Think multilingually on English Language Day

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It would feel right to write English ‘Languages’ Day as I start thinking about English Language Day, which is celebrated on the National Day of England, Saint George’s Day, April 23rd. The English language has expanded both geographically and conceptually so widely that it is hard to grasp its global dimensions. It sounds even more like a magical act to squeeze a language with so many variaties into a single classroom.

The most popular questions asked by researchers and thinkers, for example Claire Kramsch (1997), Jennifer Jenkins (2007) and Barbara Sedilhofer (2011) concern the ownership of the English language as well as the variety of the language we teach and learn in the English classroom. Whose English is it? What kind of English language is it?

In the classroom we often hear questions which can relate to these issues. Our students might ask which expression, grammar structure or pronunciation is ‘more correct’ or simply ‘correct’ to use. Another important point is that the question of ‘ownership’ might put some teachers in a difficult position, especially non-native speakers of the language. Sometimes non-native teachers feel less confident to ‘represent’ the English language in classroom discussions.

Today we would like to encourage you, teachers to simply shift your thinking of English as a single variety of language which should and can only be spoken as Standard English to a more multilingual concept, and take advantage of your own bilingual or multilingual background, thinking of yourself as a mediator or facilitator who helps students become more aware of and sensitive to the languages spoken around them. The English language we teach, hear and read on a daily basis cannot and has not been approached as a single variety, and its diverisity, varibility and dynamic nature (Seidlhofer, 2011) are what make it such a playful and powerful language. In an English language learning environment it is essential to talk about these questions and accept that when we teach English, we also have to decide what our objective is, and teach the given variety, discourse and register accordingly. Even better, we can practise being reflective language users, whose language awareness expands to such dimensions that we think of English as a lingua franca, in which communication, interaction and negotiation and adaptation (not adoption) are the major norms, objectives and processes (Seidlhofer, 2011).

Here are some terms to consider before we go on to see some classroom discussion questions and activities you can do in a lesson to introduce a different understanding of English to your students.

Some terminology

  • English as a lingua franca: It is used among speakers of different first languages for whom English is a communicative medium of choice, and often the only option. (Seidlhofer, 2011)
  • ENL: English used as a native langauge
  • ESL: English as a second language
  • EFL: English as a foreign language
  • Variety: It is a specific form of a language, and it may include different registers, styles and dialects. It is hard to define varieties of English as language variation is also a naturally occuring adaptive process. The most common understanding of varieties of English includes:
    • British English
    • American English
    • Canadian English
    • Australian and New Zealand English
    • African English and South African English
    • Jamaican English
    • India-Pakistan English
    • Irish English
    • Hong Kong English
    • Jamaican English
    • Singapore English

Some activities for the class

We recommend these activities for secondary school students and adults.

1 Discussions

Think about your own languages. How many different varieties can you think of? Is it spoken the same way in every region of your country? What are the most obvious differences? Is one variety ‘more correct’ than the other?

Now think about the English language. How many different varieties of English can you name?

2 Language quiz

We can see differences in vocabulary, grammar and language use in different variaties of English. Do you know which variety of English the phrases below are typical of? Can you think of more examples?

  • jandals, togs, chilly bin, dairy
  • pants, gas station, truck, French fries, movie theater
  • cinema, trousers, jumpers, rubbish, telly

3 Different books, different Englishes

When you read literature, you will notice how different the language of the stories are. It sometimes happens because of stylistic variations which are typical of the author, sometimes they are influenced by the genre they were written in or the register they are built on because of the target audience, the purpose of the text or the language of the characters represented in the story. However, we can read a wide range of narratives which were written in different kinds of Englishes. Also, we often see examples of multiple languages used within the same narrative, poem or theatrical play. Most typically publishers indicate if a novel was written in British or American English. However, it is fascinating to read stories in different English varieties.

Here are some examples:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian
  • Xiaolu Guo, Chinese-British
  • Anne Enright, Irish

You can also see examples of linguistic variation (different registers and styles) in classic literature think for example of Mark Twain’s use of English in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in comparision to Charles Dickens’  in Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.

4 Different Englishes on the screen or on the radio.

Have you ever noticed that funny or serious situations can arise from people speaking different Englishes in films or TV series? Can you think of examples? Here are some of our favourite series and films.

  • Brooklyn, 2015 – British-Irish-Canadian film
  • Hunt for the Wilderpeople, 2016 – New Zealand film
  • The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, 2011 – British film about people moving to India
  • The Darjeeling Limited, 2009 – American film about brothers travelling in India
  • Slumdog Millionaire, 2009 – British film set in India
  • Lost in Translation, 2003 – American film about some people staying in Japan
  • East is East, 1999 – British film about a Pakistani family
  • Fargo, 1999 – American film set in Minnesota
  • The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came down a Mountain, 1995 – British film set in Wales
  • Flight of the Conchords – TV series about two New Zealanders in New York

It is a fun exercise to listen to different radio stations. For example, on the BBC Radio iPlayer you can find various local channels.

5 Get creative in writing

This activity is suggested by Claire Kramsch in her essay ‘The Privilage of the Nonnative Speaker’ (1997). She describes different narratives and poems which use code-switching (the switch between different language variations or languages in your speech or writing). She describes a poem from the 1939 novel in which a poem written both in German and French is recited. Another examples she gives is T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, in which we can read some lines in German.

Try a similar activity, and ask your students to write a short poem using two languages or more variations of English. There might be some words they cannot express in English simply because there is not a perfect translation for it, and sometimes a certain word sounds more powerful in a different language. If your students become aware of their own multilingual potentials, they might become more confident about using and learning English.

For more ideas and activities, please visit this post:

References

  • Jenkins, J. (2012). English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Kramsch, C. (1997). The privilege of the non-native speaker. PMLA, 112(3), 359-369.
  • Seidlhofer, B. (2011). Understanding English as a lingua franca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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