An Austrain perspective: English in the education system



In the current system, English is often already taught in primary school. How this should be done has given rise to some debate, even in parliament. In a session dedicated to educational policy the conservative position was voiced by a member of the Freedom Party (Monika Mühlwert) who was of the opinion that it is essential for pupils at primary school to have a native-speaker teacher; she argued strongly against primary school teachers who teach English "with a certain Ottakring [a Viennese district] accent". At the time these arguments were criticised by Günther Leichtfried (Social Democrats), who saw the teaching of English in primary schools as a step in the right direction if it is done in a playful manner, and Uta Pühringer (Conservatives), who (very rightly) pointed out that it is most important that the children are able to communicate in English, not what accent they speak (stenographisches Protokoll Bundesrat 1998: i, my translation). Mayer (1995: 62) holds that the EFL approach in primary school should be explicitly monolingual.

At secondary schools English is an obligatory subject taught between 3 and 5 hours per week (Hebenstreit 1998: 35). The officially prescribed goals are that the pupils should be able to understand authentic written and spoken texts and learn to express themselves appropriately. However, communicative competence was never the sole objective. While the 1961 curriculum specified that EFL should also teach pupils objectivity, industriousness, distance and the recognition of authority (Malzacher 1996: 57) nowadays modern languages are meant to promote tolerance of other cultures, to broaden the pupils' horizons and to contribute to the development of their personalities (Malzacher 1996: 51). It does not seem to me as if these aims are sufficiently realised in current Austrian ELT textbooks, though.

In many schools English can additionally be chosen as an optional subject. As Feichtinger's (1998) interviews with various teachers indicate, the ways such optional ELT is taught differ enormously from teacher to teacher and offer an outlet for the creativity of the teacher which in regular classes is all too often stifled by a strict curriculum. Recently, it has become fashionable to use English as a working language in projects at school, most often in combination with history and social studies but sometimes also in geography and economics (Felberbauer 1996: xv). In 20% of the projects where English is the working language only English is spoken, in 60% German is used to translate technical terms. However, in most cases terms are only translated into German when the pupils indicate that they do not understand them (Felberbauer 1996: 115-6). Abuja and Heindler recommend native speakers as teachers for such projects (1993: 14, 18). While these projects are a laudable idea in principle, care should be given that pupils remain able to talk in German about the specialised subjects discussed.

As EFL in state schools is often not sufficient for business life, the pupils of private or international schools (where English is given more room or is even the language of instruction) may be in a favoured position regarding their job prospects. It is therefore little wonder that private lessons in English are a flourishing business. Even children in pre-schools and primary schools are sent to private institutions to improve their English because parents fear that they will not be able to compete otherwise. The programme "English for Children", for instance, is designed for children aged four and upwards and is recommended to parents who want to give their children a good foundation in the language; this, it is promised, will be of use to the children later on. Another programme, the English Language Day Camp for Children, suitable for children aged 6 to 14, explicitly takes the school-curriculum as a basis for part of its programme. Both programmes advertise their reliance on native speakers as an advantage (English for Children: 2000, given in the appendix).

Although the 1993 curriculum is remarkably liberal in its emphasis on the ability of making oneself understood in an international setting (Hebenstreit 1998: 37) in practice the native speaker is still the model in a majority of cases. Regarding the two accepted varieties, British English (with RP accent) and American English (with General American pronunciation), it seems that the former is still valued more highly. In Hebenstreit's matched guise experiment with Austrian pupils the British female speaker received significantly higher ratings on a majority of traits. She was perceived as especially polite, likeable, industrious and friendly. It is particularly revealing that she was also regarded as the ideal newscaster, which reveals the preference for RP as the standard model. Furthermore, she was also the one which the pupils were best able to understand (1998: 58-9). Hebenstreit concludes that the female RP speaker is preferred because this is the variety the pupils encounter on a daily basis, as most teachers are women who speak (or try to speak) RP (1998: 61). In a study conducted by Wieden, 60,2% of the Austria teachers interviewed rate the importance of pronunciation as high and 33,6% as moderate (1991: 18). According to Seidlhofer's research 60% out of 100 teachers said that their main emphasis as teachers was to become as near native as possible (1999: 241). On the side of the learners, 31% of them are highly and 58% are moderately interested in improving their pronunciation. Intriguingly, learners from Salzburg and Vienna seem more concerned with pronunciation than those from Innsbruck (see Wieden 1991: 18-20).

Interestingly, although English is in most cases not taught as an international or European language learners seem to be aware of the lingua-franca status of the language, as interviews conducted by Felberbauer show. Asked whether they are going to need English one pupil responded: "Ja, weil English ist eine internationale Sprache, das kann fast jeder und Deutsch, das ist halt - das kann nicht jeder" and the other added "Englisch sprechen die meisten" (given in Felberbauer 1996: 183).

In teaching material the differences in the evaluation and attitudes towards non-native accents are striking. In the tapes accompanying Make your Way with English, for instance, although RP is ranked first (103 speaking roles) and GA second (38 speaking roles), non-native Englishes have 16 speaking roles and thus rank third before Popular London, Northern English or Scottish English. (Prem 1999: 43). The authors even explain that they include non-native speakers of English because "English is the world's primary lingua franca, the language most used to communicate by people whose native languages are different" (1984: 5.10 qtd. in Prem 1999: 52). In Meanings into Words, by contrast, non-native varieties only have 4 speaking roles, thus being in the 7th place, well below RP (87 speaking roles), GA (18 speaking roles) but also Conservative RP, Near RP, Scottish and Irish English (Prem 1999: 60, see also 62-3).

The attitudes of "Anglistik" (English studies) students at the University of Vienna are, unfortunately but not surprisingly, similar to those of high-school students. In a matched guise study the speaker of RP was rated most positively throughout while ÖEBr, that is Austrian British English, was by far the least attractive accent (Dalton-Puffer 1997: 121). Thus, quite perversely, Austrian advanced EFL learners display negative attitudes towards their own non-native accent. This pathological situation is reinforced by the current curriculum for Anglistik & Anglistik (English and American Studies), which includes a so-called "Sprechpraktiukum" where, according to the current Study Guide, the students' pronunciation should "become as native-like as possible, taking either standard British or standard American as the model" (Institut für Anglistik & Amerikanistik 2000: 32) . While I am not in principle against some sort of language tuition or pronunciation training the aim should certainly not be to ape a native speaker. After all, the standards selected for imitation are only spoken by a tiny minority in the English-speaking world. Rather, students should be given a chance to express their own identity in English (see also Malzacher 1996: 106). However, contemporary educational policies hardly question the orientation on Great Britain and the US. Leitner warns: "wer mit dem anglo-amerikanischen Englisch des Jahres 1961 den Englischunterricht des Jahres 2001 zu befruchten gedenkt, verfehlt die Herausforderungen des Englischen als Weltsprache von vornherein" (1991: 36). One can only hope that the new curriculum for Anglistik and Amerikanistik (which is under construction at the moment) will be a step in the right direction.

In conclusion, one must face the fact that, generally speaking, conservative tenets are largely upheld in the Austrian education system. Thus, in Austria the ideal English teacher is still a native speaker and the ideal pronunciation is native-speaker like. Most educators do not seem to be aware that, generally speaking, non-native speakers have a heightened awareness of the problems learners face. Native speakers, by contrast, might know English (and English or American culture) but they don't know English as a foreign language or, as Seidhofer puts it: "Man könnte sagen, daß Native-Speakers zwar die Destination kennen, nicht aber das Terrain, das durchquert werden muß um dorthin zu kommen: sie haben diese Reise selber nicht gemacht" (1995: 221). Similarly, Jenkins holds that in pronunciation native-speaker norms as a goal are "neither a desirable nor in fact a likely outcome" (1998: 124, see also Harmer 1991: 22). Furthermore, the native-speaker centred approach is hardly compatible with the goals of multicultural awareness and European identity building. Rather, a polymodel approach (as outlined in part 2) should be applied.


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Copyright Daniel Spichtinger 2000