Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Two Languages in One

I'm not a linguist, so I'd like to note that my comments on language and how it works are just personal reflections. If you are an expert on language, I would love to know what you think. I'd also be grateful to be pointed in the direction of any relevant research!

In an old post, I shared that many of my adult learners have noticed a distinction between the English they hear in class and the English they encounter "out there". Intermediate learners understand me and (for the most part) their classmates but some of them are frustrated when they take their English on the road. They can handle everyday tasks such as buying tokens or grocery shopping but when they try to go beyond ritual transactions, things go south quickly.

Part of the problem is their output, of course. Well-chosen words and good grammar are fine but missing discourse markers, intonation and stress can all lead to a disconnect.

And then there's the input. My frustrated students are not mistaken. What they're taking in is not the same language they experience in the classroom. I think that, as products of an academic system ourselves, ESL/EFL providers have a habit of thinking of input in terms of reading. In the program at my organization, our only formal assessment is a reading test. Our materials and activities, too, are heavily oriented toward text. Reading is an academic pursuit. We native speakers don't begin school until we're already using everyday English pretty fluently. A teacher's spoken language, too, could be considered closer to reading aloud than to everyday speech. We naturally register-shift to the language of the classroom (academic), although ESL/EFL teachers do use a form that we think will be taken in more easily (teacher talk).

I'm not criticizing the teaching of academic English in ESL/EFL classes! What I'm exploring is the fact that our programs typically neglect an important aspect of input learning: the ability to understand everyday spoken English as used by the community in which the learner is most likely to interact. As noted above, native speakers walk in to academic training with this skill already in place. I don't believe we even think of it as something learned. It's just there. And that leads me to the "two languages" in the title of this post.

Tonbridge Castle Gatehouse, built around 1088, Kent *

I had phrasal verbs on the mind after my last post and then I read a post from John McIntyre at the Baltimore Sun where he reminded his fans (I'm one) that we have the Normans to thank for the way we use English today. He said:

Anglo-Saxon was demoted mainly to the tongue of an illiterate peasantry, and for decades following the Important People of England spoke Norman French (the aristocracy) or Latin (the church).

Do you see a connection? This dichotomy lingers today. We spend the first five or six years of our life learning everyday English, including the very Germanic phrasal verb. When we start school, we're already using discourse markers, intonation, thought groups and suprasegmental stress like pros. As we begin our academic life, we set about learning a second language -- the language of the literate. By its very definition, it's the language of reading, writing and prepared speech.

When we take a fully academic approach to second language teaching, we do it the other way around. We dive right into the reading, writing and formal speaking. Those students who make it to higher levels may be invited to take a conversation class or to study the subtle meaning shifts of phrasal verbs and modals as an academic subject!

So, what's to be done about this?  I think it depends on the purpose of the teaching program and the learning goals of the participants.  Students who want to go to an English language university, for example, will focus on academic language as a priority and will choose a program that aids them in this quest.  What about our EL-Civics program?  We, too, want to help learners get into English language educational programs or find satisfying employment.  Both of these goals are served by the teaching of academic English.

At the same time, many of our learners want simpler successes.  Older learners want to relate to their English-speaking grandchildren.  Lonely refugees want to get to know their neighbors and make friends.  A traveler wants to ask for directions and be able to understand the response.  A spouse wants to follow the joking and storytelling at his wife's office party.  Just about anyone wants to understand a message left on their voice mail.  Should the listening skills that are needed to understand non-academic English be ignored or taught as an afterthought?

Photo © Copyright Pete Chapman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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