Three myths about learning and speaking English

myth versus realityThere are lots of myths about learning and speaking a different language.

For example, many people think that children automatically learn second languages faster and easier because of their age. Not according to the CAL Centre for Applied Linguistics they don’t.

Others believe that in order to properly learn a language, you need to go to the country where it’s spoken. These guys don’t agree with that.

In fact, you can Google almost anything about what makes for effective language learning and find someone who doesn’t think it’s true.

So we thought we’d pick a few things we’ve heard students or teachers say over the years, and see if they stand up to (gentle) scrutiny.

1. Business English and General English are basically the same thing.

At the start of my career, I remember asking a teacher trainer at International House in Barcelona what Business English was. I was about to start my first job, and my teaching load would be made up of about 90% in-company classes. The problem was that I genuinely had no idea what I was supposed to teach these students. He told me that Business English was ‘just regular English, but in business contexts’. And that definition was fairly useful at the time; it allowed me to get through my first year of teaching in-company without embarrassing myself too much.

But is Business English just ‘regular’ English in Business contexts (whatever ‘regular’ English might be!)? Research carried out by academics looking at corpus data would suggest that it’s much more complex than that. In particular, the Cambridge and Nottingham Spoken Business English Corpus (CANBEC) — a collection of spoken Business English recorded in companies — is revealing some fascinating insights into how language is used at work, and allowing us to think about why.

For example, in her 2012 talk at the IATEFL conference, Dr Almut Koester from the University of Birmingham showed how common it is for people to use vague language in business contexts — language like the other thing, sort of thing, kind of thing, et cetera, things like that, a lot of, and this that and the other. She also looked at why this might be the case (because you’re uncertain about something; because there’s no need to be any more precise; to create a sense of ‘shared knowledge’; or to be deliberately indirect). So we can start to see that, although we may use the same words and phrases in Business and General English contexts, the frequency of those words and phrases — and our motivations for using them — can be very different indeed. And that’s important for learners, because it affects the type of language they’ll need to focus on in order to communicate more successfully at work.

2. Most people you’ll speak to in English will be native English speakers.

When I was teaching in Spain, I remember playing an audio recording from a popular coursebook that featured an actor with a German accent. One of my students noted, correctly, that the actor’s accent sounded different to mine (I’m from England), and asked why that was. When I explained that the actor was German, another student asked why I was making them listen to a German accent instead of a British or American accent. At the time, I didn’t really have a good answer for that. Nowadays, however, I do.

The reality is that there are now more people who speak English as an additional language than speak English as a native language. That means that, statistically at least, you’re more likely to be communicating in English with someone who has learned it rather than someone who was brought up speaking it. This type of communication between non-native speakers has been termed English as a lingua franca, or ‘ELF’. And why is the concept of ELF important for learners of English? Because research carried out by, amongst others, Professor Jennifer Jenkins at the University of Southampton, suggests that the English used between non-native speakers differs from the English used between native speakers.

For example, in ELF contexts, speakers will often emphasise ‘getting the message across’ at the expense of accuracy; there may, therefore, be more ‘mistakes’, even if the communication is ultimately successful. Many of my learners told me that they even preferred communicating with other non-native speakers, as it made them less worried about making mistakes; this increase in confidence often made them sound more fluent. For learners, there is therefore a benefit to being exposed to non-native speakers of English, not only because understanding a range of non-native accents will be beneficial, but also because the person they’re speaking to may be using English in an unexpected way. Knowing that, and recognising when it’s happening, can help us be better communicators.

3. You have to learn English in a certain order.

A few years ago, I was working for a publisher on a new edition of a coursebook series. We were looking at feedback on the first edition of the book, and I came across an interesting comment from a teacher who’d been using it for several years. She wrote that the current edition of the book taught must ‘in the wrong place’. She argued that Elementary students didn’t need must; her recommendation was that we move it to the Pre-intermediate level.

Is there a right or wrong place to teach a word or grammar structure? Over the years, we’ve been led to believe that there is. A typical syllabus for language learning has emerged, fed into by coursebook publishers, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, exam boards, ministries of education and various other sources. For example, it’s now firmly established — and evident in most coursebooks — that it’s important to teach the present simple tense before the past simple tense. But let’s think about that for a moment. Is it really much more complex, from a language-learning perspective, to say I live in London or I lived in London? Sure, some verbs are irregular in the past simple, but then there are also a couple of very common verbs that are irregular in the present simple (and let’s not forget about the third person -s either!).

The reality is that there’s no ‘correct’ order in which to teach a language. Actually, there is, but that order is different for every single person. If the first question someone asks me in English is Where do you live?, then I need to be able to use the present simple. But if the first question is Where did you live before here?, then I’m going to be in trouble if I’ve not studied the past simple yet.

Over the years, there have been calls from some people — for example, Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings, in their 2009 book Teaching Unplugged — for teachers and publishers to abandon the traditional, linear approach to language learning in favour of something more ’emergent’. The idea is that we learn best when our learning is adapted to what interests us, what we need to do, and what we need most help with. And this is an idea that we’re thinking about a lot at Reallyenglish, as Simon le Maistre was discussing in his interview last week: how we can use data and student feedback to create a more emergent and personalised learning experience.

So those are three ‘myths’ about learning and speaking English that we’ve encountered. What about you?

One Comment on “Three myths about learning and speaking English”

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