Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Another Perspective on Dorothy Zemach’s “Advice to a Young Iranian English Teacher”

By Richard Firsten 

Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I enjoyed reading Dorothy’s article written in response to some questions posed to AzarGrammar.com by an Iranian English teacher who she’s named “Ibrahim.” You can’t help but feel the nurturing and supportive tone that Dorothy has created in it. One of the things I’ve always liked about most of the teachers I’ve met in our field is this caring quality that has led to teachers in other disciplines sometimes labeling us in good fun as “mother hens.” Well, that’s fine; I don’t mind that label at all, and I have a hunch that Dorothy doesn’t mind it either!

While I appreciate many things in Dorothy’s article, I’m afraid I have to take exception with some of them. I’d like to comment, right off, on two points Dorothy makes:
  • “… it absolutely is possible to be an excellent user of English … without ever visiting the US or England or any other native English-speaking country.”
  • “I’ve personally met enthusiastic and talented groups of teachers in countries such as Ukraine, Libya, and Algeria who had excellent English language skills … who had never left their own country before or met a native speaker of English before me.” 
Let’s Define “Excellent English Language Skills” 
It would be helpful to have a definition of what it means to say that somebody is “an excellent user of English” or has “excellent English language skills.” Such phrases are really quite open to interpretation, but I’m going to assume they mean mastery of the language. There may be some very rare individuals out there who can master English without ever living in the US or UK or other English-speaking country, but I would say that the vast majority of people, no matter how much they apply themselves, could not accomplish this for many reasons.  
Stress and Intonation Critical to Mastery
First, mastery of English does not simply deal with memorization of vocabulary and grammar rules. How can a person living in a non-English-speaking country possibly learn the nuances and subtleties of the prosodic or suprasegmental features that English has? I’m talking about the importance of stress and intonation, which can be very influential in what a sentence means. As for stress, say the following out loud and you’ll see what I mean:
  1.  Have you ever seen a catfish?
  2.  Have you ever seen a cat fish?
As for intonation, say the next two out loud:
  1.  (driver talking to passenger) What’s that in the road ahead?
  2.  (same driver talking to same passenger) What’s that in the road, a head?
Forgetting about the written form in which spacing and punctuation play all-important roles, if you’ve applied English stress and intonation properly, I imagine you’ve come up with very different renditions for those utterances! Try learning these subtleties if not surrounded all the time by English speakers. 

What About Cultural Aspects and Register?

 Second, what about all the cultural aspects of a language and the matter of communicative competence? How can a person not living in an English-speaking environment possibly learn the intricacies of register to know which vocabulary or phraseology is appropriate in different situations with different people, and deal with various levels of formality and informality? On top of that, we have the problem of applying current cultural trends to certain lexical items, things that it would be nearly impossible to be exposed to and master when not living in the context in which such things are used:
  1. (student walking into a university administrator’s office) “Hiya, Dean. Wussup?”
  2. (same student entering his dorm room, seeing his roommate) “Hiya, Dean. Wussup?”If you’re aware of communicative competence, you cringe upon hearing the first utterance, but you’re fine with the very same utterance in the second context. I don’t believe such things can be mastered outside of an English-speaking/cultural environment. 
Conrad and Mehta Learned English in English-Speaking Environments
 As for Joseph Conrad and Ved Mehta, some points need clarification. Joseph Conrad, whose native language was Polish, started to learn English when he was around 29 years old, but he didn’t do this in Poland; he did it in an English-speaking environment. He arrived in England while working on a ship and started learning English there and while in the company of completely English-speaking crews on board various vessels. It’s interesting to note, by the way, that even though Conrad mastered written English and became a great novelist in the English language, he never lost his thick Polish accent, and I have serious doubts about how well he ever mastered the prosodics of English.
Ved Mehta was born to an upper-class family in British-controlled India. Because of these two facts, I’m sure he was exposed to English at an early age.
Moreover, he started living in a completely English-speaking environment at the age of 15, so I don’t think we can use Mr. Mehta as a role model for people who want to learn English as fully as possible yet stay within the confines of their own non-English-speaking countries. This is not to say that Joseph Conrad and Ved Mehta didn’t achieve great success in mastering English. They did. But I think their stories support my argument quite well.
Is Language a Window into How People Think? 
Finally, let’s look back at one other point Dorothy makes:
“Would Americans be less afraid of Iranians if more of us studied Farsi in school? I believe so. Language is an essential clue to how people think and experience the world and express their thoughts and emotions. It’s not a question of adapting to another culture, or being overcome by a different system, but of understanding other ways.”
I don’t think Americans, on the whole, are afraid of Iranians; I think they’re afraid of Iranian politicians and their mindset. I can’t agree that learning a language outside of where that language is spoken will allow us to understand “other ways” except, perhaps, on a superficial level. Yes, we might gain insights into how speakers of a particular language think or view the world around them, but not to any meaningful extent. 
I remember when I was deep into learning Spanish. I wanted to know how to say I dropped it. I was told to say Se me cayó, which I found very odd because that basically means “It fell from me.” On another occasion, I wanted to know how to say I forgot and was told to say Se me olvidó, which means something very hard to put into English like “It got forgotten from me.” It dawned on me that in both cases, Spanish isn’t letting the speaker take responsibility for those acts: I didn’t drop it – it fell from me. It did that, not me. And I didn’t forget anything – it got forgotten. This is an interesting psychological observation on the part of an English speaker learning Spanish, but it’s certainly not a way to judge how all Spanish speakers think. No, just learning a language doesn’t necessarily allow us to understand “other ways.”
Advice for Ibrahim

So, Ibrahim, all I can say to you is that I hope one day you’ll be able to live for a decent period of time in an English-speaking country. Perhaps you should consider Canada. I don’t know how tough the Canadians would be on giving you a visa for an extended stay, but you might want to find out from the Canadian embassy. There’s no doubt in my mind that you will become a much more fluent speaker of English (in all aspects that such a description includes) once you’ve had the opportunity to live in a country where you’ll be surrounded night and day by English and be immersed in one of the cultures that influence the language so heavily. 

Good luck to you, Ibrahim. And thank you, Dorothy, for having given Ibrahim such a nurturing and supportive answer.


Comment from Ismael Tohari
November 4, 2009 at 9:02 am

"There may be some very rare individuals out there who can master English without ever living in the US or UK or other English-speaking country,…"

I wonder what kind of ability they have to do so. In other words, what make(s) them master Englsih without ever living in an English speaking countries!

Comment from Richard Firsten
November 5, 2009 at 10:37 am

I'm no expert at answering this question, but I think it has to do with the following:

– an extraordinary ability to hear the way something is said and repeat it exactly the same way

– an innate talent for understanding and learning language

– an exceptional memory

– more than usual access to listening to and interacting with native speakers who live in the non-English-speaking country where that person is

– easy access to media in the target language (radio, TV, movies, newspapers, magazines)

If all of the above is in play, I think a person with extraordinary gifts and resources can accomplish the goal of mastering a language without living for a good amount of time in a country where that language is native. But I stress that this is something I believe rarely happens.

Comment from ismael Tohari
November 5, 2009 at 10:49 am

Thanks a lot.

I think the fourth point means more or less the same idea of living in an English speaking country. Thus, I would omit it. Otherwise, there is noting extraordinary, I think.

What do you think?

PS. I feel, correct me if wrong, that I posses the first three points and have an easy access to media in the target language.

Comment from Richard Firsten
November 5, 2009 at 10:59 am

I have no idea how you equate easy access to media in the target language with living in an English-speaking country.

I would prefer not to personalize anything in these comments one way or another, so I feel obliged to disregard your last comment. Sorry.

Comment from Ismael Tohari
November 5, 2009 at 11:18 am

Thanks a lot.

Sorry Richard but I'm afraid that you missed my point. I said the 4th point not the fifth. At any rate, what I equate is:

"more than usual access to listening to and interacting with native speakers who live in the non-English-speaking country where that person is"


Living in an English speaking country.

Comment from Richard Firsten
November 5, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Oops! I see what you mean. Sorry about that.

Having more than usual access to native speakers is not the same as living in an English-speaking environment. It will be of enormous help to somebody with all the other requisites, but it's not the same thing as being 24/7 in Toronto or London or New York or Sydney. 🙂

Comment from ismael Tohari
November 6, 2009 at 1:57 am

I agree with you that they aren't the same. Yet I think the real challenge is to master English without the 4th point above. Otherwise, at least for me, it is nothing extraordinary!

Thanks a lot.

Comment from Andrew
November 19, 2009 at 7:18 am

"I wanted to know how to say I forgot and was told to say Se me olvidó, which means something very hard to put into English like “It got forgotten from me.” "

Doesn't it sound very familiar to "Is is escaping me."?

Comment from Grammar Guy
November 19, 2009 at 9:31 am

Yes, Andrew, I suppose in the past that the expression it escaped me, meaning "I didn't/couldn't remember," does reflect that same idea of seemingly not accepting responsibility for forgetting.

Thanks for catching this! 🙂

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