UK: A broad church, not a closed cathedral

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Mar 15 15:05:45 UTC 2007

A broad church, not a closed cathedral

Spoken English is changing throughout the world, but there's no reason to
worry about standards, says Lee Knapp

Thursday March 15, 2007

"I this essay focus on big developings in the colloquialisms of the
Englishes," begins a submission from one of your students. You might
admire the linguistic verve and try to focus on the substance of the
argument, but what about when it comes to grading?

According to an important report released today by Demos, 'As You Like It:
Catching up in an age of Global English', any negative response you might
have to this student's use of the English language would be an indicator
of a much bigger problem: a deep-rooted 'linguistic imperialism' that will
ultimately lead to the UK's economic decline and shrinking role in the
world. The made-up example here is actually a typical piece of what's
known as Chinglish - a variety of English affected by the very different
sentence structure and rules of grammar used in Chinese languages that is
used to one extent or another by millions of Chinese speakers of English.

The report borrows an analogy from the software industry, where the
'cathedral', a prescriptive, dogmatic set of rules for English language
use, is rapidly being replaced by a global 'bazaar'. In this model,
English doesn't belong to a single nationality but is in the hands of lots
of different groups, all with their own stake in English, using the
language to serve their own ends, and where English is used as a tool for
communication and standards of linguistic perfection are unnecessary. If
the UK wants to be part of this new world, it needs to get involved with
the bazaar and not keep trying to impose its creed from above.

>>From our experience of working with millions of English learners around
the world, we'd agree the trend towards English self-sufficiency is
happening. Chinglish, Hinglish (Hindi-English), Spanglish and Poglish
(Polish-English) are flourishing. Speakers get reassurance from books like
The Queen's Hinglish, and The Coxford Singlish Dictionary for a
Singaporean version of English. English is being adopted as the everyday
language of practice by businesses, state bodies, universities and
colleges wherever a competitive advantage is spotted. And what does this
version of the future mean for UK universities? Besides the obvious
competition, the growth of English varieties is likely to put pressure
onto tutors and exam bodies to reassess what constitutes 'acceptable'
forms of English.

It's not just a case of unusual grammar. English varieties include whole
new vocabularies, both bits and pieces of first languages and neologisms,
as well as unusual pronunciations that gain acceptance from consistent use
over time. Any number of issues can arise in communication using language
varieties, like, for example, the lack of a distinction between singular
and plural forms in Chinglish. Demos also emphasises the urgency of
building multilingual skills in this country, and for HE to compete in
terms of quality of offering against the rest of the world, this may also
mean being capable of matching overseas universities in providing
programmes in languages other than English. The Demos recommendations for
'radical' changes to government policy are welcome. English has a vast
role and influence in the world and demands a considered, joined-up
approach. But is it really imperialism lurking behind the existing use of
'standard' English?

The fact is, people want to have a standard English available. The more
varieties and the greater the use of English, the more government
authorities want to establish a reliable standard for their populations
and the more employers want solid guidance for recruitment. More than
anything else, we know the learners themselves want to be measured against
an acknowledged standard. This is not to deny the value and validity of
any English variety. As with the colloquial language used in
English-speaking countries, the varieties are an expression of human
communities. Rather than the assertion of alternative language varieties
that demand a response, it's more likely they will be no different to the
colloquial language of the UK, providing words and language use which will
change the dictionaries over time.

One of the reasons that overall standards have improved so quickly has
been the supporting role of the UK and its educators and teachers. The
proactive role for the UK demanded by Demos is already happening - for
instance, University of Cambridge Esol Examinations has been working with
the Beijing municipal government to help the city's population improve its
English in preparation for hosting next year's Olympics. Indeed, as Demos
points out, the London 2012 games is a 'one-off' opportunity to drive
interest in learning new languages. For example, one idea is that
volunteers for the Games might need to demonstrate second language skills.
But any new policy on global English needs to first of all look at what's
happening at home. More than concern about the impact of English
varieties, the government needs to worry more about the people who need
Esol skills here - not as a requirement, but as a right. We need to give
them the opportunity to get more than basic skills and play a full part in
society: to make a career, gain higher qualifications, start businesses,
and all those life-enhancing activities that languages (and government)
are there to facilitate.

 Lee Knapp is UK manager for University of Cambridge Esol,,2033863,00.html


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