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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Teaching your second language

What follows is something of a defensive speech. I admit it freely. The subject is something I'm thinking about almost daily. It's an issue that will be relevant to every single non-native speaker with a noticeable accent, which is why I'm making my thoughts about it public. To be more precise, while this blog does discuss accent, other issues related to second language teaching (by non-native speakers) are made relevant. It will also, hopefully, open up avenues for native speakers to reflect on their presence in the classroom and their impact on their students. Or something to that effect.

Accent. This is an issue that has been raised many, many times in my relatively short ESL career. On a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is unnoticeable and 10 is hindering listener comprehension, I'm around 4. I've a very noticeable accent but decent enough English otherwise. And while it sometimes takes a little time to tune in on my "accent frequency", I've never met anyone who didn't understand anything I was saying except people who don't speak any English, Norwegian, German or Spanish.

Why is the question of accent so relevant in the case of English teacher Ole? Well, it ties in with several things. First, and probably most relevant, there's the issue of comprehension. If you can't speak clear enough English that native speakers and, preferably, non-native speakers, can understand you, well, it's obvious that you shouldn't be teaching English. Second, and almost equally important, there's the fact that a language is fundamentally about pronunciation. In English, properly executed verb endings, especially in past tense, are vital for precise communication. While we're not talking about Mandarin here, where, as far as I understand, pronunciation is the end-all, do-or-die of communication, it's still very important that a teacher is able to teach students well enough to improve on their accents. And, finally, there's a much more understated, difficult to point out issue at stake here: alibi and authority in the classroom. I believe, as I think I've written before, that I can "get away" with both the clearness of my language and the pronunciation. Even if barely. To put it in a different way, except for one class (which also complained about their next teacher, a true-bred gringo), I've never had my students make an issue about the way I speak English. Maybe they're scared of me. It would make sense, since I've a forty-pound umbrella that I have repeatedly threatened to employ in the service of second language acquisition (corporeal punishment is so underrated). Further, I'm a fair chunk of Norwegian meat and I look like a biker. Regardless, the point remains that of the fifty-sixty different students I've had (minus the 10 bitches in the class that refused to have me as their teacher), and of the vast amount of people I've met in my travels and spoken English with, nobody has ever had any trouble understanding me after, at most, a minute or two.

And here we come to the point of this blog entry: of authority and alibi. What do these things have to do with ESL teaching?

First off, it must be said that this is a line of thought under construction. I know there's an issue here, but it's very difficult to pinpoint exactly. Authority is easy enough, in a sense - it has to do with how much the students respect you and therefore are willing to learn from you. Authority is also something wielded through force of personality and experience with leadership. In the classroom, as the teacher, you are automatically vested with a certain amount of authority. Knowledge about the subject you are teaching and ability to communicate it well are also ways to draw and work upon the respect of your students. All native speakers carry with them an air of authority about their language. It's only natural, since they are, theoretically, the final arbiters of correctness (at least in terms of communicating meaning, if not grammatical expertise). A non-native speaker, on the other hand, is a different story. But let's talk about alibi first.

The question of alibi is a deceptively simple one: Why are you teaching English? In terms that are easily understood for anyone familiar with Janteloven, why do you think you have what it takes? If you're a native speaker of the language you're teaching, the answer is relatively easy: because I am the language. Native speakers might not be experts on grammar, but they sure know how to speak the language in question.

When it comes to my personal alibi, I'm going to be honest. It was, and still remains, more about my own pursuit of happiness than anything else. I recognize that learning English for Ticos is something that is potentially worthwhile in many different ways, though.

How does the question of authority and alibi connect to teacherhood? Let's have a look at native speakers first. They are naturally gifted with authority, and with it, their alibi: I am English, therefore I can and will teach it. This is of course a sweeping generalization, but I'm not talking about personal beliefs here, but rather how students respond to their teacher.

For someone teaching their second language to second, third or whatever language learners, it's a different story. Authority and alibi becomes something much more relevant, because they will be axiomatic to your ability to teach effectively. You need to convince your students, consciously or not, about your authority more thoroughly than any native speaker would have to. And to do that, you need to believe in the righteousness of yourself. You need to have an alibi and believe in it, and/or, like me, cling blindly to the belief that you are so far removed from the skill of your students that the actual difference between you and a native, in the classroom, is negligible except for the case of the accent. Either way, it's a way of convincing yourself that you are, in fact, worth your students' time and attention (and through that, theoretically, convincing your students). And all this, ladies and gentlemen, is very, very difficult.

I'm standing in the classroom and a student is asking me a question I don't know the answer to. Is this because my understanding of English is fundamentally flawed compared to that of a native speaker? Could the student pose the same question to a native speaker and expect a decent answer? These questions may seem very silly to some, but this is a good example of a typical doubt that will plague me inside and outside the classroom. While I can and do float a lot on my personal charisma in the classroom, self-doubt is disaster for me because it doesn't just potentially flaw the student's understanding, but it's also possible that it undermines the faith of the whole class in my authority to teach them. This will not, I believe, be as much an issue with native speakers who can get away with a lot more because, well, they are native speakers. It's their language.

And that’s about it – about as far as my line of thought has progressed. I'm looking forward to read any feedback on this!

On an unrelated note, here are pics from my stay in Costa Rica.

Signing out,