<The English are only Huma nby Vivian Cook

The English are Only Human

Vivian Cook 
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English Language Teaching Journal, XXXIII, 3, 163-167, 1979

LANGUAGE TEACHERS are aware that there is sometimes a gap between the language they present to their students and the language of real-life situations; a well-known example is the English teacher's choice of Received Pronunciation in spite of the small minority of R.P. speakers, even in England. However, this gap between the ideal language of the classroom and the real use of language is sometimes wider than many teachers suspect. Take the question of the skills that make up language behaviour. Some language skills are essential parts of the behaviour of any native speaker; others are possessed by those who are specially trained or particularly talented. For instance, all speakers of English can engage in informal conversations but only an actor can portray Jimmy Porter on the stage; all literate English speakers can write letters to their friends but only a trained secretary can take a letter down in shorthand. The foreign student normally wants to be able to take part in conversations and write letters, not to act on the stage or write shorthand. However, several ordinary classroom activities imply almost the opposite.

One example is the classroom technique of reading aloud: is this a skill common to all native speakers or does it require training or talent? In a sense all literate English speakers can read aloud in as much as they can turn marks on paper into sounds. It is not, however, a skill that the average person often uses, unless he is a television news reporter, a station announcer, or something similar. The native speaker's minimal skill at turning written into spoken language is essential for the foreign student. But often we ask him to do something more—to read with feeling and expression, without stumbling, projecting his voice so that we can hear in a large room, and so on. Listening to ordinary people reading aloud one finds that these aspects give them almost as much trouble as they do the foreign student. They are bad at communicating 'feeling'; they stress weak forms; they divide the sentence up into unnatural tone-groups; they are inaudible at a range of more than six feet. It is only a talented or trained native speaker who is able to read aloud without displaying these faults. As native speakers we get an exaggerated idea of the standard of reading aloud simply because the people we normally hear doing it are professionals, working on television, radio, and so on. Thus, when the student is required to go beyond the minimal skill of transferring from one medium to another he is doing something that the ordinary native speaker himself cannot do. A student who aims at being a professional broadcaster or is a promising actor may find this activity helpful; the student who does not have a professional interest or a natural talent may well be frustrated. To set against this, there are of course gains from reading aloud in this way—it makes the classes livelier, it improves the intonation patterns of students in their own speech, and so on. The teacher should nevertheless be aware that he is asking his students to do something that few native speakers can do.

There is, however, one particular group of skills that may be required by our students that the average speaker does not possess. These are the academic skills required by students in schools and colleges—note-taking from lectures, participation in seminars, report writing, and so on. Undoubtedly great skill is required to write correct essays, for instance, and foreign students need to practise essay writing. But so do English students. One would, for instance, expect that English-speaking undergraduates reading English literature would be expert at essay writing. However, experience shows that few of them have mastered the art of the essay. It is amazing how many grammatical and spelling mistakes are produced and how lacking in form or argument essays are. Take the following phrase written by a student in an English examination: the province of journalistic reported science i.e. of written medium; or the following sentence by another student: 'R.P. is spoken or tried to be spoken by various other sectors of society.' It is rare to find an essay that does not contain mistakes like these that would be penalised in the foreign student's work. Though essay writing is required in many forms of education, it is not a skill acquired by many native students and is certainly not within the range of skills of the ordinary English speaker. This type of academic skill needs to be learnt as much by the English speaker as by the foreigner. When we teach academic skills in the foreign-language classroom it is necessary to consider whether, once again, we are exaggerating the skills possessed by the average native speaker.

In both reading aloud and essay writing, then, the foreign student is asked to imitate the native speaker at his best and to acquire skills of which only a few are capable. Inevitably the students feel unhappy that they cannot live up to this model: they cannot read a passage aloud like John Gielgud; they cannot write an essay like George Orwell. One remedy for this is for the teacher to tell or show them what ordinary native speakers actually do. If the students are asked to read aloud, they can hear recordings of average people reading aloud; if they are required to write essays they can see sample essays written by English students. In this way they can see the real target they are aiming at and appreciate its difference from the ideal; the target is brought within their reach rather than being one that only the most talented or professionally trained can attain. Once they have achieved this target those who have the need or inclination can go on to acquire the above-average skills.

So far we have dealt with the gap between the classroom model of the speaker and what an average speaker can do. Let us now look at the gap between the classroom language and what any speaker can do, where a standard is implied that no speaker can live up to. A starting point can be the use of scripted dialogues in the classroom. As Alan Davies has pointed out, there is a big difference between scripted dialogue and conversation. Partly this is a matter of the generality of the scripted dialogue, which provides the general features of conversation rather than the idiosyncratic details of a particular situation; and partly that the scripted dialogue is idealised in that the language itself is different from spontaneous conversation in important respects. Let us take a short extract from a live conversation about food between native speakers who are talking about take-away meals:2

Peter Burch: I think this typical of our society, isn't it ? We we tend to avoid people rather than to seek out company; we we prefer to withdraw and sit.. .

Pam Cook: Yes because I mean how often does one go to a restaurant in a big group like the Chinese do ? I mean the Chinese when they go out they take everyone from the smallest child—aunts, uncles, the lot.. .

The language here shows features that are hardly ever found in the scripted dialogue. In a real conversation people repeat words ('we, we'); they start saying one thing and end up saying another ('Yes because I mean how often ...') ; they interrupt each other in mid-sentence ; they pause for breath, for thought, or for drink. The language of the scripted dialogue normalises this into well-formed grammatical sentences in a logical sequence. The student is being shown a target that is too perfect in its fluent command of the language. The scripted dialogue may be effective for teaching provided that the student is aware that real speakers do not talk like this. The remedy is to let the student hear people talking naturally or see transcripts of real speech. Now that the teacher can find several published courses that use real speech he should have little problem in presenting it to the student This is not to say that the student should necessarily be taught the 'mistakes' found in real speech, simply that scripted dialogues have pretended that these mistakes do not happen and have thus given the student an impossible goal to aim at; and the few students who do manage to attain it will justifiably be accused of speaking like a book. The gap between the classroom and real life can also be widened by not paying sufficient attention to the types of language employed in spontaneous speech. On the one hand this may be simply a question of accurate description: do native speakers actually use the grammatical structures and so on that are used in the classroom? For example, the emphasis in the early stages of learning English on the agreement of verb and complement in sentences such as There's a good film on at the local' does not reflect the usage of many young people in England today who seem to use an invariable There's' regardless of whether the complement is singular or plural. On the other hand, we must also make certain that the classroom language reflects the ways people process speech in everyday life. A recent experiment tested the factors that make relative clauses difficult for speakers to understand. Linguists have speculated that the more clauses are included one inside the other the more difficult the sentence is to produce or understand. The experiment confirmed this but produced the surprising result that one in five English people did not understand a sentence containing a single relative clause: when they were read the sentence The dog the cat bit liked the horse' and were asked 'Who bit whom?' they would answer The cat bit the horse.' The reason for this is that speech production and comprehension involve psychological processes that can handle only a limited amount of complexity at a time: regardless of the complicated structures the grammar book says we know, we can comprehend or produce speech only up to the limits of our capacity. The foreign student is subject to the same kinds of limitation as the native speaker, and we must therefore make certain that the language we teach him does not present constructions that he will find impossible to use in a real-life situation because they exceed his capacity. There is no point in learning complicated rules for producing English relative clauses if English speakers cannot do it themselves. It is preferable to concentrate on grammatical structures that the native speaker is sure of rather than on those with which he has difficulty himself. A case in point is the present perfect tense, where the native speaker has no problem and which virtually all foreign students find a perennial source of difficulty. For the non-native speaker there is however the snag that he may not be aware of the borderline between the two types of grammatical point; until a 'psychological' grammar is available, he is at the mercy of the authors of textbooks, who so far have shown little awareness of the problem.

A further aspect of this problem concerns the types of activities that are used in language teaching Let us take the example of oral comprehension. Obviously a speaker of English can understand spoken English, but can he understand it in the same circumstances as our students? An experiment of mine had the main purpose of seeing how people remembered ungrammatical sentences. The technique involved reading short passages to adults and asking them afterwards which of four sentences they had heard. The experiment would have been spoiled if they had been conscious solely of the grammatical form of the sentences, so they were asked questions on what they had heard. These questions were kept as simple as possible. The results showed that they were far more difficult than had been anticipated: the average number of correct answers was 65 per cent and even the easiest question had a score of only 85 per cent. For example, one passage consisted of a Wild West story about two characters called Mad Jack McCoy and Kid Brown. The passage contained the sentence 'Kid Brown was waiting for them with twenty other desperadoes.' At the end of the passage a minute or so later the people were asked to 'Tick which of these answers you prefer:

(a) Kid Brown's gang numbered two

(b) Kid Brown's gang numbered five

(c) Kid Brown's gang numbered fifteen

(d) Kid Brown's gang numbered twenty.

Choosing the correct answer depended on remembering the number twenty and on understanding 'desperadoes', a seemingly easy question. Yet of the 18 people who were asked this question only 5 ticked the right answer. Another passage started with the words 'Peter Hughes was a teacher in the little town of Silford. He was leaving school one afternoon when he missed his step and tripped over.' The passage then went on to describe his experiences in hospital. Here the choice of answer was:

(a) Peter had an accident while climbing some steps

(b) Peter had an accident in hospital

(c) Peter had an accident on his way home

(d) Peter had an accident on his way to work.

Only 10 out of 18 people managed to deduce that (c) was the best answer. While it is easy to find fault with the particular passages or questions that were used, they are probably as adequate as those used in most English classrooms. Nevertheless the speaker of English is far from perfect in this type of task: storing the information from a passage for a minute or two places a load on the memory even for the native speaker.

The point of dwelling on this experiment is its similarity to the comprehension activities used in the classroom. Often we ask the student to listen to a passage and then to answer questions about it. However, natural as the activity may be, it still strains the memory of the native speaker. We may again be expecting the foreign student to do more than the native speaker. The yardstick against which we must measure the student is not perfection but the capabilities of the native speaker in the same situation. It might be argued that the technique of multiple-choice questions proved a problem in this exercise and that the English speaker would improve with training and practice. If this is true, it reinforces the earlier point that the student should not be required to imitate the good native speaker with particular skills or training rather than the average man in the street. While the present example involves only oral comprehension, other classroom activities probably pose similar problems for the native speaker. The question that the teacher has to ask himself is how the activity he is using relates to the abilities of real English speakers. If he is asking students to repeat, is he sure that English speakers can repeat sentences of the same length and complexity with the same accuracy he expects from his students ? If he is asking them to perform a structure drill, does he know that an English speaker is capable of performing the drill? If he is asking questions about a passage, is be sure that English speakers can absorb and remember the information he expects his foreign students to know ? If the teacher cannot answer these questions from his experience of English, some of them can possibly be answered from his experience of his native language; the limitations involved are general and apply to all languages in one way or another.

Yet this argument must not be taken to the conclusion of banning from language teaching all activities that cannot be found in life outside the classroom. The students are learning the language, not using it; learning may arguably be more efficient if they engage in activities that are unnatural or impossible for the native speaker. But the teacher should at least be aware in his own mind of the extent to which a given activity represents the real use of language by an ordinary native speaker. G. J. Renier once wrote a book with the title The English—are they human? His answer was a qualified 'No', with the exception of the working classes who were still uncorrupted by public-school morality. In terms of language teaching the answer has also too often been 'No'. The target for the students has been an impossible model of perfection. It can only be helpful if the teacher is conscious of the gap between the classroom model and reality and if the student is reminded from time to time that native speakers make mistakes, that not all of them read superbly, that some of them have bad memories: in short, that they are human after all.


Davies, A. Textbook situations and idealised language', paper presented to the BAAL seminar on The Communicative Teaching of English (1973).

Cook, V.J. English Topics, O.U.P. (1974).

Cook, V.J. 'Strategies in the comprehension of relative clauses', Language and Speech, 18 (1975).