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Teaching What People Actually Say

English is a language of possibilities. One of the most glorious and perhaps frustrating aspects of English is the fact that there are many ways to say the same thing-especially if you consider colloquial English. Most ESL or EFL programs throughout the US and the world focus on teaching a variety of standard English (often called proper English) in which one adheres strictly to the grammar and vocabulary rules of the language. This method is very useful when one is teaching for exams such as the TOEFL or TOEIC. It’s also helpful for individuals who will be interacting with non-native English speakers from other countries as it gives a common framework for communication and understanding. However, I believe that the focus on standard English exclusively does students a disservice when it comes to understanding the everyday language students will hear when living in a country full of native speakers.

The US is a prime example of a country full of native English speakers with a whole host of variations in terms of English vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, many of which might be deemed wrong if we use the proper/improper English paradigm. It is rare, for example, to hear someone use the plural form of you. Instead, people in the North tend to say you guys. In the South, people say y'all. Neither of these is technically grammatically correct. However, these are the expressions that people actually use. As another example, in some parts of the South, you are likely to hear fixing to as a way of expressing a future action. For example, you might hear someone say 'I’m fixing to go to the store. You want to come with me? " In standard English, this usage of fix is completely wrong, but around here, it totally makes sense.

So, let me clarify. I’m not advocating that we toss away standard English completely. It’s a useful framework, especially for beginners. However, we as educators need to think deeply about the context in which our students will be using the language and should modify some of our content appropriately. At the current time, I teach mostly recent immigrants living in the Atlanta, Georgia in the US. So, teaching colloquial English is very important for my students who often work in circumstances where less formal English is used. I take a few minutes of each class period to teach some everyday English pertinent to our area. My general approach is to use a phrase or expression in a sentence for students and have them guess the meaning. Then, we discuss when and how it is used. I cannot underscore enough the importance of teaching the context of the phrase/vocabulary when explaining colloquial English. I generally suggest that students take time to listen for the word or phrase over the next few weeks to get a feel for its proper use. Then, once students have heard it enough, they can try using it in the appropriate situations. Below are some of the English phrases and example sentences I’ve used in my classes.

My two year old was pitching a fit yesterday because I wouldn’t buy her a toy at the store. She kicked and screamed for 10 minutes before she calmed down. (cause a commotion, have a tantrum)

Your momma went straight to bed. I guess she was just plumb tuckered out after a long day. (exhausted)

It looks like your bow tie is all cattywampus. Let me straighten it. (be crooked)

I have one caveat about teaching colloquial English. There are some expressions/phrases that students will hear, but should not use frequently or if at all. Swear words are one group of these phrases. Another is expressions which are often used within a specific dialect or subset of the population and aren’t often used between groups. Some aspects of African American Vernacular(Black English,) for example, would at best sound extremely strange coming from a non-native English speaker and at worst come across as mocking or cultural appropriation. So, it’s OK for a student to understand when someone says “That bourgeois (boo-gee) woman is trippin far real dawg. I’m gonna bounce,” but it’s not a good idea for your students to say it. (For those of you who need a translation of the statement above: That pretentious or showy woman is really acting crazy. I’m going to leave.)

So, do any of you teach colloquial English in your classes? Why or why not? I’d love to hear your opinions.

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