Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
Spain and maybe the rest of the world have probably finished laughing at the Mayor of Madrid’s Olympic proposal speech on Saturday by now. I didn’t find it as funny as everyone else, perhaps because I’ve been trained from years of EFL teaching not to laugh at attempts in another language, perhaps because I have no great linguistic ability myself so not about to throw stones at Ana Botella’s shortcomings.
For the mockers there are several points – and they’re hard to disagree with.
Of course the last two sound less arrogant when they come from Non Native Speakers and the people I’ve spoken to who ridicule the mangling of her speech are not perfect users of English themselves.
The other points they make are hard to disagree with for other reasons. These are points I tell my students are not true but deep down know they are.
1. A strong accent makes you sound less intelligent and you’ll be taken less seriously. Strong accent plus incorrect intonation and pronunciation, you’d have to be the latest Nobel prize winner to overcome – and even then it’s risky.
I want this not to be true because otherwise there’s almost no point in what we do in class to improve speaking, vocab, writing, grammar etc. Even if they get to an advanced level in those – and that’s hard enough – it will be half undone as soon as they deliver it orally. What language students need are trained elocutionists and voice coaches on top of their language lessons.
2. Language learners’ toughest critics will be Non Native Speakers of any level of English and Native Speakers who are not trained to support and applaud language efforts. So that’s almost everyone then except their teacher.
This starts at a very young age too. At summer school we had one eleven year old with almost no English and one ten year old, top of the class in an elementary/beginner group. The teacher did what many might – paired them strong to weak for an activity for peer learning to occur. You know, that thing children love doing because it makes one inferior and the other can lord it over them. The stronger boy repeatedly called the weaker one stupid and, even when spoken to and explained to why that wasn’t nice and was bullying and upsetting, retained bewilderment at why the other boy didn’t know what he knew because he was older than him. In short, his lack of linguistic ability made him stupid in the other boy’s eyes even though he had presumably been at that stage himself once.
The derisory response to Ana Botella suggests adults haven’t moved on much. In class, teachers try to promote an atmosphere of support and encouragement, nurturing delicate little language buds into glorious blooms of linguistic fullness. The real world must be like a harsh frost. Maybe students need some preparation for it.
Spaniards have also told me (there’s no way I want these words attributed to me!) that Spanish people will only have a good accent if they have their jaws or throats replaced. I really want to disagree and I can almost pull it off. I could look no further than this lovely, cut glass reading from Begoña Martínez who’s spent short periods of time studying and living in the UK and worked in English speaking companies in Spain and Greece.
I think maybe the belief that it can’t be done means it can’t be done. Added to by not training the ear for the music of another language by dubbing all TV and film into Spanish (or other L1) and learning from teachers with strong accents themselves. I don’t think I’ve heard another English accent as good as Begoña’s in Spain. In fact, hers is better than mine – I have a much less high class accent – although luckily not to most non English citizens who, mercifully have as untrained an ear as anyone else.
What is true though is that, even if I didn’t have it on reliable information that Begoña is a master of English and highly literate (this is becoming a bit of a heroine worship…curb it…), I’d be completely unquestioning that she understands every nuance of the text and could converse on it and a million other intellectual subjects just because of her accent. It would never occur to me to think otherwise. But someone with equally good English and a strong accent…I’d assume with unconscious prejudice that they didn’t fully understand what they were reading.
A prejudice I’d never in a million years voice to students who I know, realistically, are not going to put the hours in nor have the ear for gaining that accent. I’ll tell them what I always tell them, that as long as they pronounce and intone clearly enough, they’ll be fine.
And I’ll try not to dwell on the fact I don’t have the speech therapist training to give them better guidance.
And they’ll carry on making the same negative judgements on people like Ana Botella.
And…er…you know that bit where I said I didn’t laugh…I didn’t… but I never fail to giggle at the Italian in Malta.