Which English to Teach?

August 2009 Issue

The English language has established itself as the most influential global language of communication in different countries around the world. It is one of the major languages taught in schools and universities. Most countries have adopted either the British or the North American variety of English as a target for teaching and learning purposes. But research studies have shown that there are new and legitimate varieties of Englishes in countries like Singapore, India, South Africa and the Philippines, and they too are governed by linguistic and sociolinguistic rules of use and usage. In addition, most people use English in order to communicate with the people belonging to different linguistic backgrounds in order to carry out real world communicative tasks in events like business transactions, conferences, transnational negotiations, etc.

The notion that few center countries own English as their sole property has been questioned due to its expanding role worldwide. Due to its global spread and emergence of new varieties when it has come in contact with other languages and cultures, no one nation or group of nations can claim the sole ownership. The obvious claim is that the people who employ English for communication must have a sense of ownership and agency over it. Therefore, the pedagogical policies and practices must inform the learners that they are learning English that belongs to them and that they can find their identity with it. So English is no more ‘foreign’ or ‘alien’ to the learners. Closely connected to the question of ownership is the traditional dichotomy between native and non-native speakers. The native speaker construct on genetic or ethnic ground is unjustifiable, and to assume that there are idealized native speakers of English is a myth. Native speakerness is not a fixed identity but is socially-culturally constructed identity. Other more neutral terms related to affiliation or proficiency like more/less proficient, expert/novice user might replace the NS/NNS dichotomy. Vivian Cook, for example, prefers to use the term ‘successful second language learner’ for the more proficient user of language. This discussion and debate questions the fundamental goal of traditional English language teaching: To make the learners able to communicate with the native speakers of English which is unattainable or irrelevant target. Since there exist no idealized native speakers or since everybody can be a native speaker of English if s/he has mastery over it (See Davies, 2003), then there is a need to redefine the goal of language teaching.

Against this backdrop, Aya Matsuda provides a case study of Japan (where American English is an ideal target for curricular goals) in the article entitled “Incorporating World Englishes in Teaching English as an International Language” published in TESOL Quarterly in 2003. She analyzes the textbooks used in the Japanese public schools and justifies the need to incorporate other outer circle countries’ English speaking characters and dialogues in the course books. She also points out that we can bring in the fluent speakers of English from other parts of world rather than only from the center English speaking countries. I have quoted the main highlights of her argument in the following bullets:

  • The  international  scope  of  learners’  English  learning  agenda should  logically  be  matched  by  pedagogical  approaches  that  teach English as an international language (EIL), in part through inclusion of varieties of World Englishes (p.719).
  • Teaching  inner-circle  English  in  Japan  neglects the real linguistic needs of the  learners, eclipses their education  about the  history  and  politics  of  English,  and  fails  to  empower  them  with ownership of English (p. 721).
  • Teachers themselves must be aware of the  current  landscape  of  the  English  language.  Teacher education programs for pre-service EFL teachers need to focus on both the inner circle and the outer circle varieties of English (p. 725).
  • Incorporating  World Englishes  does  not  mean removing  native  varieties  from  English  classes  or  replacing  them  with less-perfect  ones;  rather,  they  add  to  the  current  repertoire  and  thus enrich  the curriculum (p. 726).

She concludes her argument as:

“Presenting the  complexity  of  the  sociolinguistic  reality  of  English  is  needed  to prepare  learners  for  their  future  use  of  English that  may  involve  both NNSs  and  NSs  and  that  may  take  place  in  any  part  of  the  world.  The understanding  of World Englishes  does  not  consist of a  set  of  discrete items or topics that can  be tucked in at the beginning of the semester, between  formal  chapters,  or during the first 5 minutes  of  every  lesson and  then  be  forgotten.  It  is,  rather,  a  different  way  of  looking  at  the language,  which  is  more  inclusive,  pluralistic,  and  accepting  than  the traditional,  monolithic  view  of  English  in  which  there  is  one  correct, standard way of using English that all speakers must strive for. In a sense, incorporating World Englishes is like putting on a new pair of glasses— the detail and complexity of the world we suddenly see may initially be overwhelming,  but  in  the  long  run,  we  would  have  a  better  view  and understanding of English as an international language (EIL)” (p. 727).

Though the arguments and examples come from the Japanese EFL context, they have implications for Nepal too, and we English teachers can draw insights and develop our awareness of the plurality of English. Please find the attached article in the neltamail and provide your comments via the ‘comment’ link below.

The English language has established itself as the most influential global language of communication in different countries around the world. It is one of the major languages taught in schools and universities. Most countries have adopted either t

1 thought on “Which English to Teach?

  1. Nelta Choutari’s August reading and Balkrishna’s introductory comments really made me think very deeply about the idea of which variety of English to teach in countries like ours today. The discussion after that was also very useful to me. The question of which English to teach must not be reduced to the silly level of “Should we teach American English or British English?” Nor should this question be a part of another crazy notion that we should teach some ultimate standard of this global language (I find it particularly disturbing, or at least politically insensitive, given the politics/history of this language, when someone tells me that we should teach English English “because” that is the original form of the language–why the heck should I, a Nepali scholar who need this language to communicate with people from around the whole world, should love this one variety of a world language? That sounds more problematic if a native speaker starts making the argument.).
    Which English to teach is also not really a theoretical question: it is something that any thoughtful English teacher should think about, including the primary school teacher who needs to teach his students the basic sounds of “English” and the high school teacher who needs to teach her students culturally different social expressions among varieties of the English language. Just imagine being asked by a student in grade 3 how the word “party” should be pronounced, also assuming that some students in the room know about the British “phaatee,” some others believe that the correct pronunciation is the American “phardi,” and the rest of the class think it’s fine to say “paati” in the “standard” Nepali English way.
    Because we no longer live in politically isolated and politically insensitive societies where English was just a “foreign” language and we would be generally excused for miscommunicating on the ground that it is not our native language, because we no longer live in a world where we would get better jobs for speaking in the imitated accent of “gora sahebs,” and because we live in a world where only those who live in the past still believe that there is something like pure English (that will make you look as funny as Samuel Johnson sitting in a Safa Tempo in Purano Baneshwor!)… this is an important issue.
    Yes, at the practical level, we are tempted to simplify the issue into questions such as these: What should we as primary school teachers in Nepal teach? British English, American English, Nepali English…? Which one is best? Which one will students need in their futures? Can we not stick to the basic English English sound system, syntax, expression, etc and leave it to individual student’s future to learn the other types? Why the heck should we worry about the rest if we can teach the Belayati English sounds in the first place? But on a second thought, if we refuse to first answer larger (some of us don’t want to hear the word “political” here) questions, we will be planting paddy seeds in the sand. This is why.
    There is no best English. No one speaks “native” English–there are a hundred different types of native Englishes, unless you think that English is still England’s language or that Nepal is a part of India. (English belongs to England like Nepali people belong to Nepal, or like only Gorkhalis are true Nepalese). Yes, if native English means native English English, you are 16 ana right. But what about native Canadian English, native Australian English spoken perfectly by second generation Indian communities, native British English modified over the course of history into American English and spoken extremely proficiently by a person with Irish-Norwegian descent who grew up in Singapore and taught in Japan for a while before returning to Wales? La ja. Standard English is also a myth, especially if you think there is “a” standard against which to measure the rest. There are a hundred standards. Balkrishna’s comments are worth quoting here: “Native speakerness is not a fixed identity but is socially-culturally constructed identity. Other more neutral terms related to affiliation or proficiency like more/less proficient, expert/novice user might replace the NS/NNS dichotomy.”
    Now, what does this have to do with our students in primary, middle, and secondary schools? There is a lot our students too need to be be aware of–because their world is globally mediated by communication technologies and international communication right from their birth today. They come across many versions of the same English word, expression, and socio-linguistic practices right in their homes, even before they come to school. Thus, first of all, we must tell our students, as early as possible, that the same word may be pronounced differently in different parts of the world. They already know that this happens in their own family, community, or country. Just give an analogy or ask if they’ve heard different people pronouncing some inflected verbs in Nepali: khanchhaun/khanchham/khancham/even ganjam. Students are smart enough to not go on to conclude that they can pronounce any word in any way–but warn them, just in case, that there are different “correct” ways to pronounce. Tell them that in Nepal, most people pronounce English with a lot of Nepali sounds, but that we can and should learn to pronounce English words with more “English” ways–that is, relative to Nepali, and not relative to any ONE standard. That is, you can pronounce a word in a more English way, because although there is no ONE standard English, there are phonetic features that distinguish English sounds from other languages. It’s like trying to tell a cat from a tiger and then informing that there are different types of cats. So, even in the primary level, awareness about varieties of English–especially the distinction between Nepali sounds and English sounds–can be taught without necessarily teaching the varieties in which every word can be pronounced. Otherwise, one or the other student in class is going to think you don’t speak good English. In higher grades, we should teach the difference in sounds among varieties of English, even if we cannot go on to teach how to pronounce the same word in different Englishes. In a sense, teaching students that there are different types of Englishes in the world today, and that it is possible to move from one’s local English towards more widely used varieties, is like installing an operating system on a computer that will enable the user to install third party software later on. Otherwise, you will be building an attitude in your student that will make them either like a computer that has only one program running or a computer that has too many needless programs and crashes all the time. On the one hand, students need to not believe in the myth of one English as the standard, and on the other they need to be able to move from the broken/pidgin English that most of them speak towards more widely used varieties like the British, American, or the one that is used in Nepal’s national media, and so on.
    We should stop lying to ourselves, or to one another, and worse to students, that there is “a” standard English. Equally important, we mustn’t keep forever reinforcing the “iu ta whhat like whhat like phanni person yaar, dhatterika!” type of English.

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