How much language is enough ?

If you are teaching people you need to provide good models, but what exactly counts as a good model in terms of language ? Maybe a first reaction is that the smaller the number of non-standard elements (is it an error ? is it a feature of ELF ?) there are, surely the better ? But then would it be better to be taught by someone speaking an effective ELF that occasionally has minor elements that might be called non-standard, or to be taught by someone who was a native speaker with a strong regional accent and a wealth of idiomatic language, both of which they were keen to pass on to their learners, but neither of which might serve a second language speaker particularly well  in a global English context ?

There are a lot more non native speaker teachers teaching English than native speakers, but the qualities I’d be looking for in a teacher aren’t related to whether they are a native speaker or not – that doesn’t seem particularly high on the list in comparison to them being good at seeing what I need and finding ways of helping me work on it. Why does the question of how much language even arise ? Because I would want my language teacher to have a good enough knowledge of the language they were teaching me – so that is the question – what is enough ?

This week I delivered the ELF session and while I designed the session to provoke the teachers to think about some givens in a new light, it always seems to set me off too. Having got them to try to define a native speaker (a couple of interestingly complicated lives made that a very quick stage – they led themselves to ask how difficult native language might be to pin down if you had moved countries at 14), look at some lexically focused business materials and then watch Mark Powell deliver a segment that was the antithesis of the materials they had just thought about (and which he had written), they finally went on to work out which errors they thought they heard most commonly and would like to stamp out in their classes and see if those matched the list of Cogo and Dewey’s ‘pragmatic (ELF) solutions’ to problems. And having delivered that session and got the response that it might not affect the message, but it mattered if they needed to pass the exit test (who sets those ? could we not just focus on something other than accuracy of subject verb agreement if the message is clear ?), I went directly to teach my evening group using a business book rich in lexical phrases and chunks, which the group like.

So does this show that I am as conflicted across my teaching and training as Mark Powell is across his (lovely) books and plenaries ? My current language class is upper intermediate and all have good jobs, which presumably they do well enough in the English they have (5 of the 6 are using their language to a greater or lesser degree in their current role). So if they can get by, why do they want to increase their ability to use English ? The language school isn’t cheap and none has an exam on the horizon. They all talk about this as an urgent need, though none is telling stories of language created disasters at work. Perhaps those disasters are kept quiet, but it doesn’t come across like that. It comes across more as a problem of or desire for greater confidence born of more certainty that they had said what they intended to say.

In their written work there are times when I can’t understand a sentence or two, but that is often because I have asked them to talk about something outside their usual patterns of use so perhaps that is what they want – the ability to go beyond well worn paths and still be sure you have got your message across. They laugh at themselves for missing third person ‘s’s and put them in place, but they worry more about complex clauses and collocational mis choices that seem to impact on the message, so in that sense they are in line with the ELF ethos. They are aware that their language could be more fluent, more precise and more articulate and would like it to be all of those things, but are just pleased when it is effective.

There isn’t a certificated language requirement as part of the entry requirements for Delta (though there is the stipulation that a candidate should be able to teach at C1 level). Also the focus on language varies slightly from Module to Module. Module One is the exam and as long as you can state things clearly (and spell correctly in the terminology tasks), your language isn’t being judged. All of the people who do the exam can write more effectively if they can name things concisely, but that is as much a function of terminology and understanding as of command of English (though that is in a sense a command, just a command of a very specific register). Someone who dropped the article in a sentence, but otherwise named the form and function of a cohesive device correctly would get the marks, where someone who had perfect article usage in their answer, but couldn’t answer the question wouldn’t and when marking exam practice tasks you see both in NS and NNS answers. If any language error impacted on meaning, that would lose the mark in any case as expressing ideas clearly and concisely is the greatest challenge for most Module One candidates, so accuracy of language does not come up or need to come up as a separate focus.

In Modules Two and Three you have to be able to write in a fairly neutral academic tone, with quite a strong element of the practical by way of illustration. I do see more NNS writing with inaccuracies that should have been proof read out than NS, but it is not a clear cut division. Some of my NNS teachers hand in fully accurate work and some of my NS teachers do not. In the former case it is more likely to be prepositions and collocations that are the problem and in the latter spelling, punctuation and run on or incomplete sentences. Both can detract from the overall impression of an assignment to a degree that is detrimental when it comes to meeting criteria and both can lead to sections becoming incomprehensible if too widespread. So you should be aware of how good (or not) your language is and in the case of an assignment that needs to be handed in should get someone to proofread if proofreading is not your forte (whether English is or isn’t your native language). That’s the line we have always taken.

Perhaps an alternate view is that we should be getting teachers to ‘prove’ a ‘capacity to teach C level’ before allowing them on the course at all, but we do ask them to write pieces for applications and talk to them extensively. There used also to be an on site prior to the interview written piece which worked as an ad hoc language test, but with the advent of fully online Modules and intensive courses attended by people who come from far flung places, that has largely been dropped as if it can’t be done for all it doesn’t seem fair to do it for part time face to face attendees. Most people are not trying to work round the system. The written pieces they submit as part of the various application procedures are a fair representation of what they can do. Should we ask for externally approved tests as well to guard against the occasional piece that someone was helped with ? Which test ? And if we ask for this from NNS teachers only how will we differentiate between who is NS and NNS ? Place of birth ? Family language ? Language you were educated in ? To what level ? Even if we were to ask all to do an externally validated test, regardless of the expense and difficulty (and that would seem like a waste of time and resources to many), it would only tell us how well they could do that test, not whether they would cope with the style required for background assignments.

My idea when I started writing this was that I would try to talk my way to articulating what proficiency would encompass for a language teacher (when looked at more through the lens of the ELF articles I have read lately than through the eyes of a Delta tutor), but in fact I seem only to have told myself at length that the language should be fit for purpose. No one should be putting an inaccurate target language example on the board, NS or NNS, but in casual classroom chat, idiomatic phrases that learners do not catch or understand are no more or less of a problem than occasionally non-canonical prepositions or collocations. And the understanding demonstrated in and clarity of presentation of any piece of academic writing will shine through more clearly the fewer the language slips there are to be found in it, but unless those are numerous and even message impairing they are less important to the impression of the whole.

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