A version of this essay was published in the Fall 1987 issue of the Penn-TESOL-East Newsletter.

(English to Speakers of Other Languages)

©2004 Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

edited 9/5/05


Two questions are intimately related that might appear to have nothing to do with one another. The first is the general, philosophical pastime: What is a language? The second is pedestrian, yet cogent: Why is the teaching of ESOL important?

With the second question, usually, comes a flurry of others: How is ESOL different from English Language Arts? Why do non-speakers need any special English training? Why do their teachers need any special training? My grandparents did okay despite their not having special instruction; why does anyone today need it?

Too hastily, we jump to the defense, invoking the ESOL teacher's trained sensitivity to crosscultural differences and to linguistic incongruities that might impede learning. We point out that the demands for communicative competence have risen drastically over the last thirty years, that the most basic educational certificates require linguistic skills of high caliber. And still we fail to convince our questioners. Furthermore, we remain convinced ourselves that their questions are less than honest, a cover for their animadversion to our discipline.

I suggest, however, that their questions arise from misconceptions of language that are firmly embedded in our culture and which are shared by a surprising number of English teachers themselves. These misconceptions -- perhaps it is more tolerant to say, "naive conceptions" -- are answers to the question, What is a language? And upon these answers devolves the perceived desirability of ESOL instruction.

"A language is ... thing-like. Something is or isn't English, French, or whatever." This is a common conception of language and underlies such questions as, "How many languages are there? or "Is naïveté an English word or a French word? With this conception of language goes a tendency to equate a language with its physical artifacts.   Overlooked is the interactive, greatly idiosyncratic, hypothesis-testing behavior that is the core of communication.   Instead, sounds emitted and figures written are focussed on and measured against a supposed "standard" that is, at most, the traces of the communicative behavior of a culturally dominant subgroup of a society.

Teaching English under this conception becomes presenting models of "Good English" for emulation. Historically, developing productive skills has been less important in the teaching of English than indoctrinating the belief that one's worth as a person depends on one's dexterity in exhibiting "preferred" forms pronounced in "preferred" ways. Our Western societies have used "the Standard Language" as a caste marker. What is "good" English, or German, or Spanish, or French has been judged not so much on whether it provides a workable conceptual scheme for communication, but whether it is the preferred form of social elites. Thus, "I ain't done it", though communicatively functional, is "bad" English; whereas, "I could care less" is "good English" although it is used to mean its opposite, i.e. one could not care less. Conflict sociology would suggest that if groups of students in traditional English courses do less than well, that is exactly how such courses function: to maintain caste and class differences rather than to pass on skills.

Traditional conceptions of language have been importantly political. Think only of the dialects of Scandinavia designated "languages"; or of the languages of China, designated "dialects". ESOL teaching is a threat to such conceptions. It is too output oriented, focussing regularly upon whether the pedagogy is effective rather than whether certain traditions of instruction are preserved, e.g. exposure to "great literature", or "traditional grammar." ESOL teachers tend to be theoretically relativistic when it comes to discussing grammar. "Grammar", which most people are brought to begrudge respect, is a minor, even dispensible, structural hypothesis for the teacher of ESOL. Look at any of the standard grammars that are used in schools: they contain for the most part useless theory taught as a cultural embellishment.

Why do proponents of ESOL encounter resistence? Because they do not support certain institutional forms. ESOL teachers are not concerned to talk about theoretically inadequate grammars and support the cherished delusion that scholastic skills are necessarily life skills and that arcane glibness equals intelligence.

Academics, too, cultivate linguistic myths. Some answer the question, What is a language? with a more sophisticated formulation: A language is the output of a set of rules processing a basic set of linguistic forms. Some productive insights have resulted from this approach -- as well as much wasted paper. (Do you recall the search for suprasegmental morphemes? Or the solemn invocations of deep structure to hide the embarrassments of theory?) Here, a few aspects of communicative behavior, e.g. statements, sentences, texts, are focussed on to the exclusion of the many still mysterious behaviors and situations that serve as their matrix. The social context is discounted and language floats free to be modeled by abstract generators.

ESOL teachers find this conception more congenial and such theorizing forms no small part of many an ESOL degree program. But such a model offers no insight into the realities of the communication events through which cultural conflicts are pursued. Social groups create irregularities in their language to mark themselves off from "outsiders". The usages of culturally dominant groups tend to be mimicked -- particularly in our nominally "egalitarian" culture -- as these "outsiders" pursue status. A grammar of that vast amorphousness, the "English Language", can thus only be expected to be theoretically inadequate.

The basic question to be asked is, "Whose communicative behavior is to serve as a model for students, and why?" The answer usually defaults to, "The language of persons perceived to be members of, or worthy aspirants to, the culturally dominant subgroups of society."

Stated so baldly, this answer may be found offensive, undemocratic, imperious. So it is obscured by invoking instead a reified Standard English (a.k.a. "good English") that rationalizes curricular decisions. The traditional English curriculum finesses the value questions, functioning, therefore, as an instrument of cultural domination. ESOL approaches to communicative processes tend to uncover the value choices the traditional curriculum obfuscates. Raising value choices to consciousness disturbs many people and threatens the status quo. ESOL is thus viewed as undesirable, or, at best, unnecessary, by those who feel threatened .

How are we, as proponents of ESOL teaching and curricula, to deal with this? We must emphasize the clarity of our teaching goals and the efficiency of our techniques to achieve them. We must initiate the attack, questioning traditional English curricula and methodology and citing the ample evidence of their failure. We must seek political alliances with those groups who are concerned with cost-efficient skills acquisition and who can recognize the imposition of special cultural interests for what they are.

But the consciousness-raising must begin with ourselves. We have been trained as technicians, but to what end? We talk of teaching English for Special Purposes, but is there some kind of English-For-No-Special-Purpose? And whose purpose defines a Special Purpose? If there were no TOEFL examination to prepare for, how many of us would be hard pressed to structure our curriculum? Is it, perhaps, insufficient reflection on our goals that makes many of us susceptible to the methodological bandwagons whose promoters capture so much time at our professional conventions? There is a superabundance of texts available to the ESOL teacher. Is each new book really a contribution, an improvement? Or, are trees dying in vain?

Unlike the traditional English curricula, ESOL/ESL rests on a scientific base, however immature. ESOL studies and teaching suffer because proponents of cultural domination recognize in the older tradition an instrument to their ends; they fear a approach not biased in their favor. If we seriously intend to construct a discipline and pursue a career in it, we cannot fail to recognize the political dimensions of our enterprise.