Respect the Variety

As I travel and live in various parts of Latin America, it sometimes seems I experience a whole new Spanish language each time.  I feel lexically and/or semantically challenged in my first few months in a new region, and each time I suffer I find myself thinking (out loud to myself, which is even worse when outside the States) “why didn’t they teach us this in school?”  After all, during my formative years of rudimentary acquisition, they passed Spanish off to us poor high school and college newbie souls as a “one size fits all” language; which it clearly is not.

The question that I really ask myself is why this never dawned on me as an   English teacher before…  After more than a decade of traveling, teaching, and “re-learning” my Spanish in a variety of ways for a variety of cultures, I should be warning my students of the same pitfalls of English.  Nobody ever told me when I was learning Spanish in the States that a platano was a platano macho in some places, that a banana was a banano or platano, depending on where you are.  We never learned the word “guagua” as undergraduate Spanish students, nor that a toronja is a pomelo, a palta is an aguacate or that a tortilla is a big thick unleavened  bread in some places, and that there isn’t much of a recognizable linguistic difference between a lemon and lime in many countries.  These differences are a hallmark of the linguistic varieties of Spanish and can cause a second-language Spanish speaker a headache when travelling through the Americas, or even over different pockets of the U.S.

In my non-humble nor innocent beginning of my teaching experience, I, too, used to pass certain linguistic structures off with a flippant “oh, that’s just British English”.  Well, besides insulting millions of English users worldwide, in a single swoop I also just cut my students off from successful communication with those same possible interlocutors.  Formations such as “have you got a pen” are not so syntactically incorrect outside of the United States. 

In one of my first experiences as an ESL teacher, I had the misfortune of being handed a British English book.  I didn’t know what to do with it, and I fumbled and mumbled, trying to make things work with my completely Minnesotan English.  Now I see how I could have used it as an opportunity to expand the minds of my students, teaching from the book, then adding my own U.S. flavor to the activities and vocabulary, extending the practice for multiple uses

As English instructors we must not only be aware and even knowledgeable of the possible varieties out there, but also mindful of any possible ethno- or lingui-centric comments such as “correcting” utterances such as “No I haven’t a pen.”  It is not so much to be politically correct as to be keeping the doors of International English open; even more so in the context of EFL, where the Englishes that may be encountered and used are many, with most of them quite valid, acceptable and grammatical in our current flat world.

What we are preparing future users and teachers of English for is really successful communication, wherever that may be, and in whatever context.  Obviously then, an integral part of lessons and planning is in negotiation of meaning; because a “lift” for example means different things in different parts of the world (elevator, bra, etc) it’s a good idea to prepare our students for these varieties.  We don’t want to teach a one-size-fits-all English, but respect and validate alternative correct structures, and raise our own awareness of how English is used semantically, syntactically and lexically (as well as phonologically) throughout the world.

I don’t think this necessarily means we need to travel to Ireland, Australia, England, South Africa, India, Canada and elsewhere to become English-speaking polyglots, but a little “well, at least in the U.S. this is how we say it” from time to time keeps the students psychologically prepared for variations when travelling or meeting and working with people from anywhere.  Bringing in sources from a variety of countries keeps their minds in sponge modes instead of turning into hard bricks that wouldn’t even recognize petrol inside a gas tank, regardless of what country they are driving in.  We want our students to be suffering a little less than we are as travelers or employees that need to be adaptable to each new native English speaker they encounter, no matter where they are in the world.

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