English as Lingua Franca, 2

In the first part of this series, student Ginna Allison reflects on the prevalence of English in the world.  In this second part, she considers various models of English as a lingua franca.  Currently, she is in Mexico for the winter where she is an interning teacher — checking her perceptions — at the ABC School of English in Pachuca.

The Status of Variations on the Lingua Franca

It is important to note that not all manifestations of English are equal in the eyes of the world. “Newly nativized varieties often have relatively low status…” (Tollefson, 2000) Kachru’s “inner circle” languages (right) show the sources of native English and how they radiate around the world from that core.

Robert Phillipson’s model (below) initially seems to be similar, but there is a fundamental difference to his theory. He highlights political more than demographic aspects of English as a lingua franca. English, he says, is helpful to some and harmful to others. “Dominant core countries exercise major control over the economic and political fate of dominated periphery countries.” (Tollefson, 2000).

For Teachers To Ponder

Teacher training often focuses on skills such as learning styles, motivating students, affective filters and methodologies, and these are all important. But Tollefson (2000) poses a question: “How might English language teachers place their work within a broader sociopolitical framework?”

It has been a topic of discussion in SLA class that teaching pragmatics is as important as teaching grammar and other aspects of linguistics. When one knows that students will be using English primarily in a specific country such as the US, that certainly holds true. But the larger picture — English as an international language — illuminates a different perspective: not one that negates the importance of teaching pragmatics, but extends the notion.

In a discussion of international regulations related to teaching minority and majority languages, Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) warns, “If you are an ESL teacher and/or if you teach minority children through the medium of a dominant language, at the cost of their mother tongue, you are participating in linguistic genocide… Even if you feel shocked and angry at this accusation, it is your duty to know, and to find out about alternatives.” While this refers more to the rules handed down by the teaching institution than the approaches of the teachers themselves, it is an important consideration: how would one feel about teaching in a school in which children were immersed in the target language, without being able to learn in their mother tongue?

Pennycook (2000) describes the traditional language classroom as a “closed box” with impermeable borders: rules inside and society outside. “I would like to consider an alternative view — that classrooms, both in themselves and in their relationships to the world beyond their walls, are complex social and cultural spaces.” It is important to recognize and incorporate the sociopolitical and cultural aspects that live quietly inside the students. Pennycook continues, “Students do not leave their social relations, their rural upbringings, or their relationships to their parents at the classroom door.” This is one reason the SIT coursework has emphasized the importance of recognizing each student’s experience and developing a curriculum that is relevant to their own personal lives, past and future.

Pennycook continues by pointing out that ESL teachers need to be conscious of the political climate in which they teach. “This global spread of English is bound up with many cultural, economic, and political forces…” It is easy, when concentrating on general teaching methodology and theory, to forget the place of one’s classroom in a much larger political context. It is critical to keep at the forefront of one’s mind that the teacher’s role is bigger than helping students to learn English.

One recent approach to language pedagogy is relevant to this discussion: that of cross-cultural pragmatics. Diana Boxer (2002) introduces the concept of learning pragmatics as a two-way street: each student makes discoveries about social rules of English, and in turn the teacher and other students learn about the cultural norms of the other. When understanding a person’s culture is a “one-way street” — the language student learns about native English norms — stereotypes develop and opportunities for mutual understanding are lost. With English as a lingua franca, used in so many countries and situations, it is impossible to argue that one set of norms that apply. If the student knows exactly what country s/he is going to, then one can address pragmatics for that setting. An alternate solution, for those who may have multiple English-speaking destinations, is to encourage two- (or more-) way exchanges in the classroom about norms, each student learning from the other. As has been studied historically, a good place to begin is with the area of politeness. The teacher can help foster two-way understanding of the differences. It’s crucial, Boxer says, to open “doors, not only for those who are in less powerful status, but for all of us.”

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