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“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”
–C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), British novelist, theologian, and literary critic
Do our ESL students need to speak with perfect English grammar or “swim” in English? Should we encourage our students to speak as much English as possible? Or should we paralyze our students with exaggerated fears?
Okay, these are rhetorical questions. Yet our ESL students – even at the advanced level – don’t have to be perfect; they have to be understood. Unfortunately, far too many English classrooms still focus far more on grammar than authentic communication skills. Our students need to speak clear, comprehensible English. English remains a vital tool for our students to reach their life goals in the United States, Canada, Australia, or the United Kingdom. Thus, it follows that practical knowledge, not abstract theory, should be the focus of our English classes.
Some Crucial Questions and Authentic Tasks
Here is a short list of important questions for our English language learners.
- Can they order food in a nice restaurant?
- Can students fill in government forms?
- Do they understand a front-page newspaper article? Classified ads?
- Can they negotiate prices at a yard sale?
- Are ELLs able to confirm information?
- Can adult students make clear recommendations?
- Can ESL students share personal experiences?
- Do students feel comfortable participating in classroom discussions?
- Can they give a competent classroom presentation to fellow students – or at work?
- Can they effectively interview for an appropriate job?
- Do they feel comfortable at social events with native English speakers?
- Can they, in short, swim in English?
Students Speak English to Communicate
If people want to communicate, meaning matters most. In other words, our students don’t need to speak perfect English with zero grammar errors anywhere outside of some English classrooms. However many teachers, perhaps in a bid to improve student TOEFL scores, exaggerate grammar points with little to no practical importance in daily life. For example, let’s look at some common language errors that our students make. How do they affect discussion outside of our ESL classrooms?
- Will the absence of articles (a, an, the) prevent a student from buying something?
- Will a confusion of “much” and “many” prevent someone from receiving assistance?
- How crucial is subject-verb agreement in daily conversations?
Grammar fundamentalists hate hearing this simple truth. These errors are of limited significance for most adult English language learners outside the English classroom and white collar professions.
Further, the focus on accurate grammar and the expectation of “correct” English can cause excessive self-consciousness. In fact, I’ve worked with many English language learners who use severe, often extreme negative language to describe quite competent and sometimes strong presentations in adult education, community college, and university courses. This severe self-criticism places huge barriers on many English language learners. Likewise, this perfectionism ironically limits their willingness to engage with the broader English speaking society.
Therefore, I often tell high intermediate and advanced students, who are often quite ambitious and hard on themselves, to “kill the perfectionist demon.” During the first few weeks of class, I usually emphasize this point with a simple “swim in English” pitch.
“You don’t have to conquer English; you just have to swim in it everyday. Attentively listen to authentic English. Listen to podcasts and the radio. Create small conversations. Just ask a question. Read something in English everyday. Follow your interests in English. Allow yourself to be yourself in English. Jump into the language, and do your best. Our class is a safe place to expand your English skills, and learn by doing. I’m not interested in perfection. Most importantly, I want to see significant, meaningful, and verifiable progress. Let’s get going and make some good mistakes together. Let’s see how far you can swim this semester.”
Swimming in English
Above all, our ESL students don’t have to be speak perfectly; they have to be functional in English. They have to perform particular language tasks and successfully convey their ideas. Thus, most learners need practice speaking, and positive social experiences in English. Moreover, they need more conversation opportunities, and fewer grammar lessons. In short, our English students have to swim in English; they don’t have to swim across the English Channel.
So why don’t we give our students what they need to survive (and thrive) in more English classes? Let’s help them swim in English.