Do you speak Englishes?
Do you speak Englishes?
By Kata Ujvarosi
“It will be interesting in years to come to see whether the term ‘native’ undergoes another change in connotation. In the days of empire, the natives were the indigenous populations, and the term itself implied uncivilized, primitive, barbaric, even cannibalistic. With the spread of English around the globe, ‘native’ – in relation to English – has assumed newer, positive connotations. ‘Native speakers’ of English are assumed to be advanced (technologically), civilized, and educated. But as native speakers lose their linguistic advantage, with English being spoken as an international language [i.e., ELF] and (…) become the accepted world norm, and monolingualism the exception, perhaps the word ‘native’ will return to its pejorative usage. The opposite group will be on the receiving end only this time.” Thus wrote Professor Jennifer Jenkins. in 2000 (p. 229). Fifteen years later, she added, “I think this is happening” (2021).
While there has been a noticeable paradigm change in the ESL world - as Charles Lowe discussed in Issue 50 of the IH Journal – the market and the actual customers are still blindfolded by the native speakerism hype. The idea that native speakers are better equipped for teaching, writing, and reviewing materials, as well as for providing role models of perfect pronunciation, causes a lot of problems in the ELT industry worldwide. It places undue emphasis on one's nationality over qualifications and experience. Learners, policymakers, language schools, and course providers are all after native-speaker teachers as they continue to believe them to be the epitome of successful language teaching.
However, as I discussed in Issue 50, learners must not consider their lessons or the teaching they receive to be some kind of magic pill that will solve all of their language-learning ills. They need to take in language from as wide a range of sources as possible, and this they must do independently and autonomously, reducing the relative impact made by their teacher.
What learners seem to believe they need is often not what they really need, considering how, where, and with whom they aim to use the language they have learnt. A realistic aim could be, as Lowe suggests, to become effective in using international English.
Think about the last time you conducted a needs analysis with one of your learners. As you think about this, tick off the items on the following list of their wants :
- Native-like pronunciation
- Lots of colloquial English
- Ability to understand native speakers
- Achievement of a high-level proficiency in communicating at ease
- Learn grammar to speak fluently and hesitate less because of a worry of making mistakes
- Being placed in a group at a level that matches their self-diagnosed level of ability
- Wanting to know how quickly they can become fluent and with how little work they might achieve their goals
- A desire to use a new, unique method that works so that they can see results within months at a fraction of the cost
- Having teachers available 24/7
- The ability to cancel such tailor-made lessons with as short as five minutes’ notice without penalty
- Having a teacher who acts like a life coach and expert in a million different areas, ready to transform the learning programme to suit the latest whim of the client
These are the things some of my students have said to me, either in our first lesson together or when they were just inquiring about lessons in the first place. But there is a massive difference between what a student says they want, as a triggered desire - and what they really want. Take, for example, that first case of ‘native-like pronunciation.’ You can see the problem with this request immediately - what, precisely, does it mean? Hard to define!
So the desired English means British English, American English, Australian English, South African English…? And if it means British English, does that cover the regional accents, too? How often have your students returned from their travels in the English-speaking world only to report that they couldn’t successfully communicate with anyone as “they all speak different English!” The cure for this issue does not have to be a native-speaker teacher; if there are a thousand possible accents out there and a native-speaker teacher is an expert in one of them, the student is hardly going to benefit from an appreciable degree.
A student who asks for a lot of colloquial English might similarly have failed to consider what it is they really want - and, more importantly, in the present discussion, how to get it. Unless they have reached a sufficiently high level of proficiency, a learner who uses a particularly recondite colloquial idiom will either sound odd or simply confuse their interlocutor. That’s one thing. But the other is that the world is teeming with great sources of colloquial language - why limit yourself to just those examples that your teacher can provide? All of Netflix is home to idiomatic language - the student wants not to be spoon-fed this kind of lexis but to have a guide to the greater world of language, somebody who can show them how to add this gem to their repertoire.
To solve these and other problems, we should start asking our students different questions. Here are a few that can start the ball rolling:
- How many different Englishes do you know about?
- Can you communicate effectively? Can you get things done using only English?
- Can you negotiate meaning considering the context or social situation?
- Have you ever wondered what kind of English you speak?
Many students come to the classroom with what are, sadly, unhelpful preconceived notions of what their teachers should look and sound like. Teachers named Joe and Megan are more likely to win the trust of their students, while Svetlana or Gabor will have an uphill struggle; in some contexts, non-native speaker teachers are encouraged to anglicise their names, so Monika becomes Monica, Piotr becomes Peter, and so forth.
Our students would do well to consider the statistics. Over two billion people speak English to some degree. The number of people speaking English on a daily basis is staggering. While 1.3 billion people use English as a lingua franca, there are 500 million so-called native speakers. What English do native speakers speak? English varies from Newcastle to London, let alone the rest of the world! It would be pointless - unless the student already had a point in mind - to worry about learning the kind of English that is spoken in one very small, very limited area; instead, our students should consider the language’s global reach and the vast numbers of potential interlocutors they could reach through a better knowledge of this now global language. As seen from this perspective, the difference between lessons with Monica and lessons with Monika begins to diminish.
It is easy to fixate on the accent offered by a particular teacher. Still, this fixation, we should note, tends not to translate to other fields - imagine a young scientist worrying that they will end up looking like a professor in their field just because they studied under them! As a student, it is much better to ask yourself: “Can I communicate effectively? Am I intelligible? Can I help someone who learnt English like me understand me even if they know less - or more - English?”
If you can answer these questions with a "yes", you have already achieved communicative competence in the world of English. Dr Lid King says, “We live in a multilingual world. English serves as the lingua franca for education, trade and employment, and is an essential skill for anyone wanting to succeed professionally or academically in the 21st century”(2018).
This can be achieved without needing to sound like a native speaker. Indeed, it is probable that very few learners will ever sound like native speakers, and many may not even want to because, to some extent, our accent – and we all have an accent – represents our identity. And increasingly, learners of English use English as a medium of communication, or lingua franca, with other non-native speakers of English, which calls into question whether native speaker models of English are even the most appropriate models for learners.
Therefore, learning and understanding different accents in a course where varieties meet is a valuable tool. Exposure to diversity, listening to the English of South Africans and the Irish, and trying to understand the English of the Chinese and Peruvians while also sounding intelligible. This might mean I speak good English.
The aim could be, as Lowe (2023) suggests, to “become effective using International English.”
As a reply to unrealistic and controversial expectations, we could suggest the following needs to replace the supposed wants of our students:
With realistic expectations and goals of the teaching programmes (see more in Ujvarosi, 2023), learners may feel less pressure to achieve “native-like fluency” but rather better comprehension and learning strategies in a world where 80% of interactions in English take place between non-native speakers; “getting by in English in near-enough grammar, near-enough lexis” (Lowe, 2023), with support through negotiation skills that implement the use of gestures, real objects, and negotiation of meaning, and applying hesitation devices, fillers, and translanguaging as well. Classroom practice should aim to imitate authentic situations and avoid tasks that require solely memorising words and grammar rules (Gaab, 2020). At the same time, learners should be aware of English as L1 language speakers’ unpreparedness to accommodate L2 language users and cope with such difficulties (e.g. failing to grade their English, speaking too fast, having strong accents or dialects, using idiomatic language, etc. - as Charles Lowe details in Issue 50 of the Journal).
It will take time and much effort to move our client base away from the native-speaker model of language education, but I can already see it happening. The benefits are clear, as it will mean that students eventually will opt for the most qualified, most experienced teacher rather than just somebody who, by an accident of birth, ‘sounds’ the best. By teaching our students how to build on a strong foundation of good lessons, we will encourage greater autonomy and see our students enjoy more both within the classroom and without.
The benefits for EFL teachers, too, are clear. The issue is obvious for non-native speakers, but for native-speaker teachers, life could be improved should our attempt to change the mindset of our clients be successful. Look again at that list of ‘wants’ of my typical student. Many of these are lifestyle-oriented, as much as learning-oriented, and demonstrate that the client considers the native speaker teacher to be something less than a qualified teacher - they wouldn’t have such unrealistic expectations otherwise. It’s also possible that many native-speaker teachers (I’ve certainly spoken to a few) suffer because their clients see them as a native speaker first and a teacher second (if at all) - and that the feeling is reciprocated. Why else would they agree to become life coaches for their charges or to accept last-minute cancellations and alterations? Could there be a touch of guilt there, as much as anything else? Not universally, certainly - but pushing further towards a sense of professionalism in the industry would definitely take care of such worries - and wouldn’t that be nice?
Kata Ujvarosi, Do you speak “Englishes”? Che inglese parli?, Oct. 28., 2000 In: https://www.sudestonline.it/2020/10/28/cultura/do-you-speak-englishes-che-inglese-parli/)
Kata Ujvarosi, Teacher, are you going to teach me good English? Apr., 2o23 In: https://ihworld.com/ih-journal/issues/issue-50/teacher-are-you-going-to-teach-me-good-english/
Charles Lowe, Standard International English?, Apr. 2023 In: https://ihworld.com/ih-journal/issues/issue-50/standard-international-english-part-3-towards-a-new-standard-international-english/
Charlie Taylor, EFL: Linguistic imperialism or a defence of democracy? In Pilgrims, 2023, Issue 4. Accessed 9th Aug 2023
Dr Lid King: The Impact of Multilingualism on Global Education and Language Learning In UCLES 2018 https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/Images/539682-perspectives-impact-on-multilingualism.pdf. Accessed on 14 Aug 2023
Carol Gaab: Language Teacher vs. Acquisition Facilitator In: Language Magazine, 3 March, 2020. Accessed 29th Aug, 2023.
Kata Ujvarosi is a freelance EFL teacher and course designer, running F2F and online classes at English Monopoli and collaborating with schools and providing teachers workshops in Italy and Hungary, including International House Budapest. She holds the Cambridge DELTA, BA in Education, IH CAM and CELTA qualifications and is keen on professional development to challenge her views, keep up with the ELT world and better respond to her learners' needs. She is particularly interested in Task-based learning and fostering positive self-efficacy to facilitate learning and make teaching programmes more learning- and learner-centred.