Thoughts on ‘Other People’s English’ and ‘Your English’

© Robert A. Buckmaster 2020

There are two kinds of English we need to consider:

  1. Other People’s English
  2. Your English

Other People’s English

This is the language we use in classrooms to present language to our learners and the language which they will meet in online, in books and magazines, in audio sources and on TV and films.

This language has pedagogic value to a certain extent as a model of language in use. Learners need repeated encounters with words and collocations in order to build up their internal primings of the language.

Your English

This is the English which you produce yourself, and the quality of this language (range and accuracy) and the fluency by which it is produced shows the state of your interlanguage.

Other People’s English vs Your English

The question is not which of these two kinds of Englishes is better; it is a question of the appropriate time each is used and balance between the two.

Other People’s English is good for learning from. It is necessary to have exposure to this kind of English in order to learn.

Your English is good for learning through, and developing your knowledge of the language through memory activation, recall and language utterance/sentence construction.

We need to have parallel tracks here: the track of using Other People’s English to introduce and learn language and as soon as possible a track of Your English tasks to cement learning through activation and incorporation of the language into the learner’s interlanguage system.

If your learning materials comprise of too much of Other People’s English and very little encouragement of Your English through productive tasks then you have the balance wrong.

Let’s compare some tasks.

Task 1: Sentence gap fill: learners complete a sentence with an appropriate word (Other People’s English).

Task 2: Sentence production: learners produce a sentence of their own (Your English).

Of these two tasks the first is more useful at an earlier stage of learning the target language. Once this stage has passed through the second becomes much more useful and should predominate to the exclusion of the first.

A word might be introduced in a lesson and practiced in a sentence gap fill task; that is fine. In subsequent lessons the word may be met again in a context, that is also fine, but any productive task where we expect the learner to produce the word should be of a Task 2 type (spoken or written).

If we just focus on the learner repeatedly completing other people’s sentences/texts then we are not encouraging them to incorporate the word into their existing interlanguage. We need to ask the learners to produce and use the word in novel and personally meaningful utterances and sentences.

Doing gap fills of other people’s English only tells us about their ability to cope with gap fills of Other People’s English.

Task 3: Text gap fill: learners complete a text with the appropriate words/sentences/paragraph headings etc. (Other People’s English).

Task 4: Text writing: Learners write a text on a topic (Your English).

Similarly, in these two tasks the contrast is between the more controlled practice of the text gap fill and the freer practice of the text production task. After the initial practice stage where the text gap fill is appropriate, all our attention should be on productive tasks which encourage the learner to recall and activate their language system. The learners need to remember the language, and by remembering, learn it better, and produce it, and by producing it reinforce their ability to use it.

Tasks 2 and 4 are so much more pedagogically useful overall, while Tasks 1 and 3 should be restricted to the initial phases of learning – in controlled practice.

Asking learners to learn from Other People’s English language is fine.

Asking learners to practise on Other People’s English language is fine in the initial stage of learning the target language.

Any further practice should be focused Your English production by the learners.