Sunday, September 12, 2010

Sunday Linguistics Corner - the teaching of English

A couple of days ago I attended a talk by Dr Chris Hall, of York St John University, on the topic of 'Embracing Hybridity' in English language teaching.

He raised a number of interesting points, with most of which I found myself in fairly violent disagreement.  So, I thought I would outline my objections and responses here (because nobody reads the blog on a Sunday!).  I shall try to be brief.  I'll probably fail.

No 'Standard' English?  
Is 'Core English' a better way of thinking about it?

Dr Hall was espousing what seems to have become the 'new orthodoxy' in academic linguistics and EFL teaching circles over the past couple of decades: that it is misguided (and damaging) to cling to the notion of a 'standard English' amid the plurality of English varieties, 'world Englishes', that exist today; that it is, indeed, linguistically 'imperialist', since the 'standard' we most often attempt to adhere to is British (or US) English, with little attention or respect accorded to other varieties.

My response is that if you completely abandon any idea of 'standard English', you are also abandoning standards in English - throwing the baby out with the bath water.  The evolutionary tendencies of language are mostly centrifugal - the movement is towards diversification and divergence (and/or, all too often, towards a degeneration in precision, flexibility, usefulness): the road to Babel.  I believe that language teaching (in any language, but especially in English, since it has become established as the world lingua franca today, and might, I think, in a few centuries, become the sole world language) needs to provide a centripetal counter to that tendency, to establish a fairly stable centre which can help to join language varieties together, stop them diverging so far from each other that they become mutually unintelligible.

You can 'depoliticise' your ways of thinking about and talking about the teaching of English, without giving up on this 'core mission' to identify and perpetuate the crucial 'common ground' in the family of modern Englishes.  I accept the points that one should not be intolerant of colourful local variations in the use of English, should not be too slavish in adherence to a 'standard English', and should not over-correct learners, criticising them for unimportant 'errors'.  However, the position of linguists like Dr Hall threatens to lead to an ultimate permissiveness in language teaching, where we are required to honour the 'validity' of every single utterance of English from every single speaker and never 'correct' anything at all.  Without correction, there is no learning; and the naturally divergent tendency of languages could run completely amok.

I believe the idea of allowing all English speakers 'ownership' of the language is being dangerously overextended by the likes of Dr Hall.  Yes, it's psychologically helpful for learners of a language to develop a sense of confidence and empowerment in their use of the language, not to feel embarrassed or inadequate because of idiosyncrasies or 'defects' in the way they use it.  But it is possible for a sensitive teacher to engender that sort of confidence without entirely abandoning 'correction'.  There are core standards in the English language we should try to adhere to.  Divergences from this core, while we can acknowledge their potential attractiveness or usefulness, need to be identified and restricted in the basic teaching of English.

That, perhaps, is the key point.  Most of the practical examples Dr Hall gave towards the end of his presentation were directed towards enhancing students' communicative effectiveness in specific situations, and developing strategies for overcoming the particular difficulties that may be encountered between two non-native English speakers talking to each other.  These are techniques you would only introduce with fairly advanced students.  I'm not sure how far it is possible or useful to push back this 'approach' into the very earliest stages of learning the language.

In order to be 'politically correct' or 'politically sensitive', the English teacher today has to be able to 'correct' without diminishing a student's sense of self-worth, and has to be able to refer to a body of core standards in English usage (to which adherence is encouraged, although divergence need not be completely denied) which are not tied to any national chauvinism.

I don't teach 'British English'.  I don't even speak it (or write it) any more.  After many years of living overseas in mixed expat communities, one loses a sense of connectedness to one's home country and becomes very 'internationalised' - both in general outlook and in use of English.  When Chinese students ask me the differences between British and US English, and ask which I will teach them - I chortle!  What differences?  The differences are trivial, unimportant (if you can absorb that -or/-our divergence in spelling, you've got about 50% of it down) compared to the massive commonality between the two varieties - and compared to the massive commonality in all major varieties of modern English around the world.  And it is that common ground - rather than the regional variations - that most of our attention is directed to in teaching English, at least at the more basic level.

Therefore, I believe we need to establish a 'Core English' we wish to try to maintain as a stable centre linking the vast family of modern Englishes together - but strip it of any identification with one particular variety of the language or any sense of national superiority attaching to elements of it.  We can't expect that 'core' to remain completely stable over time, but we need to try to maintain it as a unifying reference point, and absorb new divergences into it only cautiously.  British English may have furnished most of the current 'core', because Britain was where the language originated - but that is an historical curiosity, of interest only to philologists; it has no relevance in the English classroom.  In future, the 'British' elements of Core English will become less dominant - and less and less readily identified as British - as fresh input from all over the globe (primarily, of course, from America which is now culturally dominant in the world, even though its number of native English speakers is relatively small; but potentially from every other country too) slowly modifies the 'core'.

I think I'm usually at the more permissive end of the spectrum in teaching English: I refrain from correcting very much, and praise students' communicative effectiveness regardless of any technical flaws in their English.  But I do think there are flaws in English usage - flaws which can be identified, and which should be resisted; flaws which, though they may not prevent communicative effectiveness, nevertheless tend to obstruct or diminish it; flaws which students, ideally, should become self-aware about, and should seek to eliminate or restrict.  The extreme position of linguistic theorists is that all varieties of language usage are equally valid - not just all major national or regional varieities of a language, but each individual's unique usage, their idiolect.  That, as I said earlier, is the path to Babel.

We can acknowledge that flavour, flavor, and flava are all widespread variant spellings of the same word in different language communities/situations; but flavur, flaivor, phlava & co. are just plain WRONG.

There has long been a divergence in the academic study of language, and particularly in the analysis of grammar, between a descriptive and a prescriptive approach: the former merely attempts to catalogue and categorise how language is used, accepting the indistinguishable 'validity' of all new variations; the latter tries to identify an ideal core set of rules, and is usually resistant to linguistic innovation.  Although I don't believe these two approaches necessarily have to be completely exclusive, I suppose I'm in the latter camp.

Why is linguistic innovation to be resisted?  Well, for one thing, I believe that, even if such variations are potentially useful changes or additions to the language, there is a danger that if we accept them too readily, they'll start coming at us too frequently and too fast - the 'Babel effect' can become overwhelming.  More importantly, I worry that large numbers of such innovations, probably the majority, are not in fact useful; and we need to apply some sort of filtering to try to restrict the entry of these non-useful novelties into wider usage.

I am not at all opposed to linguistic innovation per se.  I don't advocate that language should remain unchanging.  I welcome much innovation in the English language, particularly the absorption of vocabulary and idioms from other languages.  But I apply three criteria in appraising the value of new usages: aesthetic appeal (is this neat, is it elegant? is it an intrinsically attractive word or phrase, or a particularly striking way of expressing something?), sophistication (does it enable me to say something I couldn't say before? does it enable me to say something better than I could say it before? does it at least provide a useful alternative way of saying something?), and clarity (does this express an idea effectively, or is there too much risk of obscurity, lack of recognition, imprecision, ambiguity?).  So many new English usages seem to fail on all three counts.  One might hope that such apparently valueless usages would wither and die naturally; but there's no harm in fighting actively against them, to hasten that end.  And alas, the evolutionary process in language is not particularly meritocratic.  Most people are lazy, slovenly, unself-critical in their use of language: they are subconsciously attracted to usages that are superficially simpler or more 'convenient' (but may in fact not even be that), or sometimes, perhaps, they are simply attracted to novelty for the sake of novelty.  The general trend of the English spoken by 'the masses' is, I fear, a predominantly degenerative one.  It is usually only a minority of intellectuals - the practitioners of literary or academic English - who introduce and promote improvements in the language.

Ah, there I go being all elitist again!  Come and have a go, if you think you're hard enough.

[By the by, Dr Hall had a lot to say about 'China English', and so have I.  But I think I'd better leave that to another quiet Sunday...]

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