Sunday, October 28, 2007

Is there prejudice against Indian English?

Several years ago I tutored an Indian man who had lived in the United States for more than 20 years. What he wanted to do was to change his accent. Although he was a naturalized American citizen and had clearly mastered English, he was starting his own business in San Diego and wanted to sound more 'American,' especially on the phone. He believed that when people heard his "Indian" accent, they were more likely to dismiss him or his product.

Later, I realized what he was talking about as last year, I had to deal with several customer support people for last minute flight and hotel cancellations. (Unexpectedly, my husband had to be hospitalized.) By the end of my conversations, I was feeling angry and frustrated with the representatives of the airlines and hotel who were obviously not speakers of American English and were likely "outsourced" employees of these companies. They sounded like "Indians," but even more irritating was that their expressions were obviously rehearsed (constant repetition of the same lines) and sometimes inappropriate. I didn't feel that they fully understood my English, and I certainly didn't understand a third of theirs.

Since the many Englishes of the world are a focus of this blog, I'm presenting some of the links I visited recently on the topic of Indian (African, Asian, etc.) English. A recent article in The Times of India concerns the plight of Indian English speakers.

As a result of all this interest in speaking a 'standard' English, however, there are lots of employment opportunities for British and American ESL teachers equipped to instruct accent reduction courses. Here's a link discussing what is meant by "accent neutralization" or reduction. Working on accents is big business now because of all the outsourcing of phone sales agents to other countries. There are many tech-support centers based in India (click here) which are trying to cope with the problem of producing agents that have mild accents and appropriate sociolinguistic skills to handle phone talk.

There has been some backlash to the pressure on Indians to change their accents, and I ran across one blog suggesting that Indian English should be recognized as a major English of the world and that Indians should not have to adjust their accents to suit our ears.

Finally, I offer you an amusing 1.5 minute clip of Peter Sellers imitating various British accents on 'YouTube' and a more serious discussion of the variety of English accents from the British Library's collection. You can spend a lot of time here delving into the library's various links and listen to different accents while reading transcripts.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What does "evacuation" mean?

The past few days have been a bit of a stressful blur, but nowhere near as stressful as it's been for the thousands of San Diegans who lost their homes during this week's fires. Almost exactly four years ago, our community was the worst hit by the Cedar Fires, so when we got evacuated (look at meaning #4a under transitive verb and meaning #1 under intransitive verb) on Monday, there was a lot more fear and understanding of how fast windblown fires can travel and how much devastation can follow in their wake. Very fortunately Mother Nature spared our home again and didn't touch our community. For detailed coverage of the recent events, check out Wildfires 2007.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Some more commentary on our "Many Englishes"

Just thought I'd give you a quick link to another site which talks about "Many Englishes". This page has some short listening materials on the topic that would make a good warm-up for an advanced listening/speaking class discussing today's international language (click here). Steven Pinker and Stephen Fry make some observations about the many different Englishes used around the world. Is one English "better" or more "standard" than another?

Putting myself in the position of a student

To be a good ESL instructor, many would say that you have to have taught English in a foreign country. Perhaps even more important, in my opinion, is to have studied a foreign language yourself. I've never taught English abroad, but I have studied several foreign languages in public school and the university. In addition, I had an immersion experience the first time I did anthropological fieldwork (studying chimpanzees) in Africa.

Our research base camp was actually in the heart of a Congolese village in the Equateur region of the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly called Zaire). Despite being able to get by in French in the towns and cities, it was of no value in the village of Wamba. Lingala was the lingua franca of the area, and with no Lingala books or dictionary at hand, I essentially tromped out to the forest every day with people whose language was totally foreign and tried to pick it up by ear.

Thank goodness I'd studied a number of quite different languages by that time (Spanish/French, Quechua, Japanese, and Arabic), for varying lengths of time (6 mos to several years) . You might say I have always been fascinated by language, and the experience in Zaire/DRC has had the biggest impact on my ESL teaching career.

From that first-hand experience learning a second language as an adult through immersion in a work/research setting, I learned very well some of the differences between learning from a book and learning through communication. I also learned that making a lot of mistakes and sometimes being stressed to the point of tears and humiliation forced me to become communicative in a rather short period of time (about five weeks). There was no time for translation; whenever I spoke, I found out quickly if people understood what I said. They didn't correct my grammar, so I have no idea if the quality of my speech was TV or radio broadcast-quality Lingala, which was usually mixed with lots of French. Nevertheless, though I've been away from the language for more than a decade, some expressions have stuck, like the farewell from one of my favorite trackers Iyokango "Dimanche" - Soki Nzambe alingi, tokomonana ntango mosusu. We'll see each other again, God willing....

Recently, to try to recapture the exhilaration of being able to communicate in a foreign language again, I decided to do an English-for-Japanese language exchange with a former student who still lives in San Diego, but no longer formally studies English. S. is trying to learn Spanish now and does volunteer work, visiting with elderly people, practicing her conversational English, and awaiting the birth of her first child.

How does it feel to study Japanese with a former ESL student? I was definitely a bit stressed about it. She had never heard me speak Japanese, and now she knows how truly limited I am. Though not a trained instructor, she has done language exchanges before. I told her I didn't want English translations, but explanations in Japanese. Synonyms. Lots of examples of how to use an expression. She did a good job in her role of teacher. I guess time will tell what kind of student I am, but I got home feeling ambitious (though I wonder now how I'm going to squeeze some Japanese language studies into my schedule).

As I always tell my students, "you'll be surprised at how much English you'll understand after studying it here in San Diego, even if you don't use it again for years." Happily, this was true for me with Japanese as I was able to understand most of what S. was saying this week, even though I haven't used Japanese for many years. To my delight, I can still recognize a lot of kanji and read the phonetic scripts (hiragana and katakana) too (read a little about my translation experience). However, output in Japanese is a different matter. Must practice what I preach now! Oh yes, remember, Evelyn? Practice makes perfect. Use it, or lose it?!

Sunday, October 7, 2007

'Englishing' at Mission Beach, CA

One of the great things about working at a school in San Diego is that we can have excursions that take us close to the ocean. One of the places that apparently doesn't get used much on Friday afternoon is the south end of Mission Beach close to the 'canal.' It was an ideal location for our end-of-session activity.
The weather was perfect for a fall day in San Diego, breezy with whitecaps and frothy waves on the Pacific and sun everywhere. There's a grassy area with grills for barbecuing, so we were able to prepare s'mores, hotdogs, and other food. Though the coals never got quite hot enough, Luciano and Victor patiently waited two hours for their three-inch steaks to reach a medium-cooked color. By that time, everyone else had eaten, but the two guys said that the meat was delicious, seasoned by their huge appetites.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Spellbound by 'Spellbound'

One of my favorite movies for high-intermediate or advanced level students is 'Spellbound,' an Academy Award-nominated film (for Best Documentary) which presents snapshots of the lives of eight American adolescents who compete in the 1999 Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee competition in Washington, D.C.

I've shown this movie numerous times, and 'Spellbound' never fails to captivate and entertain. Of course, we have an in-class spelling bee so that students can identify a little with the kids in the movie. In addition, before the national competition is covered in the movie, we take a vote in class to pick the girl or boy who we think will win the Bee. Students are asked to support their choice with information and observations about the various candidates.

Furthermore, watching and discussing 'Spellbound' is an opportunity for students to think about what an 'American' is. Among the competitors are the daughter of 'illegal' immigrants from Mexico, a child from a privileged background who rides horses in her spare time, a bright young hyperactive boy, the son of an Indian immigrant, a low-income African-American student, and so on - a real cross-section of America.

I highly recommend this movie for teaching English through content. Supplementary reading material can be downloaded from various sites, but I often use this movie review. For the spelling bee, I use the list of words for different grade levels from this site. Finally, if you want to inspire students with follow-up readings, you can go to Angela Arenivar's blog to find out what she's doing now eight years later and also read a 2004 news article about Ashley White, the aspiring African American girl from Washington, D.C..

Based on your observations and what was said in the movie, 'Spellbound,' how would you describe an 'average' American? In your view, what qualities do all the children in the movie share? Why do you think the National Spelling Bee captures so much public attention in the United States?

Please post ('publish') your writing in the Comment section; use the 'Other' box, and use your first name so I can see that you've done the assignment.