Once on the first or second day of class, a young man—nice, polite, first-generation American---in trying to get my attention, called out, “Yo, Dude!” and then was confused when he was met with shocked laughter from the rest of the students.
This highlights a problem with students like this one who have ESL background but are otherwise acculturated Americans and may very well consider English their primary language. These students are sometimes called “Generation 1.5,” because they are between cultures. They have fluency in spoken English but may be somewhat uncertain about the use of register, or situational variety of language. “Yo, Dude” is okay for the dorm, not okay for the classroom. Immigrant students might also have the problem of using too formal a register for the situation: “Pardon me, miss; may I introduce myself?” at a fraternity party, for example. A native speaker of English would realize the inappropriateness of this; those more new to the language, or who did not speak it in their homes, may be more uncertain about which forms are appropriate in which situations. In extreme situations, this uncertainty can lead to conflict when the listener, seeing only that the speaker appears to be fluent in English, assumes he is being deliberately rude when he misuses register. It is therefore important to teach register to learners of English.
So how can register be taught?
First raise awareness on register. Define it as situationally appropriate language. Give examples of it: “Yo, Dude” is okay for the dorms, but how do we say this in an academic setting? How about ‘Excuse me, Professor’”? Often students are resistant to this notion, that the words that come out of their mouths actually matter, that people judge them based on those words, and that varying your language according to the context is not being inauthentic or phony. Students should be gently reminded that what we say, and how we say it, actually counts and can affect us and others.
Often a reading on the topic of register is a good way to proceed. Amy Tan’s “My Mother’s English,” about her Chinese-born mother’s learner English and how it affects both the mother and daughter is very powerful. For example, Tan recounts an incident she describes as typical in which she had to pretend to be her mother in a phone conversation with the mother’s stockbroker because Mrs. Tan, the mother, had learned through painful experience that her English, while strong enough to communicate meaning, was somehow not “good” enough for situations like talking with a stock broker, and people didn’t take her seriously. This raises awareness of the fact that register exists in language and does make a difference.
Continue identifying register over the semester. After engaging in a new reading, ask students if the writing is more conversational or academic. Why do they think so? Identify the features of academic language, such as longer, more complex sentences and multisyllabic words, often of Latin origin; conversational English tends to have shorter words Anglo-Saxon in origin.
Identify different varieties of registers and their use as they come up. For example, is there such a thing as a ‘business’ register? What are its features? When might it be useful? Is there a “medical “register? People often complain about not understanding their doctors; this is in part because, while speaking English, doctors often use a medical register that is challenging for people outside the field to understand. For example, patients might be described by doctors as “nonambulatory” rather than “can’t walk,” “noncompliant” rather than “won’t follow directions,” and “morbidly obese” instead of “fat to the point of possible death.” All of these terms from the medical register--“ambulatory,” “compliant,” “morbid,” and “obese”-- have Latin roots, as does much of the academic, nonconversational register in general because when Rome conquered England it left its language on most of the institutions of higher learning. Learning at least some of these Latin-based forms can help students greatly in learning the language of power—that register used in colleges, doctor’s and lawyer’s offices, and businesses.
Have students practice using a different variety of English than the usually use, like writing a letter of complaint to a company in their “usual” more conversational English and then in precise business English. Will the letters get different results? In what way? Which would they, as readers or recipients of the letters be more likely to respond to favorably and why?
Have students work on register in their own writing. Have them take a writing they’ve completed and examine it. Are there features of conversational English in it? A lot? How could they revise using more academic language?
Notice use of register out in the world. Notice the different registers people speak with.
Read the letters to the editor in that day’s paper, listen to a radio broadcast, watch people in conversation at Starbucks. What register are they using? What features identify it as that register? Why do you think the speakers chose that register? Assign students to just notice register like this over a weekend and come in to discuss a couple of examples that struck them.
Role play. Have students practice asking for the same thing - money, for example—in different situations. How would the register vary if you were asking your mother? Your best friend? Your boss? A government agency?
Practice using different registers in social settings. Once students have noticed register in a number of situations and role played it in class, it’s time to try it out in the world. Encourage students to have short conversations in such settings as the park, a coffee shop, and an office. Have them come back and tell their class about it.
Register can be difficult to define and exemplify, but it does exist.
All languages have register, the variety of language used in specific situations. Understanding how to use register appropriately can help students in their adjustment to a new culture.