Who ‘owns’ the English Language?

I watched a video by Marek Kiczkowiac recently. In it, he asked a question that rather got me thinking.

‘What is correct English and who gets to decide?’

On the face of it, that’s an easy answer, it’s us native speakers, surely. 

But is it really?

There are some 2 billion people in the world who use English, only 360 million of them are actually native speakers. So non-native speakers of English outnumber the natives by 6:1 (ish – I teach English not maths). So why should the native speakers have the overriding say-so?

A few years ago I was (rather unceremoniously) ejected from a Facebook group for English language teachers. My offence? To enter into an animated ‘discussion’ with the admin/owner on the native/non-native debate. In the admin’s defence (this is me being unduly generous…), this was a while ago, however, a recent crossing of paths suggests that this person is still an arse.

The basic tenet of the discussion was as follows:

It was suggested that it was only right that native speaker teachers should earn more than non-native speakers even if they are less well qualified (if at all). I disagreed. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing the admin came up with a line that will remain with me for a very long time.

‘Why would you have a Tesco bag when you can have a Gucci?’

This person was calling qualified and experienced non-native speaker teachers plastic carrier bags, and native speakers, regardless of experience or qualifications, designer handbags. The  suggestion being that a Gucci bag was infinitely better and more desirable than a Tesco bag. For anyone lacking the cultural context, Tesco is a supermarket – and not a particularly upmarket one at that. It was my rather incredulous and none-too-polite response that had me ejected.

Thinking back on the whole debacle, maybe his analogy, while misplaced and intended as an insult, is actually not that far off the mark.

There are many many situations when a Tesco carrier bag is exactly what is called for. It is practical, everyone is able to have one, it serves a really useful purpose, keeps stuff dry, holds shopping, can be used to store goods, can be kept in your handbag for unexpected emergencies, fits in your pocket to be whipped out at a moment’s notice etc.

In my 40 something years of life I have never needed a Gucci handbag. What would I do with it? I’d worry about keeping it clean or losing it, I’d never be able to fit all of the unmitigated crap that I tend to carry around in it. It wouldn’t match any of my scruffy clothes and I’d feel ridiculous and somewhat pretentious using it. 

To be honest, when I need a bag I tend to whip out my sewing machine and make my own; that way I know it will do exactly what I need it to do. I recently made one with three zip pockets, loads of compartments and a padded bit for my laptop – it was what I needed at the time.

The same goes for English. David Crystal used the term ‘Englishes’ to talk about all of the different types of English in the world. Our learners need the English that best suits their needs. IT types need the English of software and programming. Restaurateurs need the English of sauces, market gardens and cooking techniques (or even just pizza toppings). HR workers need the English of hiring and firing and dealing with stupidity. I have one student  who needs the English of making small cardboard boxes with huge complicated machines (I kid you not). They need the teachers best able to guide them in their learning; this suitability comes from the teacher’s ability, experience, qualifications, style and personality. Not the language of their first words. The English that each learner needs has to fit their context. If they aren’t going to be living in Yorkshire do they really need to know what ‘mardy’ and ‘claggy’ and ‘reet’ mean? If they are never going to visit the US, why do they need to have all of the cultural contexts of life in downtown Milwaukee?

We, native speakers, do not own the language; I don’t even believe that we are custodians of it. Those that use it own the language. 

In the US it is common to say ‘on Christmas’, whereas in the UK ‘at Christmas’ is correct. It is not a question of right or wrong, it is all about context; who needs it, what they need it for, who they are speaking to etc. There are more Indian English speakers (as L1, L2 or L3) than UK, South African, Australian and New Zealand English speakers combined. Indian English does not follow all of the same rules as British English, there are differences in pronunciation, some use of grammar and the use of vocabulary that would be considered archaic in the UK/US etc. These differences do not make Indian English ‘wrong’; Indian English serves its own purpose, to enable some 250 million people to communicate both with each other and with the rest of the world.

As both a teacher and a language learner, I really don’t care where you come from (in the nicest possible way). I don’t expect my learners to come out of a course of lessons with me with a home counties RP accent, neither do I expect to sound exactly like my French teacher – a native accent is often an unrealistic and, frankly, unattainable goal for 95% (I made that up, but there are probably figures somewhere) of learners.

If, like my cardboard box manufacturing student, you live and work in France, but need English to communicate with German and Italian engineers, there must be an argument that an Italian or German (L1) English teacher might be better. They would be able to teach the accents that my student is likely to come across, they would be better able to teach the cultural translations of the other NNESs that the student is likely to encounter. As I live and work in France, a French native teacher would be really great, but perhaps an English (L1) French teacher might be better placed to help me with my pronunciation and common cultural pitfalls and miscommunications. 

The point is, a bag is a bag. I want the bag that is best suited to my needs. If you, as a teacher, can teach me what I need to know, then you’re hired. 

To me, all qualified and experienced teachers are pure Gucci. Perhaps it is high time we started to make this clearer to our students (and their parents).

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Will 2020 be YOUR year???

If you’re anything like me, you will already be sick of reading all the ‘New Year, New You’ type posts that are now flooding the internet. What was so terrible about the old me? What’s suddenly changed overnight? Why should I become a different person? (on second thoughts, don’t answer, I’m not actually that bothered!)

I’m happy being me. I don’t want to change, I just want to tweak…

So this New Year, instead of making the kind of resolutions that I don’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of actually keeping, I will be tweaking. I have a pretty good idea of what I am good at and where I could do with making some improvements (both professionally and personally). So that’s what I’ll be doing, just gradually working on a few areas. No wholesale ‘new me’, just the same old me, developing gradually, as I have always done.

No public declarations of things I’m going to do in 2020, no plans for some huge shift in my personality (sorry), no crazy weight-loss projections, no determination to have a class of teenagers eating out of my hand by September. Just a quiet reflection of my strengths and weaknesses and how best to tweak them, not because it is the 1st of January, but throughout the year.

This time next year I will be looking back at the things I HAVE done, rather than stressing about the resolutions that I didn’t keep.

So happy New Year, I wish you all the best for 2020. Be you – after all, it’s what you are best at.

Working on language learner pain-points through a coaching approach

This week’s guest post by the lovely Gabriella Kovács briefly discusses the basics of language coaching and gives you some ideas about how it works… and a very practical takeaway activity to use in your next lesson.

Something to identify is whether you are a coach coaching learners, or a language professional (teacher, trainer) using coaching elements, techniques and tools to add dimension to your classes. 
When you coach, you coach, when you teach, you may make use of specific coaching elements, but that is not coaching: that is teaching with a coaching approach.  In my experience of the past few years, the latter is basically what most language professionals need, this is what learning about LC can provide.

Language coaching is a process focusing on learner needs, interests, motivation and goals.  By identifying – with the learner – what and why they wish to achieve concerning their language learning and language usage goals, the missing pieces of the puzzle fall into place nicely.  By asking questions, guiding with empathy and positivity there will be space for the learner to come to terms with who they really are as language learners, language users and will increase their commitment to taking steps to reach their goals.

The definition goes: A conversation-based process with a purpose to map and create optimal language acquisition or language usage-related goals. The framework is based on strategies utilising intrinsic motivation and developing learning awareness, where both parties are equal partners.  It is important that clients (learners) claim ownership of their own development. (Source: Gabriella Kovács ACC)

Learners may feel stuck or demotivated, keep postponing exams, cannot significantly make progress, do not seem to find time to study the language, believe they are not good at learning languages etc.

For some, working on these issues might take one session, for others 3-6, it really is not about time. I have had clients collaborating with me for one session and leave happily, while others I support for months and work in true partnership with them, covering themes related to their workplace communication issues, exam preparation etc. 

Key questions to ask when beginning a coaching process might be:

In what way(s) is your goal supporting other aspects of your life?

Do you have an ideal type of teaching or lesson in mind you would feel comfortable with?

If you had 15 minutes a day to learn, what would you do in that time?

I work with adults in the corporate world and blend coaching with communication training. Many times I go in with 3-4 coaching tools and a handout and we discuss what is going on for the learner. I provide the attention all learners should be receiving – and they strive.

Let me present an activity I often use with learners when identifying motivation, learning preferences, strategy issues for them. 

  1. Print and cut about 6-10 quotes and place them on the table in front of the learner/s. (If you have a class, then get them into pairs or groups of maximum 3-4.)
  2. Go through the quotes and make sure learners understand the meanings of the words and phrases. Make this as short as possible. (Don’t interpret the meaning of the quotes themselves to them.)
  3. Ask learners to choose 2 quotes that resonate with how they are feeling in connection to their learning challenges right now, why that quote is important for them at present.  Let them explain to you or their partner/group. 
  4. Finally get them to highlight and share some interesting ideas.  Let them reflect on the activity: Why was this activity valuable for you?
  5. You can even collect their reflections and summaries on post-its and put them on the wall.

This is a precious activity as it needs very little preparation, will support learning awareness and deepen understanding of aspects of learning/teaching learners may not have thought of before. It may take 10 minutes, it may take 30 minutes… Be prepared for a fruitful conversation indeed!

These are my favourite quotes, but there are many, many more out there!

  • Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  – From the book Narcotics Anonymous
  • If you limit your actions in life to things that nobody can possibly find fault with, you will not do much. Lewis Carroll
  • Nothing is impossible… the word itself says I’m possible! Audrey Hepburn
  • The journey is the reward.  – Chinese proverb
  • People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing, that’s why we recommend it daily.  – Zig Ziglar
  • When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps. – Confucius
  • Problems are only opportunities in work clothes. Henry Kaiser
  • Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure. – Confucius
  • I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn. – Einstein
  • Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.- Xun Kuang
  • A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. –  Thomas Carruthers
  • That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way. – Doris Lessing

Hope you enjoyed reading this and found it useful. 

Australian-born Gabriella Kovács ACC, an internationally certified language coach, business communication trainer (B.Ed., M.A.), mentor and teacher trainer. She is behind the idea of founding an organisation to support all professionals interested in language coaching, which has manifested in ILCA (International Language Coaching Association).

Her mission is to add dimension and depth to ongoing language learning practices and create a more holistic, person-centred approach for language professionals. She provides webinars, f2f and online trainings, publishes articles and works with her clients.

Freedom, Shackles and the Comfort Zone

I’ve read a lot of posts and articles recently encouraging teachers to get out of their comfort zones and thought I’d start by sharing this graphic from www.teachthought.com.

And while I don’t disagree with anything suggested in this post, I wonder how aware we actually are about what is, and isn’t, within our own comfort zone? How do we define our own comfort zone? How do we take those first tentative steps out of our comfort zone? Is it even necessary?

According to The Cambridge Dictionary, comfort zone can be defined as a situation in which you feel comfortable and in which your ability and determination are not being tested

Doesn’t sound like too bad a place to be, if you ask me! But is it really the best a teacher can do for their students? If we spend a lesson testing our learners’ ability and determination, surely it is only fair that we should be put to the same test? So, how do we know, exactly, what might be in (or out of) our comfort zone?

For the purposes of this post I conducted a little (extremely unscientific) research. I asked teachers from around the world ‘How would you define your comfort zone, as a teacher?’ Firstly, yes, I phrased the question badly – I assumed that the concept of a comfort zone would be universal – turns out, it’s not! There were lots of responses involving coffee, a comfy chair, no children and even the pub. Many more responses were about the type of learners or lessons that people like to teach; C1/2, business, adults, poetry etc. What very few seemed to do, was to equate it to their methods, activities and style of teaching. Maybe defining our comfort zones by what we enjoy is no bad thing though.

My favourite answer (thank you Philip Shigeo Brown) was ‘A developmental place where we often strive to be and yet strive to grow beyond by getting out of it’. I reckon he’s pretty much hit the nail on the head there. Or at least he would have done if people were actually aware of the existence of their own comfort zone.

Senninger defined the different learning zones long these lines;

The Comfort Zone – the area in which you feel you have mastery, where you are happy, content and confident in your abilities.

The Learning Zone – where you stretch yourself, try something new, feel a little discomfort but not much in the way of stress. Looking at new ideas and thinking ‘yes, I could probably give that a go’.

The Panic Zone – does exactly what is says on the tin, new practices which genuinely scare the heebie-jeebies out of you. Stress on an unproductive level. Cold sweats, nightmares, irrational urges to go to the loo 47 times in 5 minutes, you get the idea.

On the whole, I get this explanation and I like it. I would probably make just one teensy change…

I don’t see how the lines can be defined, there must be degrees of challenge? Surely there can’t be some arbitrary tipping point at which things go from stretch to utter terror? (having said that, my first conference presentation came jolly close…). To my mind there are some ideas that I am more comfortable with trying than others; some practices I would more readily incorporate into my teaching than others; some contexts that I would find more challenging, terrifying and stressful than others, but would still give it a go (as I do, periodically, with teenagers) and some stuff that I would just never even countenance (not much – but some).

The thing is, as we stretch ourselves, the things that start off panic inducing, gradually move into our learning (or stretch) zone. As the comfort zone becomes wider, the slightly scary thing becomes the comfortable thing and the terrifying thing also moves – to become a somewhat less terrifying thing. Imagine the plughole in the bath – that big hairy spider will go down it eventually, as the water spirals round.

If you google the topic you will find loads of ‘inspirational’ graphics along these lines.

Now, I don’t know about you – but I just find this plain depressing. Is it really suggesting that unless we take some almighty leap into the unknown, we will never be any more than mediocre, with sad mediocre lives and an uninspiring outlook on life? This is just unrealistic (a bit like a celeb’s Instagram accounts – where everything is perfect, they all wake up with a full face of make-up, a kale smoothie in their hand and no-one sweats at the gym). If we used this as ‘inspiration’ we’d NEVER get to the ‘good stuff’ because it’s just too far away!

The key is to take little steps. Reflect on your teaching, see where your own comfort zone lies and then decide where and whether you should move on a little (or a lot). Find something that interests you; a question you’d like the answer to, a new activity that helps your learners, collaborate with a colleague, read, observe a colleague and copy something that you feel works well, research other approaches to a recurrent classroom problem.

Your comfort zone is just that, comfortable. It isn’t a prison but neither should it be your goal (I was going to say it isn’t a gaol but neither should it be your goal – but wasn’t sure if old English words were universal and, actually, it looks a bit naff, but hay ho).

There is nothing wrong with being comfortable in what you do (although there have been suggestions that the boredom of staying within your comfort zone may contribute to burnout) but, just for kicks, maybe add just a frisson of stretch.

References

Senninger, 2000 – Learning Zone Model; Abenteuer leiten – in Abenteuern lernen (Facilitating adventures – learning in adventures). Münster: Ökotopia Verlag