Are You Speaking English?

When I was teaching at an international school in Hong Kong I often thought about the many different kinds of English my students were learning. Although all the teachers were native English speakers, a student could have a physical eduction teacher from New Zealand, a math teacher from the United States, a history teacher from Australia, a science teacher from Canada and a music teacher from Great Britian. Each spoke English with a slightly different accent, had different colloquilisms they used and even had different vocabulary words for different items. I shared my classroom office at the school with a woman from Australia and often had to ask her to ‘interpret’ for me when she used words like ‘whinge’  or ‘knocker’ or ‘ripper’.  


Here I am with my colleagues in the high school English Department. We were all native English speakers but each of us had been born and raised and educated in a different country; India, United States, Hong Kong, Canada, and Australia.  We each spoke English with our own unique accent. We each used words that were unique to our country. 

A few weeks ago I heard a young man named Paul talk about his experience working as an English language instructor in China. He mentioned that people who are teaching English don’t just teach a language; they are also teaching culture and history. Language is imbued with culture and history and that impacts the way a language is learned and taught.  That got me thinking. How did my culture and my country’s history influence the way I taught the English language? How did it impact the way I taught English literature? 

For example would an instructor from Hong Kong, a country that was under British rule till 1997  teach Shakespeare’s The Tempest with its underlying themes of colonialism in a different way than an educator from Canada, a country that gained its independence from Great Britain through a civil and peaceful negotiation process in 1867? Would an instructor from the United States, a country that fought violently for its independence from England in a revolution in 1776 teach The Tempest in a different way than an educator from India, a country that only gained independence from Britian in 1947 because of non-violent civil disobedience. Could these different relationships with the country of your mother-tongue influence the way we taught literature?

I wondered too about the cultural implications of our language. Is Australian English more crass and earthy and practical, and British English more sedate and prim and proper? Is American English more folksy and light hearted? How does the fact that in Canada and India there are other official languages besides English impact the way English is spoken and understood in those countries? 

Do people who have English as their native tongue have a feeling of superiority towards those who have a different first language? How does that influence the way we teach and speak English? 

Even within countries there can be very different ways of speaking the same language. Here in Canada for example it is easy to pick out someone from the province of Newfoundland just by the way they speak English. In the United States a person from West Virginia might speak English very differently than a person from Massachusetts or from Texas. 

Some people say English is becoming the universal language of the world. If that is true then we need to think even more carefully about the ways that culture and history impact a language and the way we speak and teach it. 

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Filed under Culture, Education, Hong Kong

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