How to teach real English using TED talks by Lewis Lansford

For my whole career as a teacher, I’ve heard language learners talk about how they want to learn the ‘real’ language – not just stuff in books. And it makes sense. You want to learn language you can really use – maybe the language as it’s spoken in New York, London or Sydney.

Ask English teachers what ‘real’ English is, and you’ll get a variety of answers:

  • grammatically correct English
  • British English
  • any English that’s used for real communication
  • and others

In fact, all of the above are correct, in my view.

I’d say that anyone who’s actually using the language is speaking real English, including lower-level learners in your classrooms who are struggling – and succeeding – in sharing their own thoughts and ideas and answers to the questions you ask them.

Let’s take a look at what we know about how English is used in the world:

  • At least 25% of the world’s population speaks English
  • L2 (second language) speakers outnumber L1 (first language) English speakers by at least four to one
  • A majority of English language conversations in the world are between L2 speakers – that means they don’t include anyone who is an L1 (first language) English speaker

What we see is that an overwhelming majority of the English used in the world today is L2 English. So, what’s real English? It’s grammatically correct English, it’s British English, it’s English used for real communication, and it’s also:

  • Chinese English
  • German English
  • Mexican English
  • and the English spoken in every other country

A few thoughts about accent

This brings us to another question. What kind of accent do you expect your learners to have in English?

  • British?
  • American?
  • Some other nationality?
  • A comprehensible accent?

Everyone has some kind of accent in English – even people who speak English as their first language. And there are hundreds of different L1 English accents that vary from Scottish to South African, from standard American to British ‘received pronunciation,’ and from Texas to Jamaica and beyond. And we also know that very few people learning any language as an L2 achieve a perfect ‘native-like’ accent. So is it a reasonable – or even desirable – goal to ‘speak like a native’?

I’m not so sure it is. Your ‘foreign’ accent in English:

  • will never go away, most likely
  • says something about where you come from
  • can in some cases actually make you easier to understand than some L1 English speakers

To discuss this issue with your students using TED talks, I prepared a free worksheet Learn real English with TED talks, which you can download below:

How to use the Learn real English with TED Talks worksheet

Use this worksheet in intermediate-level classrooms and above, to support learners watching TED Talks and get them thinking – and talking – about real English and accent. It’s designed to work with a variety of talks.

The talks that it will work best with are ones where the speaker has a noticeable L2 accent. You can choose talks that you like from TED.com. Here are two to get you started, all freely available:

Diébédo Francis Kéré: How to build with clay … and community
May El Khalil – Making peace is a marathon 

If possible, you could take the ‘flipped classroom’ approach and ask your students to watch the talks at home, before class, and come prepared to discuss them. But if that’s not possible, you can watch the talks together in class.


Good luck, and enjoy teaching with TED Talks!

Lewis got his start teaching English in Barcelona in 1989. After getting an MA in TESOL, he taught at a US university and then a manufacturing company in Japan. In 1995, he took an editorial job with a major publisher in Hong Kong, and in 1997 became a freelance editor, project manager and writer. He has worked on books, videos, tests, audio materials, worksheets, apps and online materials for learners of all ages across the world. He has a strong interest in ESP – the language of getting things done – and has developed and written materials for aviation, oil and gas, and engineering. Lewis is especially interested in understanding the implications for materials development of research in English as a lingua franca. His most recent work includes National Geographic Learning’s Perspectives, an upper secondary course featuring TED Talks, and Keynote, a multi-award-winning adult course also featuring TED Talks. He lives in York, UK. For more information, see lewislansford.com

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