Saturday, 15 December 2012

Good News?

It's not often that a politician in the UK doesn't take a nice easy cheap shot at immigration, integration and people coming to the UK on dodgy student visas, so this week's announcement by David Miliband that there should be a greater emphasis on English lessons for ESOL learners, and a requirement that people on 'front liine' services speak English, came as quite a pleasant change. After all, it means that once the current vindictive bunch and their back-of-a-beermat policies on education are out, my secor might actually get decent funding and my job will be safe. I can hardly argue with that.

However, it is, unfortunately, still only a politico talking, and I've become quite used to the sight of people who have been elected to lead waffle on about subjects on which they do not have a clue. Ed's well-intentioned speech is an example of this - he may want people to speak good English, but which variety of English is he talking about?

An interesting (but somewhat frustratingly generic) article on the BBC yesterday points out that not only has English already started to branch off into new varieties (Hinglish, Singlish etc), but that the rise of the Internet appears to be leading to the development of, at present, different ways in which English is used as one of the primary communication tools, and that within twenty years it is likely that a new 'international' variety of English may well evolve.

This is important for us teachers, as users of different forms of the language (rather than learners of English) offer significantly different challenges. My Nepalese learners, for example, have perfectly adequate English, it's just that theirs is a) highly repetitive b) delivered in relatively simple sentence structures and c) about 60 years out of date. Combined with a pronunciation that can be difficult to unpick, it means that while they speak and use English to near-native standard, they cannot function in the L1 environment particularly effectively.

Now, obviously, there's little point in teaching them English per se - instead, I have to teach them a different variety, and that requires not only things such as pronunciation and vocabulary, but also an understanding of cultural differences between the two varieties and different standards in things such as written style. In fact, what this amounts to is a very different beast from the standard 'start from beginner's English and work your way up'-type lesson.

But back to Ed - what does he then mean, 'they must speak English to be integrated?' I don't think he actually understands that it is not, as it were, just about being able to say 'hello', 'goodbye' and 'awful weather, isn't it?' in a somewhat strangulated voice - in this way, he resembles pretty much every politico for the last twenty years who has pronounced grandly on the subject of Foreigners In The UK. By and large, as a nation, we are fantastically good at integrating waves of immigrants - the recent headlines about London now having a minority population of White British native born citizens is actually nothing new - the capital has always been a melting pot For example, during the 18th century, it is estimated that there was a population of some 20 - 30,000 people of African origin living and working there, and they certainly didn't just die off or disappear - they became integrated into the general populace.

What I think Ed wants is people who use language with clarity, and that's a very different proposition from speaking and using English in a particular way. After all, you'll find that significant amounts of business, worth billions upon billions of pounds, is conducted in what is ostensibly English, but not of a variety that would necessarily pass a Skills for Life Exam. As well as ensuring that people can communicate effectively, what also needs to be considered are things like cultural nuances and refernces, and the infuriating habit English has of constantly evolving, with words and meanings popping into and out of existence at the drop of a hat.

Unfortunately, the well-intentioned and ever so goody-two-shoed ESOL Skills for Life Syllabus isn't really fit for purpose on this count - it is, to put it bluntly, a Plodder's Course, designed to ensure that the majority can scrape by and get a qualification. While it addresses fundamental needs - for example, talking to a GP, or understanding a letter from the council -it does not seek to provide challenge, and it certainly is not going to produce the kind of results that Ed thinks we need to staff his 'front-line' services with smiling, fluent users of English Like What It Is Spoken Dahn In Laaaanndahn, Innit?

In fact, the very people he is talking about are ALREADY delivering 'front-line' work - they are carers, teaching assistants, cleaners, nurses, cooks, refuse collectors, working in call centres and shops, doing anything to get by and get on and get up in life. They don't all necessarily need to speak in one variety of English - if that were the case, should we then prevent Aberdonians or Geordies from working in hospitals in the South of England? I agree that some professions need specialised work - Nurses, for example, could benefit from pronunciation and intonation courses, especially when their work is with older patients - but the problem is that, in politicians eyes at least, this would be a highly expensive thing to do with little return, seeing as nurses are poorly-paid and have little influence in Westminster. I might also point out that some Native Speaker Doctors could also benefit from elocution lessons.

And what about IT technicians? Some of the best IT workers are non-native speakers of English, or speak a different variety, and it has to be argued that IT is a 'front-line' service - should they all speak a particular government-approved brand of the language?

What Ed, ultimately seems to be saying is that anyone who spends time speaking to English Speakers should be able to speak clear English.

That's right. He's thinking of Call Centre Workers. That's the modern front line for you.


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