I was back in America in the summer of 2012 and I went to the eye doctor. I had been going to Dr. Simon since I was a little boy, and he asked me what I thought of living and teaching in China.
“Has your English gotten better?” he asked.
“I think its gotten worse,” I replied.
We both laughed, but there’s some truth in that. I find that I’m beginning to make the same common speech mistakes that many of my students make, just from being around that ESL English for so long. A lot of other teachers I talk to have the same problem when they’ve been in the country for a time, and I wonder if there’s anything you can do about it besides getting out of that ESL English environment.
Examples of ESL English
For instance, students often say ‘the’ in front of most proper nouns when it’s not required. “The Tom, the America, the China.” I sometimes catch myself saying this when I’m on a roll talking or explaining something, and I get a little laugh out of it, and a little worried over it.
I will do the same thing with countable and uncountable nouns. “One bottles of water. Two rices.” Sometimes the British English has an influence that I’m not used to, but which is correct nonetheless, like “two homeworks.”
I’ll make mistakes with plurals, and say things like “two mouses” especially. I’ll also start using quantifiers wrong from time to time as well. These little mistakes are quite common, and they are a symptom of ESL English.
Fluency vs. Proficiency
There’s a big difference between fluency and proficiency in ESL English. For instance, a student can talk quite a bit in one go, making long sentences and not stopping much. But they can still have lots of small grammar mistakes. This doesn’t really make it so you don’t understand what they’re talking about, however, so I often overlook it. The message is getting across, after all.
Proficient ESL English students will make fewer mistakes, but perhaps they talk a lot more slowly. They tend to think about each thing they say, weighing and measuring its accuracy and validity. This is good, but it reminds me of when I first started learning how to keyboard, or type. I was concerned about making lots of mistakes, and it slowed my words per minute way down. One day I decided to just go as fast as I could, even though I was making lots of mistakes. I eventually got faster because of this, and my accuracy went up as well.
That’s why I think it’s so much more important to push fluency over proficiency each time you teach ESL English. And also try to push those ESL English mistakes out of your lexicon.