Teaching English as a Truly Foreign Language

Why don't we teach English as a truly foreign language?

The background: Until recently I just took it for granted that in my teaching I should hold up the English of the native speaker as something my foreign students really ought to be aspiring to. It just seemed obvious to this British teacher that learners should become progressively more competent speakers of British English with all its idioms and odd ways of expressing things. There was no such thing as "English as a foreign language". There was just teaching English to people who didn't have a passport that said "Britain", or "USA" on the cover. And that meant a different method of teaching exactly the same language - pointing out things that would never need to be pointed out to native speakers, and putting a lot less emphasis on literature, for instance. And in this context it made sense to insist that students should be entered for EFL/ESL exams compiled back in the venerable city of Cambridge - and who better to set the standard than our colleagues on either side of the Cam? Of course there were also English exams organised by the Greek authorities (for students here in Greece), but one just smiled at them in a gently condescending way.

Increasingly I find that attitude (my own attitude) repugnant. Why hold up a Cambridge don or Robbie Williams or any other native speaker as a standard? Why not make it clear at the outset that this is English as a FOREIGN language - the language OF foreigners who, in all probablility, will never have the desire or the opportunity or the need to assimilate into some cosy English-speaking nook in Britain or elsewhere and, in a sense, disappear in some odd process of cultural and psychological self-abnegation?

This has become an issue for me particularly in connection with advanced classes of English language learners. At this level, I am becoming more and more doubtful about the value of teaching EXACTLY what the English natives say in a particular situation. Let me give an example. In a situation where someone needs to stay alert the native might use the expression: "Keep your eyes peeled." Now this is a colourful expression that I personally like and which it might be fun to present and discuss in class in one context or another. What I don't agree with any longer is the idea that if this expression cropped up in a course book, students should be expected to learn it by heart (perhaps for a quick vocab test the following day).

In my own vocab tests I would definitely include the more common use of the verb "peel" and the word's use as a noun, but I wouldn't expect students to learn the expression about peeling eyes, and I would certainly not include the latter in some test of whether they are proficient users of the language. If a foreign learner can talk about peeling onions and about your skin peeling when you get sunburnt, that for me is a mark of proficiency in English as a foreign language. With that know-how they will certainly be able to grasp the eye-peeling expression if they ever come across it.

But what will they say in a war zone where they need to tell someone to stay alert and be on the lookout for snipers if they don't know the expression "Keep your eyes peeled"? Well, I guess they could say: "Stay alert and be on the lookout for snipers." It does exactly the same job.

I would even be in favour of Greeks borrowing translated expressions from their own language to enrich the conversation. In Greek they say: "Keep your eyes 14." If you were in enemy territory with a Greek paratrooper and she turned to you and said: "As we say in Greek, 'Keep your eyes 14'." It would be obvious what the message was, and you might have learned an interesting detail about the Greek language. This, for me, is proficiency. Anyone who - between bursts of sniper fire - turned to the Greek woman and said: "If you don't already know the expression: 'Keep your eyes peeled' you can't really be proficient in English" would be a fool.

Of course, I am not in a position to say exactly what constitutes English as a foreign language. It seems to me that it really must be up to foreign organisations to define their own standards. This has led me to reverse my estimation of the local (Greek, in this case) examination authorities. There really needs to be a sea change - a massive upswelling of self-confidence in these local authorities to promote themselves and assert themselves and insist that they have the right to set the standards and answer the question: what should constitute proficiency for Greeks (in this case) who need to communicate in English with foreigners?

In the process there will hopefully be more freedom for Greeks (and all foreigners) to make the language their own. Another example springs to mind. Back in England a Greek colleague with excellent English quietly insisted on also using the word "sympathetic" in a Greek way (e.g. "It was a sympathetic film" meaning it was quite nice but not brilliant). It was obvious what she meant and I found this new (to the English) use of the word interesting. As long as there is no obstacle to communication, why shouldn't there be this freedom to use the language in ways that are foreign to the natives (heck, this is English as a Foreign Language, isn't it?).

Some will say that this is an unacceptable lowering of standards. I would reply that this objection fails to grasp the difference between teaching English as a native language, where there is a specific group of cultural and intellectual imperatives, and teaching English as a foreign language. For the native speaker the language is, to a certain extent, constitutive of their very being, their very identity (in a sense, you are what you say) whereas for the foreigner the language is likely to remain merely a tool of communication. As EFL teachers, we need to accept that and make sure that the tool is moulded adequately to the grip of the foreign learner.

For further thoughts about EFL/ELT, see:

Ending discrimination against non-native speaker teachers of English (NNEST) - an anti-imperial approach to TEFL
EFL and the need for philosophy
EFL ELT and Globalisation

About Fullspate: - Fullspate is actually one man with a PhD and a laptop who grew tired of the bland contents of EFL coursebooks, decided to write slightly more engaging stuff for his English students, and then thought it might be nice to share them online.



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