EFL speak begins as an innocent mistake, an askew turn of phrase, a misdirection of accent that, somehow, like linguistic radioactivity, causes a mutant wart on the face of an entire nation of English learners. Unlike common mistakes, those seen globally, EFL speak is more regional and nationalistic in its offense to the English language. Now that English has nudged its way into the forefront of the world’s common language competition, the universal communicator is free to be twisted, turned, and wrung like an old time rag. EFL speak is when there is no rule to show it’s wrong. It just is, and some foreign country is using it like currency.
Here’s the thing: Sometimes an EFL teacher just has to roll with the hits (aka punches) and begrudgingly accept that an entire country has learned—really immovably embedded—a phrase incorrectly. In Turkey, my students would constantly show me their homework, asking me, “Is it true?” instead of “Is it correct?” or “Is it right?”. For my first few months, I attempted to correct, right, or true this expression, but my students refused to change. In time, correct or not, right or wrong, I came to accept that Turkish English-speakers would forever be afflicted, that somehow, some deep espionage occurred, and English phrasebooks in Turkish got funguzzled.
Usually, these types of mistakes are one-offs, a student using a ________-to-English dictionary, selecting the first word from the list of possible meanings, and letting you know she enjoys confabulating (chatting) with her family on the weekends. (This mistake, one of my favorites, which is actually grammatically correct but not exactly useable English, was made by an eleven-year-old girl in Korea.) This occurrence is easily fixable as the student obviously didn’t learn this word as a common expression, and other than her, students preparing for the SAT, or lexicographers (the people who make dictionaries) know what it is to confabulate.
My current EFL speak ear-poker is Russia’s “write a test/exam”. Unfortunately for me, being a teacher in a world that thrives on test scores, my students are required to write exams quite often, none of which were actually written by me, but rather were written by someone much smarter from Cambridge, unaware of my students need to take and/or do exams and leave the writing to a professional. Unlike Turkey, my recognition of the EFL speak was swift and decisive in Moscow, hearing the phrase about fifty-two times in my first couple of weeks, both from Russian-born English teachers and the students, such that I did not engage in the futile battle of making this phrase true. I’ve just learned to live with it.
Which brings me to my last point, one that you can take home with you, learn a little something useful from today’s blog. The problem with accepting such imperfection, shrugging at students (not teachers) writing tests, is that acceptance eventually leads to incorporation. You hear it all the time from people speaking to English learners: Suddenly, an otherwise well-spoken Brit is uttering phrases like, “You like shake booty. You want dance?” For some reason, because his/her audience can’t speak fluently, he/she finds it necessary to speak caveman to them. The same happens with EFL speak: As a teacher, you find yourself telling your students their answer is true on the test they’ve just written. Don’t do that! Someone has to teach it out of them!