Who owns English in a global market?
The Guardian October 30, 2013
Are the rules set by people who grew up speaking the language or those who learnt it later?
Asquabble - a civilised one, this being the Financial Times - occurred beneath one of my recent columns. It was about who sets the rules for English - those who grew up speaking the language or those who learnt it later?
Reader Alan G wrote: "The challenge for native speakers is to keep up with the pace of change, not to promote the increasingly futile attempts to fossilise the language."
Pieter countered: "I do not agree. Having a standard means that you can help people to better understand each other ultimately. It's you English/Americans that set this standard. If you don't then things literally get lost in translation (by us non-native speakers)."
Pieter is from the Netherlands. Alan G did not tell us where he was from, but if he is a native English speaker, he and Pieter would fit an odd pattern: people learning English want to speak like Americans or Brits and some Americans and Brits are telling them not to bother.
Why not? Because, the argument goes, the language no longer belongs just to the US, UK and other traditionally English-speaking countries, but to the entire world - and no one has the right to tell anyone else how to speak it.
You may not have come across this view, but in university English language and linguistics departments it has become an orthodoxy. Rather than English as it is spoken in the US, UK or Australia, these academics champion global Englishes, or English as a lingua franca.
As Nicola Galloway of Edinburgh University has written, native English speakers are "still placed firmly on a pedestal, and it is clearly time for them to stand aside and let the experienced and successful ELF user shine".
At first glance, this seems crazy. As a learner of French, I aspire to speak as the French do and expect to be firmly corrected if I don't. "La gare," a Strasbourg taxi driver once barked back at me, ensuring that I never forgot the gender of the word for "station". I don't think I would have got far, in any sense, if I had told him that French was no longer his exclusive possession.
But the ELF argument is worth considering because English is different. If you learn French, Russian or Chinese, it will usually be to talk to people who grew up speaking those languages. Some people learning English may end up living in English-speaking countries, but many will use it to communicate with others who have also learnt it as a second language.
In business, the majority of discussions in English take place between non-native speakers. Wouldn't it make more sense for an Indonesian to practise speaking English to a German or Korean than to a Canadian or New Zealander - particularly as non-native speakers often say they find it easier to speak English when there are no native speakers around?
Two articles addressing this issue appear in the latest issue of the Journal of English as a Lingua Franca. Yongyan Zheng of China's Fudan University found that, whatever the academics say, learners, just like Pieter, want to speak like natives.
One Chinese student told Prof Zheng: "If I suspect a certain expression is translated from Chinese, I would not like to use it. But if I've seen or heard native speakers using it, then I won't hesitate to use it."
But the students struggled to live up to these standards, which, Prof Zheng suggests, must have been demotivating.
In the other article, Ms Galloway and Heath Rose of Trinity College Dublin looked at what happened when students on a bilingual business degree programme at a Japanese university had English language assistants who included not just native speakers from the UK and Singapore, but also non-native speakers from Denmark and France.
The students didn't seem to mind, and 91 per cent, when asked, agreed or strongly agreed that "my English education has prepared me to use English as lingua franca with people from around the world".
That strikes me as a leading question, and the groups involved in these studies are too small to draw proper conclusions, but I suspect the ELF supporters will win in the end.
In meetings and negotiations, people use the English they have. In many cases, it differs from what you hear in the US and the UK. The speakers may think they should be doing better, but most simply get on with it, developing new forms of English in the process.