A Tale of Two Cities


Charles Dickens


Charles Dickens and Students of English as a Second Language


© John James Carty




I learned from a young friend of mine who attends college in Medellin, Colombia, that the set book for her English language course this year is ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens. She is 16 years old and has reached a high standard of English, having spent six months in the United States.

My first reaction to this information was that this is a strange book to give to kids in Latin America who are taking English as a second language (ESL). And I thought, ‘I bet native English speakers in England are not asked to tackle this novel at age 16.’ A brief search on the internet confirms this.

I guess the authorities in England would not venture to set any Dickens novel for an examination nowadays (‘too hard’) (‘not relevant’).

No doubt the fee-paying schools still teach Dickens, but I don’t think his novels are studied by native English-speaking youngsters in the public (non fee-paying) sector.

It makes me wonder – if England has chickened out of teaching these works, how can they be suitable for young people in other countries who are studying at English at the intermediate or basic level?

I am an admirer of Dickens and I might be expected to applaud those schools and institutes that continue to support our greatest novelist. But I believe that the risk, the downside, is that in meeting this great author when they are too young, or when their English is inadequate, students might be deterred from ever reading him again.

This is only my personal opinion, and I am not a specialist – I could be wrong. But in this article I suggest that on a cost/benefit analysis, Dickens does not offer a good return to ELS students or their teachers.

Before I took the book down from my shelves I was sure that my main specific objection would be that its language is archaic. This would count very strongly against it, for if modern students of ESL cannot learn modern words and usage from a book, why are they reading it?

But I was wrong to some extent. This is a novel that I have read two or three times in the past: I have just re-read the first hundred pages to refresh my memory; I was certainly wrong about individual words.

Of course some of them are very old, but I was surprised to see how current and unchanged the vast majority of the words are. But the constructions, the phrases and the word order are grievously out of date – dangerously out of date.

I imagine that the skilful teacher and a diligent class will manage to get some sense out of these phrases. But why? Where is the profit?

There are few warning signs – even the most innocent-looking phrase is full of risk to the ESL student: in the first page of Chapter IV headed ‘The Preparation’ Mr Lorry tells the porter [here called the ‘drawer’, a word which really is archaic and is never used in this sense].

‘I shall not go to bed till night.’

This looks all right, it sounds all right, but very few English people would say this. It might be used by a doddery old gent, or a drunk man trying to appear sober, but it isn’t current.

 We would say, ‘I won’t go to bed until tonight’ - or ‘…till tonight.’

The clue is ‘till night’. It is far out of date, and too portentous for a simple thing like going to bed. It has a flavour of Edgar Allan Poe, of Vincent Price in a Hammer horror film slinking about in the small hours trying to stab a vampire in the heart. So what does the student learn from this seemingly routine phrase, apart from a wrong thing?

Dickens is renowned for a style of writing that fills every page with vibrant life, with strongly held opinions, with devastating social comment, with original humour, with comic masterpieces among his minor characters and with unfailing humanity.

But I would not call any of these things ‘English’ – if we had a language supermarket you would not find these attributes on a shelf under a sign saying, ‘English’.

These qualities are universal; partly the author’s character, partly the tools of the writer’s trade, and what that combination produces is literature. It is literature written in the English language, to be sure, but that does not mean that it is suitable for every possible purpose.

My other objection was –and is – that it seems strange that a student in, for example, Uruguay, could learn from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ about antique words and social history in England while an English youth of today would know nothing about these things.