Awareness of the plurality of English: related activities

Developing learners' awareness of the natural phenomenon of language change, the varieties of English and the global emergence of ELF should constitute the backbone of teacher education courses and of teaching materials. This would require, on the part of both teacher educators and of course-book writers, some preliminary reflection on teachers' and learners' notions about what language is and what language change involves, as well as on their beliefs about English and about what the core syllabus of an English course should be composed of.

In order to activate learners' awareness, it is also necessary to expose them to samples of L2 diachronic and synchronic changes, both written and oral, that have occurred or are still occurring in the English language. Group projects aimed at enhancing learners' ability to notice ways changes occur in time and in different languacultural contexts would be particularly appropriate. These might include the use of multimedia with both visual and spoken input, and stimulate their learning strategies in parallel with their spoken and written production and interaction. Sources of input for this kind of activity might include suitable materials such as David Crystal's video seminars4 on how English has changed and is continuously changing in everyday texts, and written material such as language corpora and dictionaries of contemporary English, or the Internet, with learners using webquests to find samples of specialised language usage or English language changes, for example, in songs and music.

As well as observing language change, learners also need to be made aware of diversity. They should therefore be increasingly engaged in observing how English is differently realised in different contexts and of how they themselves may have been personally exposed to different Englishes or engaged as L2 users in ELF exchanges. Given the widespread presence of English, and its increasing role as a lingua franca in the world, it is most likely that learners have come into contact not only with several varieties of English in the media, but that they have also directly experienced an active role as ELF users. Contacts with people of other languacultures most frequently take place via the increased opportunities for mobility, which may be virtual or physical, and for a variety of purposes - holidays, study, such as school or Erasmus exchanges, or work. These contacts may involve encounters with speakers of different varieties of English, both native and non-native, as well as of different L1s; in most cases, it is English that works as the shared lingua franca allowing communication to take place, while learners would be actively 'languaging' the English they are learning.

Materials suitable for this approach to diversity might include: excerpts of TV series from different parts of the English-speaking world, videos on different varieties of English, interviews with famous native and non-native politicians, actors, singers and sports champions who use English as an international means of communication. These materials can be used to elicit learners' reflection, allowing them to draw inferences and make comparisons - also with their mother tongue - in terms of degrees of formality and informality, pragmatic features and uses of local varieties and/or slang. A reflective approach can be enhanced through noticing activities, mainly through listening and reading, requiring learners to spot differences and similarities with what they are presented with in their course-books and grammar books. Listening and reading activities are pivotal in this context since learners are likely to encounter WE varieties mostly through aural comprehension. Listening is a complex and active process of interpretation, in which listeners match what they hear with what they already know and develop specific metacognitive and cognitive strategies. The listening activities should thus provide space for development of strategic comprehension skills and for focussed attention on intelligibility. This process can for instance be easily enhanced when learners are exposed to non-dubbed films or films with intralingual subtitles.

A number of activities could be devised, either as part of course-books or by teachers themselves, not only to familiarise learners with, and foster reflection on, the plurality of ways and settings in which English and ELF are used, but also to enhance their independence in searching for examples of what the previous activities have triggered in terms of awareness. For instance, students could:

  • • be asked to work upon, and possibly retrieve from the Internet, examples of songs, videos, video clips and films related to different varieties and samples of WE or ELF. Working in groups, characteristic linguistic features occurring in interactions could be identified, and then shared with the class in group presentations;
  • • work in groups, designing a questionnaire to interview students (and members of their families or communities) of a different language background that are largely present in most European schools, in order to find out what variety of English is spoken in the contexts they come from, as well as the role English retains in those areas.
 
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