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!