most people’s experiences. That is, as the native English speaking teacher, we are expected to share, and teach, the native speaker expressions, idioms and slangs our students are going to require if they are going to converse in English. Of course, at face value, this does seem to be a common sense requirement. After all, we are native speakers of English, and to communicate with us native speakers fluently, surely our students are going to need to be able to use the native lingo (0 hits)? Well, if native speakers were the people our students are likely to be communicating with, this would probably be true (I say probably because many expressions and slangs vary depending on region and time).
However, when this line of thought is scrutinized, the usefulness of the native speaker idioms/slangs/expressions we often teach becomes questionable. This is due to the fact that the vast majority of our students are actually quite unlikely to be using English to communicate with native English speakers (see Jenkins et al. 2011 or Seidlhofer 2004). Now, while I don’t want to get too deeply into the theoretical background of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) in this post (please see note at bottom of blog), the basic premise is that the majority of English speakers are now non-native speakers of English, and the majority of communication that takes place is between non-native speakers of English, thus this is the type of communication we should be preparing our students for.
1) Frequency: Is the word (and this meaning of it) common?
The only real way of knowing how common an expression is is to refer to a corpus. A fantastically easy to use ELF corpus (that includes both native speakers and non-native speakers) run by the Vienna institute can be found here. I decided to run a little test (a completely unscientific one but this is only a Friday afternoon blog post!). I googled ‘common english expressions esl’, clicked on the third link and chose the first expression for low-intermediate students and then the first idiom, which happened to be ‘off the top of your/my/his/her/their head’. I then whacked this in the corpus search engine and received… 0 hits. The second expression, ‘ring a bell’ also received… 0 hits. My third attempt, ‘from scratch’ received… 4 hits. Please bear in mind (8 hits) this was only a two minute experiment.
2) Coverage: Can you use the word in a wide range of contexts, or does it have a very narrow coverage? For example, is its meaning very specific, is it only used regionally, or is it jargon or slang?
I think this is important, how regional are the native idioms/expressions/slangs we are teaching? Again, I think the corpus can help us with this, but I would suggest that, at the very least, many of the idioms/expressions/slangs are regional to the native countries, if not regions, they originate from. I know that when I go for a few beers with my mates (1 hit) from the South of England that, by our fourth beer, a lot of the conversation becomes incomprehensible to me, a native speaker. The typical idioms/expressions/slangs they use are very different to those I use as a Yorkshire man. If this is the situation for people who live in the same native speaking country, imagine two non-native speakers trying to sound native by using various idioms/expressions/slangs.
3) Usefulness: How relevant is it to our students’ needs? (Sometimes relatively infrequent items with a narrow coverage might nevertheless be very useful.)
This factor is probably the most dependent on your context. If you’re teaching English with a specific purpose, while you may receive only one hit on the corpus search, the idiom/expression/slang may still be very useful for your student. For me, in preparing my high school students for the type of communication they are most likely to face, I must take into account the likelihood of their interlocutor, who is also likely to be a non-native speaker, being able to both recognize and interpret what I am teaching my students. Considering this, I have to accept that the good old Yorkshire expression “broke” (meaning having no money) (0 hits) probably isn’t terribly useful besides if my students ever get the privilege of watching Last of the Summer Wine at some point in their lives.
This is quite an interesting one; there is no doubt that my students love US and British TV shows, movies and music. I am actually teaching a course on ‘English through Movies’ at the moment. For understanding the movies there is definitely a case for the teaching of the native English expressions featured in the movies. However, when we come back to conversational English, both my students and, just as importantly, their non-native interlocutors, are going to need to be able to use understand the idioms/expressions/slangs. In fact, teaching idioms/expressions/slangs my students’ interlocutors are unlikely to know may actually be detrimental to my students’ ability to communicate if all it does is cause misunderstanding and confusion. With the sheer number of native idioms/expressions/slangs out there, what are the chances of both my students and their interlocutors having been taught and remembering the same ones?
5) Learnability/teachability: Is it easy to learn and remember? Is it easy to convey the meaning and form of it to learners?
To be honest, I don’t think I have too much to say about this one. If the idioms/expressions/slangs fit nicely in with the syllabus, don’t take too long to teach and are usable then, to me, there is certainly a case to be made for teaching them, if done right (something I will discuss more in my next blog post).
Overall this analysis seems to indicate that, from an ELF perspective, we need to be very careful when selecting ‘common English expressions’ to teach our students. However, if your teaching environment is anything like mine, both my school and students expect me to teach a certain number of native English expressions. If I don’t, they will probably find a teacher that will. This presents a very awkward situation as I am required to teach language that I know might not only prove to be mostly a waste of time, but could actually be detrimental to my students’ ability to communicate in English. In my next blog post I hope to share some of the strategies that I believe can be used to teach native English idioms/expressions/slangs while also preparing students for ELF communication.
Note – For further reading regarding ELF I am going to put some articles I recommend checking out at the bottom, or you can read my thesis, which I’ll be uploading any day now. Alternatively, for a detailed yet eloquently summarized discussion of ELF, I highly recommend my friend Alex Grevett’s blog posts here including the discussion in the comments.
Bibliography + Recommended Reading
Cogo, A. (2012). ‘English as a Lingua Franca: concepts, use, and implications’. ELT journal 66(1), 97–105.
Jenkins, J., Cogo, A. & Dewey, M. (2011). ‘Review of developments in research into English as a lingua franca’. Language Teaching 44(3), 281–315.
Thornbury, Scott. About language. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 1997.
Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Research perspectives on teaching English as a Lingua Franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 209–239.