Advice on how to tackle the problem of teachers using broken English.

How can I stop teachers from using broken pidgin English with students - they remove all auxiliary verbs, pronouns, change word order, especially in questions and negatives, and use 'incorrect' English. It seems to me that the students then get a poor model of English (or at least a model that is contradicted by their coursebooks and class work in general), and particularly as we are based in the UK where they are surrounded by 'bad' English, it worries me that students rarely hear good models.
I've been looking for methodology articles explaining why this is bad - so they don't see this as a personal criticism, and so that they can understand the reasoning behind this - I think they speak like this to students in order to be more easily understood, not through any malicious feeling! Also any advice on how to help teachers work on this would be much appreciated.

Jessica Watson

Hi Jessica,

There is one school of thought which argues that this ‘caretaker’ language is usefully similar to the ‘motherese’ used by mothers when communicating with their babies. The argument is that using such a restricted code helps the learners to communicate. My view though is that one of the main roles of the teacher is to provide the learners with motivated exposure to the language as it is typically used. It’s possible for teachers to provide such exposure whilst at the same time helping the learners to understand what they are saying by using some of the techniques which mothers do actually use with young children. Such techniques include:

  • Re-phrasing utterances when it’s apparent that learners have not understood.
  • Paraphrasing utterances when it’s apparent that learners have not understood.
  • Adding features of redundancy to utterances (e.g. repetitions, pauses, emphatic stress etc).
  • Adding examples to utterances.
  • Using gestures to support utterances.
  • Giving opportunities for learners to seek clarification.
  • Using a restricted code which uses a reduced version of spoken grammar (e.g. main clause only, active voice only, simple tenses only etc)

In addition, teachers can help learners by giving them more time to think about and process what they have said to them. Typically teachers ask a question or make a statement, don’t receive an immediate answer or response and then rephrase their question or statement using ungrammatical pidgin English. If only they would allow the learners some silent time they’d very often get sensible answers and responses from their learners. It’s not so much that learners need correct models to imitate, it’s that they need rich exposure to language in typical use so that they:

  • can develop hypotheses about how the language is used.
  • test their hypotheses against future input.
  • eventually develop generalizations which can help them to produce effective English themselves.

This is a lengthy process which requires teacher patience and teacher provision of comprehensible but typical input. Teacher pidgin can inhibit this process by denying the learners exposure to typical input and it can also be perceived as insulting. This can then threaten the learners’ self-esteem and lead to negative attitudes towards the learning process.

I’d try pointing this out to your teachers (whilst appreciating that they use pidgin English with the best of intentions) and then suggest the keeping and sharing of reflective journals in which they record the strategies they use to achieve effective communication with their learners whilst exposing them to typical language in use. Let me know how you get on.