“Excuse me. Could you tell me the way to the post office?” (by Kate Cory-Wright)

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.

Note: This article by Kate Cory-Wright originally appeared as a guest post on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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11 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks for bringing up an important issue, Kate!

    When I look at classes of young learners, I know that relatively few of them will ever “need” to speak English for travel, or for their jobs, or for helping lost tourists in their own towns. However, every single one of them will have access to the Internet via computer or mobile, and the dominant language online is English. Knowing how to read and write English gives them access to incredible resources of the world!

    Thanks also for sharing David’s interview. Definitely worth reading!

  2. Dorothy says:

    Well… for beginners, some of those sentences are still necessary. (OK, maybe not the sink one!) I’ve asked for directions to the post office in countless foreign countries. I asked it in my own town (when my favorite post office branch at the university was closed). It’s not that hard to substitute another location for “post office” and get a different useful sentence. In fact, if you have a good grasp of syntax and grammar, you could slot in your own specialized nouns in a lot of cases, it seems to me.

    Absolutely, learners need English that they can use with Twitter and blogs and Facebook and all that. But if you were a Chinese speaker and traveling in Turkey, you could well use English for bargaining for a rug. And so on. I guess my gripe is more the idea that one global coursebook will please everybody–students and businessepeople, high school students and adults, EFL and ESL learners, tourists and professionals.

  3. I really like your post, Kate, because it points out something true. As an EFL learner who has NEVER been in an English speaking country, I can say that I have seen and been taught from a variety of coursebooks which go from only- grammar focus through substitution drills during my school times to very functional ones that deal with integrated- skills activities and the other language components according to our context and needs during my teaching times… Although it is relevant to say not all of them have ALL what we could need as NNSs. Therefore, Coursebooks should adapt to new changes or trends in Pedagogy, Technology and Methodology. As a NNS I use English for COMMUNICATION – it is my bridge to others. As an EFL teacher, it is THE Tool that my students will use not only for communication but also for their Life! BTW, congrats on your ‘first blog of the year’… keep blogging! 🙂

    Ana Luisa Lozano from ‘stunning’ Ecuador

  4. Ivan says:

    Are you serious, Barb?

    At least here in Brazil, the situation is completely different. I’ve been working with young learners for over 9 years, and I have to say they learn English because they need to speak the language for travel or jobs. It’s funny because they always say: “Gosh! I’m desperate cause I don’t speak any English and I’m going to the US…” Trust me, it happens everyday!

  5. Amit says:

    Nice write-up KCW!

  6. Great read. Thanks Kate (and Barb).

    To pick up on Barb and Ivan’s discussion, I think it really depends on the context. The wide majority of students I taught in China would never leave the country, or didn’t foresee it in the next 10 years. That might change.

    Brazil might be different, also more expensive private schools for young learners might be different as well as they draw a different clientele whose parents are pushing them towards more international careers.

    That being said, I think I would side with Barb that a majority of English learners might be engaged in more passive forms of communication in the coming years. Ah #futurist thought… so much fun trying to predict what might be.

    Cheers, Brad

  7. Kate Cory-Wright says:

    Hi Dorothy! I know what you mean about the ‘we want everything from the course book’ scenario. Perhaps I misled us with the title… I wasn’t so much focusing on the quality of course books, but rather on future needs of students, which – according to trends – are changing rapidly. It seems that more people will need writing/reading and help with their academic / work needs in future… That led me to wonder if we as educators are keeping up with these changing needs… Course books are an obvious place to look, but – as you know – there are plenty more ways to measure whether we’re catering for students’ needs, e.g., a school’s syllabus, methodology, etc. Graddol believes that in the future high schools onwards will become more focused on ESP and EAP (with general English at primary), so maybe our goals as writers will change??

  8. Kate Cory-Wright says:

    Ivan, Brad, Barb –
    Thanks for your comments! Regarding the ‘English for tourism’ issue, it’s true that millions of learners will travel in the future and will continue to need English for that. It does depend on context. But we can’t teach students everything and if we have to prioritize, it’s worth thinking about ‘time’. How much classroom time should we invest on helping a student with a 2-week holiday, say, compared to a students’ career or his/her university studies? Just a thought… (if you teach primary, you probably have a whole different take on this, so it would be interesting to hear from you!)

  9. Hi Kate,

    Thanks for your post.

    As my teaching career enters its 24th year in the Japanese EFL context, I find myself becoming more and more interested in the potential of the reading/writing forms of input/output over the listening/speaking forms. I’m sure that this is simply because there is so much less angst involved for the learner when learning to read or write. Certainly, reading and writing have the luxury of time that listening and speaking most often don’t enjoy.

    Of course, this approach depends entirely on the type of learner. Some students get much more excited about being able to speak or listen and that drives up their motivation. But simply based on anecdotal averages, far more students lose confidence because of their perceived lack of ability in speaking and listening. For me, it is now ONLY about building confidence or increasing motivation within my students, and therefore, I am finding that I generally get more bang for the buck with reading and writing these days.

    The biggest challenge is to find which of the 4 skills is the best entryway for each individual student to begin to get excited about learning English. Of course, this becomes very difficult in large classes but that is not to say that it can’t be done sometimes. Being aware and looking for individual strengths in the individual students only helps me in the classroom.

  10. Ann Foreman says:

    Hi Barbara and Kate,

    This is a discussion that I thought people on the TeachingEnglish facebook page would be interested in joining in with, so I’ve just added a link to it there if you’d like to check it out for comments.



  11. Leo says:

    Very interesting post, Kate, because where I work and teach (Israel), the school curriculum places more emphasis on reading often at the expense of speaking/listening. A lot of adult students I’ve taught also have excellent reading skills in English but need more practice speaking and communicating naturally. But then again, Israelis travel a lot so perhaps their aims are different.
    Will definitely come by this blog again.