Lashed by the mother tongue

September 7, 2007

Smug native speakers of English could find themselves left behind in a world that uses it as a lingua franca, says Jennifer Jenkins

The global spread of English is leading to unforeseen - and, for many mother tongue speakers, unwelcome - outcomes. For example, two years ago, Korean Airlines reportedly chose a French company to supply its flight simulators, in part because its English was more comprehensible than that of a UK rival. Increasingly, it seems that non-mother-tongue speakers of English are realising that conversation in the language tends to flow more easily and intelligibly when few or no mother-tongue speakers are present.

In other words, where English is used as a lingua franca native speakers are often the problem and non-native speakers the solution. Nevertheless, the opposite scenario is still widely assumed to be true.

The "deficiency by default" perspective on non-mother-tongue English is common even among linguistics experts. For instance, eminent British academic Roy Harris wrote in The Times Higher in March that the English of non-mother tongue speakers was "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". The equally eminent German scholar Manfred Gorlach similarly described "broken, deficient forms" of English that reflect "incomplete acquisition".

Harris, Görlach and the countless others who share their mindset claim, in effect, that any feature of English that differs from a particular native standard variety is an error. According to this view, adjustments to the "correct" forms can be acceptable only if sanctioned by mother-tongue use. Hence, they would argue, the plural "accommodations" can now be accepted because it has been adopted in the UK and the US, whereas the plural "informations" remains an error because it has not. The possibility that the English spoken by non-mother-tongue speakers may be both proficient and different from that of native speakers is dismissed out of hand.

Thus, despite the fact that the vast majority of the world's English speakers speak it as a lingua franca it is seen as the prerogative of the minority who speak it as a native language to decide its international forms. This is patently absurd.

It becomes all the more untenable in light of research findings demonstrating that the use of native English idioms and some pronunciation features more often hinder than facilitate successful communication in lingua franca contexts. The entrenched attitudes of those who dismiss such work as an exercise in political correctness prevent them from embracing change and cause them to cling to the belief that only mother-tongue speakers from England (and now also North America) may determine its norms. This ignores the many changes that non-mother-tongue speakers have wrought on the language through linguistic contact and influence down the centuries, which for some reason are not seen as appropriate to modern English.

In our universities, there are those who agree with Harris that the English of non-mother-tongue students is "appalling". And it is becoming increasingly common to hear native British students complain they cannot understand their non-mother-tongue international lecturers. The solution is invariably said to be pronunciation classes to correct the supposed deficiencies of these non native accents.

On the other hand, it could be argued that in these days of globalization, with English being used extensively as an academic lingua franca, those students are fortunate to have exposure to the kinds of English varieties that they are likely to meet later on in their working lives.

It could also be argued that we mother-tongue university lecturers, rather than our non-mother-tongue students, should make most of the adjustments. We need to be able to make ourselves understood by and understand students from a wide range of first-language backgrounds but we are notoriously bad at both. Instead, we fall back on the argument that students' "appalling" English skills rather than our poor accommodation skills are to blame and ignore the fact that most of us do not speak an English that is internationally understood.

In July, an article in The Times Higher , bemoaning the fact that the British are poor at learning languages, was illustrated with a cartoon depicting the seven deadly sins. Pride is saying "I'm British, why learn Spanish?" This same ethnocentric attitude is responsible for the position that many hold in respect of English as a lingua franca: "I speak British English, why learn to understand Spanish English or to be understood by Spanish speakers of English?" And it is this same attitude that led Korean Airlines to decide to deal with a French, not a British, company.

Jennifer Jenkins is professor of English language at Southampton University and author of English as a Lingua Franca: Attitude and Identity , published by Oxford University Press. The views expressed are the author's own.

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