Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why "Ownership of English" is the wrong question

Henry Widdowson’s 1993 plenary address at TESOL, later published in TESOL Quarterly as “The Ownership of English,” started a trend in TESOL and applied linguistics which did two things, one of which I think was more explicitly intended, and one of which I think was less intended but also important:

A (more intended): Started a conversation about non-native speakers’ full “ownership” of English, not as linguistic second-class citizens, but as people who can use, shape, and “own” English in their own right.

B (less intended): Made “ownership” an important metaphor for talking about users of English.

Widdowson’s speech/essay discusses issues which are still very much in play for TESOL scholars who wrestle with the implications of the spread, localization, and use of English in diverse contexts around the world: what is standard English, what are standards, how are we to understand the role of both native and non-native speakers of English as teachers of the language, and so on. At one point he posits what I take to be his central question:

“The question is which community, and which culture, have a rightful claim to ownership of standard English?”

Even if we remove “standard” from this question, in order to expand it to any sort of English, I suggest that this is not quite the right question to be asking. Especially given the recent turn that encourages us to think less of langauges as reified “things” and more as resources that people use for certain purposes, it makes less and less sense to think of languages in terms of “ownership” at all -- even though ideas about native/nonnative speakership or even things like legitimacy or authority are still very relevant, both ideologically and practically.

So, why “ownership?” Who bestows it? How does one come to claim it? Although Widdowson carefully and persuasively argues that English is not (or is no longer)  under the sole provenance of British ‘native speakers,’ one might wonder whether any speaker or group of speakers of a language can be said to “own” it.

Try asking this of yourself: do I “own” my language? The pronoun I used in that sentence seems like a clue: I call English MY language. Yet it seems to me this is more of a way of denoting a closeness to or an affinity for a language, or a way of speaking, meaning, or even, dare I say, being in the world. Yoo (2014) uses the “ownership” of names as an analogy, arguing that just as Korean speakers of English using English does not mean they own English, neither does the fact that other people use your name more often than you use it mean that they own your name. Ren (2014) refutes this, arguing that a language is much larger and more complex than a name, and that it's a medium of communication through which people express their identities -- thus, NNESs can indeed "own" it.

I'd like to suggest a different analogy, but for the purposes of showing that "ownership" isn't the issue.

 Let's think about the way we refer to other things as “ours.” I speak of my wife, my son, my parents -- but of course I do not in any meaningful way consider myself to “own” these people. When I call them “mine,” I am referring to the strong ties that connect us, my close relationship with them, even in some cases our biological kinship. If you’d prefer a different illustration, think of the way we talk about, say, “my hockey team,” “my university,” “my favorite song.” I don’t claim to “own” any of these things, but I feel a very strong connection to, say, the University of British Columbia in a way that many people in the world do not. I am familiar with it, I use its resources, I can get around it with ease in a way I could not before I was enrolled there.

In the same way, when I say English is “my” language, I don’t mean that I own it, but that I am close to it, I am familiar with it, I know how to use it. I’m less comfortable calling other langauges “my” languages, though I might in a pinch refer to Spanish or Chinese as “my foreign languages,” even if I feel like I’m not very good at them. The fact is that I have been surrounded by English for my entire life, so I feel very comfortable calling it “my” language, but neither I nor anyone I know, nor even the country I live in or other people who speak it, really “own” the language.

Note: Stop reading here if you’re satisfied with this argument. I’m pretty satisfied with it myself. Read more below if you want to get nit-picky about current debates in applied linguistics, world Englishes, and ELF.

So the recent back-and-forth in the Applied Linguistics forum between Yoo, who argues that Expanding Circle Countries cannot have “ownership” of English because there are no Expanding Circle varieties (which I think is wrong, though I think you have to move away from the traditional  Kachruvian understanding of both “expanding circle” and “varieties” in order to explain this), and Ren, who argues convincingly that NNES(T)s can be said to  own the language because there indeed are (developing) nonnative WE and ELF varieties in the Expanding Circle, while it (like Widdowson’s earlier piece) gets at important issues of ELF, World Englishes, native and non-native speaker teachers, and so on, I think is focused on the wrong question.

If ownership is dependent on the existence -- or more importantly the belief in the existence -- of bounded, observable, structures/systems of language, I think it is probably going to be mired in these sorts of debates for a long time. Large majorities of people will continue to argue that, for example, there is no Konglish, or Chinese English, or Japanese English, or whatever, and thus I think it will be hard to do the work that the ownership metaphor is meant to do: to oppose the hegemony of native-speakerist standard language ideology, or to increase and encourage the idea of the legitimacy, the correctness, the OK-ness, the non-inferiority, of non-native speakers’ use(s) of English, however we conceive of that.

Mortensen (2013) is instructive here -- he discusses the “reification of ELF ” and argues that there are many confusions and contradictions in the so-far “traditional” definition of ELF as “a system.” It seems pretty clear that ELF is a use of English, and the the only clear definition of it is that it takes place in a particular context of use. What can be said about its “features” is fuzzy, though I wouldn't go as far as he does in dismissing the ‘features’ that have been posited by Seidlhofer and others. His point, and the one I want to make, is that we have to start with use, look very closely at what is going on in specific situations of language use, and look at where that takes us.

Most of the ownership arguments do start with use, and extrapolate to ownership. But as we’ve seen above (with "my language” and “my parents”), the ownership metaphor is really only a way of describing facility and familiarity with (certain) uses of language, or ways of using it, and ownership is often a proxy for other concepts, such as legitimacy, authority, indigenization (see, for example, Higgins, 2003).  

The way I see it, actual users of language, even when they are getting into the nitty-gritty of ideological debates about it, are always already sidestepping the ownership question, because the reality of the language and its use are immediately relevant in their lives regardless of whether they feel "ownership". Call Konglish a variety or not, say that Korean English teachers have ownership of English or not, but actual users of English in Korea (or China, or Russia, or whatever) are faced with the problems that present themselves there: what to do (or not) about weird English translations on signs, how to make contextually sensitive judgments of students’ writing accuracy, what to say when speaking to foreigners in English, and so on. They draw on their own knowledge of, proficiency in, and beliefs about English --  just like an American or British or Indian user of English would in the same situation. 

Whether or not a person feels him or herself to “own” English here is beside the point. We make choices based on what we think is best based on our circumstances. And certainly it has been shown that nonnative speakers have no problem disagreeing with or contradicting native speakers when there is a dispute about usage (Yan’s 2009 thesis about Chinese and British textbook editors, Abdi’s recent presentations about negotiating authority in world Englishes usage, my own data about Chinese and non-Chinese English teachers’ claims of authority in making judgments of acceptability). 

No one here is stopping to consider whether they “own English.” Certainly native speakers may be seen as people who, rightly or wrongly, have more knowledge or authority or legitimacy in certain ways. But I'm just not convinced that “ownership” is the right metaphor with which to discuss these things. In fact, nobody owns any language. It changes and moves despite our best efforts to control it. But that’s probably a whole nother discussion.

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