British and American English in a Taiwanese classroom

22-Jul-2011

George Bernard Shaw once said that England and America are two countries separated by a common language. Nowhere is this truer than in the ELT classroom. Students will learn their preferred version of English, in large part due to their proximity to Britain or America, although the differences between the two languages is closing all the time because of America’s cultural influence around the world.

In Taiwan, American English is the dominant force but in my first teaching job there, I taught at a school specialising in British English. Despite its veneer of Britishness, however, American culture still managed to find its way into the classroom. My first experience of this influence was in the students’ names. Taiwanese children and their parents like to give themselves English names rather than stick to their given Taiwanese names. Whether this is to feel more involved in the experience of learning English or simply to help circumvent embarrassing pronunciation issues that teachers new to the country and not versed in Taiwanese and Chinese might encounter, I’m not sure. Regardless of the motivations for it, as a newly-trained teacher in a country that was distinctly foreign to me, I was grateful to learn this on my arrival.

As I came to teach more and more classes, the American influence in the students’ names became more and more apparent. We would have children in our class with conventional American names such as Trent, Brick and Chip, among others. But sometimes, the names went beyond convention. One of my colleagues asked a student new to his class for his name. His response? ‘Skywalker.’

Not that students had just one name. Sometimes, a child you’d been teaching the previous day and who you knew as ‘Annie’ would come into the classroom and when addressed, would inform the class, ‘I’m not Annie. I’m Ruby now.’ Within minutes of this announcement all the other kids had adjusted and the previous name was long forgotten, leaving only a perplexed teacher making frantic changes to the register.

I had thought that my teaching of British English in Taiwan would be focussed purely on the language. What I hadn’t realised was that students learn accents as well. I experienced this firsthand when, as part of the celebration of all things English, the children were preparing to put on a Christmas show for their parents. In preparation for the show, one of my colleagues – from Scotland – was teaching his class a series of Christmas-related songs. As I walked past his classroom, I could hear him chorally drilling the words to one of the songs, the students mimicking his accent perfectly. I don’t know that you can truly say you’ve experienced multiculturalism until you’ve heard a group of nine-year-old Taiwanese children singing ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ in broad Glaswegian accents.

It is amusing to realise that the many assumptions we make about other cultures are reciprocated when it comes to our own cultures. In Taiwan, they knew the following important facts about England and English people: we wear bowler hats for formal occasions, we have tea at 4 o’clock every day without fail, and London is always foggy. It was tempting to confirm to my students that all these things were true but, by the time they had got to know me and the other teachers, I think they had started to question many of the stereotypes that they’d learnt already.

Jeremy

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