'Proper' English is not a luxury 1

September 14, 2007

It is quite pathetic - although, alas, a sign of the times - to find someone holding a university chair in English language who takes fellow academics to task for their alleged views about English when her own grasp of that language is inadequate to understand the views being expressed.

Such is the case of Jennifer Jenkins ("Lashed by the mother tongue", September 7), who accuses me of describing "the English of non-mother-tongue speakers" as "a hotch-potch in which it does not matter how the words are spelt, whether or not singulars are distinguished from plurals, and which syllables are stressed in speech and which are not".

Anyone who takes the trouble to read what I originally wrote ("Mother tongue twisted by drive for global gains", March 30) will find themselves asking whether a person capable of misreporting with this appalling degree of inaccuracy should be holding a university post at all.

This is not the first time Jenkins has distorted what I have written about standards of English. You published a letter on the same subject ("Political or correct", April 6), where she added a gratuitous slur about my presumed ignorance of the processes of linguistic change. I did not reply because I thought it obvious to any intelligent reader that she had missed the point. But I am getting fed up with being target practice for her crude misrepresentations and would like to put the record straight.

I do not hold, and have never expressed, the view Jenkins perversely attributes to me that "any feature of English that differs from a particular native standard variety is an error". Some such features are indeed errors; some are not. But it seems clear that if you are teaching English to a foreign student and fail to point out that there is a rather important difference in form and meaning between singulars and plurals then you are not doing your job and deserve to be sacked - all the more so if you actively or passively encourage them just to ignore that difference. The same goes for the other two points mentioned above.

Jenkins ignores the fact that my article was not about English as a lingua franca - quite a different topic - but about standards of English in English speaking universities. I couldn't care less what kind of English Korean Airlines inflicts on its passengers. What worries me is the kind of situation I have encountered recently at university level where the English of some graduate students is so poor that they cannot grasp whether the lecturer is affirming a proposition or denying it. When that point is reached, it is time someone spoke up and asked what universities think they are doing by admitting students from abroad who are patently not linguistically equipped to follow the courses being offered.

Roy Harris
Oxford

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