Lithuanian students: American accents, British spelling

Jeff La Roux Qingdao Amerasia International School photoJeff La Roux, lecturer at Vilnius University

As a university student, I studied English as my major or concentration. In addition, I took the extra courses that were required to be able to obtain a teaching certificate. For years as an employed teacher in the United States, I became accustomed to focusing on poor spelling and poor grammar with American students. Six years ago, I moved to China, where I was hired to teach middle and high school English to students from all over the world. This new job provided me with the opportunity to be a student of English all over again.

At the end of each class, I typically asked students to share with everyone the things that they learned in that class. It was a daily routine that allowed me to decipher if the students picked up the intended lesson of the day. During the first week of school, I had Australian students who wrote, “Today I learnt…” Immediately my mind charged into spell check mode, and I spent a little time explaining that past tense verbs typically end in –ed, like learned, not learnt. These students challenged me, we searched for the rules online, and my knowledge of English as the world language, English as the great connector of second language speakers, expanded on that day. Because I was wrong. How could I teach these students spelling that was appropriate for only an American audience? How could I insist that my many years of teaching guided me to this spot to declare that learnt was not correct? They would return to Australia at some point in the future, and their new teacher would correct them, wondering where they picked up these strange and inappropriate spellings.

Although I am comfortable with American English, this initial experience taught me that American English is only one part of a greater conglomeration of English. This experience taught me that I can learn about my language from those who live outside the United States. English is a huge language found all over the globe, sometimes as a mother tongue and often as a second language. There are more students learning English in China, for example, than the total English speaking population of the United States. That’s amazing! It is also the source of a great variety in spelling, pronunciation, and grammar.

My teaching position at Vilnius University allows me to share my language with students, mostly Lithuanian students. I was shocked in my first class to listen to journalism students who spoke with clear, American accents. I was surprised that American English could take root in Lithuania. I was equally surprised and also confused to read through the first written papers that the same students submitted. There were phrases that were unusual sounding and spellings that I recognized as British. I couldn’t figure out how my American sounding students were writing with British accents, so I asked them. My education from the students about their English teachers focused on adults who studied British English, sometimes in Great Britain and sometimes not. Their perfect American accents came from Hollywood movies and cartoons. They were not taught to speak as an American in their high school classes. This caused me to think about the influences and impact on my students of two parts of the same language struggling to co-exist.

I asked the students if they thought it was strange that they could speak in an American accent and spell the same words in the British tradition. There was no problem in the mind of the students. When they saw the word programme or colour, they recognized the meaning of the word. Their minds told them to pronounce these words in the same way that I would pronounce program or color. It was their normal sense of the way English worked.

I had a student this fall who asked me privately on the first day of class if he had to use British English in class. “Why would you ask me that?” I inquired. He told me that students at his high school were always required to use British English when they spoke at school. I explained that I was not an expert of British English, and probably would not be aware of the proper British pronunciations anyway. I know a few differences based on my conversations with peers who I worked with in China. I know that adult is spelled the same in British and American English. The British accent the first syllable while the Americans accent the second syllable. The word aluminum is also spelled in a similar way, but the British pronounce this word with five syllables, accenting the third syllable, min. Americans somehow only eek out four syllables from this word, and we accent the second syllable, lum.

The idea that there is only one correct form of teaching English has me thinking about the future. At some point, there may be English teachers in Lithuanian schools who will teach a different version of English rather than only British English. With Brexit approaching quickly, my mind started to process the idea that perhaps it may become easier to find Canadian, Australian, or American teachers who would like to be hired to teach their mother tongue. It has been my experience that currently, among most international high schools in Europe, there is a stated preference for native English speakers who are also members of the European Union. After March 2019, that supply of teachers will be reduced to the Irish and perhaps the residents of Malta. Brexit may open up a door that invites English language teachers from points other than Great Britain. I am not bashing British teaching, but I do think that diversity in teaching English is probably a path to consider in the future.

What will that future look like? I have learned to recognize the typical problems my Lithuanian students exhibit when communicating in English, any form of English. I am hopeful that English will become stronger in Lithuania so that people on the streets are comfortable using it. I recognize that English is a big tent language, where there is room for all. I am not the architect, but will be a curious observer about the English language road map that takes us into the near future.

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