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The Peculiarities Of English Language Teaching

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Introduction

“Language is the most overwhelmingly dominant perceived problem that international students face in their attempt of studying and living in an English-speaking country” (Robertson et al, 2010), particularly Unaided States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. In the UK context, the majority of the international learners come to England having already decent knowledge of Standard English (minimum IELTS 5.5). “The minimum IELTS score in UK universities for different course types is 5.5-6.5. Some universities may also run a summer foundation course for those students whose score is lower or who want to enhance their academic knowledge.” British Council IELTS

However, it is not the Academic English that puzzle the students so much but the colloquial language, as Robertson et al (2010) states in his article. This aspect has negative consequences on the students’ academic results, personal development and their overall study abroad experience. The present essay aims to find the answer of two questions: Firstly: Should Non-Standard English be introduced in the pre-sessional course organized by the universities in UK? If the answer for the first question is ‘yes’ then the second question comes up: To what extent should Non-Standard English be taught, taking into consideration the student’s target and needs

Background

According to the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCHISA) “the total number of international students studying in the United Kingdom in 2016-2017 is 442,375” and the reports published by the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) show that this number increases year by year.

The main reason why international learners choose to study in an English-speaking country is to have the opportunity to improve their English language skills. As Jenkins (1998) states: “students need above all to be able to communicate successfully with other native or non-native speakers of English from different L1 backgrounds.”

Yet, this goal seems unachievable for the majority of the international students which complain that their native or non-native interlocutors “employ a variety of English with which they are not familiar with” being self-evident that “the English that they have learnt in school did not enable them to take part in certain English-language conversations” (Bieswanger 2008).

Studies indicate that, over the few years, the educational system of the English Language Teaching as a Second Language failed to prepare the students for the “sociolinguistic reality in an increasingly globalized world” (Bieswanger 2008) where English gained the status of Lingua Franca and New Englishes “claim” their right as real English varieties. “The students are not aware of the considerable regional variation in the use of English” (Bieswanger 2008) therefore, the school failed to prepare students to cope with their lives, achieve their learning goals and fulfill their needs. (Klippel and Doff, 2007)

Basically, the international students that come into UK are not familiarized with the multitude of English dialects and accents due to the fact that they have only been exposed to Standard English in school. As Ashton and Shepherd (2013) wrote in their article: “There is one accent that seems to represent us Brits internationally and that is – Received Pronunciation (RP).” Most learners of English learn only the Standard dialect being the most commonly used variety, employed by the government, in the media, in schools and for international communication. Paradoxically, RP is a minority accent being spoken by only 3 per cent of the population.

Dialects and Accents

The term “dialect” as it is described by the Cambridge Online Dictionary (COD) “is a form of language that is spoken in a particular part of the country or by a particular group of people. There are many different dialects of English and they have different words and grammar.” A social dialect (or sociolects) is associated with a particular social class within a society. Standard English, for example, is a social dialect being considered the language of the upper class and educated people while the lower class speaks Slang. The Standard dialect is defined by the Merriam- Webster Dictionary as follows: “the English that with respect to spelling, grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary is substantially uniform though not devoid of regional differences, that is well established by usage in the formal and informal speech and writing of the educated, and that is widely recognized as acceptable wherever English is spoken and understood”

There are also regional dialects (or geographic varieties) of English which are representative to speakers living in a particular area. There are 7 main regional dialects in United Kingdom: British English, Welsh English, Scottish English, Irish English, Gibraltarian English, Channel Island English and Manx English each with its own local varieties and accents.

There are over 70 local varieties depending on the area, social class gender, sex, age group, etc. For example, there is the Yorkshire variety spoken in the county of Yorkshire, the Brummie accent is spoken in Birmingham area, Geordie can be heard if you travel in Newcastle or if you go in the capital, you can hear Cockney, a variety which is spoken by the London working class, and this is just a very few.

An accent is not the same as a dialect. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary (COD), the word “accent” means “the way in which people in a particular area, country or social group pronounce words”. One can deduce therefore, that “the United Kingdom is perhaps the most dialect-obsessed country in the world. With near-countless regional Englishes shaped by millennia of history, few nations boast as many varieties of language in such a compact geography.” (dialectblog.com)

Problems, Consequences and Solutions

Taking into consideration this language diversity, the international students encounter a language shock when they first come to UK, as they come across more or less intelligible varieties of English. Obviously, the language shock added to the so called culture shock, caused by foreign environments can have negative effects like anxiety, lack of self-esteem or even depression (Brieswanger, 2008). Some of them can experience such an ordeal that they can even withdraw from their courses in an attempt to regain their self-balance.

DefEE (2001) states that “international students should be taught about the differences between Standard and Non-standard English, in a balanced approach and, in particular, to be aware that different people make different choices when Standard English is appropriate.”

A proper start for introducing new varieties to international students would be the pre-sessional course run by the universities as this is the first contact that a foreign student has with the academic life.

Standard vs Non-Standard Varieties

The introduction of other varieties of English in the ELT classroom has long been debated in the literature and no outcome has yet been achieved due to the fact that there are advantages and disadvantages on both sides.

Advantages for using Standard English

Standard English is more accessible through broadcasting, in the media, in the literature, etc. It is the variety required by IELTS, TOEFL and Cambridge exams. English for Academic Purposes is essential for studying in universities and colleges while in commercial settings you are expected to know Business English. Standard English/Received Pronunciation/BBC English/ Queen’s English is associated with power and prestige in the public mind. A great extent of the English learning materials are structured to teach Standard English.

Disadvantages of using Standard English

On the other hand, many scholars claim that the focus should not be put on the Standard form of a language because “it is unattainable for most learners”. Lee (2005) states that “it is impossible for any learner of a language to become a native speaker unless he or she is born again”. Standard English can be sometimes useless in certain environments and contexts. There are many English teachers whose accent is not RP and who would be more comfortable teaching their own variety of English. This is true for learners as well. There may be students who are more familiarized with a certain variety and prefer to use it instead of RP. Standard English places a great value on form than function, this being superfluous as it is the social function of the language that fulfills the learners’ needs.

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There are some countries in the world where the vernacular form of the language was banned from the Educational System and this has caused insecurity distrust among the speakers.

Take for example Singapore, where the government has forbidden the use of Singlish – (their local variety of English which incorporates elements of Tamil, Chinese and Malay) in media and in schools for various economic and academic reasons. The population was strongly advised to use Standard English instead of Singlish to increase the national economy, enabling them to have a proper say on the international market as well as to “increase the quality” of the Educational System as the students would be more prepared for the outside world.

A multitude of contra arguments and studies were published as response to this movement and of course, the population did not remain indifferent. It was militated that Singlish is part of the Singaporean character, culture and national identity and cannot be suppressed so easily; it is a necessity not a fad as the elder population rely on vernacular language to communicate with others and, as studies have proved, Singlish is “an overwhelmingly useful tool for students” (Rubdy, 2007) boosting their multilingual skills, increasing self-confidence and helping them to understand and acquire the Standard form.

In the British Educational System, on the other hand, “the National curriculum states that pupils should be able to shift their language usage in terms of register and form according to the communication situation” (Black, 2008) However, pupils are expected to “sustain Standard English with the familiarity suited to reader and purpose”.

1) Should Non-Standard English be introduced in the pre-sessional programme?

“A pre-sessional programme is an intensive English language programme held during the summer to improve the academic language skills of students’ whose test scores are slightly below the requirements for their chosen degree programme.” (Ward et al, 2001)

As we have seen, using standard and non-standard varieties in the educational sphere is controversial. Cook (2003) describes the situation as being a “two-edged sword” because both advantages as well as disadvantages exist in trying to implement a curriculum that includes the standard and non-standard form.

Let us first consider the contra arguments of introducing a non-standardized variety in a pre-sessional English programme organized by the universities in UK.

A) Studying a Non-standard variety will hinder the development of the students’ academic skills.

The majority (if not all) Pre-sessional English courses teach English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and focus on developing academic skills proper for the journey that has yet to start in the higher education system. The curriculum provides both perceptive and productive skills, grammar, academic vocabulary and language function as can be deduced, for example, from the De Montfort University Pre-sessional curse description:

“To build on the English Language Preparation Programme giving you your final push before going onto your undergraduate or postgraduate course. It consolidates your academic English in all the four skills of listening, reading, writing and speaking. You will be assessed for your academic skills through a final test at the end of the course as well as writing a 1000-word essay, a 1000-word report and giving a 10-minute presentation.”

Cook (2003) argues that introducing Non-standard varieties in the curriculum would only hinder the acquisition of Standard English and therefore, the students’ academic skills would be diminished. Moreover, Anne Smith (2013) states that “due to the fact that international students have only been exposed to one variety of English (Received Pronunciation) introducing a non-standardized variety in an early stage of their language development would only cause confusion”

On the other hand, Black (2008) states that students who are learning English as a second language need to be aware of the existence, pronunciation and form of Non-standard varieties as they are going to cope with the real British life of outside the University’s walls. Moreover, Suzuki (2010) claims that knowing other varieties of a language “would develop students’ proficiency for international communication with other native or non-native speakers of English.” And this can be perceived as a stepping stone words the Standardized Form of English and helping them mastering the Academic skills.

B) Learning Non-standard English is not the students’ goal

It is useless to teach Non-standard English in a pre-sessional course as it can easily be acquired through social media or day-to-day conversation. This would only waste time and make the international students’ long-term goals harder to achieve, wasting their potential and effecting their overall education.

However, “since the global spread of English, the choice of an appropriate English learning target for second language (L2) learners has been controversial in English language education due to the changing nature of English worldwide” (Chan, 2018). On an international basis, yes, the students may need Standard English to get their ideas across, being “the variety of English widely accepted, understood and perhaps valued” (McArthur, 2003 cited in Farrell & Martin, 2009).

But, in the UK context, international students need to be able to communicate with both native and non-native speakers in order to carry on with their lives outside the academic context. This target is much more appropriate and attainable in most English-speaking situations (Kachru & Nelson, 2006)

“Many international students begin their lives in the UK on a pre-sessional programme” (Ward et al, 2001) So, for most of them this is their first contact with the British culture and their initial UK life experience so there is no other proper moment to introduce students to Non-Standard English than the pre-sessional course. Therefore, this pre-sessional course should provide more than just academic information and how achieve the academic goals, but also how to cope with their everyday life needs and in various situations and that’s why Non-Standard varieties should be introduced in the pre-sessional course in UK.

2) To what extent should Non-Standard English be taught in the pre-sessional course?

A pre-sessional course run by the universities in UK are usually organized in the summer on a relative short period of time. It can last for 4 up to 15 weeks in some cases. However, teachers claim that the curriculum is already very dense and complex and the students are overwhelmed by the amount of new information they have to acquire in such a short period of time and introducing new varieties of English in the lesson would only make thinks harder for the students to cope with.

Moreover, as Tegene (2015) states the majority of the materials (text books/activity books) used in classrooms are prepared in a standard dialect that means the teacher has to prepare handouts beforehand that include activities and exercises containing the non-standard variety.

However, it is enough for the students to be exposed to Non-varieties of the language through instructions or short activities at the end of the lesson to make them familiar with certain dialects that they may encounter on every-day life. This short encounters with the Non-standard varieties will be much more useful and efficient than long stages of exercises. Moreover, the lessons will become more dynamic and variate and the students will enjoy them for sure.

Refferences

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  2. BIESWANGER, M (2008) Varieties of English in Current English Language Teaching. Stellebosch Papers in Linguistics, 38, pp.27-47.
  3. BLACK, B (2008) Investigating Non-Standard English in GCSE level students in England. [Online] Available from: http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/Images/aspects-of-writing-non-standard-english-sep-2008.pdf [Accessed 18/01/19].
  4. BRADSHAW, C. (2004) Student Success in a Pre-Sessional Course for Postgraduate International Students: implications for practice. Investigations in university teaching and learning, 2 (1) pp.1-11.
  5. British Council IELTS (2017) IELTS requirements of the world’s top 200 universities in the UK in 2018 [Online] Available from: https://www.ieltsasia.org/hk/en/study-in-uk/required-score [Accessed 20/01/19].
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  8. COPLAND, F. & GARTON, S. (2011) ‘I felt that I do live in the UK now’: international students’ self-reports of their English language speaking experiences on a pre-sessional programme. Language and Education, 25 (3) pp. 241-255.
  9. Cambridge English Dictionary online (2007) [Online] Available from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/types-of-english-formal-informal-etc/dialect [Accessed 19/01/19].
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