Nov 8, 2011
Peace between Englishes: do it for the children
The memory is as vivid and painful as middle school gym class traumas.
This class of 8-year-old students was sweet, funny, and inquisitive. One day, I wrote on the whiteboard, “what is your favourite…” something or other. Each one started giggling, the loud and rocking laughing fit that never goes away without a fight.
“Teacher, bad spell!” They crowed. They pointed. They laughed on and on. For the rest of the lesson they were a little rowdier, a little slower in their work, a little snarkier in their jokes. My upper hand had fallen. At the end of the lesson, I explained to them that English spelling is sometimes inconsistent, that many words have two different ways of being spelled. They nodded, they stopped snarking at me, but the confusion on their faces were clear.
Now I could have sat them down the next day to talk about British and American English (and its little-used cousin, Canadian English). I could have explained world Englishes and run them through drills on traveled/travelled, tire/tyre, center/centre. We could have branched out into weeks of lessons. Rubbish in the bin! Trash in the garbage can! Truck in the parking lot! Lorry in the carpark!
I didn’t plan any such lesson.
Because they were 8 freaking years old, and had only recently learned Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.
Really, do we need to be chucking these regionally-specific terms at them? Are we so nationalistic, such gung-ho peddlers of our nation’s parlance that we’ll pretend your average Glaswegian won’t understand “candy,” or a Californian will scratch her head over “at the weekend”?
We’re halfway through the fall semester here in Korea. It’s that time of year when the September intake of ESL teachers start getting irked by all the American spelling and vocabulary in Korean textbooks.
“I’m giving my elementary school students a lesson on the Queen’s English,” a Brit will say semi-jokingly. “I’ve made a whole PowerPoint for the Grade 5 class on British and American spelling,” another will chime in. I sigh.
Should English language learners study these differences? Yes, of course. When they reach a high enough level of comprehension, I’m confident they can take on these nuances without much confusion.
But come on, elementary school students? Kids who are still learning past simple? Students who consult dictionaries when listing off the months of the year? These students need to understand the tiny cultural divides of the language they barely grasp as it is?
I say no.
I say, come on teachers. When planning these World English lessons, ask yourself how much this will benefit the students. Touch on the different spellings or synonyms, fine, tackle individual words when they come up. But a whole lesson telling students that their already tiny vocabularies have a set of synonymous twins?
I’m a pretty basic Korean speaker. If my tutor came in one day and proclaimed that 15% of my tiny Korean vocabulary can be said or spelled in a totally different way, my brain would melt.
So please language teachers, declare peace between world Englishes until your students reach a level where they can take it all in. That may take years, but hey, language acquisition is no cakewalk, no matter where your teacher is from.