6th June 2017

English or Englishes: are varieties of English important for learners?

By Tom Garside

Over the past 200 years or so, English has grown to become the lingua franca (shared language) in a huge range of industries. The fields of media, engineering, medicine, shipping, air travel, international business and commerce all rely on English as the common language which can facilitate communication between countries anywhere in the world. Globally, by far the majority of international communication occurs in English between non-native speakers of English, between individuals, companies and organisations . It follows that this is also the most likely way that learners of English, wherever they are, will use the language themselves. This has enormous implications for language learning, and should inform the way in which English is studied globally.

Consider this: There are currently as many people learning English in one way or another in China alone than there are native speakers of English in the world (an estimated 500 million). Stop to think about that for a moment; in a single country, English language learners alone equal the population of every English-speaking country in the world. This is not only a humbling statistic for native speakers, but also shows the relative value of the different varieties of English which are used by native speakers around the world. Take those English-speaking countries and split them into their major groups by accent, and we can define broad varieties of the language such as British English, American English, Australasian English and Irish English. Take one step closer, and a single broad variety of English (say British English) can be further split into accents which vary widely from Welsh, Scottish, South-western, South Eastern, Midlands, Scouse, Mancunian, Geordie…the list goes on. In addition, each of these varieties differs in both accent (the sound of the language) and dialect (the locally-used words for things), leading to even greater diversity just within one broad variety of the language.

Go back to the English-language learner population of China – what varieties of English are typically taught to this vast number of learners? What varieties are prioritised by educational authorities (government departments, school managers, etc)? The answer is predominantly standard British English or Midwestern American English, spoken by the perceived culturally ‘normal’ demographic, i.e. 20-40 year old Caucasians. This is in no way representative of how English is used in the world, so does it adequately prepare students for their future in a lingua franca language environment such as the 21st-century education and business world described above?

A new strand of English has been defined in EIL; English as an International Language, which is perhaps a more realistic English for the purposes that current learners will have for their language in the future. In order to ensure a realistic outcome for students, then, in many cases restricting the language environment to one or other perceived norms is doing learners a disservice for their futures.

Language diversity should be encouraged in schools for many reasons. Non-native speaker (NNS) teachers, having been English language learners themselves, often have a much more analytical grasp of the language they are teaching, and can put themselves in the place of the learners more easily (especially if they are from the same cultural background as their learners). In addition, the diversity of Englishes that international students will be exposed to in their future education and employment should be reflected in their exposure as learners. If not, there is a risk that their flexibility with language will not be sufficient to deal with the wide range of English-language situations that they will find themselves in.

A final message to school managers, HR departments and education departments: Don’t think twice about hiring non-native teachers of English. Assess the benefits that they can bring rather than falling foul of the stereotyped view of what an English teacher ‘should’ be. Assess them by their fluency, accuracy, usage and qualifications, not by their ethnicity, nationality or language background.

Tom Garside, EfA’s Director of Teacher Training, has 18 years of teaching and training experience in Europe, New Zealand and China. He holds a degree in Linguistics and French, Cambridge CELTA and DELTA qualifications, a Post-Graduate Diploma in TESOL and an MATESOL. He has trained teachers in Europe, as part of the European Union Comenius teacher development project, provided initial training for the Trinity CertTESOL and provides in-service training for native and non-native-speaker teachers in a wide range of teaching situations.  He is the author of the essential CertTESOL course supplement, Tesol: A Gateway Guide for Teachers of English.