Monday, January 28, 2008

"Speak Like the Natives"

A couple of days ago, I was chastised by someone who read one of my blog entries. She was "flabbergasted" by the fact that I call myself an "English language tutor." You can read her full Comment and my response here: Expressions for Physical Descriptions (look at the Comments section of the blog entry).

I was reminded of a college professor I had for a Research class in the mid 1980s. He was an older gentleman who had "old-fashioned" ways and ideas. Although it was a Research class (with papers and statistics and such), he would often take the opportunity to tell the class what he felt about the issues of the day.

One class, he went on a tirade about how we should only use the generic "he," "his" and "him" in our research papers. He told us how he felt about the use of "he/she," "s/he," or even "he or she," and other such variations to include the female in our writing. He believed that the masculine pronoun should continue to be used in all cases and that what the "women's libbers" were trying to do to the English language was ridiculous. I have some thoughts that his concerns were not solely about "the English language." He may have had some issues about the changes in the world that were occurring around him.

If one studies the English language (through formal study or merely through observation), one will notice that the English language is changing (maybe even "evolving" in some cases). It is not a static language. If it were static, dictionary writers would not be adding new words every year. Nor would they provide "Usage Notes" (as Longman's does) about the changing language. (See His, Hers or Theirs.

ESL students need to be taught Standard American English (in the U.S.) so that they will succeed in school and work. However, English language learners also need to be taught English as it is spoken and as it is used by native English speakers.

Many of my advanced English students have intensively studied English grammar in their home countries. Many have told me that they did not understand what people were saying and they had trouble making themselves understood when they first came to the U.S. After living in the U.S. for a while, they caught on, but mostly by context. However, they were not able to replicate the English words, expressions, reductions, etc., that they heard.

My students who are professionals are able to do their jobs effectively, but when it comes to making small talk and hanging out with their colleagues, they feel lost. It's as though the native speakers are speaking some other form of English. It is at this point that many English language learners turn to me. They want to "speak like native speakers." They want to fit in. They know formal English. And now they want to learn to speak as their colleagues do.

Yes, it is important to ensure that non-native (and native) English speakers know formal English. However, from my experience, it is also important that English language learners know how to "speak like the natives."

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

It sounds like you're a descriptivist, and I would agree with you in general. I've met people who believe that words like "impact" are only nouns and should never be used as verbs, as in, "it would impact the situation." It's much like the French Academy, which tries so hard to come up with French words for things like "CD-ROM" and the population gleefully ignores them. These are the people who say we must remember never to place an adverb between an auxiliary and a main verb, thereby rendering impossible the expression "I will always love you." It's a bunch of bull invented by insecure writers.

Anonymous said...

"i agree with you that learners should speak like the natives". The questions is, "How can they (learners) adapt the proper way of speaking [like the nativew]? Someboday should show them the proper way of speaking like a native. Teaching standard English is also good but let's remember that spoken english and written english is quite different.

Garcia Family said...

i thinks there's nothing wrong with the idea that Asian learners should speak like the natives. That's indeed a good idea - teaching both the formal and the informal way of the spoken english in states. There's no point of arguing and proving who's better in English. The point is we should be a model to others (students) both in spoken and writtten english. That's all that matters.
"Arguments are for fools; while, Discussions are for wise.

Abdelmonem Saad Ahmed said...

Greetings,

I agree with you that regardless of the level of proficiency of their standard English, adult non-native English speakers may experience difficulties understanding and producing native -like English. To improve their listening and speaking skills, adult-ELLs need to devote time to engage in various and extended native verbal situations relevant to their needs. Adult-ELLs also need to use their language-rich context in an English speaking country to improve all their English language skills,: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. 
Furthermore, adult-ELLs need to be open-minded, welcoming, accepting, and asking for correction by educated native speakers. 

Thank you.

Abdelmone Saad Ahmed

Abdelmonem Saad Ahmed said...

Greetings,

I agree with you that regardless of the level of proficiency of their standard English, adult non-native English speakers may experience difficulties understanding and producing native -like English. To improve their listening and speaking skills, adult-ELLs need to devote time to engage in various and extended native verbal situations relevant to their needs. Adult-ELLs also need to use their language-rich context in an English speaking country to improve all their English language skills,: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. 
Furthermore, adult-ELLs need to be open-minded, welcoming, accepting, and asking for correction by educated native speakers. 

Thank you.

Abdelmone Saad Ahmed

Anonymous said...

After reading all your comments, I have my head full of all sorts of thoughts.

Acquiring and being able to produce a good level of language is a really subjective topic and quite complicated.

As some of you have said; speaking, understanding, writting and reading WELL, will depend on what you NEED to read, write and who you need to speak to. What I'm trying to say is that speaking the "Queen's English" will be no good for a foreigner trying to work or even order at a fast food restaurant. The same case scenario works for a person that is trying to get promoted as a high-level manager being a great and fluent native speaker. He can be as native as he wants but if he only is able to speak street english, it will be very hard for him to achieve his or her promotion, in a proper english world.

Having experienced trying to "get" and apply english in a proper environment, as well as a social one; while being a foreigner, was actually quite complicated.

At one point a friend of mine from university told me that if I kept myself on the track of using all phrases and vocabulary I read in my text books, by the time I would finish my major, I wouldn't be able to have a conversation with a janitor, construction worker or any other dude! Not only that, it was actually harder to keep a conversation flowing at a party than debating in a class.

But after trying to master social english I felt even more frustraded because speaking my newly acquired "social english" during my classes made me feel completely out of context.

My conclusion to all of this mambo jambo is that before you even consider teaching english, you need to understand the need of your student. E.i. If he or she is a person going to live abroad as some executive's spouse, the first thing she or he will need is to be able to communicate to store clerks, real state agents, school teachers, bank clerks and doctors. Understanding the need will draw a start as well as an the objective.
Which will be very different from a person trying to get through difficult university texts as well as complicated teen/young adult slang, etc, etc.

I hope that my "foreigner english" will not be to hard to understand. Best Regards.

Anonymous said...

After reading all your comments, I have my head full of all sorts of thoughts.

Acquiring and being able to produce a good level of language is a really subjective topic and quite complicated.

As some of you have said; speaking, understanding, writting and reading WELL, will depend on what you NEED to read, write and who you need to speak to. What I'm trying to say is that speaking the "Queen's English" will be no good for a foreigner trying to work or even order at a fast food restaurant. The same case scenario works for a person that is trying to get promoted as a high-level manager being a great and fluent native speaker. He can be as native as he wants but if he only is able to speak street english, it will be very hard for him to achieve his or her promotion, in a proper english world.

Having experienced trying to "get" and apply english in a proper environment, as well as a social one; while being a foreigner, was actually quite complicated.

At one point a friend of mine from university told me that if I kept myself on the track of using all phrases and vocabulary I read in my text books, by the time I would finish my major, I wouldn't be able to have a conversation with a janitor, construction worker or any other dude! Not only that, it was actually harder to keep a conversation flowing at a party than debating in a class.

But after trying to master social english I felt even more frustraded because speaking my newly acquired "social english" during my classes made me feel completely out of context.

My conclusion to all of this mambo jambo is that before you even consider teaching english, you need to understand the need of your student. E.i. If he or she is a person going to live abroad as some executive's spouse, the first thing she or he will need is to be able to communicate to store clerks, real state agents, school teachers, bank clerks and doctors. Understanding the need will draw a start as well as an the objective.
Which will be very different from a person trying to get through difficult university texts as well as complicated teen/young adult slang, etc, etc.

I hope that my "foreigner english" will not be to hard to understand.

Best Regards,

Wendy Avalos

Anonymous said...

After reading all your comments, I have my head full of all sorts of thoughts.

Acquiring and being able to produce a good level of language is a really subjective topic and quite complicated.

As some of you have said; speaking, understanding, writting and reading WELL, will depend on what you NEED to read, write and who you need to speak to. What I'm trying to say is that speaking the "Queen's English" will be no good for a foreigner trying to work or even order at a fast food restaurant. The same case scenario works for a person that is trying to get promoted as a high-level manager being a great and fluent native speaker. He can be as native as he wants but if he only is able to speak street english, it will be very hard for him to achieve his or her promotion, in a proper english world.

Having experienced trying to "get" and apply english in a proper environment, as well as a social one; while being a foreigner, was actually quite complicated.

At one point a friend of mine from university told me that if I kept myself on the track of using all phrases and vocabulary I read in my text books, by the time I would finish my major, I wouldn't be able to have a conversation with a janitor, construction worker or any other dude! Not only that, it was actually harder to keep a conversation flowing at a party than debating in a class.

But after trying to master social english I felt even more frustraded because speaking my newly acquired "social english" during my classes made me feel completely out of context.

My conclusion to all of this mambo jambo is that before you even consider teaching english, you need to understand the need of your student. E.i. If he or she is a person going to live abroad as some executive's spouse, the first thing she or he will need is to be able to communicate to store clerks, real state agents, school teachers, bank clerks and doctors. Understanding the need will draw a start as well as an the objective.
Which will be very different from a person trying to get through difficult university texts as well as complicated teen/young adult slang, etc, etc.

I hope that my "foreigner english" will not be to hard to understand.

Best Regards,

Wendy Avalos