Saturday, March 3, 2007

On different Englishes

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

A teacher wanted to know: “What degree of familiarity should a responsible EFL teacher in China have with other Englishes?”

Our problem is that we get all geared up to be descriptive but when students give us language back we find that we need to prescribe since they need to know what is acceptable and what isn't. Many teachers go for consistency, especially in spelling, but I don't think this is an answer, especially as I think that Australian English has some UK and some US spellings.

It's rather like degrees of formality. If you mark certain items as formal and others as informal it's nice and easy but it's not real life. In real life we slip between these boundaries with the greatest of ease. Last month one of my academic colleagues, while presenting a paper to lecturers and students, used the lexical item "piss". I had a field day with this because I've said for years that most EFL learners learn to urinate before they can piss and I was proved right.

In the same way, US, UK and other Englishes are a continuum and people slip from one to another. Although I'm British I use the Australian "No worries" fairly frequently after living in an Australian English influenced environment in Papua New Guinea. My daughter uses "gotten" and many UK British use US English vocabulary and expressions alongside their "traditional" English. I think "talk with" alongside "talk to" might be one example.

Macau and Hong Kong use British English but are in an American sphere of influence. Australian English is widely used in the Pacific and has some influence up here too. There are a number of Indian English words in Hong Kong English, too. "Shroff" for the guy who you pay when you park your car is one example. So we in the South China SARs are at a crossroads and have to pay more attention to varieties of English.

In terms of power, money and number of native speakers American English wins hands down but because British English is used in many ex-colonies and as a lingua-franca in Europe it has a status and influence beyond its small native speaker base and I can still make a living. And, as Eve says, many students want to study in UK, Australia or Canada, or even in other European countries like the Netherlands or Sweden.

For this reason it is probably a good idea to accept all major varieties of English, even when mixed, but to make students aware. After all, it rarely causes a communication problem. I knew what my student wanted to say when she used "bumper jack", though I suspect she didn't and just got the words from a translation dictionary.

As for knowing whether something is UK, US or whatever English, I think it can be picked up as you go along. I'm still learning as I've never been to the US and my knowledge is all second and third hand. I think, though, that I now have some kind of intuition about students "mistakes". There are some where I immediately think it might be US usage and I hold the red/green pen back until I've checked. Or I ignore it because it doesn't seem important.

On another track and a peeve, TOEFL doesn't hold the correction pen back because it's prescriptive and designed purely for US tertiary education. I was assured by a Cambridge rep that IELTS and the FCE, CAE etc. accept major varieties of English though I wonder if they still play the consistency card. A world language really should accept variety within boundaries of global comprehension.

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