Monday, October 15, 2012

"...Fear for the English Language"

Day 2 of the TESL Canada conference: after spending the morning finishing up my PowerPoint slides and practicing my talk, I showed up to the conference in time for lunch and then the keynote by Steven Pinker. It turned out to be a talk he's given before (seems like there are some videos online) based on his most recent book about language, and it was pretty fun -- most memorably about swearing and its functions. (And only a few mentions of "why we swear" in that vague pop-neuroscience way -- e.g., "this part of the brain lights up when people do this, therefore we know why they do it!")

I did my presentation on acceptability judgments and other stuff related to my dissertation research, and it was fine, but there was some interesting discussion from the audience afterwards, including from one woman who said something like "I'm just starting to learn about world Englishes, and what I feel after learning about this stuff is fear for the English language."

I handled her concern/comment as best I could, I think, but it made me realize that there is a divide between teachers who buy into the idea that variation is OK/inevitable in practice, and those who are keen to promote a standard and more ideologically opposed to accepting variations.

To me, all these new-ish perspectives, like EIL, ELF, world Englishes, etc., aren't threatening to English -- they're just ways of describing what actually goes on with the language. And I don't think they necessarily have all that many implications for teaching, other than "know your context" --  which is a pretty big one, and probably shakes out differently if you accept WEs/ELF stuff as an accurate depiction of reality.

So let me try to lay out some ideas that would explain a more variation-friendly perspective to someone like the audience member who was worried about English, presumably because she thinks WEs & related perspectives are all about eliminating standards:

1. English is an old language that came about as the result of contact between numerous European languages in what is now England.
2. It started to come into something more like its current form sometime in the last 300 years or so, also in England.
3. English has moved from the place it began to a lot of other places
4. Like all languages, conventions in English vocabulary, grammar, words' meanings,, etc, change from time to time, due to idiosyncrasies of its users.
5. Because of #3, this happens differently in different places.
6. Because of #4, there is a need and desire for language standardization  in societies, and it is useful to have a standard English for things like education, media, literature, etc.
7. Because of globalization, there is probably a greater need than ever for literacy in standard American and British English
8. However, that need is probably only felt by a small group of people who desire lives in which English is necessary -- those who travel internationally, those who work in internationalized fields like education, government, big business, etc.
9. Those people should be and are taught standard Am/Br English
10. Almost everyone else in the world who learns English is also taught standard Am/Br English*.


11. Most people in the world who know and use English are not American or British.
12. Most people in the world who teach English are not American or British.
13. Most communication in the world in English takes place between two people for whom no variety of English is their mother tongue.
14. Since these encounters often take place in transnational, transcultural, etc. contexts, #6 above is less important in these situations.
15. Therefore, the earmarks of standard American English and standard British English are often not particularly relevant in these situations, as long as intelligibility is achieved.
16. Whether people in these situations are satisfied with the degree of intelligibility achieved in their uses of English should probably be up to them.
17. Some of them are probably OK with speaking English in a way that sounds different or wrong to people from the US or the UK.
18. On the other hand, some of them are probably not OK with it, and would like to further learn standard Am or Br English in order to have a better grasp of it.
19. Those people can take some more English classes, if they want, where they will probably be taught standard Am/Br English.
20. Despite this teaching, people -- non-native and native speakers -- will continue to use language idiosyncratically at all time and in all places, and this will eventually lead to small changes in standard English.

* I assume one of the fears is that accepting non-native varieties of English or being tolerant about variations will somehow lead to teaching Ss that there's no right or wrong. This probably isn't true, but more needs to be said to assuage those fears, since some of the trendier positions on this do make it sound like we should just abandon teaching any kind of standard.

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