Comment on responses to Scott Thornbury’s ‘V is for Variability’

20 07 2011
Scott Thornbury:

Language use is a constant interplay between convention (what people have always said) and creativity (the entirely new), and that Shakespeare knew this perhaps better than anyone.

“you make the rules by playing the game”

I think this is the key point here. I am completing a course with a student at the moment who is moving to London at the beginning of August. Her level is around about C2, pretty darned good, but has had the typical, to coin a phrase, “Cambridge English Experience”:

“Hello, Jane, how did you get on at the office today?”
“Great, thanks Jim, the boss really liked my proposal…” (etc. etc. ad nauseam)

Even at CPE level, this in no way prepared a very dear friend of mine from Buenos Aires, who spent her first week in London in tears and thinking that she’d wasted a lot of time and US dollars on learning English.

Instead of this, I trawled the internet for ideas and was thrown the unlikely lifeline of Jamie Oliver, with his glottal stops, yod-dropping and double-negatives strewn higgledy-piggledy throughout his discourse: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x44WuD_qWsU

And despite all these ELT “evils”, it is just this variability which I think will help my student more that a whole library of CPE listening ever would.

I’ll tell you when she gets back!

James Quartley  :

Playing the game. As above, this absolutely encapsulates the way to use the language being learned. Of course, it needs the learner to have progressed to a point where enough of the rules have been assimilated, but is an excellent way to think of the eccentricities and innovation that is possible within language use as acceptable.

I have always found it quite extraordinary that native speakers are allowed to bend, play and adapt the language, but any such behaviour on the part of non-native speakers is so often deemed to be error.

Long live the state of flux. It enriches the language, keeps it alive, relevant and fun.

Thanks, James. How can we encourage examination bodies to celebrate ‘the flux’ and become more tolerant both of interlanguage, non-standard varieties, and ELF?.

Or should we just tell them to ‘get fluxed’? ;-)

Hi Al, James, Scott,

Yes, playing the game is the key aspect here for me too and I think this attitude to our students’ production is a healthy way of helping us to improved error correction as well as keeping our students motivated to take risks with language.

Instead of jumping on any mistake they make and reformulating it into course book English, we should negotiate meaning with them, ‘are you trying to say this?’ or ‘do you want to say this?’, or ‘I don’t get what you’re trying to say there?’, or ‘what you’ve said there means X to me, is that what you meant?’ to show them what effect the language choices they’ve made have on us as listeners rather than telling them they’ve made mistakes.

This may also help us to be more positive in our correction and also allow us to hear more unintentionally innovative uses of the language that the students would prefer to know how to say in less creative ways.

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