Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Limitations to Simplifying English

Last week I had an unpleasant experience. The day before I was going to a TV show taping (for a program on traditional music that my friend's group was performing in) it occurred to me that maybe someone else wanted to go, so I posted a note in the elevator and one person responded. This colleague was about my age (perhaps a little more), white, male, and also American. I had never seen him before, but there are about 75 foreign faculty members that live in this building, so that is not a surprise. We met in the lobby and started walking to the bus. Almost immediately I noticed that he spoke in Broken English, or Pidgin English. Even though we were both American, he continued to do this on the entire 3 hour trip to the studio, and in between the two shows we watched them tape (thanks be afterwards he went to eat dinner before returning to campus, so we did not have to go back together). I explicitly called him on it, twice. I honestly think he has completely code-switched and has no idea that he's doing it. The alternative is to think he's a pretentious superior ass who was intentionally patronizing.

We all have a tendency to do this. We might start "picking up" the accent of a friend, or we might start speaking without using a/an/the (I watched a friend do that to her foreign ex-husband, but she'd do it to him and then speak normally to me in the next sentence), or if we're particularly insular, we might shout at foreigners thinking this makes English easier to understand. ESL professionals end up using shorter sentences and shorter words, and once they learn how difficult idioms are to explain to foreigners, they try to reduce the use of idioms and compound verbs, to the extent possible. (Go ahead, try to explain why we call up a friend-- are we turning our heads to the sky? Or are we just making a phone call?)

But the difference between ESL professionals and this faculty member is that he teaches in the sciences and probably never stopped to realize how difficult it is to understand incorrect English. Or how confusing it is for students--regardless of their own ability to speak error-free English-- to parse that they should not model their own English on that of their native-English speaking American professor. Korean students, although often horrible at speaking, have spent years learning English (the students we now have had English class since third grade of elementary school (English in elementary school, if my memory serves, began in March 1998, maybe 1999, and our freshmen were born in 1994). And that's just the English they had in school-- they also probably went to private after-school classes in hagwon. Sometimes in school and even more often in hagwon they learned with native-English speakers (who of course were explicitly there to model perfect English and not to speak in some sort of broken English). In other words, the students are relatively accustomed to listening to perfect English, although speaking slowly and simply is a good idea. They must be so confused trying to understand this man!

Please, foreigners teaching in Korea, or anywhere else, really. DO NOT DO THIS. It's easier to understand perfect English than to understand broken English. And you have a responsibility to model the correct way to talk. If any of this man's students are imitating how he talks (the same way I might start to speak with a weird hybrid-British accent, or use the same vocab in my answer that was in the question, because I'm sure the students have the vocabulary they just used) then he's doing them a huge disservice.   

Incidentally the TV taping was useful from a research perspective, and my friend's group did a group job performing.

During the taping of the second show I was right next to the stage, so I couldn't take any photos. 

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