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What is the Use of English?

One of the reasons that the demand for English classes and especially English for Special Purposes has been increasing in recent years is the fact that English has indisputably become the world’s lingua franca. When many people around the world meet and do not speak each other’s native language, they choose, or are forced, to speak English – or some form of it. This group has been estimated to be as large as two billion people. What then is the difference between the situation some years ago, when the focus of ELT was the Anglo-American standard, and the present situation, in which speakers of English as a second language are playing a greater role, comprising the majority of those using English? What is the relationship between teaching English in the classroom and the phenomenon of English as a global force? Resources in the classroom to accommodate such changes are limited but the purpose of language acquisition is always to enable learners to apply their knowledge in situations beyond the classroom. Consequently, the instructor cannot be indifferent to the changing linguistic challenges which his/her students may have to face.

Exchanges between non-native speakers often bear little resemblance to those between native speakers and yet function perfectly well as a tool of communication. The main focus of such a tool and the standard by which it is judged is that of mutual intelligibility.The question that such encounters pose is to what extent this level of communication is adequate for the most learners’ needs and should consequently serve as a point of reference in language teaching. Is native-speaker proficiency still the goal which learners should seek to attain?That is, of course, the goal we are used to and take for granted, yet if we remember that 80% of English usage is between non-native speakers we may we preparing our learners for a situation which they may rarely or never encounter, while ignoring the more likely situation in which non-native speakers dominate the exchange and set the linguistic standard. Even the BBC, once held up as the gold standard of English, is increasingly granting non-native speakers opportunities to express their opinions and have their say with a less than perfect command of the language. This change of broadcasting policy may serveas an incentive to change teaching policies too.

In his recent talk at the English Speaking Union, David Crystal addressed the issue of global English and sought to reconcile the two functions that language serve; to be intelligible and to express identity. When we speak we locate ourselves, consciously or not, in a community of speakers. This community can be determined by ethnicity, gender, geography and occupation etc. We use language to associate ourselves with a certain group because we need to belong. Language provides us with a sense of identity (e.g. accent) and, of course, with a tool to consciously shape our own identity or status. The ‘code’ that we use in social interaction is the clearest example of this identity at work (e.g. lexical choice). Are you impressed that I just used the word ‘lexical’ and not ‘vocabulary’? Maybe, maybe not.The issue here seems to be that this use of language to demonstrate identity occurs primarily in our native language and not in a second language. For many people the primary identifierin a foreign language is actually a negative identifier, denoting a non-native, imperfect speaker of that language. Relatively few learners of language may consider that acquiring a new language is also acquiring a new identity. The problems that occur when native and non-native speakers meet can be partially explained by the fact that the former use language to express a complex sense of their own identity, while the latter simply wish to be understood and to understand. 

If we accept the idea that using language is a way of forging identity, then it comes as no surprise that every language contains enormous amounts of cultural information which comprises a specific group identity, i.e. cultural identity. Whether it be food and drink, sports, myths and legends, nursery rhymes, humor, etc. a community’s use of language is, arguably, its strongest expression of its unique identity. Crystal gave a multitude of examples to amuse the London audience, including “It is just not cricket”, “It was like Clapham Junction” and references to Fawlty Towers. As teachers dealing with authentic material, we are only too well aware of the difficulty that even proficient students can have with (obscure) cultural references. Advertising slogans and newspaper headlines seem to offer the most difficult and impenetrable examples. 

It may be tempting to see these issues as add-ons, only affecting more advanced students, but this is not the case. Even going shopping can be a cultural minefield, as Crystal demonstrated with an anecdote from his time in the Netherlands. When ordering food in a local shop, he ran into trouble with the word “please”. As in German, in Dutch it is not necessary to use “als u blieft” when indicating to a shop assistant what you wish to purchase. That Crystal tacked it onto the end of his orders immediately revealed him as a foreigner. Leaving out “please” however, goes against the cultural grain for those of us from an Anglo-American cultural upbringing where deleting ‘please’ is a sign of rudeness. Another example of cultural expression even at an elementary levelis introducing oneself by only using the surname, or both names, or only using the first name. This is one of the first exchanges that learners practise and yet contains a whole set of cultural assumptions concerning distance and formality. 

Crystal’s point is not merely that culture is essential to language but that it does not travel. To illustrate this he amused his audience with excerpts from the realm of sport, from baseball commentary and, equally inscrutable, cricket commentary. Even though we may assume through our exposure to American culture in the media that we are fairly ‘fluent’ in American English, the example of baseball commentary demonstrated a definite lack of fluency in this case. One conclusion from this experience is that cultural studies, familiar as Landeskunde, is an integral part of language studies. The question remains, however, which culture we should be teaching, if indeed culture can really be taught in a formal setting. 

For a group of students who are all heading for the USA it would be an interesting and enjoyable task for most teachers to include an array of culturally relevant material to customize the students for their destination. This degree of homogeneity in a classroom is, however, rare. What should a teacher do when his/her students are also heading for Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Ireland? The cultural string tends to unravel here,being not only endless but pointing in different directions. 

Having established that language and culture are fairly inextricable, the specific problem with English is that culture in the English language often has very little to do with England or even the USA and may relate to quite a different cultural scenario. The spread of English has exacerbated this problem of cultural/linguistic diversity as can be seen if we look at the New Englishes. New English basically refers to forms of English spoken by millions of people whose first language is not English. Here we can see the interaction between English and other languages. One example is Colloquial Singapore English that includes such expressions as the topicalized, ‘That man he is tall’, examples of deletion, ‘When you leaving?’ altered phrasal verbs, ‘cope up with something’. As teachers of English we might recoil in horror from such use, but if it is the language which a particular learner is going to be exposed to, then it may be less than helpful to merely point out that this is ‘wrong’ or ‘non-standard’. 

There is of course no real conclusion to be drawn regarding the continuing dynamic of English spreading across the globe and encountering other languages and creating more variations of itself. Naturally, teachers, being pragmatists, will continue to promote some Standard English as a tool for communication. At the same time more and more people will develop their own variations of English, to express their own emerging identities. By exposing students to some of these varieties we can cultivate both linguisticdiversity and culturaltolerance, encouraging learners to reflect on how they use their own language and the many purposes that language serves. 

John O'Donoghue, TH Wildau