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Is It Practical to Teach "Native-like" English Sensibilities?
Battle For a Nuanced "Will" Hopeless, Says Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts, of the University of Hertfordshire, U.K., comments here on a lively TESL-L listserv debate about the best way to teach the use of the modal "will" to ESL/EFL students.

Anthea Tillyer sparked off a flurry of correspondence concerning students' overuse of 'will' to talk about the future. The gist of many of the contributions was either to do with subtleties of meaning among language forms which may refer to the future, or about the real meaning or meanings of the item 'will'. My own fascination with both these areas must, however, always be subordinated to my concern for helping learners: too often, in my experience, teachers, myself included, spend too much time pondering language and not enough time devoted to those trying to learn it.

Further, the point of reference for most contributors was the way in which so-called native speakers use 'will' or alternatives, whereas, in my experience, non-native users of English operate perfectly successfully by using 'will' whenever they want to refer to the future.

Given that 'will' as a future marker is more than acceptable to most users of English (the majority of English speakers are 'non-native') and that the subtleties among forms are very hard to learn, it seems futile for native-speaking teachers to spend a lot of time trying to teach the alternatives and to clarify the differences, at least as far as productive skills are concerned. I cannot think of an instance when someone has used 'will' and I have been confused as to her or his meaning; I can only think of instances where, like Anthea, I have been irritated at the overuse of this word. I am coming to terms with the irritation and learning to live with it.

Comment by Paul Roberts
Senior Lecturer, University of Hertfordshire
United Kingdom

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