Friday, October 12, 2012

Penny Ur at TESL Canada

Quick report from Kamloops, BC, where I'm at Thompson Rivers University for the TESL Canada conference. Yesterday I was at the Graduate Student Symposium where Penny Ur was the keynote speaker.

Her topic was "English as an International Language: What Difference Does it Make?" Ur is an interesting person to address this topic because she's kind of a teacher's teacher -- she doesn't have a PhD and hasn't made a name as a fancy scholar or theorist, but she's incredibly well known to almost every ESL teachers because of her books about practical classroom activities.

I like seeing somebody like her wade into the English in the World debate because she can help to cut through the theoretical morass most of us are stuck in.

Her main point, which is indeed a very practical one, was that NNES-NNES communication is the norm. Rather than wanting to do descriptive research like Jenkins, Seidlhofer, and the other ELF people, Ur asks instead "how then shall we teach?"

She went through Kachru's circles and touched a little on ELF, finally suggesting three possible ways of teaching EIL.

1. One of the native varieties (i.e., US/UK)
2. Diverse flexible models (i.e., all the trendy theoretical stuff -- grammarless, context-based, no right/wrong, focus on intelligibility rather than rules, etc)
3. A standard variety (i.e., the mythical -- my adjective, not hers -- World Standard English)

She argued that #3 was the most sensible for teaching. I understand her point, but her WSE ended up looking more like splitting the cost between American and British English, leaving out regionalisms and deferring to "simplicity" (program > programme, zee > zed) and other common sense-ish rules to settle disputes.

This makes a lot of sense, but it really just sounds like what every conscientious EFL teacher tries to do -- we're aware that there are different varieties, but we're pretty much bound to teach our own variety plus those major differences that we are aware of. How many times have I talked about crisps, chips, potato chips, and french fries in China? How many times have I made the "pants vs underwear" speech? I kind of feel like focusing on these bigger obvious differences distracts us a bit.

The big question -- "who decides?" -- is in part being answered by corpora, and I'd like to see how ELF research can support Ur's argument for a world standard -- though when I asked her whether she'd accept ELF features like non-marked third person verbs she said "the jury is still out" on these expressions which are "jarring on the ears."

In the end I didn't really think Ur's argument for #3 was much different from #1. #2 is untenable for a number of reasons -- and actually very few people support it outside of tenured professors in developed countries -- but the lacunae between actual usage, preferred usage, and what is taught are so wide as to make an argument for any of these pretty difficult. As usual, it comes down to teaching as best you can with what you know, and continuing to educate yourself about what English is and how it works.

The next keynote is Steven Pinker, who is not a TESOL professional, but a famous cognitive linguist and proponent of evolutionary psychology, which is probably my least favorite model for understanding human behaviour. But I've heard he's an interesting speaker.

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