The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

The Purpose of Second Language Teaching

Question:

Submitted by Muhammad Jamil, Jubail, Saudi Arabia

  1. What is the purpose of second language teaching? (a) to enable students to be able to communicate in the target language (b) to prepare them to be achieve native like fluency?
  2. Is it practically viable to train second language learners like natives? If not then why is there so much stress on native-like fluency?

Dr. Richards responds:

In formulating language policy towards the teaching of English in a country, a variety of options are available to educational planners. For example, English could be positioned as the language of English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Australia and be linked to the cultures of those and other English-speaking countries. Another option would be to emphasize its role as an international language and as a means of communication with the world beyond a country’s borders. A different function for English would be to position it as a tool for providing access to information needed for technical, scientific and economic development within a country, i.e., as a form of economic capital. English is learned for many different reasons. It may be an essential tool for education and business for some learners; it may be the language of travel and related activities of sightseeing for others; and it may be needed for social survival and employment for new immigrants in English-speaking countries. For some, it may be a popular language for the media, entertainment, the internet and other forms of electronic communication. For many, however, it may merely be a language that they are obliged to study, but which they may never really have any obvious need for. So to answer you first question, the goals will depend on the context and will differ accordingly.

Regarding the second question, today it is no longer assumed that learners need master a so-called “native-speaker” variety of English. When it was taken for granted that the variety of English which learners needed to master was a native-speaker one, the choice was often determined by proximity. In Europe, due to its proximity to the United Kingdom, British English was usually the model presented in teaching materials. In many other parts of the world, North American English was normally the target. In some places (e.g. Indonesia), learners are more likely to encounter Australian English, and this may be the variety of English they feel most comfortable learning. However, in recent years, there has been a growing demand for North American English in places where British English was the traditional model, particularly among young people for whom American English is ‘cool’. It seems, perhaps, that it more closely resembles their ‘idea’ of English.

The two schools of thought concerning how closely learners should try to approximate native-speaker usage can be summarized as follows: The traditional view is that mastery of English means mastering a native-speaker variety of English. The presence of a foreign accent, influenced by the learner’s mother tongue, was considered a sign of incomplete learning. Teaching materials presented exclusively native-speaker models – usually spoken with a standard or prestige accent – as learning targets. The second school of thought is that when English is regarded as an international language, speakers may wish to preserve markers of their cultural identity through the way they speak English. In such cases, learners may regard a French, Italian, Russian or Spanish accent in their English as something valid – something they do not want to lose. This is a question of personal choice for learners, and teachers, therefore, should not assume that learners always want to master a native-speaker accent when they learn English. As one learner puts it, ‘I am Korean, so why should I try to sound like an American?’