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Learning British English in the States

Foreigners Prepare for the Cambridge Test at Education First International Language Center in Santa Barbara


Why do foreigners come to America to learn British English?

“Well, they don’t want to go to Britain,” said John Ocelot. And they don’t have to. They can go to Education First International Language Center in Santa Barbara, a block off of State Street.

I’ve visited EF a few times now. Students with iPads and South Coast Deli sandwiches dressed in fitted tanks and bright sneakers fill the halls during the one o’clock lunch hour.

John Ocelot and his international students celebrate after a performance a few years back.
Click to enlarge photo

Kelsey Brugger

John Ocelot and his international students celebrate after a performance a few years back.

The last time I showed up looking to chat with foreign students, a nice staff member stopped me and ran me right up the stairs to Ocelot’s office; he’s been head coordinator of the Cambridge courses for almost 20 years. His students are here for the sole purpose of passing the Cambridge test, which has become somewhat of a gold standard for internationally recognized English fluency. I sat in his office for two hours while he told me everything I ever wanted to know about teaching English as a second language. And maybe a bit more.

The answer to my question is simple: British English is supreme in the international world. It is proper and the breadth of vocabulary is amazing. A quick Google search confirms it: “craic,” “radge,” “minging,” are just a few English words that few Americans have even heard of.

But foreigners love America, Ocelot said. Americans are fun and “colorful.” Their English is real. The American language is alive and malleable. Ocelot estimated that 90 percent of his students think British English is superior, but 90 percent like American English more.

“[American English] requires you to move your freaking mouth and speak loudly,” John said. He’ll do that when working with his students. When he gets frustrated and yells something profane, he’ll say, “Now that’s real English, guys.”

“Well, could have gotten fired for that one,” he often thinks.

He also explained that American movies and music dominate international media. Most foreigners have a good idea of what America is like before they even get here. The number of McDonald’s and Starbucks worldwide are obvious indicators of “cultural imperialism.” But TV shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy have become worldwide cultural icons, too. How could foreigners feel uncomfortable in America? They have no choice but to assume the entire country is populated by Homer Simpsons.

“You probably wouldn’t watch a British program,” Ocelot said. He’s right. Even a Brit once told me the American version of The Office is funnier.

But according to Ocelot, the British take pride in their language and want to promote it. They’ve mastered teaching it. Many foreigners attend EF in Santa Barbara to become advanced or proficient in Cambridge English courses. After passing the test, students need the Cambridge certificate to apply for universities or competitive jobs back home.

At EF, the English is proper, but the people are not. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the beach is a few blocks away.

Most Santa Barbara residents are not from here. But Ocelot is a Santa Barbara native. We talked for a bit about this unique town. He said Santa Barbara has become an odd mix of traditional Spanish feel and corporate America. The biggest holiday is Earth Day. Everyone’s stoked as long as there’s free Clif Bars. We agreed the increasing international student presence in S.B. nicely spices up this fairly homogenous place.

Ocelot’s eclectic bunch of students remind him that words and intonations can make communication complicated. Teaching a new language forces teachers to work with the bare bones. An honest dialect occurs when you cut out filler and fluff. I’m sure native English speakers could benefit from using straightforward dialogue from time to time.

EF is like an international oasis that blends dialects and cultures better than the Landshark combines land and sea. The teachers take the tiresome mechanics of teaching language and give it a fresh American feel. Ocelot has brought his childhood dream of becoming a famous playwright to his classroom. For several years, he has created characters with specific students in mind; one year he did an adaptation of Scrooge at Christmastime. Then they really learn the language, he told me. It’s an opportunity for both beginners and advanced speakers to advance their skills and develop friendships.

He clearly loves his job. And he gives young foreigners a piece of the real Santa Barbara. On the way out, in the parking lot, he conceded, it’s not rocket science, but it is quite enjoyable.

“I’m the luckiest guy,” he said.

I was looking for a foreign perspective, but I got a local one.

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