Friday, April 10, 2009

Breaking the 'Broken English' Cycle

Years ago before I got into teaching English as a Second Language, I did research in anthropology, pursuing an interest in comparing Japanese science with American science, in particular, primatology. At that time, I attended some conferences with a colleague from Yokohama University. He was rather frustrated with international conferences where all attendees delivered their papers in English without any regard to the varying skill levels and linguistic backgrounds of non-native English speakers. In his letter to the editor of ISHPSSB, he wrote a short commentary about how English was NOT the international language. Rather, 'broken' English was, for him, the common language. After one particularly annoying experience in Seattle, Professor Sakura posed the question, "Was this really an international conference?"

Since the problem of operating in international forums is undoubtedly a continuing issue for non-native speakers of English, I wonder what can be done in the way of facilitating more cross-cultural communication from both sides. On the one hand, native English speakers need to be more sensitive of second-language learners and should also realize that European language speakers have a clear advantage over those coming from Asian language backgrounds. On the other hand, second-language learners need to be better equipped to comprehend 'real' spoken English.

First of all, Professor Sakura suggested, of course, using visual aids and for presenters not to simply read their papers aloud. Unfortunately, many people enamored of their wonderful computer tools go in the opposite direction and find that almost everything - which can be illustrated now in slides - should be put up on the screen, leaving the audience to figure out what the main point of the talk is. The best and funniest presentation of how NOT to use Powerpoint is presented in this comedy video.

Second, ESL instructors need to provide students with more realistic practice in delivering clear presentations and, especially, fielding questions from the audience. I know from personal experience that it is much easier to deliver a flawless presentation than it is to field questions from the floor afterwards, even if you're a native speaker. Sometimes Americans preface their questions by long-winded monologs to display their own expertise and, at the end, ask their follow-up question. When a member of the audience indulges in such self-serving displays, I have seen many non-native speakers become paralyzed and lose all confidence in their ability to understand English because they couldn't figure out what the question was in the end.

Obviously, a good moderator can immediately put an end to that form of questioning by asking people to get to the point and to be sensitive to non-native speakers. Once, I almost jumped out of my seat when a Japanese sociologist was bombarded by several people from the audience who expounded during the follow-up question period, leaving the poor professor with no way to respond. Eventually, the guy shut down and apologized for his poor English and inability to spontaneously respond to questions from the floor.

Finally, the point must be made that along with teaching English, instructors should try to arm their students with as much information as possible about customs and habits of Americans, in this case. If you know about this popular activity of grandstanding from the audience in the USA, non-native speakers can prepare for it. In addition, they can prepare for a wide variety of question types from the floor by practicing fielding spontaneous questions before getting into the conference room. Another possibility is to request that interested audience join the speaker in a dialog over dinner or breakfast, which gives the non-native speaker a chance to be face-to-face with the people who are seriously interested in exchanging ideas or getting clarification about the paper. This is, after all, the main point of international conferences - the opportunity to exchange ideas with your counterparts from other countries. 'Broken' English, like broken French or broken Japanese, doesn't have to be a breakdown in communication. Rather, it can enhance people's ability to form communities of knowledge. That is the awesome thing about sharing a common language.

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