Last night, as I browsed through the latest “status updates” from my Facebook friends, I was struck by the fact that over 60% of my friends are non-native speakers of English (NNS). Their mother tongues range from Arabic to Zulu, yet almost all of them regularly communicate with me in English. Additionally, many write blogs in English, attend webinars, use Twitter, run PLNs, and carry out other activities in English.
This set me thinking… How are NNS using English these days? Who are they communicating with? For what purposes?
I’d like to introduce you to just two of my Facebook friends… First, there’s JP, an Ecuadorian transport engineer. He did his Masters in the UK and now he trains people to use transport software, including in the Middle East. JP is a Spanish-speaker who uses English with Arabic-speakers. Does he ever visit English-speaking countries? Well, he once vacationed in Miami, where he spoke Spanish
And then there’s Sarah from Yemen. She’s an English teacher in Yemen, with a Masters from the USA. In addition to teaching English, she uses her English for a passionate cause: promoting peace in Yemen. She writes blogs, writes emails to human rights group and international women’s groups, and travels abroad to attend world peace conferences (held in English).
Do Sarah and JP represent the modern user of English? I suspect they do. On the way to a conference this morning, I asked a woman in the car if she speaks English. “No, but I understand it”, came the reply. It turns out that – much like JP and Sarah – she’s a professional (a doctor) who uses English mostly for reading and writing. She communicates mostly by computer with other NNSs. ESP and EAP are her needs, not general English. She never travels to English-speaking countries and rarely speaks English.
So here’s the million dollar question: are we preparing our students for their future needs?
British linguist David Graddol suggests that the likely future of language teaching will include a stronger focus on reading/ writing skills, with an emphasis on study skills, and less emphasis on ‘sounding like a native-speaker’. Those would seem ideal for JP, Sarah, the doctor, and countless others like them.
But as I riffle through the countless course books I keep in my office, I start to have my doubts about where we’re going. Much of the course book content I find today still makes the assumption that English students need primarily speaking/listening skills, English for communication with NSs and for vacations in English-speaking countries. Some of the content is so out-of-date and irrelevant, I smile to myself:
- how to write a postcard – “Doctor, I’ve twisted my ankle”
- how to bargain for a rug – “Excuse me. My sink is blocked”
And my all-time favorite…
“Can you tell me the way to the post office?”
For more on the future needs of learners and the implications, check David Graddol’s interview on the BBC World Service.
Kate Cory-Wright is passionate about working with teachers in international contexts. She has trained teachers in 23 countries around the world – Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. She has co-authored 17 EFL books, as well as writing video materials, e-projects and teacher training materials. She is a faculty member at International Teacher Development Institute, and co-author of English for Teachers, a content-based online course for teachers who want to improve their English. the. She lives in the stunning country of Ecuador in South America.