Friday, 11 July 2014

Which English should I teach?

A post I found in my dusty drafts, which I put together in January 2014. I don't think I really delved very deeply into what I was doing at school while I was there, so here's a little throwback.

School is still going well! There's a rumour going around amongst the students that I'm 'bilingue'; at breaktime I overheard them saying that so-and-so in the other class heard me talking French to a teacher! You see, when I was introduced, the kids were told that I only understood un petit peu of French, so that they felt more inclined to practise their English with me. However, I think the students suspect I know a lot more than I let on, because they also see me smiling when the teacher makes a joke in French. It's difficult, I have a reputation to maintain now!

Teaching English in Quebec was always going to be a little bumpy - you know, what with the French language protection laws and the fiercely proud culture that frequently accompanies that - but what I didn't expect was really having to think about the type of English I speak to my students.
Logically, you would expect them to be learning Canadian English. And in our classroom, that's what is generally taught. Students ask if they may go to the washroom, and the teacher writes favourite with a u and organize with a z. (I think both Brits and Americans alike must be confused when they read a Canadian sentence.)

The thing is, in my particular location in Quebec, the students are probably actually not that likely to visit anglophone places in Canada. We are only a couple of hours from the province of New Brunswick, but you can speak French there. To get to Ontario, well, we're looking at a drive of roughly 10 hours. This has also got me thinking about how ELAs in other parts of Quebec approach it; it must make for a unique experience depending in your town. Some people only have to cross a bridge to get to Ottawa, and teach a lot of students who are already perfectly bilingual, for example.
In fact, the US seems to be the most common anglophone place that people from Rimouski visit. During the winter, Quebeckers flock to Florida for their Vitamin D fix. Like, people actually joke that they've created a little enclave there. Other common destinations for long weekends are Boston and New York City. And of course, most of the English media the students will know about will be from the US.

Still, I falter a little at teaching British English, because awestruck as they were at the photos of Cambridge on my presentation, few of them will probably ever go to the UK. Part of my role is supposed to be helping them to open their mind to other cultures, which is great, but for the sake of practicality, I feel like I should be using elevator instead of lift. What if they say lift while travelling somewhere in North America and they're not understood, would it knock their confidence? Of course, I could be completely underestimating how common it is for people to be familiar with British words and phrases, but from experience, it does not do well to just assume. Similarly, if you used certain phrases from Quebec French while you were visiting France, people might be baffled. But if you're Canadian, it makes perfect sense to learn the French that's spoken in Quebec; not only because Quebec is geographically closer than Europe, but also because it brings you a step closer to comprehending your country's unique political situation. On the other hand, I've heard people argue that Canadians should learn France French instead, because Quebec French is not as "standardised". This is probably very sensitive territory and I don't feel qualified to comment on it anyway, having learnt France French first of all, and now loving the Quebec French I'm picking up.
The reason I'm a little nervous to teach them British English is... my accent. The way I pronounce ask is different to the way the teacher - who learnt English in Canada - pronounces ask. Even in my other school, I learnt to slightly emphasise the r in words so that I would be better understood. But when getting food while I was travelling in the US this winter, I couldn't really fade into the background. My order at Chipotle involved tomatoes and water and the cashier smiled each time. I guess it's just something I feel self-conscious about and need to get over, though. Showing students the various accents of English - and therefore all the opportunities that learning English presents - can only be a good thing!

It also leads me to question whether there is really any such thing as International English. For example, there's the fact that for historical reasons, the English spoken in India leans more towards British English than American English. When I was an ELA in Austria, the school's convention was British English - understandable, given Austria's location in Europe - but conversations I had with the students were littered with American phrases they'd picked up from the movies. I was delighted to find that this often meant they could easily distinguish between British and American vocabulary where appropriate, though!

Universities in the UK traditionally recommend that international students pick one spelling convention for their essay-writing (British or American) and stick to it. However, when I was mentoring Chinese students in my final year, I was horrified when one of them told me a tutor had said that their American spelling was wrong! We may joke about Americans' disregard for the letter u among ourselves, but, since American standards were probably part of the International English the students had spent time and money learning, it's totally unfair to be penalised for that. I wonder if the same goes for cases like obligated, a word that sounds odd on a British tongue (we only use obliged).