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English for international purposes

April 19, 2007

Hello again,

Excuse me, but I feel a rant coming on. It’s about so-called “international English.” I really want to protest about the idea that this is a variety of English in its own right. It isn’t; it can’t be because it is never spoken ...

...by a stable group. Thus it has no stable conventions. Yes, I accept that when non-native speakers use English as a lingua franca, they take all sorts of measures to communicate but they do not speak an identifiable variety of English. Indeed, if a group is of mixed nationality but contains some native speakers, the non-native speakers look to them for support and help.

In group I was in at a multi-national conference, we began by promising as native speakers to speak slowly and clearly to step in with interpretation where necessary. We also agreed that it would be good to pick up some words from other languages; this was not entirely successful as all I seemed to come away with was how to say “bullshit” in Farsi.

So what is international English. Attempts to produce such artificial languages as Globish or English Lite are not convincing: ultimately they are just confusing to all. It seems to me helpful to see it international English in the category of English for special purposes. It is not quite like academic English or medical English, say, but it is demonstrates certain characteristics that we can describe and thus we can help students learn how to operate in an international setting.

When helping students use English for international purposes, we should, I believe, make it clear that we are using our own variety of English as the benchmark. Thus, pronunciation will be taught according to dictionary indications and in accordance with the stress and tonal patterns we use to influence meaning. It remains important for learners to be able to produce, for example, long and short vowels. If you spill coffee on your bed in a hotel you need fresh shI:Ts. Pronunciation needs to be firmly based on a recognisable variety of English otherwise we shall have utter confusion. Language is first and foremost a stream of sound.

We should, I think, concentrate on the core language learners will need for typical international interactions: travelling, food, being able to ask for help, and so forth.
Then they need the language that relates to their specific occupational interest.
Beyond that we need to help learners develop strategies for making a little language go a long way: compensation strategies if you like.

We can also help prepare learners for the kinds of accents they will meet and the effect these have on pronunciation. Spanish speakers might blur b/v; Korean p/f; Japanese l/r. We can help them to prepare for meeting false friends, often a source of misunderstanding.

What I am suggesting is that we preserve at all costs the teaching of benchmark standards in English but that we help learners to understand what happens in international settings and give them some ways of coping. Phew, I feel better now!

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