International House has marked its 50th anniversary with a conference on the future of ELT. Here two of the presenters argue for greater commitment to multilingualism and for training that prepares for diverse needs
Guardian Weekly, Thursday 13 November 2003
Add language, don’t take away
English learning takes place in so many contexts worldwide that it is a chameleon of diverse shapes, sizes, and colours. But two examples of this complexity help to clarify some of the criteria that could guide a vision of English teaching in the future.
In both there has been very little influence from the British (ELT) and North American (Tesol) traditions of English teaching as these have evolved since 1945. Both traditions were strongly influenced by tenets that are fundamentally false. The principal fallacy is the belief that English is best taught monolingually by a native speaker of English.
In most former colonies, the position of English has strengthened. It is a passport to privilege for the few. In formal education, there is a major unresolved tension between building on local linguistic diversity and going straight for English.
Neville Alexander of South Africa states that, “A policy of de facto unilingualism, that is one that in effect promotes English . . . as the only language of power for use in high-status functions, necessarily at this moment and for the foreseeable future, excludes the vast majority of ‘the common people’ from the most important decision-making processes, marginalises and disempowers them, and ultimately undermines the very democracy South Africans pride themselves on having attained.”
If English is learned in school subtractively, at the expense of the mother tongue and other local languages, this will increase polarisation between the English-speaking haves and the non-English-speaking have-nots.
This is precisely what has happened in India, where elites largely owe their position to English-medium education. This has equipped them for a role in the global economy, but detached them from local languages, and the vast majority of the population who only function in these. It is not unusual for the products of two generations of English-medium schooling to have no shared language with grandparents due to no competence in an Indian language. This is a recipe for a very divided, unstable society.
The second context is English learning in Europe as a school subject in education. This teaching tends to be more successful in the northern half of Europe for a variety of reasons, among them the length and quality of teacher training, the amount of exposure to English outside the classroom, and English being a related language to the mother tongue of learners in Germany and Scandinavia. There has been a gradual shift from a literature-based foreign language to equipping learners with communicative skills for interaction internationally. The teachers tend to be well-qualified locals.
Those of us who have learned foreign languages to a high level of competence tend to be strong believers in the joys of multilingualism, but we also know how demanding it is. Native speakers have an edge in many contexts of use (who talks most at “international” conferences?). But the quality of producing correct, subtle, appropriate language, in specific contexts of speech or writing, may be of minimal relevance as a qualification for teaching.
What is really important is your professional qualifications rather than your mother tongue. Learners are not learning to be surrogate native speakers. How can native speakers who have not themselves gone through the process of learning a foreign language successfully feel confident in guiding others towards proficiency in a foreign language?
The logical inconsistency between an international means of communication and native speaker norms has been noted by an experienced professor of English in Athens, Bessie Dendrinos. She notes the ambivalence between English being marketed as being culturally neutral, able to express anyone’s views, and a focus in teaching on learning to use the language in culturally appropriate ways. This inevitably and unjustifiably positions Greeks as deficient vis-è-vis native speakers.
Professor Dendrinos has also come to the realisation that despite impeccable fluency in English, she has often experienced discrimination in international professional contexts. The cause of such discrimination is often native speaker insensitivity to the fact that others are using English as a foreign language. A related problem has been noted by Miklos Kontra of Hungary. Before the end of communism there was little risk of the learning of English entailing linguistic or cultural imperialism, but this has changed. Teaching materials and native speakers of English are prima facie inappropriate in Hungary if they are not imbued with detailed familiarity with local learners’ needs, of a (contrastive) linguistic, cultural and educational kind.
Such professional competence takes years to build up, whether one is a native speaker or not. There is abundant research evidence showing that foreign/second language proficiency can be attained by several routes, and that focus on a single aspect, such as age, or the mother tongue of teachers, is misguided. There is concern in several European countries about the position of well-established national languages being eroded by an increased use of English. A major language policy document in Sweden aims to ensure that Swedes in future will have “parallel competence” in Swedish and English. The aim is to ensure that Swedish interests are promoted globally, and also that Sweden, with Swedish as the unifying national language, remains a viable, democratic society.
Of all the member states in the European Union, Sweden has come furthest in formulating plans for multilingual competence in a globalising world. Policy documents from both the European Union and the Council of Europe recommend all states to undertake language policy work of this kind.
Language teaching faces many exciting challenges if we are to achieve such goals, and a balance between the rights and needs of minority languages, key local languages, English, and other foreign languages. The ideal teacher of English will take many forms, but will invariably teach English as an additive language, and be familiar with the mother tongues and culture of the learners, and convinced that multilingualism is a fundamental value.
· Robert Phillipson is research professor at the department of English, Copenhagen Business School.
Old ways of teaching challenged by new class divisions
There seems to be broad agreement that the demography of general EFL classes in Britain has undergone a significant change in the past few years. Back in 1997 the nationalities present in the largest numbers were Japanese (20%), Italians (10%), Germans (8%), Spanish (7%) and Swiss (7%). Students from east Asian countries other than Japan collectively constituted a mere 5% of the student body. Most students were female and either short-stay Europeans or longer-stay Japanese.
Since 1998 the number of Chinese students coming to Britain to study has risen significantly. The majority have a very specific agenda: their aim is to raise their English level to the point where they will be accepted on to courses at British universities. Yet they are commonly taught in classes alongside students with very different goals and language needs.
Most English language teachers in Britain have successfully completed an initial training course such as the Cambridge Celta or the Trinity Cert Tesol. They will typically have taught “real” students for as little as six hours and the students they have taught will, in many cases, be refugees – that is, people for whom Britain is now their permanent home.
Such students have important, and often very obvious language learning needs, and the ethos of both the Cambridge and Trinity schemes is rightly that trainee teachers should address and respond to the needs of the students in their classes. However, this does beg the question: how can trainee teachers be equipped with the skills to manage groups of learners with disparate needs, and moreover whose needs may be very different from those of the only learners of whom they have first-hand experience?
It’s also important to acknowledge that many certificate graduates who go on to teach abroad will find themselves in a situation where the issue is not so much that their learners have different needs but that their learners’ cultural background and previous language learning experience present all kinds of challenges. How can an intensive training course realistically set out to prepare trainees for the different challenges presented by these different teaching contexts?
Most English language teachers and more significantly most teacher trainers subscribe to communicative methodology. Countless articles and conference talks have been devoted to exploring precisely what is meant by this, and it is clear that the term encompasses a wide spectrum of classroom methods and approaches. Nevertheless, few would disagree with the proposition that a communicative approach stresses the purposes of language – what we use it for – over detailed knowledge of formal grammar. To put it another way, language is taught as a tool of communication rather than as a subject for academic study. This fundamental assumption underlies much of the content (and delivery) of teacher training courses and also of materials published in Anglophone countries and written by Anglophone authors. And this is rightly so.
My concern is that the tenets of a communicative methodology are so deeply embedded in ELT practice that the new teachers we are producing are not equipped with the skills to deal with students who appear not to embrace the techniques and procedures teachers have been trained to employ. Those students’ cultural backgrounds and previous learning experiences may lead them to expect a very different classroom practice.
This does not constitute a failing on the part of accredited bodies such as Cambridge Esol and Trinity. Their pre-service qualifications acknowledge in their syllabuses the importance of the learner and key issues such as learner styles, learner strategies and motivation. The problem lies more in the legacy of the more extreme manifestations of the communicative approach, in which mastery of techniques was seen as more important than learning how to engage real learners in real classroom situations.
It isn’t difficult to see why this might be so: classroom techniques can be demonstrated, learned and assessed. In engaging with real learners in real classroom situations, we enter less comfortable territory. While it’s true that reconciling the language learning needs and learning styles of students from very different cultural backgrounds has always presented a challenge, in the past there was at least a greater degree of homogeneity of purpose among the students within most groups than we are seeing now.
Gone is the era of the general English class, in which most students had no more specific goal than improving their ability to communicate effectively in English. We have now entered an era in which increasingly students have clearly defined and sometimes highly individual language learning agendas. In Britain the EFL classroom of the 21st century is likely to include west Europeans, east Europeans, possibly south Americans, almost certainly students from east Asia, including China. The challenge for the teacher will be to juggle the needs of a diminishing number of short-stay, predominantly European students, whose goal is essentially to hone and refine their listening and speaking skills, alongside those of long-stay students from east Asia, whose priority is to achieve a 6.5 or 7 at Ielts. It may be possible to do this and to do this well, but it’s hard to see in the current scheme of things where the requisite skills can be acquired.
The time has surely come to review some of the assumptions that inform the communicative approach both in the classroom and on teacher training courses. There is no need for the communicative baby to be thrown out with the prescriptive bathwater. There is, though, a need for trainee teachers to be properly prepared for the realities of balancing the needs of very different groups of language learners in their classrooms.
· Jeremy Page is deputy director of the Sussex Language Institute, University of Sussex
Both pieces are based on presentations at the International House Future of English and English Language Teaching conference, held in London earlier this month.