UK universities are alienating foreign students by insisting that they "conform to national norms" of English usage even though many institutions increasingly describe themselves as "international".
That was the argument set out by Jennifer Jenkins in an inaugural lecture on 16 May to mark the official launch of the University of Southampton's Centre for Global Englishes, of which she is director.
"If you talk about internationalisation," the professor of global Englishes told Times Higher Education, "you have to extend that to the language people are using."
She said that students who are not native English speakers use the language as a lingua franca and in a way that suits them.
"They use it very successfully, but not in the ways that native speakers speak to each other. Their priority is communication rather than correctness, or imitating some particular native version of English," she said.
Research into English as a lingua franca, which now forms the majority of English usage in the world, has thrown up a number of areas where it can differ from the standard English spoken by native speakers.
Examples include not marking the third person singular, not differentiating between "who" and "which", and turning uncountable nouns into countable ones (such as "advices" or "informations").
None of this poses the least difficulty for comprehension. Indeed, stories from the European Parliament, for example, suggest that it is often native speakers whose English is hardest to understand because of their inability to adjust their style, tempo and idioms to a mixed audience.
These are the realities, argued Professor Jenkins, that UK universities have largely failed to understand.
While they may need to assess the linguistic ability of incoming foreign students, she explained, it is quite unreasonable to use tests that check whether they "conform to one particular form of native English" or to ask them to "prove their reading comprehension in areas completely unrelated to what they are going to be studying".
The most appropriate entry tests should simply check that applicants possess "what they really need to know to operate in an English-medium university".
The marking of essays posed similar problems.
"(Non-anglophone) students find it very unpredictable," noted Professor Jenkins.
"They don't know what kinds of English particular lecturers will accept. It is hard to find out what the standards are, and staff only tell them when something is not right. Native speakers are allowed to be much more creative with language, while non-natives are told off for doing the same thing."
Building a longer-term academic career, continued Professor Jenkins, depended on "whether you can conform to the norms of British or American academic English", yet this is often largely irrelevant to the fundamental goal of being widely understood.
In the new Journal of English as a Lingua Franca, therefore, she and her co-editors have removed conventional guidelines requiring non-native English authors to have their submissions checked by a native English speaker.
Instead they "simply ask that authors submit manuscripts written in an English that will be intelligible to a wide international readership".
In Professor Jenkins' view, there is a message here that UK universities urgently need to take on board.
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