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Thursday, February 25, 2016

An Example of White Guilt in ESL

Actually, she also speaks French. But avoiding idioms is not her cup of tea. 

This very confused article is really about the importance of knowing idioms and cultural allusions. These are generally the last things taught, and even native speakers, as E.D. Hirsch discovered, can be seriously deficient. Unfortunately, the autor of the article does not himself seem to understand the issue, and veers from talking about thwe differences in English dialects to the supposed need for English speakers to learn other languages,

As to native speakers of English learning another language, there is no harm in that. But English is the international language; there is no other language that would benefit native English speakers nearly so much as English fluency would benefit non-English speakers, and it is unreasonable to expect this.

English speakers might want to avoid idioms and cultural allusions when communicating with non-native speakers, just as they might want to simplify their vocabulary and grammar; but this is not an ideal solution. There is a reason why idioms and cultural allusions are common elements of all languages. First, they are efficient; a speaker or writer cannot explain everything, and must rely on a certain base of shared knowledge. The larger that base is, the faster the business of communication can be transacted. It is much faster, for example, to say someone is a “dog in the manger” than to explain that he or she is being unreasonable in this particular way. Second, idioms and cultural allusions are colourful and memorable; they imply vivid images and stories. This is why good writers and good speakers use them extensively and often. Each idiom tells an anecdote.

For the same reason, the typical ESL students loves to learn idioms, They are the most fun part of learning any language. In any case, not knowing them cuts students off from the texts they are usually most interested in: Hollywood movies and popular music.

Specifically, the article begins with the problems of integrating recent immigrants into UK and US society. It is absurd in this context to expect their fellow citizens to curtail their speech and writing to make things simpler for them. What is called for, instead, is a thoroughgoing ESL programme that includes idioms and cultural allusions. Nobody who wants to live comfortably in the USA should be ignorant of what “in the ballpark,” “out of the ballpark,” or “a bsllpark figure” means. This would mean they know nothing of baseball, the national sport. That does not imply a good integration.

In other words, Cameron is right. The author of the article is barking up the wrong tree. If you catch the idiom.

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