Friday, November 17, 2006

teaching "real" English

In class, do you slow down your speech and try to articulate a little more precisely than you do when talking to other native speakers? I do, because I know that otherwise my students will have trouble following me. After all, I reason, if they don’t understand anything, they will have accomplished nothing as far as learning is concerned.

By doing this, your students are going to have a big shock if eventually they get to try out their English in real-world situations, that is, outside the classroom. For English speakers who are not EFL professionals are not so considerate toward non-native speakers. They will continue at their normal pace and expect everyone to keep up. So if your students are used to y o u ...s p e a k i n g ...s l o w l y... a n d ... d e l i b e r a t e l y ... l i k e ... t h i s...they won’t have a cat-in-hell’s chance of understanding the New York taxi driver or the Scottish barman they meet on their travels.

So is it better to babble on in your normal voice? I thought about this when a student of mine had a fairly typical grammar problem with the “to” infinitive. She would regularly say, “*I want go”, forgetting the particle. I decided that since corrections didn’t seem to work, I would show her what it sounds in “real” English: “I wanna go”. In the real world, native speakers don’t pay any attention to the fact that the little word “to” belongs to the following verb, and routinely attach it to “want” so it becomes “wanna”. If you taught your students “wanna” first, they would simply add the verb they want and forget about the grammar rules. The advantage of this is that they will at the same time be practising spoken English the way natives use it.

I have the advantage as a language teacher to have two small children who are learning my language, English, and their mother’s, French. It is nothing short of miraculous that my daughter can understand, at the age of three, when I say “what are you going to do?”; because what actually comes out of my mouth is more like “watcha gonna do?” Only when she learns to read will she realise that there are actually six words in the question and not three. But that’s of little importance to her while she’s mastering the spoken word, and it should be the same for your students.

Only rarely do adults say that they need writing skills more than speaking, and yet we still put too much emphasis on the written word. It’s time for language teachers to teach English in a way that is best going to serve their students in life, and not treat language as a purely academic exercise.


S said...

Everything that is learnt has to start slowly as this lets the student listen, understand and gain confidence. Once they have basic knowledge they can then speed up. This is not just true with languages but learning musical instruments etc. You will get no where fast if the tutor goes through the motions at normal speed not letting the student take in an understand what is being taught. Once the basic level and foundation is there then the pace can speed up.

The names Bear - Gummy Bear said...

S - They won't thank you when they go to the UK and can't understand a word. To use your own analogy: Do you listen to music s-l-o-w-e-d down? No? It's the same with spoken English. The student doesn't have to speak quickly, neither does the teacher, but please speak naturally. Repeat what has been said, speak clearly, but don't speak like they are idiots.

Jonathan Lewis said...

Absolutely agree, S, and thank you for revealing your identity! I wanted to thank you for publishing one of my articles on your site. Feel free to remove it if you can't stand me any more!
It would be terrible for anyone teaching to use that oh-so-british technique of talking loudly with a "you can't speak my language so you must be stupid" tone of voice.

What if, though, we taught our students right from the beginning things like /dju:wona/ for "do you want to?" Would that be helpful or harmful?

Sue Swift said...

Hi - I came across your blog the other day and really like it. I also run a EFL site - you can find it at Would you be interested in an article swap? You can find out more if you look at the item Write for Us! listed in the sidebar. The site e-mail address is there too.

Let me know if you're interested -I hope so, but in anycase I'll be coming back to your blog regularly from now on.

Look forward to hearing from you.
Sue Swift

Your Teacher said...

I think we can teach "Ay up me duck" as long as we explain that you might hear this in a Nottingham shop, but it ain't good English. Teaching vernacular is a nice way of having a good giggle too.