Teaching English can be confusing. It’s simple, to an extent: just teach them English. Make sure you know your grammar, and have a range of useful expressions ready to go for students to use, and everything will basically go fine.
And yes, that’s true. But which English do you teach them?
Read more: Received Pronunciation
Obviously there are two basic choices: American or British English (including the many sub-varieties of the latter, most of which aren’t even British at all). And most of the English-teaching industry has settled for British English. Because you have to choose one, and obviously a lot of learners are from countries that were once part of the British Empire, so they have that connection. Whether they like it or not.
And, whether we like it or not, Britain has long held a certain prestige around the world. Yes, this image of Britain is often pretty simplistic (black cabs and the Queen basically: sorry, Charles), but people like it, and it’s how a lot of people still see Britain.
But while this image still lingers (especially here in Italy), it’s not reflected in how young people here speak English.
In the last few years, I’ve noticed more and more young people here speaking English with a clear American accent, and using lots of American expressions and abbreviations (the kids really, really like gonna). Hell, it’s pretty much the same in English-speaking countries. I remember overhearing a group of college students back home in Ireland a few years ago, who were bilingual Irish and English speakers. They were switching quite naturally between the two languages, but when they spoke English there was a clear American twang.
The reasons for this are pretty simple. First, people have much more access now to a vast body of written American English, because of social media, where most of the native speakers are going to be American.
Second, in non-English speaking countries at least, is the rise of streaming platforms. Traditionally, in many European countries like Italy, all TV and movies were dubbed. This is still the case in cinemas and broadcast TV, but who’s watching TV anymore? (especially Italian TV – yikes!) Young people now are watching most of their TV and films online, in (American) English with subtitles. This has generally increased their ability to speak English fluently, but also means they speak with American pronunciation.
And while I don’t think we should we should change to teaching American English (yet…), I often wonder: should we continue teaching Received Pronunciation as the standard form? The very idea of it being a “standard” form is already problematic. It’s a regional accent spoken by somewhere between 3 and 10% of the British population, and with class associations that aren’t really relevant to most of the world.
For a long time, most English teachers knew that this style of pronunciation didn’t match their own, but understood the practical need for a single form in textbooks. Now though, many aspects of this pronunciation match neither how the students nor the teacher speak. And with what’s been happening in the UK in recent years, maybe the romantic image of Britain it represents for many learners won’t last very long. Adding to this the fact that most English speakers are non-native speakers who are probably going to use English to communicate with other non-native speakers, and the choice of Received Pronunciation seems increasingly arbitrary. Should we stop teaching it then?
Well, there’s the difficult thing: what would we replace it with? American pronunciation is the obvious choice, but I suspect that would be still be unpopular among a lot of learners who, despite being happy to watch mostly American entertainment, are still wary of American cultural influence, in Europe at least. Plus, there’d still be the problem of choosing which form of American English to use.
Perhaps the simplest idea is to do what most of us are doing anyway: teach with our own form of pronunciation. Being Irish, I’ve often been aware when teaching certain language points of how my pronunciation often differs from the Received Pronunciation model in the textbooks I use. Any time I teach can/can’t, for example, I’m aware of how my way of saying can’t is quite different from what the book teaches (as would an American’s). I sometimes tell students that, and give them the choice of using whichever form comes easier to them.
But most of the time, I just get on with it, and when introducing new language, I pronounce it how I normally would. And that’s fine, because there’s nothing significantly different about my pronunciation, and students are still going to speak with their own accent, especially as they get older and don’t absorb sounds so easily.
Still, this is an odd time for the English-teaching industry, where there are increasingly wide gaps between what books teach and the language students actually use, and maybe it’s time for textbook writers to give more of a sense of how English is used around the world every day. There are certain things which are common across all forms of English, like word stress, so maybe the books can focus on that, and leave the specifics of phoneme sounds to us teachers.