Learner English - A Teacher's Guide to Interference and Other Problems

Title: Learner English - A Teacher's Guide to Interference and Other Problems
Edited by: Michael Swan and Bernard Smith
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Consists of: Teacher Resource Book
Summary: "vital for people who teach many different nationalities"
Reviewed by: Alex Case
Review date: June 2002

This book does something so simple yet effective, that you wonder how you ever lived without it. It gives details of the particular problems that students with particular mother tongues have with the English language. After an introduction, justifications for producing the book (if any were needed), it has 22 chapters - each dealing with a language or group of languages. Along with the "obvious" choices like the Romance languages or Japanese, other examples include Swahili, Farsi and Dutch.

Each chapter is divided into "Distribution", "Introduction", "Phonology", "Punctuation", "Grammar" and "Vocabulary", and finishes off with a sample of the written language translated word for word into English.

The "Distribution" section gives a short summary of where the language is spoken and where it is an official language. The "Introduction" goes on to discuss what languages it is related to, the use of dialects etc. With Dutch, for example, it gives details of the differences between its use in Belgium and in Holland.

The "Phonology" section deals with both segmental and suprasegmental problems. It splits the individual sounds into vowels and consonants, and provides a little phonemic chart for each with symbols shaded to represent particular problems. Although they can be referred to very quickly, I found the tables a bit over-simplistic. The texts exploring the problems are much more useful, however. They deal not only with which sounds the learners have problems with (and at which position in the word), but with exactly what problems they are having, including where in the mouth the sound is and should be made. The same is true of the sections on "Consonant Clusters", "Stress and Rhythm", "Intonation" and "Assimilation".

By far the most room on each chapter is given to the "Grammar" section, which is split into the various areas of grammar (e.g. "Tense and Aspect" and "Gender"). This is based around (asterisked) student mistakes, and you can sometimes almost hear the person speaking with the relevant accent by how characteristic the mistakes are. Reading a few chapters, though, can also be useful in showing which problems occur again and again with learners with very different first languages, such as problems with the Perfect Aspect. The same is true of the "Vocabulary" sections, which I generally find very useful (see below), especially the part on "false friends", and think could have been a little longer at the expense of the grammar section. The "translation word for word" section is perhaps most useful in showing the teacher why nationalities of non-Indo European languages can have so much trouble converting their thoughts into English.

The book is, as the title says, a teacher's guide. As such, it is most useful as something to read through while you are teaching a nationality you are not familiar with, to help you prioritize what language points to cover. It's absolutely invaluable if you are preparing a one-to-one class for the first time with, for example, a Thai speaker. Alternatively, it can be used to prepare materials for a monolingual class. The grammar mistakes in it can be used for a "Corrections Auction", or the false friends list in similar ways. I once let a student of mine who saw me referring to it during a one-to-one class take it away with him and ask me questions in the next lesson. He found it very useful, but it's not a method I would generally recommend.

From the amount I've used this book, you can see that it is something I have been using for more than a few weeks. In fact, the copy I am reviewing is the expanded and polished up second edition. I suppose the fact that there is a second edition is in a way a good enough sign of how useful teachers have found this book over the years. In fact, the only negative thing I've ever heard said about it is that it lacks the phonetic symbols for the sounds the students are actually making, a point which the introduction explains as "avoiding technical linguistic terminology". In fact, a table of the IPA was included in the old addition, but has sensibly been left out of the new. Other changes include the (unexplained) exclusion of Vietnamese from the languages dealt with, and the inclusion of "Polish" "Korean" and "Malay/ Indonesian". "Indian languages" has also sensibly been split into Dravidian languages, and those related to Hindi Urdu. The text in the chapters has been changed rather little, but it seems less ambiguous in places now. This is helped by having up to twice as many examples to illustrate points in parts. There is also now a cassette and CD available, which I haven't used but can't really see the need for.

Not a huge change for the new edition, then, but if you don't have a copy of "Learner English" I heartily recommend you go out and get one. It would definitely go down on my list of "top ten indispensable books". If you are doing the Diploma or any other high level teaching qualification, it could well be a lifesaver.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & ArticlesAlex Case has worked as an EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Director of Studies and EFL Editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, the UK and Japan. Alex Case is Reviews Editor of TEFL.net.