Teach Real English!: Teaching English as it’s spoken ‘in the wild’

Devyani Sharma is Professor of Sociolinguistics at Queen Mary University of London. In this post she shares a fabulous resource developed by sociolinguistics at Queen Mary’s London to bring the reality of linguistic diversity and variation to life in the secondary school classroom.

Devyani Sharma

EAL teachers and students together face a challenge that is at the heart of language learning: reconciling ‘monochrome’ classroom material with the technicolour reality of how English is used in the real world. If an EAL student lives in an urban centre in the UK, or even a rural or regional location, what they hear on the street often bears little resemblance to what they’ve heard in class.

Yet understanding language use ‘in the wild’ is crucial, both to improve students’ communicative competence and the accuracy of teachers’ materials. A disembodied description of language can stray further and further from real, socially embedded speech. This in turn risks teaching students outdated rather than current social norms of use.

Sociolinguistics looks at language in its natural habitat. To equip teachers and students with state-of-the-art research-based teaching materials, sociolinguists at Queen Mary University of London have created a new online resource for English teachers and students: Teach Real English! (www.teachrealenglish.org).

Teach Real English! is a suite of integrated materials designed primarily for teachers and students of A-level English Language, but open to anyone with an interest in language. All content is free of charge, and we add new material regularly. The aims of the resource are: to help teachers of English Language keep up with cutting-edge research in sociolinguistics, to give them access to authentic materials for their classroom, e.g. transcripts and recordings, to support students in developing ideas for independent projects, and to inform the wider public about how language varies and changes constantly in society.

Teaching Units on Teach Real English!

Teach Real English! offers four types of content: Teaching Units, Linguistics Research Digest, Language Investigations, and a Glossary. 

Teaching Units convert cutting-edge research into hands-on teaching materials. The main themes, organised around AQA English Language benchmarks, are: Spoken London English, Language Change, Language and Gender, Discourse and Attitudes, Language and the Media, and Language Diversity. Each unit includes a package of materials on a given topic, including background social and historical information, transcripts and audio clips of real language use, discussion points, and simple summaries of the original research.

‘Uptalk’ in action: Luca and Hannah, 22 years old

A few examples of what the Teaching Units can offer EAL classes: Unit 13 (‘Uptalk in London’) provides real recordings of young British men and women using ‘uptalk’, or rising intonation, a common new style of speaking, when telling stories. Unit 18 and Unit 19 (‘Good or Bad Grammar?’) offer an interactive exercise in spotting ‘errors’ in a job application letter, and then provide students with data from a real survey that found that older native speakers and younger ones pointed out different usage issues in the sample letter—what is considered ‘bad grammar’ is always changing! Unit 15 and Unit 16 (‘Code-switching in African-American English and Singapore English’) use natural conversation and public speeches to show how and why a single person might shift from a standard formal style, to a dialect style; they also describe the grammatical features of the dialects. Unit 17 (‘Being Asian in London’) looks at how older and younger British Asian men and women have developed different accents. Several Units in the Spoken London English section offer recordings of the new dialect used by young East Londoners, called Multicultural London English (used by the rappers Dizzie Rascal and Stormzy, and by the poet Kate Tempest), and describe how it differs from the older London dialect Cockney, which can be heard in the recording of Stan, a 77-year-old who lives in Havering and is reminiscing about life in the army (Unit 10). Other Units look at language used in digital communication, the language of fake news, changes in ‘posh’ accents over time, and recent research on accent bias.

Multicultural London English in action: Angela, 16 years old

In all Teaching Units, the guidance notes help the teacher and student notice and understand specific features of spoken language, e.g. certain accent features, colloquial words and expressions, grammatical forms, choice of hedges, discourse markers and quotative expressions.

The Linguistics Research Digest provides teachers with brief summaries on the latest sociolinguistics research papers in a simple, jargon-free format. Our team do the background work of sifting through scientific journals for articles that are interesting, thought-provoking, topical, or use innovative methods. Articles of specific relevance to GCSE and A-Level English Language teaching are chosen, and are cross-referenced to relevant Teaching Units.

We currently offer over 200 such summaries. Again, these help teachers browse through recent research on real language use that might be interesting to share with EAL students. For example, the theme of politeness includes summaries of research showing different types of greetings used in call centres, changing ways of responding to ‘thank you’ in America, and even how British and American people excuse themselves when they need to go to the toilet (or powder their noses?).  Other Digest entries include summaries of research on how metaphor is used in different contexts (e.g. in therapy), variable use of past forms (sang or sung?), changes in the Queen’s speech, the language used by rappers and singers, and creative idioms used in World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca. The Digest has a search option for finding research on specific topics.

Language Investigations provide teachers and students with ideas for conducting independent projects. The downloadable Language Investigations also fit with major themes of the A-level English Language curriculum and include step-by-step guidance, with references to easily accessible research literature.

Finally, the Glossary offers teachers and students definitions and examples of grammatical and other features of spoken language, again with examples and cross-referenced links to relevant Teaching Units. The social life of language is perhaps the hardest dimension of language for EAL students and teachers to get to grips with. We hope that this lively suite of resources helps to add the voices of real English speakers ‘in the wild’ to the materials that EAL students can learn from.

Feature image by Raoul Croes on Unsplash

EALJournal.org is a publication of NALDIC, the subject association for EAL. Visit www.naldic.org.uk to become a member.