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.

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