Teaching English with an American Accent

From where I stand, which is on a balcony at the Izmir University of Economics, overlooking Izmir bay on the Aegean coast of Turkey, things are not looking too good for British ELT.

When I came to Turkey, 20 years ago, the UK had it all sewn up. We taught courses such as Streamline, English for a Changing World and Follow Me, then the Cambridge English Course and Meanings into Words. The British Council came and there were libraries with British books, Ctefla and Dtefla courses, and Ucles exams.

I was informed there was a “government incentive”, the government having suddenly discovered that English was among our top five exports. Michael Swan was the grammarian and Jeremy Harmer our methodology mentor. In every sense Britain had a hold on teaching English overseas.

So what’s changed? For one thing, it would seem that Britain has become inward looking. Far from building a new empire based on language, we have become increasingly alarmed and concerned about our own standards of linguistic competence. Consequently, we are (perhaps half-heartedly and reluctantly) changing our product from Tefl to Tesol.

I suppose it really hit me in July when I tutored my first Celta course for three years. I ran the course on behalf of the university, rather than the British Council (which seems to have gone to ground), and realised that Celta (Ctefla had long gone) was no longer an acronym, but stood for Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. So was this a Tefl course, or a Tesol course?

I taught it anyway, slightly perplexed by the inclusion of a compulsory session on literacy, which seemed somewhat inappropriate for trainees who would never meet an illiterate student in a monolingual class in Turkey, be it in a language school, a high school or a university. A colleague from Istanbul sent me a session on culture, which also made me wonder what was going on.

Then something else hit me. In setting up my Celta course, I had been communicating not with Ucles, but with Cambridge Esol! In my dreams, I imagined that Bush had invaded Cambridge as well as Iraq. Not quite so, but clearly a policy of American empire building in the language world was emerging at the same time as Cambridge, with an emphasis on the need to teach our immigrants and refugees, was turning inwards. The Americans have been doing this for ages, and have moved on. So was my Celta course appropriate to my market, and if not, was there a course which would suit my trainees’ needs? Was Celta no longer designed to send teachers off to teach EFL in foreign lands, but to put our own house in order?

A swift perusal of the British Council website, promoting Britain as a multicultural society, told me that the latter might well be the case, while a quick run down on available Cambridge Esol Teaching Awards suggested that Celta was not enough to do the job in the UK – you had to do the ‘certificate in further education teaching stage three’ with the ‘certificate for Esol subject specialists’ (find an acronym for that!) Very odd. My colleagues and I agreed that it was time that alternative Celta courses were made available for Tefl and Tesol, and we concluded that as a result of a shift in emphasis, Britain had lost its unique product (Tefl) and was now competing with others in the market who have more expertise in the Tesol strain.

Then, of course, there’s where I stand. I work in the teacher development unit of a university school of foreign languages which employs around 100 instructors, about 30% of whom are native speakers. In my travels around classrooms, many of the best (or shall I say most appropriate to the learning environment) lessons I have seen have been delivered by non-native speakers (I generalise of course), few of whom have been trained ‘the Celta way’ or been exposed to British Council teacher development courses.

I am surrounded by Turks, Venezuelans, Slovakians and Moldavians who speak near-perfect English without having set foot in the UK except for the occasional holiday. There are a lot of American accents around, and talk of ‘making students aware of the British version’. There are American books on academic writing, books produced internally and by Middle East Technical University, and copious collections of material designed to supplement the occasional course book from a British publisher.

Trained teachers are not seen carrying copies of Harmer, but rather of How to teach Grammar, by Scott Thornbury, who, while acknowledging Harmer and others, is, of course, an Antipodean. Paul Seligson recently came to the university to deliver a talk on correcting writing, indirectly marketing his own books, designed primarily for monolingual classes. At least one writer, then, has seen us missing the boat, but it would seem that the majority have yet to realise that our overseas market has come to realise the inadequacy of our product, begun to manufacture their own and capitalised on typical British resistance to change and inflexibility.

Britain seems also to be struggling with its place in the world, and if not the world, then at least in Europe. We are allowing European multi-national governmental and non-governmental organisations to tell us what to do with our own language instead of leading the necessary inquest into the future of language in Europe. The lingua franca may be English, but it appears not to belong to us any more, having again demonstrated our subservience to higher authorities. I note that British ELT publications are now plastered with signs such as ‘appropriate for the common European framework level B1 (ALTE level 2)’, possibly not realising that not many people outside ALTE can get their heads round this system, or that the Dutch, the French and the Germans don’t actually employ many native speakers or use imported materials in their obviously highly successful language classrooms.

Please let me know if I’m wrong. Our doyens of ELT may play in Europe, but, like our footballers, one suspects, few will make much of an impression. We gave the world our language as well as football, and our linguists are now also being outplayed by more versatile teams, both in the Euro-league and further afield.

‘Parvi sunt foris arma nisi est consilium domi’ (arms are of little value abroad unless there is wisdom at home).

first published 26 January 2005 http://education.guardian.co.uk/tefl/comment/story/0,15090,1398967,00.html

Related Posts