English vs. [none] as World/Global Language

Mike Salovesh t20mxs1 at CORN.CSO.NIU.EDU
Sun Oct 1 19:34:03 UTC 2000

"Douglas G. Wilson" wrote:

> The major 'standard' varieties of spoken English
> are certainly mutually comprehensible, and most even slightly educated
> English-speakers can employ some 'standard' pronunciation (e.g., a national
> TV/radio standard), I think.
> -- Doug Wilson

Mutual comprehension is more than a statement about surface
similarities.  It requires a commitment to mutual comprehension, and it
isn't safe to assume that two people talking at each other share that
commitment even if they do share what an outsider would consider a
single language.

Illustration #1: At NIU, like so many other U.S. universities, we have a
fair mumber of people from South Asia teaching math and computer science
courses. Many of these faculty members are native speakers of a form of
English.  In the classroom, their English isn't Standard Average
Midwestern, but it certainly is educated English.  Speaking only of
language as a medium of communication, I've never had any difficulty
understanding them or having them understand me.

The variety of English spoken by our faculty members from South Asia
sometimes is sharply marked by South Asian accents.  (That's not true in
all cases: some speak very British English, and a few sound like they're
speaking YouEssian.) Our students report having great problems in
understanding this "alien" speech, and they frequently are convinced
that these professors don't understand their students' language at all.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that many students try
to take math courses for which they are not adequately prepared. . .
even though their paper records show good grades in the right high
school courses that should have been sufficient preparation for the
beginnning NIU math courses.  As a result, these courses have
astoundingly high flunk rates.  One of the simplest courses offered in
the math department is, roughly, the equivalent of "high school math for
dummies who don't want to learn any math at all, but have to earn credit
in something with the word mathematics in the course listing if they
want to get an NIU degree".  The first time they register for it, well
over half the students who register for the course withdraw without
finishing it or stick it out to the end and fail to get a passing grade.

Many students complain that their failing grades are due to their
inability to understand the alien speech of their professors.  I don't
think that's true, since the dropout/flunkout rates in sections taught
by South Asians are not significantly different from those in sections
taught by native Midwesterners.

Students claim that their failing grades in math courses are caused by
their professors' lack of English language skills.  I put it down to the
students' lack of preparation, their failure to complete homework
assignments on a regular and consistent schedule -- and their active
unwillingness to try to understand  well-educated English spoken with an
unfamiliar accent.

Illustration #2: I have spent a lot of time in a Mexican community where
Tzotzil is the language of the home.  Many children learn next to zip
about speaking Spanish before they enter school, even though their
parents are comfortably fluent in Spanish when interacting with
monolingual Spanish speakers.  I tried hard, but with no success, to
find an adult member of the community who was NOT bilingual in Tzotzil
and Spanish. (I used to speak Tzotzil passably, if not fluently. It has
been over thirty years since I last used the language, and I'm afraid
almost nothing remains on the tip of my tongue.)

The people of the community where I lived have frequent contacts with
Indians who speak other Mayan languages, particularly Tzeltal and
Tojolabal.  They claim that those languages are so similar to their own
that they can follow conversations in them even though they are in a
language my informants don't speak.  They've repeatedly proved to me
that they can, in fact, understand several neigboring Mayan languages.
My standards of proof in these matters are pretty demanding.

Not too far away, there is another community of Tzotzil speakers called
Chamula. People from that community are convinced that their language is
unique.  They insist that they can't understand the utterly alien
Tzotzil my informants speak. Instead of Tzotzil, they insist on speaking
very bad Spanish to communicate with people from "my" community, on the
grounds that Spanish is the only language outside their own that any of
them can manage. (Bilinguality is rare in Chamula.)  My informants, on
the other hand, provide running simultaneous translations of Chamula
Tzotzil to rural Chiapas Spanish, or into their own Tzotzil (distinctive
from Chamula's variety in a few minor phonetic features).

The difference is that Indians from San Bartolome set a high value on
ability to communicate well across dialect and language differences.
People from Chamula set a high value on maintaining the unique
separation of their community from all others.

I know, I've ventured into forbidden territory, dangerously close to the
question of "what are the differences between a language and a dialect,
or a dialect and an accent?"  My apologies.  I know those are questions
we can't settle here.

-- mike salovesh                    <salovesh at niu.edu>

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