Our students have chosen to speak English because it opens more doors. We should help them realize their ambitions, support their dreams, and avoid judging their motives.
For better or for worse, knowing English makes life easier and better. For instance, the ability to speak English allows individuals to communicate with millions of other people from around the world. Some globalization critics and ethnic nationalists, especially in smaller countries, have attacked English as subverting national and group identities.
Other critics raise questions about social justice. English speakers tend to be the more educated, more affluent, and more successful individuals in several developing - and developed - countries. This fact apparently offends many people, including a surprisingly number of ESL teachers, who feel seeking worldly success, money, status, or an international spouse is elitist. Are English teachers helping a small minority and hurting the larger majority?
I'd prefer to believe that teaching English helps individuals choose from a wider menu of life options. English can be seen on television and billboards, heard on the radio, and read, seen and heard on the internet! The internet, I'd suggest, has provided users with an exceptional amount of freedom to grow, explore, and learn. Freedom still sounds like a good word.
You will also find a rich literature on the use of English in advertisements in non-English speaking countries for the same reasons. Modern technological products and companies, such as LG, advertise in Europe in English their message that “Life is Good”. The clear implication is that buying their LG product makes “Life Good” and as does speaking English since only English speakers can understand their ads. Hence, English has also become a symbol of modernism and stylish consumerism. LG is a Korean company!
Attacking the prevalence of English remains popular, and questioning the “morality” of choosing to speak English even fashionable in some academic circles. This obsession seems misguided and ironic. As English teachers and tutors, we need to carefully assess the full range of aspirations and skills that our students as we choose and develop materials. But assessing does not mean judging them! A teacher should support the legal goals of their students.
If our students need a certain score on a standardized exam (TOEFL, TOEIC, citizenship), we need to choose appropriate materials to meet their immediate goals – including active skills like speaking and writing. The new TOEFL, by the way, is a huge improvement over the old, grammar-focused one used for decades. Speaking has finally been recognized as a vital life skill. We tailor, or at least we should tailor, our instruction to match their challenge in English.
Yet we also need to help students develop authentic language skills that transcend immediate test scores. Many administrators, for understandable reasons, attempt to force all instruction toward standardized tests. Many English instructors feel that standardized test scores have displaced traditional educational goals, including broader humanistic ambitions. Professor Charles Talcott, for instance, has passionately argued against “The Tyranny of Standardized Testing in English Language Classrooms.”
Talcott strongly feels that teachers should "inform" students, particularly business students, about globalization's multiple sides, including the negative ones. Likewise, he worries about the "dumbing down" and "narrowing" the teaching of English to just pass a test. Further, Talcott believes students can sometimes score quite well on the test, but still can't hold a real conversation. Talcott, the co-author of Cambridge University's excellent TOEIC preparation book Target Score, has spent a considerable amount of time analyzing the situation.
It's easy to recognize the validity of Talcott's concerns.
How many times have you encountered ESL students who have collected impressive test scores yet struggled to express themselves in a simple conversation in English? Students need the chance to develop their conversation skills – in and out of the classroom. Listening and speaking remain essential skills so students can express themselves – even be themselves – in English.
Yet I prefer to adopt a "live and let live" attitude toward the goals and motives that have lead students into my English class.
English, an optional language for a majority of the globe, remains a smart choice for our students. They have chosen to be English language learners, and our job is to help achieve their goals in our classrooms.
Speaking English opens many doors. Naturally, some doors seem more attractive or honorable than others to me. Yet other doors seem more attractive, necessary, or honorable to others. Live and let live.
Can you think of a door you would like to open for your students? Do you feel comfortable with students opening other doors?
I do. Don't you?