A Language Story
Lingua franca, that is a language used widely for communication between people who do not share the same first (or even second) language.
English is also, of course, a mother tongue for many people in the world, though, as we shall see, such “native speakers” are increasingly out-numbered by people who have English as a second or third language.
There are currently around 1.5 billion speakers of English worldwide, of whom only some 329 million are native speakers. A quarter of the world’s population speaks English, in other words, and native speakers are in a proportionately ever-decreasing minority.
The Triumph of English
A Colonial History
When the Pilgrim Fathers landed on the Massachusetts coast in 1620 after their eventful journey from Plymouth, England, they brought with them not just a set of religious beliefs, nor only a pioneering spirit and a desire for colonization, but also their language.
It was the same in Australia, too. When commander Philip planted the British flag in Sydney Cove on January 26th, 1788, it wasn’t just a bunch of British convicts and their guardians who disembarked, but also a language.
It became something little like a lingua franca in India, where a plethora of indigenous languages made the use of any one of them as a whole-country system problematic. The imposition of English as the one language of administration helped maintain the colonizer’s power.
Economic power that ensures languages survival and growth. A major factor in the growth of English has been the spread of global commerce, pushed on by the dominance of the United States as a world economic power.
Commercial activity has helped fan the flames of English, but it is no longer possible to see this only in terms of one-way traffic.
A great deal of academic discourse around the world takes place in English. It is often a lingua franca of conferences, for example, and may journal articles in fields as diverse as astrophysics and zoology have English as a default language.
The first years of the Internet as a major channel for information exchange also saw a marked predominance of English.
Much travel and tourism is carried on, around the world, in English.
A visit to most airports around the globe will reveal signs not only in the language of that country but also in English, just as many airline announcements are glosses in English, too.
English is also the preferred language of air traffic control in many countries and is used widely in sea travel communication.
Many people who are regular cinemagoers (or TV viewers) frequently hear English on subtitled films coming out of the USA.
The advent of film and recording technology greatly enhanced the worldwide penetration of English. In addition, countries such as the USA, Britain, Canada and Australia do their best to promote their culture overseas and to attract people to choose them as a study destination.
The Effect of English
Not everyone sees the growth of English as a benign or even desirable phenomenon. Many people worry about what it means for the cultures and languages it comes into contact with, seeing its teaching as a form of cultural or linguistic “imperialism”. They argue that, as we have seen, English has been regarded by some as a way of promoting military, cultural or economic hegemony.
The view that learners and non-native speakers of English are victims of linguistic and cultural imperialism is not shared by everyone.
An issue that concerns everyone who follows the rise of English is the impact it has on the other languages it comes into contact with. This concern is articulated in the knowledge that of the approximately 6000 extant languages in the world, at least half may be lost within the next hundred years.
Language death is a frightening and ongoing problem in much the same way that species loss is a threat to the biodiversity on our planet; for once lost, a language cannot be resurrected and its loss takes with it cultures and customs and ways of seeing the world through its use of metaphor, idiom and grammatical structuring.
In this context, a powerful argument is that as more and more people speak English, languages will gradually be lost.
Although there can be no doubt that the spread of English has some impact on other languages, creating a casual link between this language death seems somewhat simplistic.
In the first place, languages are under threat from a wide variety of sources, not just English. Spanish threatens some Andean languages, French battles it out with Euskara and Flemish, and the number of Mandarin and Arabic speakers is growing all the time – not to mention the growing growing influence that speakers of these languages exert in the international community.
A much more important predictor of language survival will be whether there is till a viable community with its own social and cultural identity to keep a language alive. In other words, survival is as much social as linguistic.
It is possible, of course that many of these languages may be lost from one generation to the next. But language is bound up with identity, and there are many examples of successful identity-grounded fightbacks.
Since the Balkan wars of 1990s, for example, Serbians, Bosnians and Croatians have all taken the original “Yugoslavian” Serbo-Croatian and started to mold it into three new varieties (Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian), emphasizing as many differences between these varieties as possible.
Members of the European Parliament who are competent speakers of English nevertheless use their own languages in plenary sessions as a highly charged statement of political and cultural identity.
Rather than fearing English as a destroyer, we should, perhaps, concentrate on how to maintain communities with a strong enough identity to preserve the language they represent. It is even possible that the presence of English as a lingua franca actually provokes speakers of minority languages to protect and promote their own languages.
English as a Global Language
In 1985 Kachru described the world of English in terms of three circles. In the inner circle he put countries such as Britain, USA, Australia, etc. where English is the primary language.
The outer circle contained countries where English had become an official or widely-used second language. These include India, Nigeria, Singapore, etc.
Finally, the expanding circle represented those countries where English was learnt as a foreign language such as Poland, Japan, Mexico, Hungary, etc.
It was once assumed that there was some kind of inbuilt superiority for inner circle speakers. They spoke “better” English, and there were more of them. Among other things, this situation “bred an extremely enervating inferiority complex among many a non-native speaker learner/teacher”
Since the majority of competent English speakers are not native speakers, but second-language users – the inner circle has lost much of its linguistic power, real or imagined. As a result, a consensus has emerged that instead of talking about inner, outer and expanding circle Englishes, we need to recognize “World Englishes”
Nobody owns English any more, in other words – or perhaps we could say that we all, “native” and “non-native” speakers alike, own it together in a kind of international shareholders’ democracy since whatever English we speak – Indian English, British English or Malaysian English, we have, or should have, equal rights as English users.
Native speakers may actually be at a disadvantage, especially if we compare less educated native speakers with highly competent and literate second-language English users. The speaker of World English is, perhaps, capable of dealing with a wider range of English varieties than someone stuck with native-speaker attitudes
The emergence of global English has caused Kachru to propose a new circle diagram where language affiliation (and ethnicity) is less important than a speaker’s proficiency. He still wishes to make a distinction between the inner core and everyone else, but outside that inner core, the main difference is between high and low proficiency users.
The Future of English
In 1998 David Graddol considered a number of future possibilities, all of which questioned the certainty of English as the number one world language. He pointed out, for example, that the fastest-growing language community in the USA was (and is) Hispanic.
It is highly possible that in the foreseeable future the entire American continent will be an English-Spanish bilingual zone. He also suggested that other languages such as Mandarin, Hindu and Arabic would gain in status and importance as their geopolitical and economic power increased.
He now suggests that there will be about 3 billion English speakers by the year 2040.
In 1999 the company Computer Economics said that the proportion of first language English-speaker users to speakers of other languages was 54%:46%, but that by 2005 that balance would change to 43%:57% – in other words, the number of other-language users would rise sharply.
What we do know is that because native speakers are becoming less and less “powerful” in the daily use of the language, we will have to adjust the way in which both native and non-native speaker experts have traditionally thought about learning and teaching English around the world.
EFL, ESL, ESOL & ELF
ESP (English for Specific Purposes): English for specialties such as nursing or paper technology or banking.
EAP (English for Academic Purposes): To describe courses and materials designed specifically to help people who want to use their English in academic contexts.
EFL (English as a Foreign Language): Described situations where students were learning English in order to use it with any other English speakers in the world – when the students might be tourists or business people.
ESL (English as a Second Language) students, on the other than, were described as usually living in a target-language community (e.g. Britain, USA, etc.) and needed the target language in order to survive and prosper in that community, doing such things as renting apartments, accessing the local health service, etc.
The distinction has become difficult to sustain, however, for two reasons.
- Firstly, many communities – whether in English – or non-English-speaking countries – are now multilingual and English is a language of communication.
- Secondly, however, many students of EFL use English in a global context, as we have seen.
Using English for international communication, especially on the Internet, means that our students are in fact part of a global target-language community.
With the picture shifting like this, it makes sense to blur the distinction and say, instead that whatever situation we are in, we are teaching ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages).
English as a Lingua Franca
Lingua franca – that is between two people who do not share the same language and for whom English is not their mother tongue.
Barbara Seidlhofer at the University of Vienna has noted a number of somewhat surprising characteristics, including:
- Non-use of third person present simple tense -s (She look very sad)
- Interchangeable use of the relative pronouns who and which (a book who, a person which)
- Omissions of definite and indefinite articles where they are obligatory in native-speaker English, and insertion where they do not occur in native English.
- Use of an all-purpose tag question such as isn’t it? Or no? instead of shouldn’t they? (They should arrive soon, isn’t it?)
- Increasing of redundancy by adding prepositions (We have to study about … and Can we discuss about …?), or by increasing explicitness (black color versus black and How long time? versus How long?)
- Heavy reliance on certain verbs of high semantic generality, such as do, have, make, put, take.
- Pluralization of nouns which are considered uncountable in native-speaker English (informations, staffs, advices)
- Use of that clauses instead of infinitive constructions (I want that we discuss about my dissertation)
As Jennifer Jenkin’s points out “…the belief in native-speaker ownership persist among both native and non-native speakers”the evidence suggests that non-native speakers are not conforming to a native-English standard. Indeed they seems to get along perfectly well despite the fact that they miss things out and put things in which they “should not do”. Not only this, but they are actually better at “accommodating” – that is negotiating shared meaning through helping each other in a more cooperative way – than, it is suggested, native speakers are when talking to second language speakers.
In other words, non-native speakers seem to be better at ELF communication than native speakers are
Jenkin’s discusses “the need to abandon the native speaker as the yardstick and to establish empirically some other means of defining an expert speaker of English, regardless of whether they happen to be a native or non-native speaker”
The traditional “gatekeepers” of English (inner circle teachers, publishers, and testing organizations) may have to think again, in other words, and it is only a short step from this realization to the suggestion that – knowing what now know about ELF – we should start to think about what kind of English to teach.
Teaching English in the Age of ELF
For Jennifer Jenkin’s, instead of conforming to a native standard such as British English, learners “need to learn not (a variety of) English but about Englishes, their similarities and differences, issues involved in intelligibility, the strong links between language and identity, and so on”.
In her research she has noticed that some allophonic variation is not evident in ELF conversations (e.g. ELF speakers do not differentiate between strong and weak forms; they substitute voiced “th” with /t/, /s/ and /d/ – think becomes sink or tink), she suggests only concentrating on core phonology. And finally, she suggests that in lexis teaching we should “avoid idiomatic usage” – because ELF speakers don’t use idioms.
Vicky Kuo argues strongly against the view that native speakers are irrelevant or that native-speaker varieties have little prestige.
She points out that there is more to language use than “mere international intelligibility”. She says that the phenomenon that people are making use of their imperfect L2 repertoire to communicate more or less effectively “is interesting and revealing”, but doesn’t necessarily have any implications for teaching.
Based on responses from students in her doctoral research, she suggests that while a degree of inaccuracy may be tolerated in communication, it does not constitute an appropriate model for learning purposes, especially in a highly competitive world where accuracy and linguistic creativity not only in speech, but also in reading and writing may contribute towards success.
Native Speaker Varieties and Other Englishes
The differences between British and American English are well documented. For example;
British English speakers regularly use the phrase have got in utterances such as I’ve got a book about it or Have you got the time? when American English speakers are more likely to say I have a book and Do you have a time?
While British speakers in conversation make us of the present perfect in questions such as Have you read her latest article yet? an American English speakers might well say Did you read her latest article yet?
And there are many differences in vocabulary use (lift/elevator, flat/apartment, trousers/pants), pronunciation [/lɔː/ – law (British English) versus /lɔ/ (American English), advertisement (British English) versus advertisement (American English)] and even spelling (analyse/analyze, colour/color).
But there is a danger in calling in variety by the name of a country, since in doing we fail to take account of regional variety.
If we consider “British English”, for example, it only takes a moment’s thought to realize that there are many varieties of English withing the British Isles, each with its own vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar.
While a Londoner might get a take-away meal to eat at home, a Scottish person will order a carry-out. While an East-end Londoner might talk about having a “barf” (/bɑ:f/), a Yorkshireman talks about a bath (/bæθ/social class).
In addition to geography, factors such as social class, ethnic grouping and sex affect the language being used and influence the way in which listeners judge speakers.
In Britain, while some accents are admired (such as “BBC English” and some Scottish varieties), others (such as “Birmingham” accent) are still seen by many as less attractive. Though it is true that such attitudes diminished towards the end of the twentieth century – and some accents, such as “Cockney” and “Geordie” became widely admired, particularly in broadcast media – it is still the case that many British people ascribe status, educational background and social position to a person largely on the basis of accent.
World English Education
Around the world English is taught in a bewildering variety of situations. In many countries it first appears in the primary curriculum, but many universities in those and other continue to find that their entrants are sufficiently competent in English use, even if, as David Graddol points out, good English is an entry requirement for much tertiary education in a global market where English gives the user a “competitive advantage”.
English is taught in private schools and institutes all over the world, and even in specialized “English villages” in countries such as Korea and Japan, where pupils live in English-only environments in specially constructed theme-park-like environments.
A growing trend has been for Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), where, in secondary schools, a subject is taught through the medium of English. It other words, the students learn the language for mathematics at the same time as they learn the mathematics they are talking about in English, the language and the subjects are taught side-by-side.
It is clear from this short summary that the old world of English language teaching is in transition, especially in terms of the language schools which have traditionally taught general English.
But whatever kind of English it is, we cannot escape the need to decide on the variety or varieties which students are exposed to and learn. As we have seen, the choice seems to be between adopting one (perhaps native-speaker) variety, or, on the other hand, raising students’ awareness or “pluricentricity” so that they can adjust their speech “in order to be intelligible to interlocutors from a wide range of L1 backgrounds, most of whom are not inner circle native speakers”
Inner circle varieties become noticeably inappropriate when, for example, students in the Far East or South America are taught particularly British idioms such as I may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb or learn the language for renting a flat in the south of England.
What seems to be the case, therefore, is that especially for beginner students, a prestige variety of the language (whether from the inner circle or from anywhere else) will be an appropriate pedagogical model.
The actual variety may depend on the wishes of the students, the variety the teacher himself uses, the learning materials that are on offer, or the school or education authority policy. Within that variety, it seems entirely appropriate to say what is and is not correct or acceptable so that students have something to aim at and some standard to judge their performance by.
As they become more advanced, the variety’s richness – including metaphor and idiom- should be offered for the students to absorb, provided that it is not too culture-specific. But at the same time, as Jennifer Jenkins has suggested, we need to expose our students to the reality of World English. As they become more advanced, our students should be made more and more aware of the different Englishes on offer.
However, we will have to ensure that they are not swamped by diversity, but rather guided gently into an appreciation of the global phenomenon that is English.
Important Notice: This note was prepared by Musa Kaan Durmuş, none of the used information here belongs to him.