Wednesday, February 25, 2009
What will Keep Pino Safe?
Okay, I admit I am way behind the curve on this. People have been talking about English as a lingua franca for ages. However, it was not until I started my current job as an English teacher at the SHAPE Language Center on a NATO base in Belgium that the importance of non-native speakers being able to communicate easily in English with each other really hit home. English is the “official” language within NATO, so many of my students use English to communicate with their co-workers from other countries. An interesting example is one of my delightful Italian students, Pino, who wants to perfect his already impressive command of English in order to communicate more precisely with translators when he serves in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever my personal opinion about the war might be, I do know that when Pino is “in theater,” as they say, I want him to be as safe as possible.
A Legitimacy of Variation
Somewhat belatedly, I came across an article written by Barbara Seidlhofer in which she argues, if my understanding is correct, that since more non-native speakers than native speakers use English, native speakers don’t “own” English anymore. As a result, there is a “legitimacy of variation” (Steidlhofer, 2004, page 214) in grammar and pronunciation forms. In other words, when Pino is communicating with his German counterpart and an Afghan translator, certain non-standard forms of English are usually not cause for confusion. This begs the question, how important is it really that the speakers always include the final -s on third person singular verbs?
Seidlhofer (2006, page 226) lists several common grammatical “errors” that many English teachers would correct if we heard, but which actually don’t cause any misunderstandings in non-native speaker/non-native speaker conversations.
- the third person present tense –s (It cost.)
- the relative pronouns who and which (The man which I know …)
- definite and indefinite articles (Please pass salt. I went to the Chicago.)
- tag questions (It will be ready, no?)
- redundant prepositions (We have to study about … )
- overusing general verbs, such as do, make, have, put, take
- infinitives (replacing infinitives with that, as in I want that …)
- explicitness (black color)
This list reads like an inventory of all the lingering mistakes my students of all levels consistently make. However, if these mistakes don’t cause any misunderstanding in the majority of English interactions should teachers be focusing on teaching and correcting them? Shouldn’t we instead focus on intelligibility rather than accuracy? After all, I have never heard of a conversation screeching to a halt, except in an English class, because the final -s was left off a verb.
Safe and Accurate
For me, the answer is simple. Even though I want my students like Pino to be able to express their thoughts as intelligibly as possible, I cannot let go of the notion of “correct English”. Moreover, I have never had a students ask me not to correct these minor errors because they were more concerned with fluency than accuracy. Usually, in fact, it is quite the opposite. Call me old-fashioned, but I can’t help feeling that, although intelligibility is important, grammatical accuracy is as well. Furthermore, the studies I have read on English as a lingua franca (although I am by no means an expert) have neglected to comment on the perceptions created by inaccurate use of English. The German NATO soldier might not have any trouble understanding Pino, but if his English is better than Pino’s, will he subconsciously form a negative opinion of my student? I would be interested in knowing what others think about this issue. Are you hyper-vigilant in your correction or do you tend not to sweat the little stuff? As English evolves, and non-native speakers increasingly influence the way it changes, do you think the wretched final –s will eventually disappear?
Seidlhofer, B. (2004) Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209-239