You gotta have schwa.
Actually, if you’re a native English speaker, you’ve already been using plenty of schwa, because you naturally understand it and other nuances of the English language that non-native speakers have struggled to acquire in thousands of class hours on their way to basic fluency.
You didn’t know that, did you?
That little question I just posed is classified as a part of speech known as a “question tag,” which is latched onto the end of a declarative sentence to transform it into a question. That’s clear, isn’t it?
I’m approaching the end of a three-month course in TESOL, an acronym for Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, a curriculum created by Trinity College London, and I have been studying schwa and question tags. “Schwa” is the term linguists use to describe an unstressed vowel sound, the most common sound in the English language. It’s the “a” in about, the “e” in taken, and even the unwritten vowel-like resonance between the “th” and the “m” in rhythm.
We’re living in a world where teaching English as a second language is quickly becoming a professionalized industry. There was a time when simply being a native speaker was all a young backpacker needed to get a job teaching English in countries as far afield as Japan and Turkey. In fact, back in the day, that’s exactly what I did when I was an exchange student in Tokyo, walking my inexperienced but native English-speaking self into a random English language school and clinching a teaching job in a matter of minutes.
State media China Daily estimates there were as many as 400 million English-language learners on the mainland at the start of the decade—more than the population of the U.S. With non-native speakers across the globe now seen as outnumbering native speakers, the teaching of English as a second language has evolved from a niche business into a fully-fledged, global phenomenon. Certified teachers are replacing backpackers in classrooms around the world.
With estimates of more than 1 billion people internationally studying English, demand for English language teachers far outstrips the available pool of qualified native speakers.
The composition of my TESOL class in Hong Kong is a good indication of the current situation. Out of 12 students, only three are expats from Anglophone countries—the U.S., the U.K. and New Zealand. The remaining nine are from Hong Kong, Romania and Norway.
At the same time, there are concerted efforts by a number of governments—eager to develop competitive workforces—to strip English of cultural and political associations with the U.S. or U.K., so that the mastery of English is viewed as a skill needed for university or employability, much like PowerPoint or Excel.
Some argue that language is cultural by its very nature. But today, a Chinese tourist in Paris is more likely to try talking to waiters and taxi drivers in English than in French. With the rise of English as a global lingua franca, the unifying language for those who don’t share a native language, the focus has switched, from associating English with a particular country to being a universal means of communication.
In the classroom, I learned to stand in front of students, point to my mouth, and demonstrate pronunciation with the exaggerated lips of a peanut butter-eating dog.
No matter how well one might understand grammatical concepts on paper or grasp the origins of the language, the ability to speak it correctly matters most. “What’s the point of learning English if nobody understands what you’re saying?” an African student said to me.
TESOL teachers who themselves have studied English as a second language are perhaps more sympathetic to the challenges faced by the exploding numbers of people currently studying English internationally.
So this isn’t really about the King’s English anymore. It’s everybody’s.
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