Whose English is it, anyway?

This weekend I had the great pleasure of attending the second ever Innovate ELT conference in Barcelona, Spain, organised and hosted by ELT Jam and Oxford TEFL – and the great pleasure and honour of opening the main day of the conference by giving the first of three mini-plenaries.

Here’s a video of my 10-minute talk:

(If you can’t see the video embedded in this post, just copy and paste this link into your browser: http://youtu.be/b7_QbFVOQz8)

I enlisted the help of a kind fellow conference-goer/presenter (thanks Chris Farrell!) to broadcast this plenary live using Periscope, which is hugely user-friendly and convenient, but which unfortunately means the video occasionally skips and the sound quality isn’t fantastic. So I’m including here my full script, if you can’t (or just prefer not to) watch the video:


Good morning! I’m going to start the day by asking you a question and suggesting some answers; and I hope that this very important question will stay with you throughout the day. And that question is: Whose English is it, anyway?

In addition to conversation, songs, poetry, jokes and other enjoyable everyday things, we know that language is used to make money, to exert power and to assert ownership. But can a language really belong to anyone?

We’re going to look at 3 possible answers to this question, and in keeping with the conference theme, I hope their consideration will empower all of us, whether we consider ourselves English teachers, learners or simply ‘users’, to think critically and reflectively about some of the assumptions that we carry into classrooms and meet in the real world every day.

So, whose English is it?

Answer 1: It belongs to someone.

Well, phrases like “the Queen’s English” are common, but have uncomfortable connotations of the political dominance of one social class or geographical region.

Similarly, many of you will be familiar with the sociolinguist Braj Kachru’s famous categorisation (1985) of English speakers into those from the ‘inner’ circle (living in countries where English is the native language, such as the UK, USA or Australia), those from the ‘outer’ circle (living in countries where English has a formal, possibly officially recognised, role but may not be the only or main first language of all residents, such as India or Nigeria) and those from the ‘expanding’ circle (everywhere else – countries like Spain, or Russia, or China, or the Czech Republic, or Brazil – places where English serves an important role for things like tourism or education, but isn’t the first or maybe even second language of many or any of the population). But this model has been criticised for, among other things, being too exclusive.

And, of course, there’s the problematic term “native” itself. I’m using this word now because I only have 10 minutes and we probably agree on how it is usually used. But I won’t be using it from this point on; and I’d like to take a moment to consider what the term actually means.

A quick Google search offers the definition “associated with the place or circumstances of a person’s birth”. Now, I didn’t choose where I was born. But luckily, my mother, clearly foreseeing my future career and determining to give me the best chance of preferential employment, opted to give birth to me in a hospital quite conveniently located in the United States of America. That decision would turn out to give me a great deal of power one day.

But did I mention that my mother is actually from a small town in the north of England? Which meant I grew up saying, “Mommy [/mɑmi/], can I have a cup [/kʊp/] of water [/wɑɾɝ/]?” Not to mention the time I loudly instructed her to remove a fork from my plate in a crowded restaurant with the words, “Get the fork off!” I hadn’t mastered the ‘r’ sound yet in the rhotic American accent. Nearby diners were appalled.

Later, I learned to switch between dialects (if not accents) so naturally that when I moved to England at 11 years old, I was quite perplexed when my middle-school classmates asked me things like “Do you say ‘lift’ or ‘elevator’?” And I would respond, “Well… it depends who I’m talking to!”

The point is that language is not a static thing. It changes according to who is speaking to whom, for what purpose, in what context – and even within one person’s mind/brain/body/soul/lifetime/whatever, language can and does change. So even if we decide that “English belongs to someone”, and we opt to teach “their” English, what’s to say that will always mean the same thing anyway?

This brings us to answer 2: It belongs to no one.

Everybody here will surely agree that English has been a great democratiser. Use of English worldwide has spread exponentially over a mere matter of decades. Kachru’s three circles have been exploded by the fact that geography is now largely irrelevant to communication in English: what matters is not where people are, but who is speaking to whom and why.

In 1991, Jürgen Beneke estimated that 80% of spoken interactions in English took place between only second-language English users; and in 2008, David Crystal estimated (conservatively!) that for every person who speaks English as their first language, there were 3 to 4 people who used it as a second language (or third, fourth, etc.). So as Barbara Seidlhofer succinctly put it in 2011, for many people nowadays, English has become “the communicative medium of choice, and often the only option.”

This is intuitively, practically and professionally appealing: intuitively, because a language clearly isn’t something which can ‘belong’ to someone the way a car, a phone or an iPad does; practically, because we only need to take a short trip to a big city like Barcelona to hear people using English for practical purposes, regardless of their first language, to get things done; and professionally, because it implies a shift in power to bilingual teachers, particularly those who share their students’ other language(s), rather than the “monolingual native English speakers” traditionally favoured in the ELT industry.

But even the importance of the role of English as an international lingua franca, a language of communication, has been summarily dismissed as a “trendy concept” or even a “fairy tale” by some. (Neither of these people are here today.) And attitudes like this show the very real sense of affection and protection which people hold for the language(s) they speak – including English, of course.

Which brings me to the third possible answer to our question, and the one that I prefer: English belongs to everyone.

When a student says “I want to improve my English”, that student is – perhaps accidentally – staking a claim to the language. Instead of focusing on the word “improve”, why don’t we focus on the word “my”? How can we help students feel that the English language is theirs?

Surely, English belongs to everybody who counts any of its diverse features among their linguistic repertoires. The human capacity for language is a magnificently rich resource. And whether we use it for conversation, songs, poetry, laws, jokes, graffiti, reports, love letters, emails, text messages, and so on, ultimately we are all trying to communicate something. And communication works best when the conditions are inclusive, not exclusive; when people are united by commonalities, not assigned to separate circles.

So whose English is it? Let’s keep this question in mind today. When someone says, for example: “In English, we say…”, ask yourself, who is the “we”? “We” means different things to different people, and English means different things to different people.

I’d like to finish with a poem which I discovered recently* while preparing this plenary, by Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that shut me out –

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But Love and I had the wit to win:

We drew a circle and drew him in!

(I first came across this poem in Ali Fuad Selvi’s paper published on academia.edu.)

Thanks also to Sandy Millin for live-tweeting my talk, and to all the people who offered me their kind comments afterwards, whether in person or online, or which I later heard on the grapevine. I’m really glad to have kicked off the day, along with my excellent fellow morning plenary speakers (Marek Kiczkowiak and Helen Strong), with some juicy food for thought!

Thanks to the tweeters who took a moment to tell me how much theyd enjoyed this talk!

7 thoughts on “Whose English is it, anyway?

  1. Hi Laura –
    Being – I think – one of the two people who appears anonymously in the above (I really have to stop doing that kind of thing!), I feel I should just set the record straight. In the talk and blog post I did a few years back – https://hughdellar.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/elf-and-other-fairy-tales/ – called ELF AND OTHER FAIRY TALES, I certainly wasn’t dismissing “the importance of the role of English as an international lingua franca, a language of communication” . . . because to deny that Engish is important in international communication would be mad! What I WAS doing was calling the idea that there is a clearly definable entity called ELF – which is somehow distinct from English – a myth and suggesting too that the claims that ELT has been dominated by native-like models was also something of a fairy tale.

    Apologies, of course, if I’ve had a Carly Simon moment and assumed the bit about fairty tales refers to me, but the fact I wasn’t at the conference suggested it might be.

    In terms of who English belongs to, it’d obviously be a lovely idea to pretend it somehow belonged to all users EQUALLY, but the idea fails on two crucial fronts: (1) it fails to acknowledge the power dynamic that is inherent in the dissemination of a language. Anyone whos ever grown up speaking a variant of English that’s not seen as standard and then entered into the world of the educated middle classes will be all too well aware of this dynamic, as will any fluent non-native who’s found their accent or occsasional slip mocked by natives they’re employed by. Sure, everyone here possesses some form of English, but some forms are clearly more equal than others. (2) The idea that we need to careful when claiming “In English, we say . . .” also strikes me as problematic. I’d sugest that it may well be better for teachers to say something like “The most common way of saying that is . . . ” or “Most people usually say . . . ” as that’s somehow more inclusive, but the idea that we can’t make judgement calls when it comes to choosing what to teach or which language to prioritse simply because there are lots of variations is absurd. Teachers need to do this all the time and they need principles won which to base their decisions. I’d suggest frequency and level of students should be the two main factors taken into consideration.

    Anyway, that’s my tuppence worth (about a quarter in foreign money), such as it is.
    Thanks for keeping the dicussion on this whole area going.

    1. Hi Hugh/Carly 🙂

      Thanks for these comments. I think they raise more questions than they answer, though! I still plan to reply more fully to the blogpost you linked to when I have time, so for now just 3 quick thoughts:

      1. ELF definitely isn’t a clearly definable entity. We seem to agree on this. Some early literature suggested it was, but ELF researchers are now more or less unanimous in agreeing with us that it cannot be defined or delimited so neatly as by calling it a “variety”. And I don’t think anyone has ever said it is “distinct from English”. It’s just one way of using English linguistic resources which does not presuppose the same norms as native speakers in certain discourse communities adhere to. In my view, the fluid, diverse and emergent nature of ELF usage is what makes the phenomenon so interesting to study. I wrote a short post about this here: https://laurapatsko.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/elf-why-we-cant-teach-

      2. Re: “some forms are more equal than others” – I don’t think I failed to acknowledge the power dynamic inherent in language use. In fact, this was a sub-theme of the conference and the very crux of my argument: that by assigning ownership of language to certain speakers, unfair power dynamics are perpetuated. Perhaps it’s idealistic to suggest this could ever change, but my belief is that it’s more productive to intelligently challenge notions of ownership (and concomitant inequality) rather than just accept them as the way of the world. I’ve also been on the receiving end of linguistic discrimination/snobbery/judgment/bullying plenty of times in my life, so I don’t mean to imply that it’s a trivial thing or easy to change. But personally, I don’t want to contribute to the problem by saying there’s nothing that can be done about it.

      3. I still think the “we” is problematic (because its referent is often so vague), and I like your suggested alternatives (“The most common way of saying X…” etc.). The problem that arises here is, how can any individual ever know what is most common without access to big data? Most common among which group? That’s like me saying “women think…” because I’m a woman and therefore I must be able to represent them all. But there are billions of us! As a language user, I can’t claim to know what is most common except from my own individual experience, and even that will be largely intuitive because I have not meticulously recorded every linguistic form I’ve ever encountered, along with its context. I fully agree that teachers need to use judgment when teaching, and that they need principles on which to base their decisions. The principles for which I am arguing here are sociolinguistic: teachers should be aware (and not afraid) of the fact that there are so many users of English besides themselves, who may do things differently. I think this is something students can understand, and if teachers want to be clear about why they’re teaching a particular thing, they always have recourse to hedging (e.g. “I say X this way and in my experience that is frequent and acceptable”) and to published materials which are informed by data, e.g. language corpora. (But note that even corpora are selective about which speakers they’re representing!)

      Did I say that would be just a few quick thoughts!? Oops… More to follow…


  2. Hi Laura,
    I enjoyed the talk, and especially found the length refreshing after the IATEFL plenary recordings. Still, I was a bit worried until you were safely off the bench. 🙂
    I was wondering, is that just my imagination or could your accent have been more British – as opposed to American – at the BELTA Day last year? I remember we talked briefly during a break and when I heard your talk today, there was just this feeling that I’d heard you speak with a different accent. I hope this doesn’t sound too weird!

    1. Hi Vedrana,
      Thanks for your comment! Not sure what to say about my accent – it’s always been a bit mixed. But I suspect it was quite similar last year. 🙂
      I had a funny experience just yesterday, in fact, listening to recordings my mother had made when I was 2 years old, singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. I sang the song at least 3 times and my pronunciation of “star” wasn’t consistent at all!! Goodness knows what was happening with my early phonological development!

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