Saturday, March 06, 2004

As you know, I work in TEFL. TEFL stands for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Yet, as Luke Meddings pointed out in a Guardian article of 29th January, this is, in many ways, an outdated acronym, since most students wish to learn EGL – English as a Global Language – and not EFL: “[EFL] reflects an increasingly outmoded view of what English means to the world – yesterday’s foreign language, rather than today’s global language”.

Why the distinction? Does it matter? After all, isn’t it the same language whatever you call it?

Well, yes, but also no. The fastest growing sector of TEFL worldwide is Business English, and more business conversations take place in English between two non-native speakers than between native speakers (I don't have the exact figures to hand unfortuanately, but I know the above is true). Indeed, between them the three companies I teach at speak to a wide range of nationalities – German, Czech, Spanish, Portugese, Romanian, Turkish, even Sri Lankan – on a daily basis, but none of them, regularly, with the UK or any other English-speaking country. These people are not looking for English per se, but for a tongue with which to converse with others in our increasingly interconnected world: that is, a lingua franca, a Global Language. This is no great insight in itself, but it has implications for the way we teach that, to me, don’t seem to have permeated down through the industry.

The line between language and culture is well-observed not to be a particularly solid one. This is true trivially – the rich variety of expressions and phrases available in any language can tell you a lot about the accompanying culture – but also non-trivially; at the extreme, the teaching of English as a Foreign Language could stand accused of cultural imperialism.

How so? Well, we teach grammar and vocabulary, and we teach listening and speaking skills. So far, so good: English is English is English. But what of, say, writing skills? A friend currently studying for the DELTA (an advanced qualification) recently wrote an essay on the correction of writing skills, and within that she discussed essay formation: to what degree do we teach how to write a letter (of, say, complaint), or should we stick exclusively to the language needed, and then leave the student, with their own culturally-based ideas of how to structure and what to include in a letter of complaint, to their own devices?

For example, it is apparantly common in formal letters written in Italian (especially to those poxy civil servants) to lavish the prose with grandoise expressions, in effect begging for a a few minutes of the recipients precious time to be spent dealing with the contents of the letter. This is, in fact, commonly perceived as an effective way of getting things done; nothing more, nothing less.

Of course, a letter written in such a way to a British institution would, once the guffours had died down, be dealt with like any other, or, if not, then with less promanance than another (which would, ironically, represent a typically British response to the pompousity of its contents). So, do we teach how to write such a letter in English as an ajunct to the necessary language, or are we, by doing so, guilty of imposing our own expectations of content on our learners? After all, as I say, many of them won’t be writing the letter to native speakers.

This example does, I should admit, rest on anecdotal and second-hand evidence, so let me describe another. Essays are often written with qualititively different structures in different parts of the world. In an essay discussing the pros and cons of some proposal, we, in the West, would, broadly speaking, use a structure of intro-pros-cons-conclusion. However Japanese essays discuss around the subject which is, in turn, often personalised; the author’s feelings on the matter are left exclusively to the conclusion. As a further contrast, essays written by Arabic authors typically jump from pro to con and back again throughout.

So, in teaching writing, should we teach our genre of writing style and structure, or just the language? As with all teaching, it must depend on the learner’s needs, and they are often for a Global Language.

Writing is not the only example. I have two private students who will shortly be taking the PET exam – the Preliminary English Test, primarily used as a target for school children to work towards. In the oral part, they have to discuss some topic in a pair. I have been stressing to both of them the importance of ensuring that both speak; if their partner is too loud or too quiet, they must take steps to make sure the dialogue remains just that: a dialogue, between two people. But is this an imposition of cultural expectations? Certainly not in Italy or the West in general, but maybe so in other, more deferential cultures. It’s an extreme example, granted, but I hope the point is made.

I’m wary of making sweeping comments about things I don’t really know about, like the perception and expectations of the TEFL industry in markedly different cultures to my own. This makes drawing firm conclusions difficult. However my instincts are, in fact, to find TEFL not guilty, not least because the points I’ve made – about the need for EGL rather than EFL – are often lost on the learners. Subsequently they expect (at least to the degree they are aware of it) the cultural attachments of language as well; finding later that, despite having a mastery of the language itself, their letter of complaint had only minimal impact may lead to conclusions of being conned.

However those are only my instincts. What does surprise me is that the accusation of cultural imperialism doesn’t appear to be an issue on the agenda of the movers and shakers in TEFL; certainly I’ve not read or heard anything on the topic. Maybe that fact reflects my points that it’s not actually an issue for learners themselves, and therefore the accusations haven’t been made. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be so much of an issue in Italy and elsewhere in Europe because of a shared culture; maybe if I was teaching further afield it would be. If there are any teachers in such places reading this, your thoughts would be appreciated.

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