ESL in the Academy Today

By Vandrick, Stephanie; Messerschmitt, Dorothy et al. | Education, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

ESL in the Academy Today


Vandrick, Stephanie, Messerschmitt, Dorothy, Hafernik, Johnnie Johnson, Education


As the population of the U.S. continues to change, becoming increasingly a nation of non-native speakers of English, the role of the field of English as a Second Language (ESL) has become more and more important. Long a stepchild of academe, ESL is now beginning to assume a legitimate and respected position within many American post-secondary institutions. The profession has grown from two distinct roots, a linguistic heritage grounded in American structuralism and a pedagogical heritage reflected in intensive language institutes patterned after the English Language Institute, founded by Charles Fries, at the University of Michigan in 1941. These institutes have evolved, in some cases, to full-fledged academic departments. Later the founding of the Peace Corps in the 1960's with its large demand for English language teachers, gave even more visibility to the emerging field of ESL/EFL (English as a Foreign Language, the term which is used for instruction in non-English speaking countries). The discipline of ESL has been shaped and continues to be shaped by three distinct influences. The first is political reality; the second is a broadening of the curriculum within the field as part of a reflection of the political influence; the third is the realization of the interdisciplinary nature of the field itself. These influences have converged to bring about recognition of ESL as an academic discipline with its own professional and scholarly concerns.

Political Realities of ESL

One strong influence on the development of ESL as a distinct discipline is the increasing recognition of English as a world language. Raloff (1995) reports, "Earth's inhabitants speak some 6,000 different languages. But within the next century, 90 percent or more of that linguistic diversity - all but 250 to 600 languages - will probably disappear." (p. 117). While this trend is unfortunate from the perspective of cultural heritage and diversity, it undoubtedly reflects reality. And, while there is no guarantee that English will be the preferred replacement language, it certainly seems likely. English language instruction is occurring in record volume around the world both in classrooms and over the airwaves. It is estimated that from 750 million to a billion and a half people around the world use the English language, and only 300 million of these are native speakers (Morley, 1993). English is now the official language of air traffic controllers and the common language for much of the technological revolution. The global fields of travel, entertainment, and telecommunications rely heavily on the use of English throughout the world.

It is important to note here that "English" is not monolithic; it has become increasingly diversified in different populations. In the past, we spoke of British English, American English, and perhaps Canadian and Australian English, and acknowledged some dialectical variation. But it was considered that there was one fairly standard "correct" English. Now linguists acknowledge and respect differences in pronunciation, vocabulary, style, and even grammar, and speak not of one "English" but of many "World Englishes." English is no longer owned by the original English speaking countries. Widdowson (1994) writes, "How English develops in the world is no business whatever of native speakers in England, the United States, or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant. The very fact that English is an international language means that no nation can have custody over it" (p. 385). In other words, the Englishes spoken in Africa, India, the Caribbean and elsewhere are not seen as inferior or quaint variations on "real" English by applied linguists; they are all, along with British English and American English, equally valid forms of the language, if they serve their intended function of promoting communication in that environment.

While it would seem that the recent movement to make English the official language of the U. …

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