A global reach for mind and mouth

June 8, 2007

Some 1.3 billion people speak English, but only a small minority speak British English - and that is a challenge for linguistically narrow Britons, argues Nick Saville

Earlier this year, Cambridge University's English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) service asked the think-tank Demos to consider the future of the English language. The resulting report, As You Like It: Catching Up in an Age of Global English , reached some challenging conclusions for the UK Government and its citizens, too.

Demos paints a picture of a world in which English is presently dominant as the leading language of international commerce and government. This position has largely been consolidated by English being the predominant language of computing and the internet. However, of the estimated 1.3 billion speakers of English in the world, there are only 330 million native speakers - and this puts Britons in a minority within a minority.

The report says, moreover, that the UK had rested on its laurels and that its approach towards English is more suited to days of empire than to a world of global commerce and travel. The British have failed to address the need to learn other languages adequately (we have the lowest levels of bilingualism in the European Union) and are equally disdainful of those who speak other forms of English than our own, especially new varieties such as Spanglish (a Spanish-English dialect), Hinglish (a mix of Hindi and English) or Singlish (a Singaporean, Malay, Indian and English melange).

Moreover, the UK risks being sidelined as other nations become more proficient in using international English and develop the skills to deal with non-native forms of the language. The Demos report calls for all government departments to develop a strategy to address the changes in global English and the growth of other languages.

It also says the UK needs to develop skills in "accommodation" - that is being able to adjust the way we communicate to interact effectively with people with whom we do not share the native language. The report cites the recent international furore over Celebrity Big Brother contestant Jade Goody's treatment of her housemate, the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, as a symptom of the UK's "fundamental lack of skills to relate to people of other cultures".

Demos concludes that the UK needs to move away from the view that any variation in "standard" English is deviation and calls for policy recognising the value of linguistic diversity. "Citizenship requirements for English-language abilities should be framed in terms of personalised potential, rather than purely the UK's requirements," the report says.

The challenge, as posited by Demos, is whether the UK can embrace a more open-minded approach in which British English is just one variant of a global language owned by a widely differing range of speakers.

While the report has raised some important points about language learning, the experience of Cambridge ESOL is that a good start has been made in developing multilingualism within the UK. Cambridge ESOL is the leading provider of services for learners and teachers of English, with more than 2 million people in 135 countries taking our exams every year. A central part of our philosophy is an appropriate approach to setting standards for English as a functional international language. Dialects are an important part of language and add to its richness and diversity, but a language also has to have a common ground where we can understand each other.

A great deal of our work involves research and evaluation to ensure that the people who receive our certificates are being tested in a version of English that is relevant and useful to them. The vast majority of people who take our tests are not doing it for purely linguistic purposes. They are learning English for practical reasons - to get a better job, to study, for cultural reasons or to travel. Many people learn English not to speak to native English speakers but to use as a common language. A Dutch person, a German national and an Italian might well converse together in English because it is a second language that all three share.

Our range of exams, which vary from levels and content suitable for children to those aimed at the international legal and financial world, reflect that need for common communication. Meaningful, rigorous standards of English are needed to prepare people for work, study, business or travel. We do not accomplish that by imposing standards in an imperialistic way, but by using Britain's historic advantage of having English as a native language to offer value-added services to those who need English for international communication.

We achieve that by setting standards for successful communication, and that includes standards for accuracy and precision where appropriate. But it is not the same as making everyone speak and write British English, and it requires sensitivity to local needs and contextual features. We do not ignore variations within the English language: in our listening and speaking test, different accents are represented to ensure that we do not present an unrealistically standardised version of English.

Demos has indicated that among Britons there is, as former Secretary of State for Education Estelle Morris described it, a "national lethargy and poor performance as linguists". We share these concerns. This "English factor" has analogues with non-native speakers who learn English. Very few of those who choose to learn a second international language - which is frequently English - go on to learn a third language. The native English speaker is in the starting position of already having an internationally understood first language, and frequently feels little incentive to learn another.

However, learning another language is not just acquiring the ability to speak in a foreign tongue: one gains a range of intercultural skills and different ways of thinking about the world. There is a strong risk of native English speakers in the UK missing out on these opportunities, and we need strong policies to promote the study of second languages. But almost as important is the need for a wider understanding that UK English is not the only kind of English there is, as well as a need to develop the interpersonal skills required to communicate with and understand other peoples.

This aside, the UK has already taken a major step towards developing itself as a multilingual society through the Asset Languages programme, part of the National Languages Strategy.

Asset Languages was developed for the Department for Education and Skills by Cambridge ESOL together with its sister organisation, the Oxford, Cambridge, RSA awarding bodies (better known as OCR). The aim of the programme was to create a flexible and diverse approach to languages that could be used by people aged seven to 70.

One of the main aims was to enable people living in this country to get formal qualifications in their community languages and to provide opportunities for other British people to learn these languages, too. The system, which was first piloted in 2003, now offers qualifications in more than 25 languages at more than 400 centres across the UK.

While we acknowledge that Demos has correctly identified some of the shortcomings of the UK's attitude to learning other languages, we know that people want to learn English because it is a globally recognised language.

By setting standards in English, we preserve that value. The Government's National Languages Strategy and the Asset Languages programme show that multilingualism in the UK will not be achieved by denying the strengths of English in the global marketplace, but by giving value to other languages as well.

Nick Saville is director of research and validation at Cambridge University's English for Speakers of Other Languages programme.

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