Guest post – Online ESL tutor, Steve Mol, asks, ‘What is the purpose of language? Is it to reflect culture or to communicate universally?’

I made the acquaintance of Steve Mol via the internet. He has been very responsive and encouraging over a number of years. Here is some information about Steve and his work:

Steve has always been fascinated with the English language. As an IT professional, he is always looking for systemic ways to make things simpler and easier to understand. Combine those two, and he helps his students learn the proper way to speak in English in a whole new way. He has been teaching in a business setting for more than 25 years. For the past 5 years, he has been teaching phonics – “the proper ‘sound’ of English,” as he explains it – to adults and children for whom English is a second language. He uses the Phonics International Systematic Synthetic Phonics programme to methodically teach every sound spoken in the English language, helping students understand spoken English more easily as well as speak using English more fluently. He follows a structured approach that has proven to help students understand English more effectively and easily as well as be better understood. Students learn words that are used in everyday speech as well as how to pronounce things so that they sound more confident and authoritative in their communication.

Here Steve relays some of his observations of different attitudes on the topic of ‘American English’ and ‘British English’:

I work as an online tutor teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to adult learners. The site is based in London and the vast majority of my students are in Europe. Most of my colleagues on the site are British.

In our team discussions, we often discuss differences between American English and British English. Usually, when asked which is better to teach, the British tutors say, “British English. After all, we invented it!” As there aren’t many American tutors on the site, it usually falls to me to say, “American English. It’s simpler and more standardized!”

Yes, I’m American, but don’t let that get you angry yet…

Now this blog post isn’t about which language is “better” for ESL students, although I’d be happy to defend my position. (Maybe later…)

What I found very interesting was a podcast on BBC Radio 4 entitled, “Like, Totally Awesome: The Americanisation of English.” In this podcast, Michael Rosen moderates a discussion with writer Matthew Engel and linguist Dr. Lynne Murphy about the Americanization of English. (See how I spelled that?)

I expected a discussion of the differences in the language and some arguments for and against specific pronunciations and vocabulary coming from America. While there was some of that, the eye-opening surprise for me was the perspective of the debaters. Dr. Murphy, who has studied and taught in the US and, as I recall, has at least one American parent, was tasked with presenting the American point of view. However, she is British through-and-through. So, I don’t think that any of them, who are all British at heart, even noticed what I did about the debate.

My point of contention with them wouldn’t be the pronunciation and vocabulary differences, although that is worth discussing, but the foundational perspective they all seemed to have. They all kept returning to cultural issues. Basically, they want British English free of “Americanisms” simply for the purpose of staying British. They also assumed that Americans would want to use American English for the purpose of being American.
This is not an American point of view at all.

Americans tend to be quite utilitarian in their opinions on anything. We’re interested in adopting the most efficient and productive way of doing things. Any things. That includes language. This is why we adopt so many words from other cultures. If we like the word and find it useful, we’ll adopt it, simple as that.

Our objective in speaking American English isn’t to promote American culture (whatever that is), but because we want to make sure the conversation is successful. Our basis for language isn’t about culture. It’s about communication.

So, what is the purpose of language? Is it to reflect a culture or to communicate universally? As native English speakers, we all benefit from the reality that our language is the language of choice for all international communication – even if neither of the participants speak English otherwise.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Many thanks to Steve for his guest-post and for putting resources of our Phonics International programme to such good use in his ESL context.

Steve has very kindly provided us with recordings of sounds based on an American accent. The idea is that one day we may provide an online version of an Alphabetic Code Chart purpose-designed for the American sounds and spellings – complete with audio. It’s on our ‘to do’ list!

Meanwhile, see the bottom of this page (the blue section) for free printable versions of Alphabetic Code Charts for use in America and Canada.

Steve volunteered to send us the American recordings when he noted our British English versions – well, that is, my accent recorded for an online, audio Alphabetic Code Chart.

Click HERE for our online Alphabetic Code Chart with audio.

Click HERE for video footage of me ‘saying the sounds’ – and example words – from one of our free ‘giant’ Alphabetic Code Charts.

[The video footage is a blast from the past – I’m grey-haired now!]

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