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Category Archives: nns

>By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

It may be that NNS (Non-native English speaking students) understand the English of other NNS better than they do that of NS but it might be worth thinking why. NNS have difficulty with NS who have a different dialect and hence a different accent so why should they experience less difficulty with NNS who also have strong unfamiliar accents.

It may well be that they find them easier to understand because they have a limited vocabulary and use a limited range of structures. If this is the case then there maybe a drawback to using a lot of NNS speech because it would set a ceiling on their English, limiting their exposure to a wider NS English. Is it really true that a Japanese NNS listening to 2 speakers absolutely fluent, both with a NS vocabulary but one with a Scottish accent and one with a German accent would find the German easier?

Take another case. Imagine a Chinese learner speaking to two Nigerian users of English. Mr Auses English as his mother tongue, While Mr. B. uses it intermittently and does not have such a full command of the language. If the Chinese learner understands Mr. B better than Mr. A it can’t be a matter of accent, it must be a matter of limitations in the English of Mr. B.

When we teach we limit the input but I’m not sure I’d like to teach towards a limited English, with that as an ultimate goal. Even on a short course I’d like to leave things open at the end. If you teach towards the English of those second language learners who have a limited command of the language I think you are not teaching a whole language but something that has elements of Pidgin. Languages like Pidgins are not enough for us human beings. If we really want to communicate everything in Pidgin we pretty soon turn it into a creole and a full language. I think we would be better off teaching towards a long term goal of a full language.


>By Geoffrey Vitale, Quebec, Canada (illustration: Russian MIG pilot, source unknown)

In the days of “secret classrooms”, I learned my Russian, day-in, day-out at the British joint linguists camps in Coulsdon and Wythall. One of the activities was to learn to recognize and understand a wide array of NN Russian speakers (Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, etc) who were communicating with their bases from planes, tanks, trawlers, etc.

This was done by having us listen to recorded live conversations between, for example, Mig pilots and their control towers; Russian tank commanders communicating with their lieutenants as they rolled through East Berlin…. Much later, working in teacher training, I was emphaziing the problem of numbers, addresses, telephone numbers, etc and how frequently indeed NNS found themselves required to understand numbers – over the phone, in a railway station, a shop, etc. etc.

I devised a number of tapes of conversations using a wide range of accents –“native accents” for the most part — middle class English, cockney, the classless “Michael Caine” accent, Tarheel, Texan, and New England, Irish, Glasgow .. oh yes and a few Indian, Quebecs and Iranian speakers .. all in home-made sketches involving numbers and directions.

The early activities started with repetitions, especially when there was a radical change of accent, and then got up to a more aggressive one-time only speed.The students job was simply to listen and fill in grids.

At the end of each test, we went over the answers, checking for mistakes and misunderstandings orally — and students would reproduce them in the more neutral accent they were actively learning to emulate. It was effective. It also confirmed what I had long suspected — once a students gets used to hearing a range of accents, comprehension accelerates. Obvious.

Of course — just as obvious as realizing that a NNS hearing “non-English” accents every day of his life will soon find his or her way around and recognize them. As someone pointed out, the NNS often spends more time with other NNS than with NS– for reasons that have nothing to do with linguistics.

I would have thought that a more serious problem would be the danger of their adopting the NNS accents they hear and spending their lives sounding like Peter Sellars..! If disheartened, always remember Ludwig Bemelmans, the delightful Austrian writer, and author of the “Madeleine” books, who once claimed that he spoke “five languages … all with an accent.”