February is not only my birthday month, Valentine’s Day month, and the coldest, most miserable month to experience living in a tiny old apartment in Tokyo. This February also happened to be the ELF (English as a Lingua Franca) month. Along with other teachers from all over the world I’m taking the ELF-Aware Classroom course with Katy Simpson on iTDi and I’m trying to get my head around on how we can raise our own and students’ awareness of the issue and learn what teachers can do to incorporate more ELF activities smoothly.
And now, February will also be the month when Chris Ozog writes a guest post on ELF for this space! I think I first met Chris during ExcitELT in Tokyo last summer, though I’d known him from the ELT internet spaces before. I was paired up with Chris in a session, and by the end of that session I was of this opinion: I wish Chris were my teacher trainer. He’s so sharp and chill and thoughtful. Over to Chris, then.
Chris a teacher, teacher trainer and writer, originally from Scotland but now based in Japan. He’s been involved in English Language Teaching for long enough now to have white hairs appearing, usually working for International House, and is the current editor of the IH Journal. His work has taken all over the globe, from Costa Rica through Dubai to the Czech Republic, amongst other places, and he’s very much enjoyed almost every minute of it. He also tutors on online courses, writes occasionally, and keeps the world’s least updated ELT blog. You might occasionally see him presenting at a conference or giving the odd webinar, but you’re much more likely to find him in a café reading literature, history or psychology books. At present, his work involves mainly Delta and CELTA courses, which he enjoys for the chance to work with so many teachers and aspiring teachers from such diverse backgrounds.
(Anna: If you want to know more about Chris’ ELT journey, read from the man himself here. An additional benefit of doing so is, if many of us click the link, his blog will stop being one of the least updated ELT blogs and we ourselves will have done a good thing).
Accents, ELF, and Teacher Training
A teacher’s pronunciation is important. We can probably all agree on that. What we might not agree on, however, is why: why does a teacher’s pronunciation matter?
There are two general answers to this question:
- A teacher needs to be a model for their students
- A teacher needs to be able to identify pronunciation issues in learners’ speaking
So, what does that mean, in reality, for teachers’ own pronunciation?
A recent survey in Tokyo found that most respondents:
…believed teachers’ pronunciation should not have traces of a Japanese accent, and that teachers should instead acquire native-speaker accents…[i]
It seems so simple then: teachers should sound like native speakers – problem solved. But regardless of where you stand on the emotive issue of native speaker deference, this ‘solution’ is not as simple as it seems.
Let’s return to that quotation above. Unpacking it a little, the teachers in the survey seem to be suggesting that:
- Japanese English accents are inferior/incorrect
- Native speaker accents are superior/correct
This might seem straightforward enough: native speakers’ pronunciation is better and so, one assumes, easier to understand; Japanese-inflected pronunciation, on the other hand, is deficient and therefore more difficult to understand. The simplicity is attractive. But it’s also false.
Consider the following interaction:
Japanese person: Hi. Whe-a izu the banku?
English person: i tzeaze yif ye teika rai tovah de road
Believe it or not, that English person is speaking a form of ‘native speaker’ English. Try sounding it out syllable for syllable to see. Then put it all together and say it quickly. Is the native speaker’s pronunciation really clearer?
What Does This Mean?
The example might be rather crude, but it makes the point. Being a native speaker does not necessarily guarantee your listener will understand you. In fact, being an unaware native speaker might be exactly why your listener does not understand you! What matters instead, for native and non-native speakers alike, is being intelligible, i.e. speaking clearly so your listener can understand you. But this brings its own complications. Who are the listeners? Which sounds are most likely to be clear? To begin to answer these questions requires an understanding of the way English is most commonly used around the world, as a Lingua Franca – a common language between people who do not share the same first language.
Let’s pause a moment, though, and go back to the Tokyo survey. Who were the respondents? Who held the implicit view that native speaker pronunciation was clearer? The answer: 100 Junior High School teachers. In other words, teachers themselves! So, why is it that the Junior High School teachers in Tokyo believe that native speaker accents are more relevant to their context? Especially when we consider the importance of being clear and English as a Lingua Franca?
Sadly, the research in question does not probe this view further, so we have no insight from the teachers themselves. However, from my own experience in teacher training, I would suggest that these kinds of misconceptions are so firmly entrenched that they filter down to learners in the form of (un)conscious attitude and classroom practice. When those learners then become the next generation of English teachers, so the cycle continues: the received wisdom is passed on. The problem with received wisdom though, is, while it is often gratefully received, it is rarely questioned. So where to start asking questions?
Accents and Teacher Training
Use yourself or a recording as an example
- Tell the teachers a short anecdote (or play one).
- Ask them to note down anything they notice about your accent.
- Groups discuss the accentual features they notice.
- Whole class discussion about which features were noticeable and why, whether any caused communication problems, etc.
(for a more detailed version of this activity, see here)
Read a text aloud (in a multi-lingual group)
- Choose a short text of about 50 words and prepare a task sheet for teachers.
- In groups, teachers read the text and the others note down which words they pronounce differently in the group.
- Whole class discussion about which features were noticeable and why.
- Highlight any potential problems in intelligibility and discuss issues connected to ELF.
Give an article about ELF
- Find an introductory article to ELF, e.g. this one, and prepare some questions, such as about which accent is desirable, is L2 accent ok, etc.
- Pre-reading, have groups discuss the questions.
- Give the teachers time to read the article and answer questions based on the article.
- Groups discuss the questions and then open this up to full class.
- Robustly defend an ELF perspective in the discussions and challenge teachers to find objections (the aim here is for teachers to develop their ideas, so still be nice!)
What’s the Point?
Pronunciation matters. The more issues surrounding pronunciation are explored, the more acceptance there will be of different accents. The more the goal of a native speaker pronunciation is challenged, the more confident those Japanese Junior High teachers can become. The more a trainee teacher knows about their own pronunciation, the more confident they can be in their own intelligibility. And the more a teacher knows about ELF, the more they can help their learners communicate successfully without trying to force them to speak a certain way.
[i] Yoko Uchida and Junko Sugimoto: Towards the implementation of ELF-oriented pronunciation teaching in Japan. Retrieved from: https://elfpron.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/elf10-uchida-sugimoto/
I want to thank Chris for this post and yes, I want to robustly defend an ELF perspective in discussions with other teachers… and with students, too. There’s a controversial story on my mind that I want to blog about some day but I’ll hold it off for now, but I’ll just say this:
In the past couple of months, I’ve been lucky to have opportunities to travel around Southeast Asia. Every interaction I’ve had in English – with people in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia – is an example of an ELF interaction. By paying closer attention now to those interactions and analysing them (sometimes even too much!), I’m learning so much. It’s often hard for me to understand English in SE Asia, and I think nowadays I’m keeping a more open mind to the challenges than I did before. And I keep thinking that as a teacher I want my students to have an open mind, too.
There are some more thought-provoking posts on the ELF issue here:
Michael Griffin makes a point that acknowledging ELF and viewing your teaching through this perspective doesn’t have to mean any dramatic change to our lessons.
Katherine Bilsborough adds an ELT author’s, materials writer’s perspective to the issue.
Katy Simpson recorded short video interviews with many teachers, whose first language is or is not English, in which she explored their attitudes on different aspects of ELF.