… ist ein Aufsatz von Stephen Speight, den ich hier mit freundlicher Genehmigung des Autors veröffentlichen darf.
English for Multicultural Purposes
by Stephen Speight
I was recently asked if I would like to talk about English customs. My reply included the words, “I’m not prepared to talk about pancake day” which could serve as a sub-title to the present brief paper. Why was I so much against talking about pancake day, Easter eggs, morris dancing, digestive biscuits, marmite etc.? The brief answer is that I do not believe any of this is particularly relevant for German learners of English. Less than 2% of German holidaymakers were planning to spend their holidays in Britain last summer. I suspect that the majority of German English teachers usually head for somewhere sunnier, too. Such topics can be linked up with the idea that the language and culture should be taught together, and that, in this case, the culture is English or British (add kilts, mountains and Nessie for Scotland and sheep, ex-mining-valleys, Snowdon and singing for Wales). As far as English is concerned, England is not the point at all. If someone decides to learn Danish, it’s because he or she wants to talk to Danes and/or understand Danish culture. This is even true of major languages such as Russian, French or German, but it isn’t true of English. People learn a world language because they need it for their own purposes, not, or not necessarily because they are interested in the culture of the native speakers.
A first reaction might be: “How nice for the Brits, Americans, Australians etc. They don’t actually need to learn anyone else’s language” – and that is what plenty of native speakers of English think, even if most of them don’t actually say it (children in school don’t feel the same need to be tactful, of course, hence a fairly dramatic decline in the number of British students studying French and German).
Where this attitude exists, it is, in my view, totally mistaken. Being native speakers of English is very likely to deprive most of us of the wonderful opportunity to participate in two, even three cultures. Germans have their own culture, and the cultures of the world language. It’s the same for the French. Fears in both countries of their own language and culture being eroded away by McDonald’s and Co. plus Denglish and Franglais strike me as much exaggerated. How much American influence is there in Provence or the Sauerland? The answer is: virtually none, and certainly nothing to cause serious concern. A thousand years from now France will still be French, and Germany will still be German. The French often forget that about 40% of English words are of French origin, but they haven’t yet adopted more than a tiny percentage of ours. In any case, as Peter Ustinov put it in a recent article in the Welt am Sonntag: “Die Vielfalt der Sprachen bringt Farbe ins Leben, so wie die Natur es tut. Auf Reinheit der Sprache zu bestehen, is so wirkungslos, as würde man den Wechsel der Jahreszeiten anhalten wollen. Unreinheit ist ein natürlicher Zustand, und die Luft hat einen hohen Anteil an sprachlichen Pollen. Ähnliches gilt für andere Einflüsse.”
If we accept, then, that major national languages are not in real danger of any kind, we can return to the question of English as an international language without seeing it as a threat. What are its functions, and how can learners best be prepared to fulfil them? At present the subject matter of English teaching could be described as Anglo-American traditional. We begin in England, later cross the Atlantic, take a look around the English-speaking world and then students at the Gymnasium move on to “problems” plus literature chosen from a relatively limited canon. I think it is high time we questioned the assumptions which lie behind this choice of material.
1. Entry qualifications
If, instead of accepting that the way we have always done things must be more or less right, we ask instead what Germans actually need to know in order to use the world’s second language effectively, we will come up with a quite different list of requirements, some general and needed by everyone, others much more specific. In neither of these areas are we doing particularly well at present, mainly because we are busy doing quite different, in my view not particularly relevant things in many cases. Here are some suggestions for the starter kit,
1.1 The nuts and bolts of everyday conversation
The kit must contain the elements of ordinary everyday conversation. I don’t believe it always does, and can give and example from my personal experience. Last February I visited a student teaching in a Gymnasium in Dortmund. He told me later that he had observed an angry confrontation in one of the senior English classes between the teacher and the boys in the class. The reason for the disagreement was the fact that every single girl in the class had received a better grade than any of the boys. There was no overlap at all. The boys claimed, and the student was inclined to agree on the basis of observing the class, that they generally made more and better oral contributions to the lesson, while the girls quietly made notes. We know, of course, that boys will complain if the girls take up more than about one third of the talking time, but here the case was different. The grades were clearly based on written work, and the ability to speak was being more or less ignored. I’m sure this situation was not typical, but I believe it is still the fact that written work is taken more seriously than spoken. It simply does not make sense for people whose spoken English stopped developing around class 6 to be writing essays about Macbeth.
Everyone needs to be able to use freely all the elements of ordinary spoken English, including fillers and large numbers of common collocations, plus the ability to think on one’s feet and react spontaneously to a speech partner’s remarks, before moving on to advanced written work of a kind which only a tiny minority will need in later life. Of course small talk is trivial as far as the subject matter is concerned, but its social function is beyond dispute. And understanding the nature of casual conversation is a very suitable topic for advanced learners. Talk about more serious matters is conversation too, and it is something rather different from a typical classroom discussion.
1.2 The rules of everyday conversation
It is generally fair to claim that the international rules for conversation in English are broadly based on Anglo-American norms. There are things which learners need to know in this area which are not at present part of the syllabus. If no one tells them the rules, there are going to be problems not just with the natives, but with other users of English as a second language.
One Saturday in March my wife met someone in a flower shop in town who used to sing in the same choir about ten years ago, but whom she had not seen in the meantime. My wife duly asked about the other woman’s children and was duly told how one was studying law very successfully, and the other was about to get married and how exciting it all was. They then said their goodbyes.
What was wrong with this conversation? Answer: it was not reciprocal. If someone asks you about your children, you are supposed to ask about theirs in return! We have adult children too, and like to be asked about their achievements. Who doesn’t. It’s only natural. Obviously a full treatment of this topic would be a lecture in its own right., relevant for both first and second language learners. A number of brief points are worth making here:
- German is used more directly than English as a rule, so learners should be made aware of this fact with plenty of examples
- Most German learners speak a rather formal version of English based firmly on the written not the spoken language. Focussing on good spoken models in school could help to put this right.
- Some German speakers of English just don’t smile. This is very off-putting for most other users of English as a first or second language.
- Scandinavian and Benelux learners of English have one huge advantage over their opposite numbers in Germany: they see English and American films and TV series in English with sub-titles. This means that listening comprehension is not really a problem, and that they can absorb all sorts of useful everyday expressions simply by hearing them used in context. As Sigrid Schöpper-Grabe put it in an interview in the SZ, “Wenn Sie einem Niederländer erzählen, dass Dustin Hoffman bei uns im Fernsehen Deutsch spricht, lacht der sich kaputt.” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 13.02.2001)
- Many of the world’s leaders speak English in interviews. When such interviews are shown on television, viewers should be able to hear what they actually said, again with sub-titles in German. It would be quite encouraging to discover that great men and women don’t necessarily speak great English!
- With about 80% of the Internet in English, it makes sense for German users of all types to use English whenever possible.
All these points together will help learners to know what to say to whom on what occasion, and to have suitable language material not just on the tip of their tongues, but actually available when needed. The language is a currency. If you pull the wrong coin out of your pocket, a Kroner or a pound left over from the holidays, there will be a negative reaction at the cash desk in your local supermarket. It’s the same with the wrong bit of language. We still have some way to go when it comes to equipping learners with a good starter kit. It just won’t help them very much to be able to identify Buckingham Palace and say that the Queen lives there!
2. Specialised intercultural functions of English
We need to distinguish here between general and specialised intercultural uses of English. Obviously not everyone needs to be able to describe the internal workings of the internal combustion engine in English. But if that’s your job, you do need to be able to do this. Teachers tend to try and get themselves off the hook by saying, “Ah, yes, but they will learn these specialised forms of English on the job.” My reply would be that it is the school’s job to give them a general basis in technical English – or English for use in meetings – or English for business letters/telephoning/talking about the news of the day, which can be filled out later with specialised subject matter as required. Without this basis, the results are often rather grotesque, as we shall see.
2.1 English for Germans
One special area for German users of the international language is their personal situation as members of a particular culture. An educated German speaker of English should be able to answer queries on anything from breakfast in Germany to the “K‑Frage” of the day to possible holiday destinations in Germany. I have for many years been able to puzzle German English teachers by asking them how they would translate the word Aufschnitt (suggestion from American English: cold cuts). As a rule, Germany plays hardly any role in German English lessons, except as a kind of afterthought (How about you – type exercises, for example.) I do not think German publishers would be prepared to consider a book with the title “English for Germans”, although, as the cliché has it, that’s what it’s all about.
2.2 Travel and leisure
It is of course the case that German works in German-dominated holiday resorts. However, this leaves a great many places where this is not the case. The whole of the English-speaking world for a start. Advanced holiday English is a very worthwhile objective. Most students would not find it easy even to come up with a list of mentionable topics.
Learners should also be encouraged to follow up their own leisure interests in English. I have yet to enter a German classroom where there were piles of well-thumbed English magazines lying around to be read. And they would be read if they were about things learners are interested in.
2.3 Personal professional needs
It is my firm conviction that a start should be made on technical and commercial English in school. Far too many people are left trying to make their “school English” work in situations for which it was never designed.
2.3.1 Technical English
Here are a couple of disastrous examples from my own collection:
I have omitted information which could make it possible to identify the perpetrators:
“many thanks for your inquiry to our offerings of kits for XXX.”
“Our XXX catalogue cannot be send by e‑mail.”
“As mentioned in the theoretical examinations on the thermal and mechanical components behaviour of the XXX, economical efficiencies are foremost sustainable on higher temperature levels.”
“Cooling of the XXX through bores flown through by a cooling fluid.”
It is not the specialised vocabulary which is missing here. This can usually be picked up easily enough anyway. It is the basic ability to use technical language. I will never forget being approached by a formidable Oberstudienrat after a talk in which I had been saying how important technical English is. His comment was simply: “Ich hasse Sachtexte!” There is plenty of really fascinating technical material out there, but not much of it finds its way into school. The “cultures” involved are topic-related, and have nothing to do with the English-speaking world as a rule.
2.3.2 International topics of general interest
International news should be considered a prime topic for advanced learners of English. It should be stressed that major news items do not necessarily or even as a rule come from English-speaking countries. Half an hour of CNN every day would be an excellent addition to the learner’s diet, including the commercials.
2.3.3 Britain, America, Australia
It remains very desirable for students to develop an interest in a particular region or aspect of an English-speaking country, including history and/or geography, anything from pop music of one kind or another to a love of the Lake District or the Rockies, to detective novels and/or serious literature. It’s all grist to the mill, but other kinds of grist should have an equal claim on the learner’s time
3. Tools and topics
Articles on multicultural issues usually concentrate on differences and similarities between cultures, stereotypes and how to deal with them, avoiding cultural clangers and so on. The medium tends to be of secondary importance. In fact this often fairly subtle subject matter could normally be dealt with better in the first language, particularly at Sek. I level. My view is that what we might call the multicultural minefield is certainly very important – and often provides a little innocent amusement as well, which is generally a good thing, but it is just as important to see English as the principal tool for dealing with multicultural issues, and by issues I don’t necessarily mean problems. I simply mean knowing the words, collocations and kinds of language behaviour which are required for one’s own areas of international culture.
A waiter (trainee hotel manager) in a local Greek restaurant needed an equivalent for Guten Appetit and various other expressions when dealing with a group of Polish business people through the medium of English for a week. Quite a good test of his school English – it failed!
A Greek student teaching a Realschule class 6 about her country. After the lesson, my group of students expressed the view that this lesson was somehow “different”. In what way? We decided it had something to do with the fact that she was talking about her own country with enthusiasm – not, as in the ordinary way, about someone else’s country (Britain or America), without actually being a member of that culture. I can imagine that texts about non-English speaking countries would be frowned on by the editors of English books at German publishers.
English has become the medium through which we gain access to international cultures of all kinds. Inevitably this situation has its dangers. The French journalist Jean Quatremer recently expressed his reservations in these words: “In their zeal for standardising everything, the officials of the European commission have a single dream: that all the union’s citizens should speak English and that their national languages be relegated to the level of local dialects. (…) Curiously, English is perceived as a ‘neutral’ language, while being the symbol and expression of world domination exercised by the United States (and not Great Britain).” (The Sunday Times, 19.08.01) In my view it is up to Europeans to use English in ways which suit them, rather than allowing it to remain the “symbol and expression of world domination” which it may once have been. It is very good for EuroEnglish to have taken on board terms like salami-slicing, crumple zone and traffic-calming, none of which have anything to do with the US. It is also worth pointing out that many varieties of native English cannot be considered part of the international variety because they are only understood within a small area. One of my nephews, a teacher with a magnificent Leeds accent, moved to a school less than a hundred miles away to the north-east. Result: mutual incomprehension.
At present “school English” is essentially a mono-cultural enterprise which does not prepare learners very well for English as it is used in the real world. As a result, they are not particularly good at it. We think we know what should go into the English books – family and school life in England, London, New York, Indians, English all over the world … It’s a tired list – and it’s the wrong list.