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Teaching Your ESL Students to Understand Real English

by Jon Lewis

In class, do you slow down your speech and try to articulate a little more precisely than you do when talking to other native speakers? I do, because I know that otherwise my students will have trouble following me. After all, I reason, if they don’t understand anything, they will have accomplished nothing as far as learning is concerned.

By doing this, your students are going to have a big shock if eventually they get to try out their English in real-world situations, that is, outside the classroom. For English speakers who are not EFL professionals are not so considerate toward non-native speakers. They will continue at their normal pace and expect everyone to keep up. So if your students are used to y o u ...s p e a k i n g ...s l o w l y... a n d ... d e l i b e r a t e l y ... l i k e ... t h i s...they won’t have a cat-in-hell’s chance of understanding the New York taxi driver or the Scottish barman they meet on their travels.

So is it better to babble on in your normal voice? I thought about this when a student of mine had a fairly typical grammar problem with the “to” infinitive. She would regularly say, “*I want go”, forgetting the particle. I decided that since corrections didn’t seem to work, I would show her what it sounds in “real” English: “I wanna go”. In the real world, native speakers don’t pay any attention to the fact that the little word “to” belongs to the following verb, and routinely attach it to “want” so it becomes “wanna”. If you taught your students “wanna” first, they would simply add the verb they want and forget about the grammar rules. The advantage of this is that they will at the same time be practising spoken English the way natives use it.

I have the advantage as a language teacher to have two small children who are learning my language, English, and their mother’s, French. It is nothing short of miraculous that my daughter can understand, at the age of three, when I say “what are you going to do?”; because what actually comes out of my mouth is more like “watcha gonna do?” Only when she learns to read will she realise that there are actually six words in the question and not three. But that’s of little importance to her while she’s mastering the spoken word, and it should be the same for your students.

Only rarely do adults say that they need writing skills more than speaking, and yet we still put too much emphasis on the written word. It’s time for language teachers to teach English in a way that is best going to serve their students in life, and not treat language as a purely academic exercise.


About the Author: Jonathan Lewis teaches English in Provence, France and has written teaching materials for the French ministry of Education. His site, learning languages, gives tips and advice on language learning; and you will find more ideas on his blog, learning English
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