Friday, 17 February 2012

Intelligibility and familiarity RULE! apparently ...

Today's class was looking at the legitimacy of varieties of English, among other things.

Whenever I do this class, the students looking at the different language/varietal examples always decide if something is legitimate based on two aspects: intelligibility and familiarity. Whether or not it is "pure" - whatever that means - doesn't seem to have a bearing. For example, they always decide that Old English (Anglo-Saxon) is not legitimate, as it does not fit the two criteria of intelligibility and familiarity.

I always feel rather good about the decision to base legitimacy on intelligibility; if a speaker of English is clearly spoken, or if written language expresses ideas clearly, then that's the important thing as far as I'm concerned, although this may not address the issues raised in the term "legitimate". The familiarity criterion is something of a problem, however.

In terms of whether a variety of English is accepted as a New Variety (NVE), of course it has to be shown that the code has regular, observable patterns which are used by a homogeneous group of people in a number of different settings. Having the variety as an L1 is also often given as an important criterion. However, this does not mean that the NVE is necessarily intelligible, and it is not always the case that it is going to be very familiar to all other speakers of English.

Here is the conflict - if you like - between the description and acceptance of NVEs / world Englishes and approaches such as the Lingua Franca Core; just because something is an established variety it does not mean it is intelligible (many accents of British English are not, for example) but, in order for people across the world to communicate in English, if it is to be THE international language, there has to be enough commonality in the code for people to be able to understand each other and - at least to some extent - for it not to be too unfamiliar.

So what we're talking about here is people being diglossic, i.e., having access to and being able to use both their own variety of English and to be able to switch to a code which is intelligible to as many (other) speakers of English as possible. This situation already exists in some countries such as Singapore, which has Standard Singapore English and also the more localised Singlish, often vilified as basilectal. This is a bit of a simplistic description but it will do for now.

Is this too much to ask? Well, I don't think so, but I'm fortunate enough to speak a variety or ideolect which, I'm told by a lot of people, is very clear - and I haven't got RP (which, in its most extreme form, is not always clear!). Where other native speakers of Old Varieties of English (OVEs) are concerned, this may be a hard sell; if you've been speaking English all your life and then someone tells you you'll need to change it so someone "foreign" can understand you, rather than the other way around, my sense is that there might well be resistance to this.

English, just as any language, grows and changes. What speakers of OVEs who are not intelligible have got to realise is that, to keep up, their English will need to grow and change, too. I really wouldn't want us to get left behind. We're fortunate enough as it is that English has emerged as the international lingua franca in the way it has; resting on our laurels is really not an option.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Native and non-native speaker teachers

In today's class we talked about some of the issues surrounding native and non-native speaker (NS and NNS) teachers. I told the students a bit about my history in English language teaching (ELT) as an example.

I went to Japan at the end of my first degree, which was in Language Studies and English - so, broadly, Linguistics. I'd spent the summers between the various years of my degree teaching English at schools which provided you with some training before you entered the classroom, and was recruited by a fairly well-known school of English when I graduated for the final summer before leaving for Japan. I also tried to learn a bit of Japanese before going.

I'd (naively) assumed that the school I went to work for in Japan would have recruited graduates with a similar background to me, i.e., those with relevant degrees who had some experience of teaching. Not so. My peers had degrees in unrelated areas (such as History) and most of them had no experience teaching prior to arriving in Japan, although this did change a bit with the recruits who came after I arrived.

Not having any training doesn't necessarily mean that you are going to be a poor teacher; a lot of it is about aptitude and personality, after all. But to turn up with little or no explicit knowledge about one's own language and be expected to teach English seems rather odd to me, particularly as this was a private school of English and not something like the JET or NET scheme, for which NS graduates are often recruited to take conversation classes or similar in state schools (so a bit more like a classroom assistant).

Anyway, as I was saying, this had come up in the context of the general issues around NS and NNS teachers and why the NS teacher still seems to be held up as the paragon when, in fact, NNS teachers - particularly if they are from the same background as their learners - bring with them a wealth of extremely valuable skills and relevant experience.

This discussion throws up all sorts of other issues to do with models and norms and difference vs. deficit.

Have I got a pronouncement to make on this topic? Well, I suppose it has to be this: that one's duty as a teacher is to provide a good model for your students, preferably one which is intelligible to the majority of speakers of English (not all NSs can claim that), and to have a good understanding of the language you are teaching and at mimimum a working understanding of the language(s) your students speak. I couldn't claim to be fluent in Japanese when I arrived but I was pretty good when I left (more than 20 years ago now!). I will hold my hand up and admit that I never got to grips with Cantonese, but I did know the phonology of it inside out from doing research on speech rhythm in HKE.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Research-led teaching / teaching-led research

I'm teaching my English in the World class this term and part of the assessment is that students take part in one of my research projects. I'm replicating one done by Andy Sewell at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, on Hongkongers' attitudes to (mostly) HKE accents and the aspects of the pronunciation of the speakers which affect intelligibility. My students are mostly British with little or no exposure to HKE. The students also have to do a sort of "blog-post" on the discussion board for the class, commenting on taking part in the research, difficulties they faced, what they liked, whether they'd set up the experiment differently, etc. I'll present the results towards the end of the term, and have recruited an RA from amongst the students to help collate the responses.

It's quite interesting to do this as it gives them the opportunity to interact (to some extent) with 1) a variety of world Englishes and 2) research. Some of them are doing dissertations at the moment (it's a mixed class of second and third years with some MA students in there too) so are already at the rock face when it comes to research design, but they still seem to appreciate the point of taking part in this and evaluating the experience. I'll be interested to see just how much the results differ from Andy's when we put them together.

Last year they acted as subjects in Peggy Mok, Low Ee Ling and my study on the perception and production of word juncture cues in British English (BE), Singapore English (SE) and HKE. We got a couple of conference papers out of that and I'm currently writing up the perception results now (when I'm not blogging / writing a chapter on world Englishes / dealing with day-to-day work issues / being a rock star).

I'm actually waiting to find out if I've won a bilateral research grant to investigate issues of intelligibility in more depth across European and South East Asian speakers of English. The result of the call is supposed to be out this month ... Wish me luck!

Students also do an analysis of a speaker of Jamaican English for the class. Last year it was an Indian English speaker and there was a bit of code-mixing in there, too, which some managed to decipher and others didn't. I'd like to think this is broadening the horizons of my students, but I sometimes wonder if they just look upon it as yet another task. I hope not.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Why does the world need another blog on Englishes?

Well, I guess it doesn't, really - but I've been asked to write a book chapter on World Englishes and I thought it would be nice to have somewhere to share my thoughts, observations and notes on some of the varieties I come into contact with and issues to do with English around the world.

My research in this area is primarily on Hong Kong English (HKE). This began because I was living in Hong Kong at the time and had to find something to write a PhD on. There is a lot of discussion about whether HKE is a variety or an emerging variety or (just) a learner language, and this is something which is faced by many Englishes around the world. At the time, I was coming from it as a teacher of English as a foreign language; the issues to do with the validity of HKE as a variety hadn't really occurred to me until I'd finished the thesis, which was on speech rhythm in HKE. One gets so tied up in these things it's sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees. Anyway, since then I've produced a book on HKE with colleagues in Hong Kong (Edinburgh University Press 2010) and have been teaching a class on World Englishes since 2004.

It's a fascinating area, not just because of the richness of different varieties around the world - including the UK - but also because of the socio-political and economic issues involved. I hope anyone reading this will be interested in what I've got to say as a member of Kachru's Inner Circle looking out, and that you'll be prepared to interact with me in order to discuss and inform.