Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Saturday, January 28, 2006


by AJ

"They say knowledge is power. We say the use of knowledge is power."
-- Elliot Washor

Seems obvious. Yet most schools operate on the "knowledge is power" belief. Few care about actually using this knowledge. And nowhere is this more evident than in TESOL.

According to most schools, "superior" EFL/ESL students are those who score well on tests... and get good grades. Most schools (and teachers) dont seem to care if these students can actually use English in real-life situations. Real-life, after all, is totally unrelated to school.

But Washor is absolutely right. Knowledge of English is useless unless the student can use it. Can they read a newspaper or magazine? Can they function in an English speaking country? Can they use English on the job? Can they order a pizza over the phone? Can they make friends and communicate with them? If they are academics, can they read and understand professional journals? Can they watch an English language movie and understand it? Can they convey their ideas, needs, and desires in English?

If they can't, who gives a damn about their test scores?

My Asian students, for example, typically have tremendous linguistic knowledge. They can tell you the difference between the past progressive and the present perfect. They can define large number of vocabulary words. They do well on standardized tests. They are then shocked to discover that they can't function in America outside the classroom. Simple conversations are incomprehensible. They can't understand movies without the subtitles.

Something is wrong with this picture. If a student can't understand a basic transaction at McDonalds, after 6-8 years of English study, what exactly was the use of those 8 years? For example, Ive got students who, after almost a decade of study... still dont know how to respond to the greeting, "What's up?"

As language teachers we need to pay less attention to memorized linguistic knowledge and MUCH more attention to practical communication. That means getting out of the school and out of the textbook. It means frequent encounters with "the real world". It means learning English as it is actually spoken.... not as its presented in formalized texts (by prescriptivist grammarians). It means that successful communication, not grammatical accuracy, should be our first priority.