Some implications for the classroom
- An increased focus on receptive skills, particularly listening.
- The use of authentic materials. Remember that it is the difficulty of the task you set rather than the task itself which is important.
- The use of video, not only for listening comprehension, but also to provide the cultural and situational context in which language is being used. Documentary videos on life in Britain are as useful as videos specifically produced for language learning.
- Increased attention to phonology, particularly individual sounds, weak forms and features of connected speech. Remember that it is important to teach students to recognise language before you ask them to produce it. Native speakers will usually be able to understand incorrect English, but non-native speakers often find it difficult to understand natural speech.
- The use of coursebooks and materials which concentrate on natural language and present a variety of regional accents.
- The adoption of elements of the lexical approach, particularly an emphasis on vocabulary and ‘chunks’ of language rather than grammar ( a lot of natural speech is not grammatically correct), and the use of teacher-talking time as authentic listening practice.
- The use of English in the classroom, not only by the students, but also by the teacher. If the mother tongue is to be allowed in the classroom, then rules for its use need to be established at the outset. Native speaker teachers, particularly those who have lived in the host country for some years, need to be reminded to use natural language in the classoom and not the kind of ‘foreigner English’ that facilitates communication in the local shop or bar – it may be the only source of ‘real’ English that students will encounter before being thrown in at the deep end on a visit to an English speaking country.
First published September 1997 Longman Teacher Link Issue 3