Archive for April, 2010

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Considering World Englishes in our Discussions of ‘Culture’

Keli YerianBy Keli Yerian
Instructor, English Language Institute
University of Oregon

This last winter term, I taught a Language Teaching Methodology class in which undergraduate students were asked to write a research paper on a topic in language teaching. Several students chose to write about language and culture.

Their papers were heartfelt appeals for teachers to see language and culture as inseparable. They were careful to expand their definition beyond ‘big C’ Culture, such as traditional holidays and food, to include ‘small c’ culture, such as the pragmatics of how to be appropriately polite while eating, or to start a conversation with a classmate. One student wrote, “Students cannot fully acquire a second language without also mastering the cultural context from which the language has developed”. This argument sounds quite reasonable for those of us who care about our students’ well-rounded communicative competence, right?

Meanwhile, as the term was nearing its end, I was able to attend the American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) conference in Atlanta, and went to several sessions on World Englishes. Here presenters appealed for more recognition and attention to the many varieties of English around the globe, pointing out that the so-called ‘Outer Circle’ varieties of English, such as those spoken in Singapore, India, and Hong Kong, have become ‘nativized’, with distinctive phonological and syntactic features that are only non-normative when compared to ‘Inner Circle’ varieties. Even ‘Expanding Circle’ areas, where English has primarily foreign language status, may have distinctive local English uses and features. Since the number of multilingual ‘non-native’ English users worldwide now far outnumbers ‘native’ monolingual users, it is argued that these varieties should be recognized and valued more than they typically are (see Canagarajah 2006 for a review of these points).

When I returned home and read the final versions of my students’ papers, I realized that despite their good intentions, my students were making some strong assumptions in their arguments about the importance of keeping language and culture tightly linked. They were picturing specific cultures in their minds, cultures of the ‘Inner Circle’ (such as the U.S., Great Britain, or Canada). They were assuming that without including the social norms of language use and their contexts from these countries of origin, that the language itself would feel, in the words of one student, ‘dead’.

But are the English language and the culture of its original communities really inseparable?

Do we need to assume, for example, that English language learners in India will necessarily care about acquiring the current cultural norms of those who once colonized their land and people? Likewise, do we need to assume that two people from different East Asian countries doing business together in English necessarily care about the pragmatics of American or Australian negotiation? Maybe these speakers would care about these things, but maybe also, quite possibly, they would not.

English has been adopted and transformed by communities all over the world to fit into local customs and local cultures. When two Malaysian speakers converse in English, what is important is that they share or negotiate norms of use together, not that they have adopted a specifically British or American set of norms.

At this point it probably sounds like I will suggest we teach language as an abstract, context-free system, since pragmatics and contexts of use are so variable anyway, especially in the case of the all-pervasive English language.

But of course this would be misguided, for at least two reasons. First, from a social standpoint, even though language can be adopted and adapted from its original cultural contexts, language is never free of context or pragmatic norms when used by actual speakers, even when speakers from different ‘cultures’ interact. No matter who the users are, some level of norm sharing must exist for communication to work at all.

Second, some research on international users of English has shown that pragmatic strategies actually matter more when speakers from diverse linguistic backgrounds interact. When multilingual speakers are sensitive to the possibility that others may use English differently, they may actually become more flexible, supportive, and strategic in their interactions (Seidlhofer 2004).

Consider, for example, how even the simplest act of saying ‘Thank you’ can be more or less appropriate depending on cultural norms and context.  In some places in India (and perhaps also the US!), saying ‘thank you’ for small things like giving someone a pencil or opening a door may sound excessive and strange. By contrast, not saying ‘thank you’ in the same situation would likely seem rude in many other English-speaking cultures.  If English language learners don’t assume that there are fixed cultural ‘rules’ about when to say ‘Thank you’, but instead learn that these patterns of use may vary widely across English users, they will be open to learning ‘culture’ more deeply.  Here is where we as English teachers can help students become ‘pragmatically flexible’ as part of their global cultural competence.

In the end, I wholeheartedly agree with the claims about culture made by the thoughtful students in my class. We can and should expose students to the importance of language use as well as language forms. But we must understand as language teachers that the relationship between language and culture is never fixed nor fully predictable. Although many EFL students may indeed want to become familiar with or even acquire the general norms of British or American users of English (and note how variable even these may be), we as teachers should not assume that these norms automatically count as ‘the culture’ of English.

Canagarajah, S. (2006).  Negotiating the local in English as a lingua franca.  Annual  Review of Applied Linguistics, 26,

Seidlhofer, B. (2004).  Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca.  Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209-239.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Making Real Conversation Happen

By Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

When I was (much, much) younger, I lived in Russia for a year. I arrived in the country with barely a word of Russian in my brain and left, after 10 months, completely fluent. Flash forward 20 years. I have been living in Belgium for 1 ½ years, and I am still struggling to spit out halting, barely coherent sentences.

Students often spend a great deal of money and travel half way (or more) around the world for the opportunity to live immersed in a native speaking environment. It seems obvious that a student who lives in, for instance, Canada, would have increased exposure to English and would be able to find more opportunities to practice speaking with other English speakers, both native and non-native. It’s common sense, right? But we know, as language teachers and learners, that this doesn’t automatically happen. So, what is the magic formula that makes real conversation possible for L2 students in an L1 environment?

Take Advantage of Golden Opportunities

One major factor in my quick study of Russian had to do with the motivation that Russians had to get to know me. I had the good fortune of arriving in Russia during a magical time. The Soviet Union was just starting to open up, and people were relatively free to develop friendships with foreigners for the first time. I was a bit of a celebrity. People on the bus and in the stores were as eager to talk to me and learn about what my life was like as I was to find out about theirs. I couldn’t turn the pages of my dictionary fast enough! Both my Russian friends and I had something to gain from our relationship, so they put up with my initial struggles with vocabulary and grammar because there was no other way for us to communicate.

Make Opportunities Happen

However, for many of students who study in native English speaking countries, this idyllic situation just isn’t a reality. Native English speakers don’t usually view international students as celebrities, and, even if they are interested in learning about another culture, they often simply don’t have the time. That’s why programs like Conversation Partners are so crucial to international students.

Pairing students up with elderly people is a great way for both parties to benefit; older people get some attention and socialization and the international students get some English exposure. It seems the Conversation Partners programs that work best offer the native speakers a benefit beyond getting to know someone from a different country. For instance, a school where I used to work in Nashville, Tennessee paired with a school preparing students to be missionaries. Although proselytizing was strictly forbidden, the American students got a chance to practice speaking with nonnative English speakers. When both parties get have something to gain, the motivation to interact comes more naturally.

Find Hidden Opportunities

It is true to say that Belgians aren’t exactly tripping over themselves to interact with me in French. Most of them are as busy as we are at home and about as interested in foreigners as we are. However, that isn’t the main barrier between me and French fluency. Even though I am not the celebrity here that I was in the glory days of the fall of the Soviet Union, I do have many Belgian friends and co-workers who would gladly and patiently weather my terrible pronunciation and grammar to give me some French practice. So why don’t I take advantage of it?

I have been thinking about the answer to this a lot. I tried speaking French to my co-workers, but I felt ashamed. Even though I know consciously that no one is judging me (we are all language instructors, after all) I still feel uncomfortable about speaking anything but English at work. When I speak with my Belgian friends, their English is so, so, so much better than my French that we often slip into English just to get the stories out. With my friends, I think less about my linguistic development and more about the interaction.

So, what’s the solution? Well, I will keep attending my Weight Watchers meetings where, although they greet me in English, the meetings are held in French. I have also decided to take linguistic advantage of my Osteopath. He is Belgian and I meet with him on a regular basis to have my shoulder attended to. His English is impeccable, so I have always been tempted to speak English with him. In fact, I chose to become his patient for the very reason that I could easily communicate my pain to him. However, I have come to realize that he is also my captive audience. Next time, while I am lying on the table I have vowed to conduct our “small talk” in French. So finding opportunities cloaked in English just be my key to French success.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Phantom “But”: A Strategy for Sorting out the Time References of Mixed Conditionals

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

I was almost feverishly exited when I learned that my high school English class had progressed to the point where we were just a few textbook pages away from the unit on the Third Conditional, the most difficult conditional of all! You may be thinking something like “So, how weird is she?”, but I’m telling you, it brought a “hurray” to my mind!

At the time, I was an energetic college prep student who had just resolved to pursue English language studies after graduation, and one who relished the challenges presented by such difficult grammar structures. My enthusiasm may seem somewhat abstract, but it did have a concrete purpose. The better my English was, the better my chances of passing an entrance exam and winning a place in a university English program would be. I felt that it was within my grasp to become a university student, and I was focused on the struggle to realize that dream. The competition on the exam day that I was targeting, however, would be intimidating, to say the least. Only the top 10% of the hundreds of examinees who would be present at that university’s English exam would be admitted.

So, the long-awaited practice of the Third Conditional came at last. As I had suspected, it was “wonderfully tough.”

When we were completing that unit, I learned, to my joy, that there was more, that there were so-called “mixed conditionals.” However, I also learned at that moment, to my dismay, that those conditionals were not part of the school curriculum. If I wanted to be taught about mixed conditionals, I would have to teach myself.

A Conditional Pickle

I found a book that discussed them, and I opened it. Soon enough, it became clear that the structures of the mixed conditionals were a composite, or mixture, of structures already familiar to me. The patterns of the clauses seemed logical. Still, a proper recognition of time references eluded me for quite a while. Sorting out the differences between the present condition-past result and the past condition-present result was contorting my mind and zapping my gumption.

“But” to the Rescue

Somewhere in the middle of that self-study storm, an idea came to me. It was an idea about what could follow mixed conditional structures, and it led me to devising a kind of tool for checking my answers. I would write out a sentence based on a mixed conditional structure, and then in my head add a phantom “but” and finish the thought. This little strategy allowed me to register those big, nasty time references.


→ If Robin weren’t shy about approaching strangers, she would have asked Mark out on a date.
BUT she IS shy about approaching strangers, so she DIDN’T ask Mark out on a date. (present condition) (past result)

→ If Sophie had saved the recipe for the chocolate babka, she would not have to look for it now.
BUT she DIDN’T save the recipe, so she HAS to look for it now. (past condition) (present result)

In the end, I passed an entrance exam, became a student, passed an exit exam, and became a teacher. Since then, I have used this easy method many times to teach mixed conditionals to my students. Actually, I have found that students can sometimes sort out the tense-time references more quickly if they also employ other phantom words such as “now” and “then.”


→ … BUT she IS shy about approaching strangers (NOW), so she DIDN’T ask Mark out on a date (THEN).

→ … BUT she DIDN’T save the recipe (THEN), so she HAS to look for it (NOW).

Do you teach mixed conditionals to any of your students? If so, at what level or point do you introduce them?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Importance of Intonation

Tamara JonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, SHAPE Language Center, Belgium

“This is a song that you all should know.”
Last week, I was in a jazz club in Venice when I heard something that made me sit up and scribble in my napkin. (It seems that when one becomes an English teacher, it is impossible to shed that hat, even for a night.) The speaker was an Italian pianist. He had excellent English overall, and introduced all of the group’s songs intelligibly and with a sense of humor. However, at one point, I noticed something interesting.

He was introducing a well-know song and he said, “This is a song that you all should know.” Now, that sentence seems innocuous enough, and there were no grammar or vocabulary errors, so what was so interesting about it? What caught my attention was what he did with the pitch of his voice and how that impacted how I heard his meaning.

General English Intonation Guidelines

When following the basic “rules” of English intonation, speakers tend to rise on the last stressed syllable of a phrase or sentence and then fall after the last stressed syllable. For a yes/no question, North American English speakers will generally rise on the last stressed syllable and continue up from there.

However, for any number of different reasons, speakers may choose an alternate intonation pattern. More specifically, if the speaker wants to stress something or focus the listener’s attention on something else in the sentence, he or she will rise on a different syllable. Gilbert (2003) gives this example:

Back to the Pianist

So, what does this mean for the Italian jazz pianist? He rose and fell at the end of his statement, following typical Italian intonation patterns.

For a second or two immediately after, I felt a bit put out. When I stopped to think about my emotional reaction to what he said, I realized that because he had risen and fallen on the word know. In the moment following, I had understood him to mean, “If you don’t know this song, you obviously don’t know anything about jazz.” Now, I would be the first to admit, I am no jazz expert, but I still had an immediate gut reaction of defensiveness.

Once I actually thought logically about it, it was clear that what he had probably intended to say was more along the lines of, “This is a well-known song, and since you are here listening to jazz music when you could be doing any number of other things in Venice during Carnival, you probably know something about jazz and will recognize this tune.” In other words, he probably meant to say,

By stressing the word should he could have focused the listeners’ attention on the probability implied in the modal.

Intonation and Grammar

Intonation varies from language to language. Meyers and Holt (2001) point out that when you are in an international environment, for instance an airport, it is easy to differentiate your native language from the many others being spoken in the area. This is not because you can hear the individual words, but rather because you can hear the “music” of your language.

The reason this is so important for teachers and students to be aware of is that even when a sentence is grammatically sound, if the student is following the intonation patterns associated with his/her L1, the meaning can be strongly impacted. In fact, “… when grammar and intonation are at odds, the intonation directly carries the illocutionary force of the speech act.” (Wennerstrom, 2001, page 149) In other words, how you say something is more powerful than what you say.

The moral of this story is that studying grammar and vocabulary is not enough. Students also need to simultaneously be made aware of the intonation norms of the target language and the meaning associated with them. After all, although the offense I briefly took at the pianist’s remark was minor and quickly resolved, it might not be the case if a student were to make this error in, for example, a job interview.

Gilbert, J. (2003) Pronunciation Priorities for Beginning Students, presentation at TESOL, Baltimore, MD.
Meyers, C. & Holt, S. (2001) Pronunciation for Success, Aspen Productions.
Wennerstrom, A. (2001) The Music of Everyday Speech: Prosody and Discourse Analysis, New York: Oxford University Press.