Mother tongue twisted by drive for global gains

March 30, 2007

As universities 'accommodate' foreign fee-payers with limited language skills, Roy Harris fears for the future of English.

An unnoticed casualty of the cold war between university managers and academics is the English language. This was brought home to me recently when a university lecturer confided: "I am ashamed to pass as adequate the English in which some foreign students write their assignments." When I inquired why she passed them nevertheless, I was told that refusing to do so would have more dire consequences for the lecturer than for the student. The university (and the department) needed the fees brought in by foreign students.

This blunt response rang several bells at once. In chronological order, the first was a conversation I had some 30 years ago when I was an external examiner for a doctoral thesis at a university in the UK and happened to remark on the number of overseas students I had encountered in the corridors. The head of department responded: "They're a godsend, of course. The snag is that we have to write their dissertations for them because their English is appalling."

The speaker, a scholar of international reputation, spoke and wrote with impeccable English, although English was not his first language. Nonplussed at the time by this comment, I did not know whether to take it as a cynical observation by someone who had spent a great deal of time and effort in achieving his exemplary command of the language, or as a broad invitation to collude in passing the thesis I was supposed to be examining.

The second bell was sounded some years later by a former graduate student of mine, now teaching abroad, who was also dismayed by the English of his students but had decided to ignore it on principle. "That's someone else's job. I'm not employed to correct their English grammar," he said.

The third bell rang on reading an article in the Australian journal Quadrant . The author, an academic of some 30 years' standing, concludes that balance-sheet imperatives and peer pressure combine to stifle any opposition that demands higher standards of students. Psychologically and financially, teachers have lost the initiative. Students are customers, and the customer is always right.

The "official" reply to complaints about the inadequacy of foreign students' English seems to be that universities require - or should require - certificates of proficiency before admission. The unofficial reply is that such certificates can be either forged or purchased. There is a flourishing trade in this market, and universities know it only too well.

It is not in the financial interest of the institutions to inquire too closely into such matters. The more "difficult" universities stand to lose out to those who are more "lenient".

Who gains from all this? The less scrupulous institutions stand to gain in the short term. In the long term, what is lost are the standards on which those institutions have based their international reputation. The overwhelming global demand for "English" and qualifications therein has overtaken - even at the highest academic level - what universities are prepared or equipped to deliver.

Obvious as these conclusions may sound, you must not risk voicing them nowadays unless you are prepared to be branded a linguistic Colonel Blimp, or worse. To express any concern about sloppy or inadequate English in education is rapidly becoming politically incorrect.

"Imperialist" is the current smear-word to condemn those who express such concerns, as in the recent Demos report on global English. There, the authors warn us that there will soon be 2 billion non-native speakers of English regularly using that language for communication purposes. The impact, we are assured, is bound to be felt. Our "imperialist" attitudes must change.

But does it make sense to "accommodate" these masses of new recruits by abandoning what are regarded as the norms of educated English? Would this supposed tolerance do the learners a service or a disservice? How can anyone learn a hotchpotch 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? Chinglish, Singlish or Schminglish: take your choice.

If there is to be a demotic mongrel version of any language, particularly a version accepted for educational purposes, we need to be sure that what may count as rational simplifications for some foreigners are not just arbitrary complications for others. It cannot be left as a free-for-all in which anyone's version is as good as anyone else's.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, Oxford University.

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