Copernicus: Assessing English Skills

assessing english

Copernicus: Assessing English Skills

“The heavenly bodies do not all move round the same centre.” This is the first of seven axioms written down by the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th century. So it is with English today: across the world, the language is not evolving around the same centre.

“Compared to the distance of the fixed stars, the earth’s distance from the sun is negligibly small.” This is Copernicus’s fourth axiom – and it, too, can be applied to 21st-century English. The differences that exist between native speakers (for example, British and American English) are almost nothing compared to the differences that exist between non-native speakers (who outnumber native speakers by at least three to one).

The aim of this Copernicus column in EFL Magazine is to give students more exposure to great examples of non-native speakers from all over the planet. We’re enormously grateful to everyone who has joined our conversation so far, including Michael Erard (the author of “Babel No More”), Michał Paradowski (the editor of “Productive Foreign Language Skills for an Intercultural World”), Nick Michelioudakis (who writes the “Psychology for Educators” blog), and Caio Albernaz (a fellow writer here at EFL Magazine).

One of the interesting points that has come up in the conversation is the question of assessment. As Michał said, “the assumption that the only valid goal of learning English is conformity to NS [native speaker] norms and that progress and competence should be evaluated against this benchmark, are still widespread and entrenched.” So what kind of framework can we use to measure English skills in a Copernican universe?

The fundamental benchmarks of communication were identified by another of history’s great thinkers: Aristotle. He identified three pisteis, or means of persuasion. The first of these is ethos, which is persuasion through character. If we want people to listen to us, we need to be credible and believable. “Character is almost, so to speak, the most authoritative form of persuasion,” he noted.

Next there is pathos, where listeners are led to feel emotion. We are human beings, which means we don’t always make sensible or rational decisions. Or, as Aristotle put it, “we do not give the same judgment when grieved and rejoicing or when being friendly and hostile.” Finally there is logos, which refers to what we say – the words, the reasons and the arguments we use – to “show the truth or the apparent truth” of something.

When we think about a person’s English communication skills, we tend to focus on their language skills – their pronunciation or grammar, for example, or their reading, writing, speaking or listening. Sometimes, however, it can be more helpful if we focus on the person’s ethos, pathos and logos. In an article for “Japan Today” in 2013, I put the argument in the following way.

The fact is that there are people who are bad at English, but brilliant at communicating in English. Their pronunciation and grammar may be terrible, but they inspire trust and confidence (strong ethos), they make other people feel good (strong pathos), and they know how to get the message across (strong logos). On the other hand, there are people who are very good at English, but who struggle to get things done in the real world. Their speaking and listening skills may be excellent, but, in English, their character is hidden (weak ethos), they find it difficult to connect with other people (weak pathos), and they have problems expressing what they really want to say (weak logos).

Thinking in terms of ethos, pathos and logos can lead us in unexpected directions. A few years ago, Oscar, a Spanish winemaker, was practising a presentation with me in English. It was a wonderful presentation: he talked about the history and tradition of winemaking in his region of Spain; he talked about geology, topography, soil and climate; he talked about his winemaking team, and their roots in the local community. Oscar wasn’t happy, though. “It’s my accent,” he told me. “It’s very Spanish. I need to improve it, make it less Spanish.”

“Oscar,” I replied, “you’ve just spent the whole of your presentation explaining that where you’re from is central to what you do. Your accent is part of where you’re from. Why would making it less Spanish be an improvement?” Provided that it didn’t affect his logos (in other words, provided that people could clearly and easily understand what he was saying), Oscar’s accent made him more persuasive. It boosted his ethos – it gave him authenticity and authority. It boosted his pathos – it made him more engaging and more likeable.

Of course, we should remind ourselves that not all of Aristotle’s theories were correct – his ideas about the structure of the universe, for example, were overturned by Copernicus. But on the subject of communication, nobody has been able to improve on the basic principles written down by Aristotle 2,500 years ago. In a world where English has become more like a tool than a language, could an ethos-pathos-logos approach help with the way we assess communication skills?

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