Sunday, August 27, 2006

English Language Teachers: Why Teach English?

"Why do we have to study English?" When your reluctant learners ask this dreaded question how do you respond? How can you motivate them to really want to learn and use English? Here is an approach I've used successfully.

Often when I give an academic presentation plenary speech or English teacher training session, I ask the audience, “How many countries have Spanish as the first language?” Since I live and work in South America you’d think the response would be swift and forthcoming. Usually it’s not. After the group has sweated it out for a couple of minutes or so I ask, “Would you like to see the list?” They do, of course so I project the 20 key Spanish-speaking countries, which are:

El Salvador
Costa Rica
The Dominican Republic
Puerto Rico

The Fun Begins

Then the fun really begins. My next question is, “How many countries have English as a first or official language?” To twist the screw just a bit more I add, “You’ll all English teachers, so you should know where the language is spoken, right?” They agree that they should and for the next few minutes set about fathoming the English L1 list. More squirming, a few shouted out queries and I let the pressure off. “How many do you have on your list?” Rarely does the number exceed ten or fifteen. Take a moment; how many can YOU list?

Countries with English as the Official L1

“Would you like to see my list?” I ask. You know what the response unanimously is. “Do you think that is something that might be useful for an English teacher to know?” A resounding “Yes!” always follows.

In truth, there are at least thirty-five English L1 countries!

Surprised? Most English teachers are. And my current list might not even be all-inclusive by now. At any rate, here it is:

United States, Trinidad & Tobago, Belize
Barbados, Canada, U.S. Virgin Islands
Guyana, British Virgin Islands, Australia
Falkland Islands, England, Grenada
St. Nevis / St. Kitts, Jamaica, India, Bermuda
South Africa, Bahamas, New Zealand
Cayman Islands, St. Vincent, Grenadines
Samoa, St. Lucia, Seychelles, Sierra Leone
Singapore, Liberia, Ghana, Ireland
Hong Kong, Zimbabwe

Why not check out the official country websites for these and other countries for some eye-opening information on the impact of English on their respective cultures? Many foreign country websites include news, local current events, audio, radio and streaming video as well. Need more information? Just “Google” the country name to get a trainload or two of related websites.

What's the Point

So what’s the point? Just that it’s helpful to provide practical aspects to learning English. World travel and commerce are just two of the many reasons to be cited for the practicality of English-language learning. The internet, e-mails, chats and forums all contribute to a preponderance of English-language use online. A plethora of English teacher resource websites and a growing cadre of English language learner websites help contribute to the usefulness of the tongue.

The international news is online at so many websites it’s almost embarrassing to try to keep up with them. Did I also mention music, radio and entertainment?

How about online and computer games, fun places to learn and practice grammar and usage, or getting assistance in researching a hard-to-find-information-on theme and podcasts?

Scientific, technical and medical knowledge are posted online in English first, even when the initial production of the knowledge was not in English. Linguistic Imperialism? Hegemony? Perhaps, but reality nonetheless.

So next time you get the question, “Why do we have to study English?” don’t pout, start ponying up with some practical aspects for your learners. It may well help them to see things in a different light. Learning English can be both fun and useful. Help your learners to see how and you may rarely have to face the dreaded, “Do we have to study English?”