Which English should I teach and learn?

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Which English should I teach and learn?

Nelly Martin, Madison, Wisconsin | Sat, 01/21/2012 1:28 PM

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One of my Indonesian colleagues asked whether she should teach either British English or American English. She and many other fellow English teachers might well have been asked by curious students.

This question caused me to brood, as I’ve encountered very similar questions since my first time teaching English as a foreign language back in Indonesia. Not knowing how to answer it comprehensively, I then went over my notes and some related journals in order to quench my thirst of this knowledge.

I am personally intrigued. It has successfully stimulated my critical thinking about the pedagogical values held by many teachers in Indonesia. Having learned and taught English for several years, I may say that I have been mostly exposed to both American and British English. In addition, many Indonesian colleagues and professors tend to downplay some other variations of English.

It might be safely assumed that there is no room for Singaporean English, Canadian English, Indian English or Dutch English. It is prevalent to believe that the correct way of pronouncing words is either American or British English. Therefore, many private and expensive schools are keen on using textbooks published either in the US or the UK.

Moreover, one of my Taiwanese colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, came up with a very similar and thought provoking question: “Why do I need to even bother teaching them about ordering food in some fancy American restaurant, when they can’t say a word about their traditional food in English?” She believes that language is the medium to convey our meaning in a wide array of contexts.

Having the students speak in many different academic and cultural contexts should be the objective of the lesson. I believe it should lead another point to ponder for teachers: “Should we teach English with the target language context or with the learner’s context?” If it is the former, whose context should it be?

I am afraid to say that I have a skeptical view of the pedagogical model of communicative competence that is based on native speakers’ standards. According to Alptekin (2002), the idea is too idealistic, unrealistic and tends to disregard learners’ cultural backgrounds in relation to English as the lingua franca and an international language. He believes that taking the idealized native-speakers as the model seems to fail to depict English as a world language.

Therefore, he states that communicative competence should incorporate both learners’ needs and their cultural backgrounds. He makes a very important point about teaching English and its culture. For many years, teaching English has been based on the native-speaker’s point of view.

According to him, it is true that communicative competence should enable the students to communicate well in the target language. However, the notion of teaching them only based on the native speaker’s model seems to be too idealistic, unrealistic and restricted.

In relation to English as a lingua franca and an international language (EIL), the idea seems to be idealistic because English has many dialects and is spoken not only by native speakers, but also by a great number of non-native speakers. Therefore, it seems unfair to teach English through one culture.

English, as an EIL, nowadays belongs to the world, so he really wonders whose culture should be taught in relation to integrating the two. He firmly states that English does not belong to one nation so teaching it based on the native speaker’s standard might be very unrealistic.

In addition, learners may not need to know British or American values. He inquires about the need to teach British and American courtesy to Turkish and Japanese learners doing their business in English. In that case, there is no urgency for students to learn British or American business ethics, due to the fact that none of the students really need the knowledge.

Therefore, an intercultural communicative competence that enables teachers to explore both the target language and students’ cultures may be a good idea to motivate the students to communicate appropriately. In addition, he suggests teachers integrate both international and local contexts in teaching students. Besides, the fact that now English is a lingua franca should be taken into consideration.

It is unavoidable that students should be more exposed to variants of English to make them aware that English is not only American or British. In fact, in their daily lives, they might be conversing in English more with non-natives than native speakers of English. It is salient to say that the numbers of non-native speakers of English are larger than native speakers. It might be safe to conclude that our students will interact and communicate more with non-native speakers of English, so exposing them to a wide array of variation should be crucial.

Furthermore, it may be also good if standardized tests like the International English Language Testing System (ILETS) or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) have non-native speakers with different accents on their listening sessions. However, it may sound controversial since it might be perceived as a non-standard of English. But is there any such thing as standard English?

The writer is a Fulbright Presidential Scholar and a Ph.D student at SLA Program, University of Wisconsin, Madison, the US.