‘Why can’t the English learn to speak?’ sang Rex Harrison as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady. Although the professor was referring to what he perceived as the crimes against pronunciation committed by the uneducated classes of his day, his words came to mind as I worked on this issue. Whilst it might be going too far to describe the prevailing attitude towards those of us who have English as our mother tongue as ‘native speaker bashing’, we do regularly come in for a fair amount of criticism from various quarters. Apparently, we speak too fast and slur our words, we use weird idioms, we allude to obscure cultural backwaters, we arrogantly assume (itself a mistaken assumption, I believe) that we make better English teachers than non-native speakers, we lay claim to a language that doesn’t actually belong to us and – worst of all – the meaning of our words depends entirely on context and can even be the opposite of what we appear to be saying. In fact, to adapt Professor Higgins’s question: ‘Why can’t the English say what they mean?’
So, how is the poor language student to cope? Some of our contributors offer helpful suggestions. It is clear that Andreas Grundtvig positively relishes the vagaries of the English language and perceives its quirks as a linguistic feast rather than a dog’s breakfast. He takes delight in teaching his students to play with the language and to explore its linguistic byways as well as its highways. (For more fun with the byways, take a look at the Scrapbook in this issue.)
Polina Gordyshevskaya helps her students to identify words – often those that the students actually know well – that have become entangled with other words and have got lost in the steady stream of connected speech.
Chia Suan Chong tells a wonderful story about a student trying to buy coffee in the UK. How I wish her student had had the presence of mind, and the language, to look the woman in the café straight in the eye and say ‘Abracadabra’! Chia has suggestions for how we can prepare our students for such situations and give them practice in decoding what native speakers say to them.
Art Sang considers a context where there isn’t a native speaker of English in sight, yet confusion still occurs. He suggests preparing our students for situations where they are required to converse with speakers of English who are less proficient than themselves.
Some years ago, I received an irate letter which accused me of being part of a conspiracy to prevent students from learning the English language. The writer had been unable to find a definitive rule for a particular grammar point in any of the reference materials that he had consulted. (I forget exactly what the point was, but it was very obscure and there simply was no hard and fast rule that governed it.) As a result, he had come to the conclusion that certain aspects of the English language were deliberately being kept secret in an attempt to ensure that no one who was not a native speaker could ever gain complete mastery of it. I rather like the idea of being some kind of linguistic master spy, but alas it is not true. I hope that everyone will take inspiration from ETp to help their students towards understanding English, whatever the context.