|Language for giving opinions
At a recent BALEAP conference the plenary speaker said something I found was quite startling. She was talking about the fact we often teach things to students which are not, according to corpus data, representative of natural speech. That is, when we teach students things like ‘language for giving opinions’ we may present phrases like “I tend to think that..”, “I consider…” and ”in my opinion’ as a possible ways of alternatives to “I think” despite the fact they are actually vanishingly rare in speech, and are not really alternatives.
I was worried when she reached her conclusion as it differed from mine, and I was speaking later that day! I had rather foolishly assumed that this meant we should stop teaching language which was unnatural of uncommon and instead focus on more useful, high frequency items. She didn’t see it that way. She suggested that international students using odd or uncommon phrases, -especially if they were female, may sound quite ‘charming’.
What I heard sounded familiar. I was reminded of my own experiences of learning a foreign language. Learning Japanese in Japan meant I had fairly natural sounding Japanese (brag brag). I only ever heard it from Japanese people speaking and I didn’t have a textbook so my only input was them. I would occasionally meet people who studied abroad and would often find their Japanese odd or unnatural. For example, I would say the casual male 俺 ore for ‘I’ and they would say the more formal 私 watashi. I would say “eh, what?” (e? Mou ikkai?) and they would say “I’m sorry but could you please repeat that.” (sumimasen ga mou ichido itte kudasai) etc etc. It was really clear to me. The Japanese these people were learning was nothing like the Japanese I was hearing in Japan.
Sometimes Japanese folks would be surprised and say things like ‘foreigners shouldn’t use Japanese like that.’ or try to persuade me that really ‘watashi’ was a better choice of personal pronoun marker despite the fact none of the guys I knew used it.
I’d also often hear ‘you don’t need to learn that Japanese’ from well meaning folk, who no doubt had my best interests at heart. I later found that in 1988, the idea of creating a ‘foreigner Japanese’ called Kanyaku nihongo with all the politeness markers removed was funded by the National Language Institute of Japan. This was no doubt to make it easier, for us poor foreigners trying to learn what is, according to many Japanese anyway, the most difficult language on the planet. Now, anyone who knows anything about Japanese can tell you that removing the politeness markers from Japanese is like removing the alcohol from beer. Technically possible but kind of defeating the object.
I found all of this patronising. I didn’t want to learn foreigner Japanese I wanted to learn Japanese. Thus my experience leads me to think that students probably don’t like being fobbed off with ‘pseudo language’. They pay for and expect the real thing. My experience leads me to think this but I’m only one person and I could well be wrong.
It’s not fair for me to assume that what I want is what my students want any more than it was fair for those well meaning Japanese folk to decide what I did and didn’t need to learn and how I should sound. The danger with experience is always over extrapolation. This worked for me, in this place, at this time, so it must work for everyone.
In the past some teachers told students that they should strive to sound like a native speaker and probably a certain type of native speaker. Some teachers now tell students not to try to sound like native speakers. In both these cases, the person telling and the person being told, haven’t changed.
If student want to sound like their ideal of a native speakers (and many do) then that’s fine. If they don’t that’s fine. It’s their money. But even if students aren’t interested in sounding like native speakers that’s no excuse for us to teach them unnatural language and phrases because it’s easier for us to teach like that. All we are then doing is creating an alternative version of English -not ELF, just a pseudo English bleached and stripped of reality and no one is asking for that, no matter how ‘charming’ it might be.