Teaching Your ESL Students to Understand Real English

Understanding

In class, do you slow down your speech and try to articulate a little more precisely than you do when talking to other native speakers? I do, because I know that otherwise my students will have trouble following me. After all, I reason, if they don’t understand anything, they will have accomplished nothing as far as learning is concerned.

By doing this, your students are going to have a big shock if eventually they get to try out their English in real-world situations, that is, outside the classroom. For English speakers who are not EFL professionals are not so considerate toward non-native speakers. They will continue at their normal pace and expect everyone to keep up. So if your students are used to y o u …s p e a k i n g …s l o w l y… a n d … d e l i b e r a t e l y … l i k e … t h i s…they won’t have a cat-in-hell’s chance of understanding the New York taxi driver or the Scottish barman they meet on their travels.

So is it better to babble on in your normal voice? I thought about this when a student of mine had a fairly typical grammar problem with the “to” infinitive. She would regularly say, “I want go”, forgetting the particle. I decided that since corrections didn’t seem to work, I would show her what it sounds like in “real” English: “I wanna go”. In the real world, native speakers don’t pay any attention to the fact that the little word “to” belongs to the following verb, and routinely attach it to “want” so it becomes “wanna”. If you taught your students “wanna” first, they would simply add the verb they want and forget about the grammar rules. The advantage of this is that they will at the same time be practising spoken English the way natives use it.

I have the advantage as a language teacher to have two small children who are learning my language, English, and their mother’s, French. It is nothing short of miraculous that my daughter can understand, at the age of three, when I say “what are you going to do?”; because what actually comes out of my mouth is more like “watcha gonna do?” Only when she learns to read will she realise that there are actually six words in the question and not three. But that’s of little importance to her while she’s mastering the spoken word, and it should be the same for your students.

Only rarely do adults say that they need writing skills more than speaking, and yet we still put too much emphasis on the written word. It’s time for language teachers to teach English in a way that is best going to serve their students in life, and not treat language as a purely academic exercise.

Written by Jonathan Lewis
Jonathan Lewis teaches English in Provence, France and has written teaching materials for the French ministry of Education. His site, Anglais Facile, gives tips and advice on language learning.

15 comments

  1. Bruce

    Oh dear! How on earth are we going to survive if we do not have a benchmark? Imagine my Upper Intermediate and Advanced classes being exposed to Cockney London and then having to speak at a job interview! Imagine a foreign speaker paying good money to learn to speak English when all they are taught are hybrid versions. No! Teach English as it should be taught and then let students compare with the wannabee versions! Why on earth must we continue to drop the ideal to accommodate the easiest route forward? We had fun with two lessons of Cockney English and then reverted to that which has made the English language a major part of the global village’s communication network.

  2. Barry

    This is a good discussion point and in principle I agree with the main point – spoken language is rarely correct grammatically!! From a different perspective, however, I am a student of Thai as well as a teacher of English. As a student I need to know the foundations of the language I am learning if I am going to master it in all forms – written and spoken. Once I know the basics I am happy to explore the idiomatic and dialectical differences… I think a balance is needed and not dogmatics on either side of the discussion!

  3. Peter

    I agree with Mr Lewis. Very rarely does a student tell me that he needs to know how to write in English – students need to be able to speak and listen. I have a number of “advanced” students whose grammar is almost perfect, and who can hold a conversation effortlessly about any topic… IF the person they are conversing with is using standard, textbook English. Put them in front of a listening exercise with a real-world conversation, (or in front of my American friend who visited the class one day), and they’re lost! Well done Mr Lewis for putting into writing what many teachers are thinking but do not dare to say!

  4. Russell

    I certainly don’t say, ‘watch ya gonna do,’ or, ‘I wanna go.’ I wouldn’t encourage students to speak like this. I am learning Mandarin and I find native speakers speak too fast – that is too fast for me. I would like them to slow down, so that I can understand and respond. Over time I will be able to keep up with the speed at which the language is spoken. I certainly don’t want my teachers to become slipshod – as this article suggests English teachers should. The English being suggested here is more like American English.

  5. Jon Lewis (author)

    I knew this article would wind people up! But folks, get off your high horses for a while and re-read the article. Nowhere did I advocate speaking rapidly to beginners, nor did I recommend using contractions like “watchagonnado?”. I merely highlighted the fact that this is how young learners pick up language without having a formal study environment.

    I believe that sometimes we should step out of our English teacher shoes and look at the way children acquire language to see if there are lessons to be learned.

    The comment from the British lady living in America is hilarious. If 300 million Americans speak in a particular way, then a few Brits living over there don’t have the right to call it “appalling”. Students have to learn the language the way it spoken wherever they are – be it the Queen’s English or not.

    This kind of snobbery is appalling. It’s a scandal that there are so few teaching materials for American English – the most common English on the planet and probably the one that most of our students need to understand. Oh, by the way, I’m British, and like most British people do not speak with an RP accent that you get on a lot of recorded materials.

  6. Eric

    Actually, Mr. Lewis is right to make these suggestions. I do, however, strongly recommend teaching reduction, linking, elision (very important), and other features of connected speech, because whether teachers realize it or not, that’s exactly what is coming out of their mouths more often than they realize. And that’s how almost all English speakers speak.

    It is irresponsible and cruel NOT to expose our EFL learners to all the features of connected speech. Learners tend to be taught full forms first, but in fact, we speak in reduced form (watch the BBC, BBC Entertainment, CNN, ABC (Australia), and American Entertainment Broadcast, for many examples). If we actually care about our students, here should be no question about this.

    A teacher’s opinion about what “correct” speech is or isn’t is fine, but imposing them on learners isn’t professional at all. Our job is to prepare our learners for as much “real” or “natural” English speech as we can.

    Normal (fast) speech rates must be gradually introduced, of course. Beginners must perceive and produce on the phonemic level. As Mr. Lewis points out, depending on the level of the learners, the teacher should be careful not to overly moderate their speech rate. It can, unfortunately, become a habit that is damaging to EFL learners.

    A teacher isn’t a mind reader and should insist that students should either ask the teacher to slow down or to repeat. That’s their job as learners.

  7. Holcat

    The beauty of English is that it is the world lingua franca. Different regional variations apply in their locations and appropriate contexts. Therefore, it is essential for students, and indeed all of us, to know and be able to speak standard English. Exposure to regional variations is important but must be subordinate to standard English. Otherwise a person from India, who has learned British English, and its associated reduced and liaised forms, would never be able to communicate with a person from China, who has learned American English and its associated reduced and liaised forms. Teach standard English first and teach reductions and liaisons as a bonus.

  8. Stephen Walker

    Many if not most of the complaints about this article seem to be coming from those with no knowledge of linguistics. How did they become English teachers, without knowing how languages change, how they work and how they’re acquired as mother tongues and as foreign languages? In grammar school, English speakers are fed the preposterous idea that there’s a “correct” version of English. We were then led to memorize a laundry list of modern usages that annoy the grammar teachers. They want us to say, “to whom,” instead of, “to who.” They want us to say, “There are some shoes,” instead of, “There is some shoes.” What they ignored was that all languages change, and even the grammarians can’t stop the deluge of changes to English. Furthermore, they ignored the diversity of any language, even within one regional dialect — we might have both grown up as neighbours, but your idiolect is not identical to mine. There’s no way to choose one version as “correct.”

    Language learners have an incredible decoding machine between their ears. It’s high time we gave them the respect they deserve, and just speak at normal rates and in one’s normal way of speaking. There may be times to simplify your vocabulary, or even bring in a translator, but most of your time you ought to be speaking normally, and including a wide variety of idioms and polysyllabic words. I never simplified my English for my kids, as most parents do, and today my 11 and 9 year old get compliments for their lexical range (i.e., word power).

  9. EFL student

    I learned English as a Foreign Language and I understand exactly what you are all trying to say. I am glad I have learned the correct Queen’s English first. It is very difficult to understand native speakers but only at the beginning. Later, when the ears are tuned into intonation and rhythm of spoken English, listening skills really progress. I am sure learners must know grammar (with contractions) before being exposed to “wachagonnado”. I prefer to know what is behind this word before I can actually hear it. This way I will feel more confident to use it. At the elementary level teaching English has to be descriptive. Later, when students know the basics they can cope with the idea of many Englishes. It is easier to learn spoken English without the strict grammatical rules, you can do it by yourself based on the correct English learned in the classroom.

  10. Idiomista

    The most sensible comment here comes from the EFL Student:
    “I prefer to know what is behind this word before I can actually hear it”. Of course. Learning a second language is not like learning your first – unlike very small children, EFL students want to know what they are saying and why: if they are using a contraction, or regional speech, they need to understand what they are doing, and the original structure from which the contraction derives.

    Exposing students to regional speech patterns and accents is great, but should not be confused with teaching basic structures. Encouraging students to say ‘wanna’ simply because they are having a problem remembering to put the ‘to’ with the infinitive is crazy. ‘Wanna’ and ‘gonna’ are heard in casual US speech, which of course is as valid as any other form of spoken English, but educated Americans don’t write ‘wanna’, and even if your students never intend to write much English, they should be able to write something as simple as ‘I want to see you tomorrow’. The student who applies for a job in any English-speaking country, including America, and writes ‘I wanna work here. You are gonna like my approach’, is doomed to fail!

    Also, ‘wanna’ sounds very unnatural coming from non-US speakers, even more so if they already have a strong French/Spanish/Japanese accent. Do them a favour and teach your students the basic structure of the language first, and let the regional and colloquial usages develop naturally.

  11. Anonymous

    It seems obvious to me that students need to learn how English is constructed, and how to speak it. It is simple. “I want to” is written just like that, where in American English, it is said “I wanna.” I would never encourage anyone to write “I wanna” because it is simply wrong, but if they choose to say “I wanna” I certainly will not correct them. Like wise, if a student were to say “I want to” there is no problem. Is it not the goal of the teacher to give the student that most options? Is a language not learned both by writing and speaking? The author makes a great point, but he has missed the most important reason that any student takes a class, To learn a language. Take time to teach your students grammar, speech, and listening. Why can it not simply be said “It is wrote this way, and sometimes said and heard in multiple ways” Get off your high horse and teach the students, not what is right or wrong, but what it is!

  12. Anonymous

    I have learned German over the past years and am surprised to say that I learned more from living in Germany, for the short amount that I did, than I did studying the language. I could not understand a word when I arrived in Germany, even after studying for a year. If someone would have taught me the way Germans actually speak in everyday language, I wouldn’t have had to waste a year of studying. As far as teaching goes, I think it would be more effective to teach how English works and tell students that this form is correct and formal, then teach them other informal ways. If the students know the difference then they will not be sitting in an interview using what they know as informal, but they would obviously use formal.

  13. Alma

    It’s such an interesting point! I learned ESL years ago and grammar has always been my strongest point. When I first came to Britain, I could barely understand the real, spoken English. I struggled to get elision to the point that I thought I didn’t know English. After listening (paying attention) for a while, my ears started to get through the mystery of elision. I am now able to communicate perfectly well with everybody with my QE (which I was taught at school), but I can not speak like native speakers, although I am fluent. My point is, non native speakers will always find it hard to grasp dialects or the so called elisions. Whoever teaches ESL, should expose students to REAL Spoken English and then it’s up to the learner how much they grasp it. Many thanks to the author of this discussion!

  14. Dan Oville

    Hi Jon, Excellent article. I hate to see people thrashing this just because they want to keep on teaching what they have been used to. I wrote something of the same in one of my LinkedIn groups and some Nigerian who calls himself ‘doctor’ said connected speech is ‘hippie English’. I forgot that we are talking about American everyday real English NOT Nigerian English. Also, it would be worthy to note that English Writing is far too different from English Speaking. These two are very different Englishes [sic] to learn and must be treated by teachers as such. Spoken English doesn’t sound the way it is written. Thanks Jon.

  15. Derek Dorsett

    Mr. Lewis,

    I was trained in CELTA to speak normally, but I am not sure what research supports this. I tend to agree with you as far as your assertation, however, can you point me in the direction of supported research that indicates speaking normally is beneficial to the learner? I’m not sure how I will see your response, so would be willing to email it to me?

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