In the 1990s, Magyar Macmillan, the Hungarian ‘branch’ of Macmillan ELT, used to run a really great annual conference. It always took place in the same purpose-built conference centre in Budapest and was brilliantly organised by a woman called Petra Vanik and her team.
I was lucky enough to attend eight Magyar Macmillan conferences. I usually gave a talk and a workshop and would then try to go to lots of presentations by Hungarian teachers, who invariably offered practical classroom ideas of specific value to their peers.
However, at conferences all over the world, I’m also drawn to any workshop with the words ‘music’ or ‘drama’ in the title, and so it was that I found myself at a workshop given by a young Welshman who had been teaching in Hungary for a couple of years. I wish I knew his name, so I could thank him here on the blog for the thoroughly enjoyable experience I had there. If he sounds like someone you know, perhaps you could let him know how much I enjoyed his workshop.
During the workshop, he played and talked about a Welsh mining song. It described in graphic detail the hard and rather miserable working lives of Welsh miners from 50+ years ago. The song wasn’t that memorable, but the workshop was marvellous.
The presenter carefully explained the unusual words and references in the song. I remember something about a special tag that the miners had to place on a hook when they got out of the lift which brought them up from the coal face. The tags were the only way that the mine managers could make sure that all the miners had returned safely to the surface. The teacher was clearly emotionally involved with the subject matter – I think his grandfather had been a miner.
It was, as I said, a thoroughly enjoyable experience, a well-organised workshop given by a great communicator. I remember thinking how lucky his students were to have a bright, articulate native speaker teacher who could (and was willing to) give them such graphic insights into his own background.
At the end of the workshop, I thanked him and then went for a coffee with two of the teachers who had also attended it, both of them Hungarian non-NESTS. I can’t remember their names but let’s call them Orsi and Péter.
Over coffee, they gave their thoughts about the workshop. Orsi enthused about it. She said she loved conferences like this and took every opportunity to attend workshops given by native speakers. She added a telling detail: “Even if their topic is irrelevant to me, I like to listen to their voices.”
However, Péter looked glum. He had enjoyed the workshop, but was clearly worried that, yet again, it confirmed that he didn’t know enough about British culture to be a competent English teacher.
I told him that I knew as little about Welsh miners as he did, but he wasn’t so easily reassured. He said he got this feeling every time he went to a talk where the subject was some aspect of the culture of the English-speaking world. Orsi disagreed completely, and said it was impossible to know everything, so he shouldn’t worry.
Then Péter said: “I realise that my students don’t expect me to know about Welsh mining songs. But I’m no longer sure I know even the simple things about British culture.”
His real concerns began to emerge. There were students in his class who had been to the UK, and one who had been to the US. In common with the vast majority of English teachers in Central and Eastern Europe, Péter had never been to either of those places. He now feared that some of the students knew more about the culture of the English-speaking world than he did. He gave an example:
“I told my class that English people eat eggs and bacon for breakfast, and one of the students said he was in England and they don’t.”
Orsi said what I was thinking. “In that case, don’t talk about what English people have for breakfast! Who CARES what English people have for breakfast??”
It’s easy for a native English speaker like me to try to reassure someone like Péter that they don’t need to worry about specific cultural information from the English-speaking world, so I was glad that he heard this from a Hungarian colleague.
I know the ‘eggs for breakfast’ thing is an out-dated metaphor, and modern ELT materials are thankfully free of such ‘cultural’ references. But the fact remains that the Péters of this world worry that, regardless of their ability with the language, they may be judged on their ‘fluency’ in the culture of the English-speaking world.
It’s clearly an impossible aim and also, to my mind, totally unnecessary.
Let’s start with the easy and well-known statistic: four out of five exchanges in English, spoken and written, are between people for whom English is not the first language. In other words, 80% of discourse in English is between, for example, Norwegians and Japanese people, Egyptians and Italians etc etc
In other words, in usage terms, English is no longer the language of the so-called English-speaking world. And hopefully, the Norwegian and the Japanese person should be able to conclude their business without knowing what I had for breakfast.
Now here’s a statistic I don’t have: how many people in the world learn English simply because they have to? In other words, how many millions of state school and college students file into their compulsory English classes every day? I think the huge majority of learners are in this category.
As it happens, most of the course material I have written is for state school students, and I have watched lots of their classes. Most of them see no real connection between the subject and geographical locations like Britain or the US.
They may know about ‘English’ soccer teams like Manchester United (who could if they wish put out a totally non-British team of Van der Sar, Evra, Fabio, Rafael, Vidic, Anderson, Nani, Valencia, Berbatov, Obertan and Macheda). They may have seen United, Chelsea or Arsenal on TV, playing similarly multi-national teams from Italy or Spain in the Champions’ League.
These compulsory learners may also connect with pop music in English, but not the places it comes from. If they’ve heard of the Arctic Monkeys, they will probably have seen them on youtube playing a gig in Japan. They will be blissfully unaware that the band comes from Sheffield, wherever that is.
Beyond a widely-shared interest in music with English words (which may of course have been recorded by a Norwegian band), these ‘compulsory’ English students often have little or no internal motivation to learn the language. They need to be engaged, and we can’t do that by playing pop songs all the time. They may sit stony-faced through our attempts to get them to speak. And … at some point, we have to get them to READ something.
Oh look, everyone! Here’s an interesting text about a family of four in Leeds! Hm… maybe not…
If we want them to read about what people have for breakfast, isn’t it better to write a text about somewhere in the world where people eat shark meat or chimpanzee brains? (Maybe no one eats chimpanzee brains for breakfast, but I think reading about that would probably engage you more than a picture of a plate of eggs and bacon!)
Most of the teacher-readers of this blog probably work with students who have some specific and defined reason for learning English, which provides them with motivation to learn. Worldwide, however, your students are in a very small minority. There are, for example, about three hundred million Chinese high-school students learning English, and almost the same number in primary school who have English classes.
Less than one per cent of these Chinese English learners are ever likely to meet a native English speaker. If they meet a foreigner at all, it will probably be through working in a hotel, airport, travel agency, bank or restaurant frequented by tourists from other Asian countries. English may be the language these people will have to use to communicate.
But never mind the facts about who is learning English and why. Let’s imagine we do want to introduce our students to the English-speaking world, in all its diversity and splendour. Who are we going to focus on first? Who are we going to leave out?
Native speakers have an advantage, of course, because they can talk about what they know. I can talk about London, the Welsh guy in Budapest can offer his colourful input – then what? I know very little about the rest of Britain , let alone the other places in Kachru’s inner and outer circles – my Irish son-in-law despairs at how little I know about the land of his ancestors.
When my wife Dede, who’s American, started teaching in London, she found some of the British cultural references in the coursebook she was using quite puzzling. Why? Because they were written as if all the end-users, students and teachers, whether NESTs or not, would automatically understand them. Times have changed a bit in that respect, thankfully.
But we must remember that Kachru’s circles of English speakers include nations as diverse as New Zealand, Nigeria, Ireland, Malta, the Philippines and the islands of the Caribbean. Surely if we teach cultural studies, we need to refer to the culture of all these places.
Did I hear someone out there say ‘No, we don’t”? Why not? Because our students aren’t going to visit Malta or Barbados or New Zealand or communicate with people from these places? Well, if you think that, I repeat the point above about compulsory learners. The vast majority of students aren’t going to meet or communicate with ANY native speakers.
It therefore makes sense to ignore the cultural by-ways of the inner and outer circle speakers and their societies and concentrate on what a knowledge of English can REALLY do for the world.
The English language has great core linguistic strategies for intercultural communication. Other languages do too, but we are talking about the world’s number one taught language here. English has great politeness forms, ways of enquiring, apologising, clarifying, all the usual suspects of communication. English teachers, NESTs or non-NESTs, need to be trained how to teach these aids to intercultural communication.
Before I end, can I just mention the interesting work done by Jamie Keddie and Ben Goldstein, who have written excellent books on the use of images in ELT? The picture of the Welsh coal miners at the top of this article would be great to use in class and should generate lots of descriptive language and conversation. My point is that the miners in the photo don’t need to be Welsh to be useful to an English teacher.
Oh no… too long, already! I’m going to leave it there – but PLEASE make time to read through the things that people wrote below. Please also remember that most of them were written when I had simply pre-blogged that I thought cultural studies were a waste of time.