Teaching ESL: Which English do you teach?

The biggest requirement for being an ESL teacher is, obviously, to be a native English speaker. However, having taught English in several parts of the world, I’ve found that sometimes certain schools or areas are looking for a specific type of English and you might just have to adjust to meet expectations.

When I began my job teaching in the North of France I soon found out that British English was the desired curriculum. Administrators and schools were thrilled to have me and were constantly asking me to teach as much about American culture as possible, though I was expected to teach the vocabulary that I didn’t use. Sometimes their expectations of British English would blur into certain cultural practices that they expected me to know as well. This was a good laugh around Christmas time when school directors would enthusiastically suggest that I should teach the children to make crackers, only I’d never made them or even seen one before. All of this was more interesting than annoying, but I had to wonder how it affected students at their exams at the end of the year. They had been hearing and studying North American English with me all year, but then sat down to written and aural exams featuring British English.

In Korea people speak North American English. However, here in Seoul, I was surprised to teach one class from a jolly purple book with American English emblazoned across the cover in huge yellow letters. The accompanying activity CD pipes from the CD player in a flawless British accent. Even at 4 years old my students can really hear the difference and even try to correct the CD! The book also includes vocabulary like “biscuit” for what we would call a cookie in North America, or “rubber” for eraser. It also uses the British “I’ve got” instead of the American “I have”.

I certainly do not expect to teach strictly American English everywhere I go. One of the best parts of my job is teaching students about the differences between Anglophone countries, patterns of speech and accents. Though I have come across some teachers who were really put out by the hodgepodge of English being taught in different areas of the world. Are you teaching English abroad? Have you been surprised or amused by an institution’s expectations?

Posted by | Comments (5)  | November 22, 2010
Category: Languages and Culture, Volunteering Abroad, Working Abroad

5 Responses to “Teaching ESL: Which English do you teach?”

  1. john Says:

    I also live and teach in Seoul. I actually asked one of the lecturers at our ESL orientation about this. Being from South Africa, where we speak and teach British English, I was curious about how my “British” accent and customs would be received in schools which have been predominantly Americanized. Notice the ‘z’.

    He (Charles Ko) encouraged me to simply teach British English, saying that the more exposure the students have to different forms of the language the better. But being understood when pronouncing words like “path” comes easier when I fake the American accent they’re used to.

    Now, I am speaking a strange tongue. Even my South African friends are picking up the ‘twang of convenience’. I have become Americanized. Help.

  2. Josie Says:

    I’m American. When I taught ESL in Argentina they were teaching British English, which I found odd but interesting. I had only ever spent a short time in England so I was learning new words along with the kids (like lorry for truck and boot for trunk of a car). Then again, I was quickly changing my Spain Spanish into Argentine Spanish so I was learning another vocabulary there too.

    Every Argentinian English teacher I met down there had never spoken English to a native speaker so it was a British English that was passed down many times, the teachers gaining their British accents from their teachers who had never spoken English to anyone (British or otherwise).

    Now I teach in Japan where we’re supposedly teaching American English. Some strange Britishisms seem to creep in occasionally though. I mean, when was the last time you heard an American say “mustn’t”?

  3. zarazek Says:

    Do you really need to be a native English speaker in order to be able to find a job as a teacher? I’ve lived and studied in the UK for 5 years now and am considering moving to one of the countries in the Middle East but you’ve made me very worried about my job prospects with your statement about being a native speaker as the biggest requirement for ESL teachers.

  4. ESL: Teaching American or Brittish English (or something else?) - Japan it UP! Says:

    […] read an article over at Vagablogging called Teaching ESL: Which English do you teach? It’s about ESL teachers and how different types of English are taught in different parts of […]

  5. Noel Simon Says:

    I taught English in Russia where they were much more concerned with getting a British dialect of English (they even called North American English a ‘variant’). Here in Vietnam, I worked at an international school with two great ESL teachers, both of whom were not native speakers (one French Canadian and the other from Ecuador). I don’t think you have to be a native speaker to be an ESL teacher, but most schools in Asia, it seems, think that a native speaker is all that you need. I completely disagree. I meet ESL teachers here who have no training at all, but are hired because they are native speakers. Also, I’m much more in favor of teaching what is considered ‘Global English’ rather than a specific dialect. There are many countries in which English is an official language or is so universally taught in that country’s educational system (Malaysia, India, Philippines, Singapore) that I would consider many of the speakers to be native, even if their ‘variant’ is completely different from the usual British/North American dichotomy.