Challenging my own “native speakerism”: Training teachers in Singapore
By Arthur Laing
Problematising accurate English
Training on my most recent CELTA course in Singapore, the following two situations occurred, which clearly illustrate the problem with the term “accurate English”.
An American trainee with excellent language awareness commented that the course book we were using provided inaccurate models of English, referencing a receptive skills task with the question “Who is he speaking to?” The trainee claimed that the object pronoun is “whom”, a sentence should not end with a preposition, and that the question should be “To whom is he speaking?”
An Indian trainee, feeling stressed about the intensity of the training course, said to a peer “ I’m feeling too much of pressure, so I can’t eat lunch today.” I overheard the comment and the addition “of” made me pause.
The American trainee and I, the British trainer, come from a BANA (British Australian and North American) background, where educators are often “characterised as having an overactive professional zeal connected with the notion that English and English teaching is originally theirs” (Holliday 2005, p.3).
Most speakers of English from Britain or America would view the reaction of the American trainee as technically correct, but excessively fussy. Her understanding of accurate English would be considered too prescriptive by many “native speakers”. In the second example, though, the “inaccuracy” (“too much of”) is more problematic. The speaker is completely intelligible, and this chunk of English is used widely among certain English speakers. Spoken or written in an IELTS or TOEFL test, however, this language chunk could count against a test-taker, and if used repeatedly, viewed as a “systematic error”. It is not coincidental that the second speaker, also a “native speaker” of English, is Indian.
Singapore is a linguistically diverse city where a variety of Englishes are spoken, written and taught. In the hawker centres (food courts) you will hear grammatically spare, no-nonsense transactions in Singlish, the local dialect (“You want spicy?”….“Can”). In the semi-academic environment of a teacher training course you will hear Singaporean English, with its consistent stress on the second syllable of two syllable nouns (“proJECT” / “MeTHOD”) and its tolerance for dropping /d/ and /t/ sounds for past simple and past participles (“last year he got retrench(ed)”). With the large percentage of Indian and Pakistani PRs (Permanent Residents) living in the city, you will also hear South Asian English varieties, such as the one already mentioned, use of the present continuous with stative verbs, variations of syllable stress such as “REfers to” / “REferring to” or /v/ and /w/ sounds being used interchangeably.
As a short-term resident of the city, involved in assessing trainees’ teaching ability and, by extension, their language accuracy, I faced a problem: what is accurate English, and how much “accuracy” should I expect from my trainees?
The role of the trainer
In Singapore, as in many teacher training contexts, the candidature on CELTA courses is diverse and multilingual. The majority of candidates at the centre where I trained were Singaporean nationals or Permanent Residents from Chinese, Malay or Indian ethnic backgrounds. It was normal to also have one or two Malaysian, or Pakistani trainees on each course, one or two English speakers from The USA, Canada or Britain, and occasional trainees from countries where English is not widely spoken, most recently including Myanmar, Algeria, Japan, China and South Korea. Most of the trainees were taking the course to improve their prospects in the ELT job market in Singapore, but a sizeable minority were also interested in travelling to other countries with the CELTA qualification.
With such a diverse candidature, it is important to reconsider what the role and responsibilities of the trainer are in relation to the accuracy and appropriacy of language trainees use. These responsibilities can be broadly divided in two: teacher training, and trainee assessment. In terms of training teachers on an initial qualification such as CELTA, I believe the following are the key language-related responsibilities:
- assisting trainees with the planning of coherent, aims-focused lessons, following a range of lesson shapes
- helping trainees to become more reflective about the language they use in class (“Did I grade my language appropriately to the learners’ level?” / “Was my pronunciation of the target language fluent or stilted?”)
- helping trainees to develop their own awareness of the English language, and how it is used, in a range of contexts
- introducing and providing practice of teaching terminology and meta-language which will initiate trainees into the discourse community of English Language Teaching
- fostering an atmosphere of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion to prepare trainees for staffrooms in a range of global contexts, where a range of Englishes are spoken
In terms of assessment, I believe the key responsibilities are:
- ensuring that all trainees write assignments with a very high degree of accuracy
- ensuring that trainees can model target language accurately and naturally
- ensuring that trainees can discriminate between varieties of English in different spoken and written contexts
Recent literature on “NESTs” (Native English Speaking Teachers) and Non-NESTs (Non Native English Speaking Teachers) can also help to clarify the role of the trainer. To gain entry on a CELTA course, the level of English of the trainee should be high C1 or above, and it is clear that accurate and natural language is an important requirement of any competent English language teacher:
“the ideal non-NEST is the one who has achieved a near-native proficiency in English. Given this, one of the most important professional duties non-NESTs have to perform is to improve their command of English.” (Medgyes 2017, p. 84)
Therefore, some attention to the language accuracy of trainees is important. This is important for NESTs and Non-NESTs alike, since so much of language teaching involves preparing students to use English in a range of contexts, and some of these contexts may be just as unfamiliar to the teacher from the UK as they are to the teacher from Myanmar or Algeria.
Writers on plurilingualism (the ability to speak a range of Englishes in different socio-cultural contexts) have argued against a hierarchy of English, where one variety is seen as better than another.
“the goal of language teaching should be successful language use and multicompetence, not trying to get students to imitate monolingual native-speaker use.”(Larsen-Freeman 2011, p169)
Here Larsen-Freeman raises the problem of studying English as a “standard”, arguing that it should not replace other Englishes which the learner may already speak. Achieving the multicompetence she talks about means being able to use a variety of Englishes appropriately in a variety of communicative contexts.
Singapore, as stated earlier, is the plurilinguistic environment par excellence, where a range of different Englishes are widely-spoken. Training in this environment, therefore, requires an acceptance of these Englishes. Formality of English used in the training classroom may vary a great deal, depending, for example, on whether learners are writing formal emails, or practising colloquial functional language for shopping for food. It is entirely reasonable that a trainee teacher bring varieties of English like Singlish into the classroom when practising transactional exchanges which learners may have as soon as they leave the classroom.
A focus on language accuracy, crucial for learners taking global proficiency tests or seeking employment in particular professional contexts, is important while training new English language teachers, but is just one aspect of the trainer’s responsibility, and should not overshadow other responsibilities. Furthermore, the trainer, while observing classes, should accept a variety of Englishes, some more “accurate” than others, depending on the context of the communication students are engaged in. Trainers should also avoid policing the use of language by trainees when they are communicating with each other in more relaxed settings. The diversity of English varieties and accents that come together on a training course in a place like Singapore should be protected.
Accuracy and literacy
Returning to the question posed earlier “how much accuracy should I expect from my trainees?”, it is useful to consider broader English literacy:
“participation in a literate English culture means more than being able to read English – learners need to gain access to the specific English language norms, grammar and vocabulary used by those in power.” (Larsen-Freeman 2011, p168)
Trainees, NESTs and N-NESTs alike, should therefore have the awareness that their own English use may need to change in different contexts, where tolerance of different varieties of English may differ. If they are Non-NESTs communicating in the staffroom, they should not have to obsessively focus on adherence to what they may perceive as a “standard, accurate English”, as this may cause adverse stress and anxiety. Likewise, in class, trainees should focus on developing a range of effective teaching techniques, and keeping their spoken language as accurate as possible without obsessing about it. Over-correction of English by teacher trainers could also contribute to undue stress and anxiety. However, when completing written work for assessment, NEST and N-NEST trainees will need to monitor their written language accuracy and style closely, proofreading diligently.
Larsen-Freeman (2011, pp.166-7) raises the thorny issue of which English should be taught to students as a model, and concludes that “no one outside of the local educational context can really answer the question of which English should be taught in a particular place at a particular time.” Since teacher trainers are often only somewhat familiar with the local ELT contexts they operate within, and since trainees will move on to a range of different teaching contexts after the course, it is advisable for trainers to be flexible, and accepting of different varieties of English, and some degree of inaccuracy.
After spending time training in Singapore, being exposed to the varieties of English I heard there, and watching trainees struggle with language accuracy, I have become convinced that as a group we should accept a broad range of Englishes, and that I have no need to pause or offer correction on hearing uses of English which differ from my own, or when minor inaccuracies occur.
|Author's Bio: Arthur Laing has been teaching English as a Second Language since 2003, and training ESL teachers since 2013. He currently works as a CELTA and ICELT trainer, training mainly in China, Singapore, Vietnam and Georgia. The majority of his ICELT trainees are C1 speakers of English from China, and his CELTA trainees come from a diverse range of linguistic backgrounds.|
Ghosh, P., A Brief Introduction to Singlish, Feb 2017 https://theculturetrip.com/asia/singapore/articles/a-brief-explanation-of-singlish-can-lah/
Holliday, A., The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language, Oxford University Press, 2009
Larsen-Freeman, D. & Anderson, M., Techniques & Principles in Language Teaching, Oxford University Press, 2011
Medgyes, P., The Non-Native Teacher, Swan Communication Ltd., 2017