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Native-speaker norms and International English: a classroom view

Ivor Timmis
The question of whether students should conform to native-speaker norms of English, in an era when English is increasingly used in international contexts, is one which has been keenly debated in recent years, not least in the pages of this Journal. However, it is not a debate in which the voices of students and classroom teachers have been heard, and this article attempts to give a classroom perspective on the issue. It is based largely on two parallel questionnaire surveys, which looked at students’ and teachers’ attitudes to the question of conforming to native-speaker norms. Taken together, the surveys drew almost 600 responses from students and teachers in over 45 countries. The article argues that students’ views may di¤er from the expectations of teachers and academics, and that it is important for us to be aware of these views.


Before discussing the survey and its results, I would like to describe briefly how I became interested in the topic, and why I felt it important to find out students’ and teachers’ views. As a full-time classroom teacher, I am sure I am not alone in finding the process of keeping abreast of issues in the field at once stimulating and perplexing. As I followed the debate about appropriate norms and models for the classroom, I certainly found it perplexing to be pulled in opposite directions by expert opinion. My interest in this topic was initially engaged by the work of Carter and McCarthy (1997) highlighting the di¤erences between the English described in ELT reference materials and corpus-attested spoken norms: ‘Written-based grammars exclude features that occur widely in the conversation of native speakers of English, across speakers of di¤erent ages, sexes, dialect groups and social classes, with a frequency that simply cannot be dismissed as aberration’. I had certainly been aware that there were di¤erences between the English I taught and the English I used, but now it seemed possible to bridge the gap. However, no sooner had I adjusted my classroom approach to take account of these insights than I came across further disquieting news. Prodromou (1997) referred to estimates that up to 80% of communication in English takes place between non-native speakers and questioned the pedagogic relevance of corpus insights: ‘What does the grammar of informal, spoken English mean for the non-native speaker of English, and what is the pedagogic


ELT Journal Volume 56/3 July 2002 © Oxford University Press



Willis (1999) argued in similar vein. but also in relation to traditional written-based grammar and the kind of informal grammar highlighted by spoken corpora. but from a grammatical standpoint. I have quoted liberally (and verbatim) from these questionnaires so that teachers can speak eloquently for themselves without too much ‘spinning’ from me. The questionnaire was supported by 15 interviews. Quotations have been chosen to represent strands of opinion which emerged from the responses. Just as it seemed safe to abandon native-speaker norms. that we should place a ‘very low premium on conformity’ to native-speaker grammatical norms. from which the questions below are taken. by Jenkins’ (1998) argument that we ought to focus on those core aspects of pronunciation that were essential to international communication. in many ways. The basic question was: International English in the classroom 241 articles welcome . they cannot be taken as representative of the survey sample as a whole. This questionnaire. seems to go to the heart of the nativespeaker issue.relevance of this particular variety of English in the context of English as an international language?’ (Prodromou 1996). The questionnaires While there is not suªcient space to discuss all of the research methodology in detail. which was closely modelled on the student questionnaire. was distributed to teachers on the IATEFL Dublin 2000 participants’ list. drew 400 responses from 14 di¤erent countries. This view seemed to be confirmed. since they were all conducted in Leeds. and the results subjected to the validity checks suggested by Low (1997). not just in the field of pronunciation. because they indicate the reasons which might underlie students’ choices. The student questionnaire The teacher questionnaire Pronunciation results We can begin by looking at the question relating to pronunciation because accent. it is worth noting that the Student and the Teacher Questionnaires were extensively piloted before use. from a di¤erent angle. The questionnaire. I also wanted to find out whether there was any consensus on this issue among teachers. my eye was caught by a comment by Jenkins (1998): ‘… it is important that we should all guard against political correctness in the sense of telling our students what their goals should be: in particular that they should not want to sound like native speakers if they clearly wish to do so’. It struck me that it would be interesting to find out whether and how far students wanted to conform to native-speaker norms. and whether this consensus was in harmony with students’ views. Though I have used a number of comments from these interviews. My anxiety that I was not giving my students real native-speaker English seemed groundless. and drew over 180 responses from some 45 di¤erent countries.

Though the figures as a whole do not accord with Jenkins’ (1997) assertion that ‘the majority express a desire to retain something of their L1’. The teachers were given the same question. of course. but I still have the accent of my country. maybe some nasty client would insult me: ‘Ah. but with a ‘no preference’ option. and those who predicted that they would do so in the next three years. If you can speak English very well. then. It was clear that some students saw native-speaker pronunciation as a benchmark of achievement: It would be a sign of a good level of English.Student A: ‘I can pronounce English just like a native speaker now. Pakistan.’ 242 Ivor Timmis articles welcome . For others. I want to be natural. The purpose of the interviews was. The results were: Student A All students Students who currently use English more with non-native speakers Students who predict that they will use English more with non-native speakers Students from South Africa.’ Student B: ‘I can pronounce English clearly now. she’s non-native. and India. their motivation was more integrative: I live in this country. that this issue is especially context-sensitive. It may be. Would you prefer to be like Student A or Student B? Student A Student B The quotations were invented to represent native-speaker competence and accented international intelligibility. other people can’t hear your accent.’ 7 Please underline one answer. this was the case with the students from South Africa. If I work in an English company. and India Student A All teachers Non-native speaker teachers Native-speaker teachers 27% 32% 20% 67% 68% 60% 34% Student B 39% 37% 41% Student B 32% 32% 37% 64% No preference 34% 30% 39% Discussion of student results It is interesting to note that the figures were very similar for two groups of respondents who were analysed separately: those who estimated that they currently used English more with non-native speakers than native speakers. Sometimes people think I am a native speaker. to get at the reasons behind the choices. Pakistan. Native speakers and non-native speakers understand me wherever I go.

empowerment. were paramount: If you live in a country where the target language is spoken. but of those who opted for Student A (in the survey). I try my best to achieve that aim. but mostly mistrust.What was also suggested by the interviews was that some of those who had opted for Student B had done so out of realism rather than preference. it seems that. an accent is a distraction … If you are interested in international contacts. Let the students decide Many teachers expressed no preference. and the contexts in which they were going to use English. despite the wording of the question: Because I was born in China and not born in Britain. International English in the classroom 243 articles welcome . despite the wording of the question. 29% said they would also be content to be like Student B. consider native-speaker competence to be potentially empowering: I have/have had a few students like St A and they seem to feel they have the choice to sound like a NS or not with social implications. None of the students I interviewed expressed a positive preference for Student B. appearing to come from a di¤erent area than your real origin may be a distraction. some teachers were explicit about this: I think an accent is attractive and belongs to their personality. and one teacher who had actually opted for Student B wrote: Of course Student A is preferable but in reality it is impossible to achieve so student B can be a good standard. explaining that the wishes of the students. so I cannot pronounce English like a native speaker … but Student A this is ideal aim. pointed out possible disadvantages of attaining native-speaker pronunciation: I myself was taught to be near-native. however. Discussion of teacher It appears then that there is a greater tendency among teachers than results among students to regard ‘accented intelligibility’ as the most desirable Accented intelligibility outcome (and slightly more so among native-speaker teachers than among non-native speaker teachers). I found that actually that was a drawback in my contacts with British and other foreign contacts for various reasons. On closer inspection. however. Native-speaker pronunciation There is clearly still a feeling among a number of teachers that nativespeaker competence is the benchmark of perfection. and therefore it is axiomatic that this should be the long-term goal: It is an ideal that every teacher dreams of. Certainly. however. rather than the more desirable outcome. many teachers were choosing what they regarded as the more realistic. Many teachers qualified their choice in this sense. A small number of teachers did. Other respondents.

Again.’ Student D: ‘I know all the grammar rules I need so that I can say anything I want. The main question was: Student C: ‘I can say everything that I want to say. even the informal grammar native speakers use when they speak to each other. Results All students Students who currently use English more with non-native speakers Students who predict that they will use English more with non-native speakers Students from South Africa. but with a ‘no preference’ option. but sometimes English people use grammar that isn’t in the grammar books and I don’t want to learn this. but I use English my own way and sometimes I say things which native speakers think are grammar mistakes. or anticipated using English primarily with other non-native speakers. In the interviews an obvious line of questioning was to ask students why they aspired to native-speaker norms when they didn’t need to conform 244 Ivor Timmis articles welcome . and Student E native-speaker control of both formal and informal grammar. Student D.’ Student E: ‘I use all the grammar rules that native speakers use. or Student E? Student C Student D Student E Again the teachers were given the same question. Pakistan. I invented the 3 student quotations below. Native speakers and nonnative speakers understand me wherever I go.Grammar results To find out how far students wanted to conform to native-speaker grammatical norms. Would you prefer to be like Student C. I use these rules correctly.’ 11 Please underline one answer. Student D was intended to represent control of the written-based grammar traditionally presented in ELT materials. the figures were not significantly di¤erent for students who used. Student C was intended to represent what Willis (1999) terms a ‘stable and consistent interlanguage’. and India Student C All teachers Non-native speaker teachers 22% 19% Student C 14% 14% 16% Student D 14% 17% 9% Student E 68% 67% 72% 15% 32% 40% Student D 5% 7% 1% Student E 54% 54% 54% No preference 18% 19% 18% Native-speaker teachers 27% Discussion of student results The results were quite similar to those for the pronunciation question in terms of majority preference for native-speaker norms.

not using ‘informal’ grammar if the other person couldn’t understand it). Our job is not to produce little native speakers. that so few respondents chose this option. given that Student D was intended to represent the written-based grammar which has traditionally held sway in ELT materials. it is perhaps surprising results that so many teachers seem to have opted for native-speaker competence in both formal and informal grammar. Those International English in the classroom 245 articles welcome . My students are Chinese/Taiwanese. not Americans. flexibility. anyway that’s not my opinion. Others specify informal grammar as being potentially problematic: For my students it’s important they are understood in many places in the world. on the condition that s/he would be capable of adjusting his/her speech to the level/register of English his/her interlocutor is using (e. It is interesting that one respondent explicitly distinguished between pronunciation and grammar as acceptable targets for native-speaker conformity: Long-term outcome of language learning should be as native-like competence (NOT ACCENT ). violation of the rules without ignoring the traditional values. after my study I will go back to China. there’s sometimes a distance and I really know some students.g. Discussion of teacher Given the results for the pronunciation question. and openness: … reflects the flexibility of mind—accept the innovations. As with pronunciation. Informal grammar is often too local. Many respondents noted that students were unlikely to reach the level of Student them. Rather conservative views were also expressed: The language was born in England. The idea of a benchmark of achievement was once again apparent: Your English level and your hope of your English level. the idea of retaining one’s identity surfaces: People have their own identities. I think … when you do something you should do something as best you can. The native-speaker grammar goal Many of those who opted for Student E referred to qualities of adaptability. A stable and consistent interlanguage The results indicate that more teachers than students regarded Student C as a desirable outcome (once again this tendency was more marked among native-speaker teachers than non-native speaker teachers). they just tell me there’s no point to say it perfectly. One student I interviewed opted for Student D: I study English only for business. and others expressed more intriguing reservations: St E would be my ideal option. Written-based grammar It is somewhat surprising.

but there were some: Each learner should set his/her learning objective. Spoken grammar results The hardest question to design was the question to find out how far students want to use the kind of informal. dramatic use of present tenses in narrative. Example A I had a disaster last night. non-native variations (‘ungrammatical’ or otherwise) are a distraction. There could be broken spoken language in UK or USA . but my students follow mostly the rules of the grammar. I was sitting at home on the sofa watching TV when the phone rang. Sat at home on the sofa watching TV. I chose it because it includes a number of features typical of spoken grammar—ellipsis. below) was one I took down verbatim from a young English trainee teacher speaking to a preintermediate class. The example I chose to illustrate this kind of grammar (example B. before doing question 13 13 For each sentence please circle (❍) one number. The phone rings. I’m like ‘Oh no!’. Let the students decide Compared to pronunciation. she’s going ‘Do you want to come to the USA?’ Which of the examples do you think was spoken by a native speaker? Example A Example B Now check your answer at the bottom of the page please. and non-canonical reported speech forms. Talking to a non-native speaker ‘informal’ regional variations can be a distraction. Speaking to a native speaker. (note: ‘disaster’ = a very bad experience) Example B Disaster last night. It’s my mum. 1 = strongly agree 2 = agree 3 = unsure 4 = disagree 5 = disagree strongly a It is important for me to be able to use the kind of English in example B 1 2 3 4 5 246 Ivor Timmis articles welcome . The main questions put to the students were: 12 Please look at the 2 examples below and then underline one answer to the question.who did echoed the reservations about informal grammar expressed above: To learn grammar is the right for teaching English. spoken grammar highlighted in the work of Carter and McCarthy (1997). fewer teachers were prepared to leave the choice up to the students in the field of grammar. I wasn’t very pleased to find out that it was my mum. but she was asking me if I wanted to go to the USA with her.

given that the correct answer was at the bottom of the page. This is borne out by the fact that 20% of those who opted for Student E (apparently committing themselves to a command of informal grammar) said they did not want to use the kind of English in Example B.The main results were: Example A 34% Example B 63% Strongly Agree 15% Agree 37% Strongly Disagree 6% Unsure 25% Disagree 16% While it appears that 63% of the students correctly identified the nativespeaker example. c I think the materials I use for listening and speaking practice should show the students examples of the features I have noted above. 5 4 3 2 Unsure 22% Disagree 9% 1 Results 13c Strongly Agree 31% Agree 35% Strongly Disagree 2% The figures indicate that there is a consensus that students should be exposed to the kind of language in the above extract. which one respondent summed up rather neatly: International English in the classroom 247 articles welcome . Teachers The question put to teachers was slightly di¤erent. but the attitudes expressed about this kind of language are perhaps more illuminating than the figures. nobody understands me. It is interesting to note that of those who strongly disagreed with any use of that kind of informal spoken grammar. the actual figure may be lower. a further 20% were not sure. almost all had failed to identify which was the spoken example. When you speak to native speakers you try to say whole sentences … it becomes boring … people lose concentration easily. The interviews threw up some interesting observations and disagreements about the value of spoken grammar. The high number of ‘unsures’ suggests uncertainty about what informal spoken grammar actually is. in that they were asked to identify the features which marked Example B as native-speaker English and to say whether they thought students should be exposed to this kind of English. but only for interacting with native speakers: When I speak like Raymond Murphy book. saw no value for them in learning this kind of English: For me. however. I don’t want to learn it because I am a foreigner. Others. I just want to learn to speak and use English correctly. Some students clearly saw it as a valuable tool. there was considerable disagreement about the grammatical status of the utterance. Non-native speakers need to go the extra mile to speak correctly. and given what we know about human nature. Indeed. Two thirds of those who wanted to use the English in Example B were living and studying in EFL contexts.

Of the respondents who considered it unnecessary to expose their students to this kind of language. Students should be exposed to a ‘real life’ language. Many teachers. neutral. and there seems to be some uncertainty about what this kind of grammar is. we can suggest that while the main motivation of the majority of students is the ability to communicate. It may be. It is possible. that if this survey were replicated in 10 years’ time. More tentatively.First sentence is grammatically incorrect. the results might be quite di¤erent. then. What the survey could not show is how far respondents’ attitudes are related to their awareness of the sociolinguistic issues involved in the debate about native-speaker norms and international English. and this desire is not necessarily restricted to those students who use. I think. that the survey. 2 Student and teacher opinion seems to be quite divided on the value of informal. but you feel it’s okay (2nd also). The need for authenticity was the reason most often cited by teachers who felt that students should be exposed to this kind of language: Authenticity of teaching materials demands it. ‘standard’ (all dangerous terms here!) English needs to be under control before trying to learn native-speaker variations. given the number of responses and relatively wide geographical coverage. pointed to a need to take into account level and to distinguish between reception and production: Basic. Non-native to non-native speakers don’t use this kind of language Conclusion It would be absurd to suggest that this survey provides a statistically accurate picture of the state of opinion among students and teachers: the sample is but a tiny fraction of the English language learning and teaching population. however. even likely. if these need to be learnt at all. that those students who aspire to native-speaker spoken norms have an idealized notion of what these norms are. and questionnaires are not precision instruments. and/or diªcult for non-native speakers to manipulate: This kind of language is too complex for students unless they are living in an English-speaking country. They should know that the use of the language is culturally influenced. with increased awareness of the 248 Ivor Timmis articles welcome . most cited two reasons: that it is unnecessary for communication between non-native speakers.speaker spoken grammar. native. however. or anticipate using English primarily with native speakers. can support the following modest conclusions: 1 There is still some desire among students to conform to nativespeaker norms. 3 Teachers seem to be moving away from native-speaker norms faster than students are. at least among a minority. the rather traditional idea of ‘mastering a language’ survives.

J. G. R. Revised version received April 2001 References Carter.timmis@lmu. Germany. ‘An international grammar of English?’ Unpublished paper. 1998. ELT Journal 52/1: 57–63. Exploring Spoken English. J. Email: i. 1999. Jenkins. In that case. 1998. L. Willis. ELT Journal 52/1: 43–56. ‘Global English and the Octopus’. 1997.issues involved. 1998. R. it is scarcely more appropriate to o¤er students a target which manifestly does not meet their aspirations. even when we least expect it. 1997. IATEFL Newsletter 137:18–22. ELT Journal 50/1:88–9. 2 Teachers may find some of the views expressed by the students above to be quaint. where he teaches on the EFL . Prodromou. Special Interests in ELT (IATEFL) : 86–92. 1997. ‘Orders of Reality: CANCODE . reactionary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. SIG Selections 1997 Special Interests in ELT (IATEFL) : 73–9. G. and MA courses. 1997. McCarthy. ‘Validating research questionnaires: The value of common sense’. For the present. CELTA .uk International English in the classroom 249 articles welcome . The author Ivor Timmis works at Leeds Metropolitan University. D. Cook. he has particularly appreciated the contact with the wider ELT world which his recent line of research has brought him. Communication and Culture’. and M. Carter. ‘Changing priorities for successful communication in international contexts’. Currently he is enrolled on a part-time PhD programme at the University of Nottingham. Correspondence. or ill-informed. Low. Prodromou. L. Edinburgh. IATEFL Conference. ‘Which pronunciation norms and models for English as an international language?’ ELT Journal 52/2: 119–26. we can o¤er a tentative and partial answer: there is no reason why it should. Most of his 15 years’ experience has been in England. His research topic is: ‘The findings of spoken corpora and the implications for ELT ’. 1996. I think that the survey brings into focus two dilemmas for teachers: 1 While it is clearly inappropriate to foist native-speaker norms on students who neither want nor need them. SIG Selections 1997. Perhaps because of his relatively parochial experience. ‘The uses of reality: a reply to Ronald Carter’. but it may be that some students want it to be. but he has also worked in France. however. and Italy. how far is it our right or responsibility to politically re-educate our students? When does awareness-raising become proselytizing? Cook (1998) asked a very simple and challenging question: ‘Why should the attested language use of a native-speaker community be a model for learners of English as an international language?’ While it is by no means my intention to bang the drum for the native-speaker model.