Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Acquiring Proficiency in English: How Much Does Geography Matter?

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville


I have been following with genuine interest Dorothy and Richard’s discussion on the possibility of acquiring a “full command” of English while not living in an English-speaking country. I’d like to enter that discussion by focusing on some of the issues addressed by my fellow-bloggers. 

First off, is the terminology that we use to describe the level of language command important?

Yes. Although saying that some learner has a “full command” or “mastery” of English may suffice in many contexts, I would suggest using the term “proficiency.” Academics in English language studies at the University of Cambridge have employed this term to designate success on Cambridge ESOL’s most advanced exam: The Certificate of Proficiency in English exam, and to categorize exercises and entire textbooks designed to prepare learners for that exam. The Cambridge exams are globally recognized and the term is very serviceable. According to exam materials, those who have earned the Certificate can comprehend practically everything they hear and read, can discuss complex topics “without awkwardness,” and can “express themselves precisely and fluently.” It is an exam designed for those language learners whose level of English is similar to “that of an educated native speaker.” (See http://www.cambridgeesol.org/exams/general-english/cpe.html .) 

Does studying English in a non-English-speaking country mean only memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules?

Absolutely not. Activities focused on successful and meaningful communication as well as on context-specific language dominate in English-language classes offered in many countries, at least many European ones. In Poland, for example, both oral and written parts of the standardized National Secondary-School Exit Exam in English include many tasks which assess students’ communicative competence. Judging from the contents of the textbooks which are most popular in Poland, The Czech Republic, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, one may conclude that it is effective communication, not “memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules” that constitutes the core of English-language curricula in these and some number of other countries. 

Can you acquire native-like pronunciation without living in an English-speaking country? 
Yes. It is widely recognized that good instruction focuses not only on fundamental grammar and vocabulary as well as register-specific grammar and vocabulary (including slang), but also on phonetics (including emphases on consonant and vowel articulation, stress patterns, and intonation units). In Polish schools (and I’m quite sure that my home country is not an exception here), all those components are regularly part of English language curricula adopted in programs designed for all levels of language competency. Most textbooks, even those for beginning learners, devote a section of every unit to practicing phonetics. Those studying to be teachers of English are very often required to take a three-year course in phonetics. 

Can you be exposed to enough English to become in other ways proficient in the language without living in an English-speaking country?

Available evidence suggests so. There is no doubt that exposure to spoken and written English is required for the internalization of the language, and that English language input is generally more abundant in countries where it is spoken as a first language by the majority of the population. There is also no doubt that variation in register and idiom is concentrated in those countries. However, sufficient exposure to spoken and written English (both formal and more colloquial English) is demonstrably available in places beyond the borders of those countries. Where school and university curricula demand that English is the medium of instruction and all oral and written exercises, all oral and written exams, all graduate papers, and all theses must be done in English (as is customary in many Departments of English in European countries), the amount of exposure is routinely sufficient. English is mandatory in English language classrooms, but it is also commonly read, heard, and spoken in public arenas in those countries, where, I think it’s fair to say non-native speakers of English meet with native speakers of English more than occasionally. It hardly needs mentioning that various media, both monodirectional (e.g. television) and bidirectional (e.g. the Internet, with its email, chat groups, and Skype), add to the amount of English language input available in such countries. 

Is exposure to sufficient English language input- without studious attention to patterns of English grammar, vocabulary, and idiom- enough to guarantee proficiency?

Of course not. Untold millions of people have relocated to the United States from non-English-speaking countries and, after years or decades of copious exposure remain functional but less than proficient in the language. On the other hand, there have been those who have lived in non-English-speaking countries and who have been sufficiently devoted to becoming proficient, and have achieved proficiency in English. 

What are the keys to becoming proficient in English?

Immersion in the language is crucial, but clearly learners do not need to relocate to an English-speaking country to be “flooded” with English. Equally important is that the exposure is exploited in the name of English language internalization and proficiency. Attentive, devoted, motivated, and active learners take advantage of much of the input they receive.

Some years ago, a Polish friend of mine who had never taken any formal English classes, but who had “devoured” textbooks, listened to tapes and to BBC radio, watched BBC TV channels and movies, surrounded himself with reference books, and often spoke to himself in English, passed intensely competitive university entrance exams (both oral and written) with scores which were among the very hig
hest registered by that (large, Polish) university that year (and native-speakers were on those exam panels.) The scores of the only two candidates who had actually lived in an English-speaking country (England) were nowhere near as high as his scores. Was he an exception?
I have also known more than a few fellow-teachers who learned English as a foreign language in Poland and who are often mistaken for native speakers by their British or American colleagues. Are they also exceptions? Perhaps not. Are there plentiful examples of proficient non-native English speaker-writers who are from Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, and elsewhere and who have briefly or never lived in an English-speaking country?
Quite likely.


Comment from Dorothy Zemach
November 10, 2009 at 11:21 am

Interestingly (at least to me), the only two non-native speakers that I've met whose English was absolutely perfect, in accent, idiom, grammar, you name it, to the point where I genuinely could not tell that they were non-native… both of those learned English entirely as adults, not children. One said he could sometimes be caught out by not knowing some television-based cultural references, like commercials.

Comment from ismael Tohari
November 11, 2009 at 5:37 am

Thanks a lot for such an interesting article.

I wonder what you meant by "immersion" as some think that it means to completely leave your culture and traditions and adapt every single part of culture of the target language.

So what should a learner focus on in immersion?

Comment from Ela Newman
November 11, 2009 at 10:03 am


I'm glad you liked the blog.
By "immersion," I mean intensive (extreme) exposure to the language being learned. In immersion-based instruction, for example, only the target language is used, and students are exposed to native (native-like) language "surroundings."

Thanks for your response!


Comment from ismael Tohari
November 11, 2009 at 10:22 am

Thanks a lot, Ela.

Do you mean that immersion has nothing to do with culture?

Comment from Ela Newman
November 11, 2009 at 11:43 am


Since language is part of culture, immersion in a language, I believe, necessarily involves immersion in a culture. In immersion-based language programs, language is not only the object, but also the medium of instruction. And so, all academic subjects are taught in the target language. Those subjects, in my experience, included courses in literature, history, government, cross-cultural education, etc.

Comment from Andrew
November 19, 2009 at 7:12 am

Hi there,

I taught EFL in Poland for almost seven years in a High School. Unfortunately, with 2-4 hours of English per week, there is no way you can prepare your students for any exam without massive memorization. The New Matura Exam focuses on communication more than the Old Matura ever did.Thank you for your blog!

Comment from Ela Newman
November 19, 2009 at 11:34 am

Thanks for the comment! Yes, the New Matura (college prep school exit exam) does focus mostly on testing students' communicative skills. While preparing tasks for the oral part of the exam, I remember having to create such scenarios for role plays, for example, which would reflect "very" real situations. And so, I could not ask a student to play a role of a taxi driver, a doctor, a businessman, a clerk, etc.

I'd say there are quite a few language programs offered by Polish college prep schools (we don't really have a US "equivalent" of a high school); some of them require students to take, let's say, 3-4 of English a week, others offer 6 or more. Also, many students take lessons in private language schools. As a college prep teacher of English in Poland (9 years), I also faced some difficulties in preparing students for their exit exam, but I must say that even those who had English classes 3 times a week (and no private lessons) did quite well on the exam. So, I'd risk saying that it is possible to prepare students for, let's say, an exam like that. Good teaching methods, the right materials, sufficient and relevant homework, and, of course, dilligence on the part of the students usually contribute greatly to such successes.

Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. If I may ask, where in Poland did you teach?

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