Variety-Bound English in the EFL Classroom

Alan Rosen asks: Is it in students' best interest for native-English-speaking EFL teachers to select materials that reflect their own variety of the language? See Charles Hall and Debra S. Lee's Portal article, "Creating 'Quick-and-Dirty' Corpora with Search Engines," Essential Teacher, June 2006, pp. 38-41.

As any experienced native English speaker working in Japan will tell you, the linguistic opinions of the native-English-speaking teachers are generally treated with something like canonical reverence: most Japanese English teachers and learners consider them to be virtually infallible on matters of grammar and usage.

A Family Feud

Obviously, this attitude is problematic. Apart from the fact that not all native speakers know what they are doing linguistically, most are blindly loyal to their own particular variety of English. Under the surface of polite conviviality, a family feud simmers: many speakers of British (Commonwealth) English believe that their variety is the first and true model, whereas many Americans (and Canadians) believe their own is more modern and universal. Accordingly, most native speakers automatically select textbooks and other materials that are closest to their own variety of the language--a perfectly natural decision, but one that may not be in the best interests of their students.

Is My English Adequate for the Students I Teach?

Over the past decade or so, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with my assumption that, because of my status as an educated, native-English-speaking American with a regionally neutral or standard pronunciation, the English I taught was perfectly adequate for students' needs. I had always believed that if the Japanese university students I teach had something approaching my own command of American English, they would do fine in any international setting.

But after team teaching with a Scot and later with a New Zealander, I began to see that, although much of what I taught would be perfectly adequate in most international arenas, some would not be. To take one example, words like freshman and sophomore, I realized, were much more peculiar to American English than I had thought, useful only if the students were speaking with Americans. For most other users of English around the world, the British forms offirst-year student or second-year student were far more frequent and more readily intelligible. Due to my unawareness of this fact, I had been making students learn forms that were of limited use instead of forms that were more suitable as a lingua franca for multicultural communication.

Raising My Variety Consciousness

I was surprised to realize how variety-bound my thinking and teaching had been. Since I did not believe my role as a language teacher included the purveying of U.S. culture, or any other culture, for that matter, I reconfirmed my commitment to giving students English that was, as much as possible, variety neutral and omnicultural, that is to say, a linguistic toolbox that would enable them to communicate efficiently and effectively not only with native English speakers but also with the even more numerous nonnative English speakers of the world. To do this, I needed to do some variety consciousness-raising.

Talking at length with speakers of other varieties of English helped me see the extent of my own variety’s peculiarities. The chance to team teach with these speakers helped even more. I was surprised at how extensive the differences really are. Even sentences like I live on Brown Street or Did you eat yet? are variety-specific.

The second thing I did to break out of my American English mindset was to choose a British-English textbook for my first-year conversation class instead of my usual American English one. The decision was eye-opening. In class, I was forced to see the language I was teaching from the perspective of a nonnative. When I asked students to practice phrases such as This is a lovely flat, I began to doubt my lesson’s ultimate effectiveness. Unless they were going to speak with Britons, mastering these items was a small but definite waste of limited student time and energy. That the British use flat while much of the rest of the English-speaking world uses apartment is fine as a piece of information, but in a course intending to develop basic skills for international communication, it dilutes rather than strengthens students' ability. Likewise, the specifically American freshman and sophomore are of limited benefit to most beginning-level students, who require more widely applicable lexical forms rather than local ones. I believe that using a British English text made me a more objective and sensitive facilitator.

Teaching for the Global Arena

When the teacher and the student must confront together a type of English that is not native to either of them, a subtle shift occurs in the teacher's thinking, for both are now standing on the nonnative side of the variety line. One morning I taught a student to write in the hospital, and that afternoon my non-American colleague crossed out the the. Both are "correct," but which one should I teach? In this case, I decided to teach the British form as being the more logical, since it follows the common pattern of in school and in prison. It was up to me to learn which forms of English would be the most practical for students' language goals.

Without a clearly codified world standard of global English, or textbooks based on an international corpus of world forms, native-speaking English teachers need to find ways to raise their own variety consciousness to ensure that they are introducing their students to the most efficient and effective forms possible. One's own variety, no matter how well it is taught, may no longer be the ideal pedagogical model for linguistic competence in a global arena.

Alan Rosen (rosen@educ.kumamoto-u.ac.jp) teaches English language and literature at Kumamoto University, in Japan.