I was reading a post over at How I See It Now about Homeworks. The main point of the post, as I understand it, was that non-native speakers (NNS) are less tolerant of errors like “homeworks” than native speakers are. This was a discussion I could relate to. My online university students like to talk about the evidences for something. In all my life, I have never heard that from a native speaker. But does it bother me a lot? No. Do I “correct” it in their writing? Yes.
I did my MA in TESOL in a linguistics department, so I have a different view than many native speakers, I know. (One of my professors said in class one day that any speech produced by a native speaker is correct. I have to admit that I tend to agree with her.) Languages are always changing. English has no Academy to determine what is correct. But as an ESL teacher, I have to admit that there are some things that are acceptable and others that are not. The dilemma is how and where to draw the line. What is truly important and what is my personal preference?
As Hana writes:
What do we do with homeworks in a student’s writing, for example? Will we accept it because it exists, or will we take it as a serious error because we have said a million times that homework is uncountable?
To me the answer lies somewhere in between. I don’t worry about things like this too much in speech. Of course, it depends on who the student is, what the level of proficiency is, and why he/she is learning English. If I am working with someone who is at an advanced level and needs near perfect English for a job, then I would be more aware of these kinds of errors and point them out more. But for my current beginning-level students who need English to communicate with their employers, it doesn’t seem like it is all that important.
In writing, though, I am more of a stickler. And I justify that to myself and my students by talking about reader expectations and register. In a formal college paper, it is expected that the writer uses standard academic English. Anything that deviates from that jars the reader. Too many of these incidents and the reader makes assumptions about the writer that are not positive. So I am more of a stickler in written work. In academia we are judged by the quality of our writing.
Later on, in one of the comments on the original post, ljiljana havran says:
Also, some grammar rules are very confusing/difficult to teach to students at pre/intermediate level, and therefore a complete waste of time: e.g. “will” and “going to” future, the difference between “must” and “have to”, the difference between separable and inseparable phrasal verbs, etc.
I almost laughed out loud when I read that because just yesterday in class I had the same thought! We spend so much time and effort teaching things that are not really very important. Insisting on those minute points at too early a stage only makes students hesitant to produce language. And if they aren’t producing it, they aren’t learning it. So when my students were struggling yesterday with try becoming tries for he, she, and it, I told them not to stress. They know the rule, but I expect them to make mistakes with it for a long time. And if they write He trys to go his best, they will be understood. If they are too afraid to write anything at all, though, we have a real problem.
Thanks, Hana for an interesting post and an interesting discussion!