Native English-speaking teachers know what sounds right

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 January, 2015, 5:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 January, 2015, 5:52pm

It is the middle of the Hong Kong academic year and the mid-year examination season in most schools. Like many of my native English-speaking teacher (NET) colleagues, I am tasting the delights of multiple exam supervision sessions and the marking of scores of papers.

NETs help to prepare and will mark all English exams, which run the gamut from heavy grammar content-laden general English papers to listening, composition, dictation and reading skills papers.

The English examinations that we NETs tend to be associated with are the oral examinations. We have sometimes been told that we have been hired to serve as the Hong Kong English curriculum's speaking experts, so we may often set the oral English papers. We may well get by with a little help from our friends - past oral exam papers, especially at the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) level. In addition, we usually administer our schools' oral exams, and often serve as the markers and post-examination assessors.

Hence, we may find ourselves doing everything from asking younger students which flavour ice cream they prefer to interrogating senior students on the state of governance in Hong Kong for their individual presentations - questions we might be hard-pressed to answer ourselves. Our job throughout the year, therefore, is to give students the tools to express themselves fluently in clear, standard English.

The advantage of having a native speaker handle the oral English programme at a given school is that the native speaker should know what sounds natural and convincing in English. For example, many of us as NETs have found that local tutorial schools teach Hong Kong students the phrase "Thank you for your question" to lead off their individual presentations during HKDSE-level oral exams. However, this is a phrase which would be more suited to a television interview rather than an oral exam.

"Thank you for your question," an insincere politician might coo to a television interviewer, all the while smiling smarmily to the camera in an effort to connect to all the good people out there at home glued to their TV sets.

Sometimes textbook English can model ludicrously artificial patterns

But our examiners and students are generally not in an Oprah Winfrey or David Frost interview situation. The native speaker can help give Hong Kong students more natural alternative openers such as 'That's an interesting question.'"

Peter Medgyes, professor of applied linguistics at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary published research in 1992 which showed that native-speaking English teachers could successfully model how to speak English with precision to second language students. Medgyes went on to explain that native-speaking teachers could give English a natural and organic feel, thereby modelling authentic linguistic interactions.

Therefore, students could gain a strong sense of English as a dynamic, living language, as opposed to reproducing the stilted "dead" quality of much of the language contained in their textbooks.

Sometimes textbook English can model ludicrously artificial patterns. "Do you wish to meet my domestic canine, Fido?" a Hungarian primer once alarmingly asked its child readers. That a pet dog had become a "domestic canine" is something that not even the worst electronic translators in Hong Kong would seem to be capable of. Medgyes argued that a native-speaking teacher could sift out such over-the-top examples from a given local curriculum.

Nevertheless, Medgyes was careful to stress the role of the non-native speaking English teacher first and foremost. His research showed that the best combination for achieving successful results in oral English tended to be obtained when native and non-native English-speaking teachers co-operated and worked closely together in order to maximise second language learners' understanding and appreciation of spoken English.

It would be my contention that this is exactly what the NET programme offers Hong Kong's students of English each and every day. NETs and local teachers of English, especially at this testing time of year, are collaborating and working hard in tandem, in order to try to get the youth of Hong Kong speaking English with precision.

Perry Bayer is secretary of the Native English-Speaking Teachers Association (Nesta)