Teaching English as an International Language

Title: Teaching English as an International Language
Author: Sandra Lee McKay
Publisher: Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers
Reviewed by: Alex Case
Review date: July 2003

It is estimated that by 2025 there will be more speakers of English as a second language than speakers of English as a first language, and that most students will be studying English not to interact with native speakers, but to access information in English and to interact with other non-native speakers. Obviously, we will have to respond to this, moving towards teaching English as an International Language (EIL). This includes a re-examination of the native speaker as the standard of grammar, pronunciation, textual organisation etc. that non-native speakers should aim for. EIL can also mean a wholesale re-examination of Second Language Acquisition research, as most of it is based on comparisons between the native and non-native speaker. This can in turn lead to changes in what we teach, how we teach, and who teaches.

This book starts with an examination of the history and future of English as an International Language. It uses examples such as the use of English inside India to show that attitudes to the native speaker model are changing in such countries, with more people rejecting a British Received Pronunciation accent as socially unacceptable. Many other statistics and sources are used to make a strong case for the importance of changes in the status of English.

Once this book had convinced me of the importance of EIL, I was anxious to see what changes I could make to my teaching to reflect it. I was somewhat disappointed in this, as the book provides much more information on EIL in general than on teaching it - for example, teaching is hardly mentioned until page 80 of a 135-page book. My chief questions were on syllabus design - choosing points of pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary and functional language to present and correct, taking into account the fact that my Italian students are already just as likely to communicate in English with Japanese clients and friends as American ones. This book provides a very brief summary of Jennifer Jenkins' suggestions on pronunciation to cover with such students, but the lack of similar information on other aspects of language perhaps reflects gaps in research done in those areas. On grammar, for example, the book seems to suggest that there are similarities in the written forms of most varieties of English, but provides no guidance on how to find out what they are. The example of syllabus change it covers most thoroughly is the Chilean schools system, where it was decided to spend most classroom time on receptive skills as the students were most likely to need English to access academic texts. This provides no information on how teachers can be trained or materials written specifically for an EIL market, but rather suggests that EIL is just a segment of English for Specific Purposes - a suggestion rejected elsewhere in the book.

The most practical suggestions given in the book are that students should be trained to spot cultural differences, including those in pragmatics and rhetorical style, and to be able to communicate their own culture to other people. This point partly undoes the book's criticism of the major publishers' textbooks being too anglocentric, as if all students need to do is compare cultures British culture could serve that purpose as well as any other. The book (quite rightly) suggests that articles on British and American culture can often put the non-native teacher in the difficult position of knowing as little about the topic as their students, but texts on their own country are unlikely to promote cultural sensitivity, and a text on East Timor is unlikely to be more relevant than one on New Zealand to an Austrian student. Perhaps the answer is to concentrate on difference in general. Here we come across the classic liberal conundrum, though - what is our reaction when one of the chief aspects of the culture of the country we are teaching in is a rejection of the idea that all different cultures are equally valid?

The book’s conclusions are that more power should be put into the hands of local organisations to make the syllabus decisions etc. relevant to their students' need for EIL. This is tied into criticism of the way Communicative Language Teaching has often been forced on teachers, often where it is culturally inappropriate or practicably unfeasible. These important points are well made here, but unfortunately the people reading this book are not likely to be the people making those decisions.

This book would provide a good primer for anyone wanting to or needing to research the more theoretical aspects of English as an International Language, perhaps those thinking of doing some specific research themselves in this area. As the book suggests, it would also be a good source for someone wanting to give a seminar on this topic. It is certainly a very readable book, with many suggestions for further reading and a useful glossary.

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.