Wife and children abed, the teacher was scratching his way through a stack of conversation transcriptions that his students had handed in earlier that day. “Hi, how are you” began one. “So-so” was the reply. The teacher lifted his pen to strike through the unnatural phrase in blood red ink – after all, don’t we native speakers usually say “not bad” or “okay” – but then paused. The pen hovered above the page, as the steady tick of the kitchen clock marked time.

“so-so”

He understood the meaning.

It made sense.

It wasn’t technically wrong, was it?

“so-so”

It’s a very Japanese response, but one I have rarely used / heard in the UK. The temptation is, then, to strike it out as incorrect. There are many more such examples, and I’m sure you have your own from the contexts in which you work. Aleks Kase has a great list of ‘Konglish’ expressions over on his site which is worth looking at.

There are two debates which draw particularly impassioned discussion across the ELT blogosphere. The first is the use of technology in education, and the second is the ELF / International English / ‘standard’ English bunfight. But I wonder if the question of whether the teacher accepts an expression, a usage or a pronunciation feature as ‘natural’ is of any importance whatsoever.

I suggest that there are two people who have an interest in the learner’s English, and neither is the teacher.

  1. The first person is the learner themselves. Many learners are not aiming at a ‘native-like’ English. Perhaps they accept that such a goal is often unrealistic. Maybe they want to retain certain linguistic features as a part of their own cultural identity (they wish to use English, but not be changed or defined by it). For many, a certain functional level of attainment is sufficient for their purposes – for tourism, for reading documents or for online interaction.
  2. The second is whoever the learner will be using their English with outside the classroom, in authentic communication. The non-native speaker should be concerned with two aspects of their English, in this regard. To start with, they must be intelligible – certain features of non-native Englishes may be more or less intelligible to those they interact with. The other issue is the image that the speaker creates with his or her language. If the non-native speaker is percieved negatively due to their English, they may have a problem. Of course, people can (do) have pre-concieved notions of others before they even open their mouths, based on racial or cultural prejudices. This is something over which the speaker has little influence. But learners need to be aware, perhaps, which turns of phrase or phonological features are likely present a negative professional or social impression.

In all likelyhood, your learners will either be learning English to interact in fairly narrow and specific contexts, or they will be learning general English because they have to. In the first case, the teacher and the learner will be able to negotiate, at the learner’s lead, based on the learner’s potential audience. If a learner is planning to attend a British university, then native-speaker academic norms are obviously worth focusing on. If the learner is doing business with her collegues in the Bangkok office, perhaps not.

Realistically, the vast majority of learners in state education are learning without a particular audience in mind. However, most of them are likely to be at the beginner to pre-intermediate level and the variety of English they learn is somewhat moot – the struggle with basic grammar and vocabulary is enough to contend with.

The student needs to know what kind of English world they are stepping into, what they can expect to achieve from their starting point, and how they are likely to be recieved by their potential audience. What the teacher thinks about English norms means nothing.

Or “cultural diversity is a wonderful thing (within the framework of western liberal democracy)”

Sara Hannam has just contributed yet another excellent post to the blogosphere, prompted by a horrific bit of teaching in the movie ‘Donnie Darko’. In this case, the teacher stifles the expression of a bright young man by sticking to her lesson plan… which also supports a hidden  dubious agenda.

But what do we do when the teacher is ‘right’ and the student is ‘wrong’?

This morning, the listening in our regular textbook was a discussion between a school principal and a concerned mother, about a teacher who was scaring the children with his enthusiastic lectures on environmental catastrophe. Rather than pursuing the ‘green’ angle that the textbook then took, I thought we might get some value out of educational policy issues. I played about with intelligent design, Darwinism and creationism, but then decided to have a look a something else.

Take a look at this clip (don’t feel obliged to watch all of it, I think you’ll get the point soon enough)

This is a typical representation of homosexuality in the Japanese media. Probably not so different from when I was growing up in England in the seventies and eighties – gay people were objects of derision and ridicule, or dangerous perverts to be feared (perhaps they still are). A prime topic, then, for a challenging Tuesday morning class about ‘What teachers should teach’. And this is the worksheet I put together.

So here is the problem. What do you do when the students express ideas or beliefs that could be considered homophobic… that is, when students are ‘wrong’? Or, more broadly speaking, what do you say to students who say something sexist or racist? How do you respond to students who put forward opinions you feel uncomfortable with? At a party, you might challenge the speaker, or avoid them? Doesn’t really work in a lesson though, does it?

The teacher has a distinct power advantage which makes a direct challenge extremely unfair. The first advantage is linguistic – the teacher is more skilled in the use of the target language than the student. The teacher is also in a position of (perceived) authority, and although they may not intend to abuse their power the students may fear for their grades. In some contexts, the learners are considerably younger than the teacher. This may also put them at a disadvantage in a disagreement, either culturally (with respect shown to elders), intellectually or experientially. Students will often back down if challenged, for these reasons. But they will resent being put in that position and grasp their beliefs yet more firmly.

If the student is in alignment with his or her cultural norms, where do we draw the line and openly state “I believe your society is wrong in this case”?

Please express yourself freely in this class, as long as you are ‘right’.

The most important learning takes place outside the classroom. I don’t generally teach children, but my two most important students are still very small.

When I first came to Japan ten years ago, I didn’t think this would happen. To your right, you will see my wife and two boys, all Japanese passport holders. If all of us were bilingual, what a marvellous thing that would be! I’ve already recounted my linguistic shame on this blog; far better to start from scratch with these fresh malleable brains….

There is an immense body of literature on bilingualism but, due to the unique nature of every family context, it is very hard to find clear direction on the best way forward. I’ll explain our particular context, the choices we have made and why, and how it’s going so far….

Some families operate a “one parent, one language” policy, but we have decided to use only the minority language (English) at home. Our rationale is that, once the children start kindergarten, they will receive ample exposure to Japanese so we ought to give them a head start in English. Of course, this relies on both parents being confident and comfortable speaking in the minority language. Even if one is extremely proficient in a second language, it may still feel strange to use it exclusively in communication with one’s own children.

We haven’t been especially strict about it. I know of some families who will not allow the children to watch Japanese television in the house, but what would we do without anpanman?! If we have Non-English speaking guests it seems polite to use Japanese, although I usually gloss in English for the kids. Outside the home, too, we both use Japanese if it feels appropriate (if there are non-English speaking children around, for example).

So far, it seems to be working well. The little one is just a ball of noise at the moment, but his older brother is very talkative. English, currently, seems to be dominant. My wife phoned me at work in a state of excitement last week to tell me that he was using reported speech structures (English teachers as parents…). It’s fascinating to see him fix things as he goes along. Switching vocabulary is easier than sentence structure, it seems. Pronunciation seems to be settling into place. But he’s only two and a half, so who knows!

There are ‘international’ schools around but we probably won’t be sending the children to one. From a purely practical perspective, they are expensive. Beyond that, literacy in Japanese requires plenty of work and, if we are planning to stay in Japan for the long term that has to take priority. But further still, school is socialisation and (for better or worse) we would prefer not to separate the children from the majority culture.

Parents expectations for their own children are very complex. In the case of ‘mixed’ children even more so. I imagine everyone would like their children to be bilingual, but complete mastery of both languages is extremely unlikely. What sacrifices are you willing to make? What level of attainment in the less dominant language would you be satisfied with? Linguistic competency does not automatically equate with cultural competency, either. Can one feel culturally estranged from one’s own children?

Parenting, I suppose, is always a research study… and one which often goes on a lifetime. From a language teacher’s perspective many issues start to become less abstract and intellectual, I suspect….

So what would you do, are you doing, or did you do with your children?

(These three books are worth reading, as a starting point)

Despite the pleasures of the blogosphere and the twitterverse, I generally prefer to take my literature in paper form. A cup of tea, a digestive biscuit and a good book. The quiet hush of the library and the musty aroma of slightly damp academics. The per-lunk of a freshly-minted journal as it drops through the letter box.

I took to writing book reviews a couple of years back, partly for the free books, partly to get a few things published and on the CV, but mainly to motivate myself to read more and read more critically. It is a different experience to read a book from front to back with a highlighter pen, a biro and a scrap of paper to make notes, and generally I find it very rewarding.

However, published reviews are generally limited to the current… books which are not more than a year or two old. So, I’ve decided to start an ongoing series of reviews on this blog – old books, books which didn’t quite hit the mainstream, books which can start fights, books which deserve a wider audience, books from outside the field of ELT which are nevertheless pertinent, or books which you really should just read!

I have a little stack of books in my office which I intend to attack over the coming weeks and months, but I would also love to hear from YOU. This seems a ripe series for guest postings – pick a book off your shelf that we all need to know about, write your reasons why in as few or as many words as you feel appropriate, and send it to me…..

Cheers!