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Casualties of international English

February 28, 2009

Hello again,

English is increasingly taking over as the language of international scholarship. I edit my fair share of doctoral theses and academic articles. I could of course deplore the general decline in writing standards rather than focus on the effect of non-native speakers publishing in English, but I think the two issues ...

...have separate effects.

With non-native speakers likely eventually to outnumber those publishing with English as their mother tongue, I predict that some niceties of the language will be irretrievably lost. There will losses in grammatical forms and these will occur where the native usage is over-complex. I have seen a creeping disintegration of the standard use of articles, for example. The definite article is often deictic and its use or not depends on whether there has been an antecedent. Take abstract nouns. Normally we use them without an article. “Happiness is a state of mind.” But if we continue, we might need to use an article deictically: “happiness is a state of mind: the happiness of one person might be another’s misery”. Increasingly I find non-native writers unable to cope with this anaphoric use of the article.

Nuance in the choice of words is also being lost. Some words may not be exactly pejorative but have negative overtones. Take the sentence: “he drew up a tentative list of for the agenda.” We know what is meant, but tentative smacks of indecision and timidity. A better choice would be “provisional”. These nuances of meaning are often lost in the writing of non-native speakers.

Increasing redundancy is another feature of international English. Non-native speakers often lack the confidence to write succinctly and believe that verbosity lends them credibility. It doesn’t, but the tendency is often overlooked by editors and this creeping prolixity seems to be part of the international style.

I realise I probably sound judgemental over these matters. I do, I must confess, miss the elegant prose of earlier times, and sometimes I worry that English may go the same way as Latin. But largely I am interested in observing language change. Researchers at the University of Reading have produced software that analyses the age of words and predicts what will die out. The supercomputer, called ThamesBlue, can model the evolution of words in English and the wider family of Indo-European languages over the last 30 000 years. It predicts that words such as “squeeze” and “dirty” will die out. Logically, the researchers, show that infrequent use contributes to a word’s demise. Conversely, I suggest, the constant drip-feed of different usage in international English will produce meaning change and grammar change.

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  1. jon campbell Says:

    As usual, i agree with your missive,,,,but the changing of the language in both oral and written form, I celebrate.....However, my main focus is to note with increasing pleasure the widening of understanding and communication between different peoples... This, I believe is our saving grace for the future as a species....hopefully it will be more difficult to term another "enemy" if we can understand each other.......j

  1. Renate Fekete Says:

    I have long been urging the return of the ''Good English Society.'' Although I am an ethnically cleansed Hungarian from our former lands, I left my so called home at one years old and came to England when nearly eight. I was taught by wonderful OLDER teachers, dedicated to their profession at my Church of England school and we had an English lesson each and every school day.
    My concern is less about the deteriorating english in the papers, more about the whole merit of the written thesis -- written by whom?
    When in England, I give private tuition. I now get constant requests for 'please correct my thesis'...correct means 're-write.' One young lady was cheeky enough to tell me that her South African lecturer at the local College had told her that she could not pass unless someone corrected it for her and thought of it as a right, much as I have found many Asians think receiving Benefits is a right whether they work or not. She began to bully me that I HAD to correct her work (a stupid thing to do with me, as then I am not willing to work for a person, even if they paid me in gold) - it was not fair to her if I did not she seemed to think.
    She has been in England as long as I had when I was passing all my examinations on my own. Infact, things were a lot stricter back then, uniform had to be observed exactly with no excuses and work done as per standards required. I would say if anything, the weights were against us back then in odd ways I do not want to go into just now.
    Another person who had her thesis 'checked' (I refused) has been given a job in which reports are a necessity, working with people, in a field in which sueing is a normal process. A person who is severely dyslexic, though a bright spark who would have found a space in somewhere, maybe less report dependant!
    I generally present these -- well, what can we call them, cheats, with a list, of which I keep copies, of what a teacher may and may not do when checking a student's work, as in the Letts English Guide.
    My feeling is that the thesis is no longer a guide to a person's knowledge or capabilities, and a return to sitting examinations in a hall, with adjudicators present, should be considered. I have got to the stage where I now doubt all Western Higher Derees gained in the last few years. They anyway have their computer spell checks etc, so expect them all to be lacking when it comes to spelling and grammar, and since realising that foreign lecturers at English colleges are requesting that pupils have their work checked by English teachers or professionals, I have lost all faith in our higher system.

  1. Jo Says:

    Hold on to your hanging participles, darlings!
    The English language may have shot itself squarely in the foot.

    I share your concerns. Lapses in nicety, nuance and brevity are just a few inevitable outcomes of the global domination of a language.

    However, and in (tentative) defense of non-native speakers, is it reasonable to promote the widespread distribution of a second language, and then bewail losses and changes to it when non-native authors begin to activate it, warts and all? They're going to publish, and be damned, in any case.

    I think there will be much licking of wounds as your predictions prove correct. But everything comes at a price.

  1. Bill Says:

    In an ironic way, this is a very amusing topic. So many bewail the loss of various languages around the world; languages spoken by small tribes of aboriginals, etc. But by losing their own language & switching to English, we, native English speakers, are losing our own language as stated in the article. But it is not only new English speakers who are doing this; just look at US black ghetto English. Yikes!

    Are we all suffering from language globalization?

  1. Peter Says:

    "There will losses in grammatical forms and these will occur where the native usage is over-complex." That's funny!

  1. Bob T. Says:

    Let me add what I know to this discussion. Much of the problem is that most people teaching Engloish in other countries are not teachers! They may have TESL training, but I have seen a lot of people like that, and they don't know how to teach at all. They don't know how to attack basic problems learners have, and that is where all the problems begin. If learners were taught by professionally trained teachers as in real classrooms in the five native English speaking countries, there probably wouldn't been any probems. In most Asian countries which I know about, even professionally trained teachers are hampered by local administrators, who generally don't know anything about teaching (but they think they do and will fire anyone who challenges them).

    Brenda and everyone else, the problem is to get the non-professional teachers out of the teaching business, and make it mandatory that only professionally trained teachers teach in classrooms.

    It is not the learners fault that bad teachers did not teach them correctly.

  1. abhilasha Says:

    I completly agree with you. English language, spoken or written has changed from the time we went to school. Again, having been taught by Irish nuns, we were fortunate enough to learn the right pronunciation and diction, spellings and sentence structure.
    the syllabus has been revamped since and the grammer is interactive. we follow British English, but the AmE(american english) seems to confuse the students.
    definitly , there are some words getting extinct.
    but i guess change is the most constant thing in nature

  1. Neil Ross Says:

    "I realise I probably sound judgemental over these matters."

    Since when was 'judgmental' spelled with an 'e' after the 'g'?

    I find it difficult to take seriously a site devoted to teaching the English language, authored by someone professing to have a PHD, yet who not only cannot spell 'judgmental' but does not even bother to use Spellcheck.

    Not trying to sound JUDGMENTAL!

  1. Jerry Says:

    What I have learned from teaching English is if you can understand it, then it is communications. What is at the heart of communications is the soul of the message. In teaching we often learn more than anyone in the class. Things stated at the very basic level have more meaning. As opposed to people using words that are designed to encapsulate meanings never intended by the user.

  1. Sylvia Says:

    I don't know what to say - I'm speechless. Well, you wouldn't let me say anything anyway, I'm NON-NATIVE. Marked for life. Poor me. Withouth any of this ever so brilliant Old School, "Good English Society" education.
    I'll live. But are you aware of the fact that you might sound - ever so slightly - disparaging?
    I'll stop now. You had to put up with my poor English devoid of any niceties for far too long. Brevity is the word. I do humbly apologize. Do I have your permission to withdraw, Your Majesty?

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Neil, Reliance on a spell check is not the only means of agreeing a spelling. I prefer my dictionaries. Chambers, for example shows judgemental and judgmental as equally acceptable spelling of the word.

  1. Brenda Townsend Hall Says:

    Disparaging? Only in so far as I see some changes being for the worse.

    I am merely observing changes that emanate from the work of non-native speakers. There are plenty of others that come from native speakers. Many children in the UK think that the contracted for of 'have' is in fact 'of'. This is reflected in their writing: "I could of done it". How long, I wonder, before htis starts to seep into current use?

  1. phyuwah Says:

    Dear teacher,
    I do agree with your letter.
    In my country , Myanmar, the students who are from International School use broken English.
    Sometimes, it is very hard to translate into English.
    And, Can we let them speak as they wish even it is right or wrong?
    Sometimes, i ignore when they speak wrongly English because i don't want them not to dare speaking out.
    That's why, they don't feel shy when ever they speak.
    And then, sometimes, if they don't know how to translate,they speak by adding s.
    It is very funny on the other hand, we don't want them recognize wrongly.
    So, i correct them sometimes.
    Thanks you ,
    Phyu Wah

  1. Stephen Says:

    It's 2:00 AM here.
    I am loving this contretemps!
    It is my obsessive-compulsive personality
    which constantly corrects my students.
    I want them erudite.
    I want them impressive,
    a reflection on me.
    Love to all, at their little laptops
    in the middle of the night.

  1. Jo Says:

    I knew some fur would fly because of this topic!

    On a lighter note, perhaps(!) English Language lovies who haven't read 'Feersum Endjinn' by Iain M. Banks might like to check out the style of the first person narrative in this great little novel. It will strike a cord with anyone familiar with the standard of spoken and written English in many British schools today. It's a good read, too.

    I'd wholeheartedly agree with Bob T's proposal regarding unprofessional language teachers, if it were even remotely possible to safeguard any language by ensuring that the careless and incompetent don't try to teach it. But try to implement that idea in climates driven, primarily, by economy and profit.

    Also, a word on behalf of the many very professional teachers who are all too often blamed for the decline in standards of English, at home and abroad. Consider the obstacles they face when trying to hone the language skills of native-speaking students, let alone others. What's done in an hour in a classroom can be very quickly undone during the hours outside it by a hundred and one agents, including parents and peers.

    Not to worry though! We cun orl luc forwerd to a tym wen awr langwij has evolvd to a poynt ware funetics rul the day an sili duble consinunts, trublsum sintax an renigade 'e's dunt mater a fig ani mor. Meenwyl, ceep crosing yer eyes an dottin yer teas. Smyl an be hapi :-)

  1. Laura Says:

    As you have a phd (in linguistics?) you must know there's no point bewailing language change. You do realise that if you went back in time just a hundred years, you would probably be thought ineloquent.

    Just because 'educated people' in your culture have been taught that "I could of done it" is an inferior form doesn't make it an eternal, universal truth. And by the way, it isn't just children who use that form. For plenty of 'inferior' groups of people, it is current speech. Or do you think it's just part of children's natural language development to mysteriously acquire 'of' instead of the superior 'have'?

    International journals are written for international audiences - with far more non-native readers than native. The language will change to fit their communication needs. Keep your British nuances for communicating within Britain. I think non-English speaking scholars trying to get their voices heard internationally have enough on their plate without being told they're ruining the language.

  1. Jo Says:

    ....And I'm still waiting for someone to remind me that participles 'dangle' not 'hang'!

    Fer shame.

  1. Paul Says:

    Bob T.

    What are the five native speaker countries you refer to?

    Which of these are you Excluding?

    Ireland, Australia, The USA, Canada, New Zealand or The UK?

  1. Jen O Says:

    As an ESL teacher with nearly 16 years of experience, I absolutely agree with many TESL/TEFL certification holders often being totally unqualified to teach any form of standard English. I recently got my certification after having taught ESL for 15 years, and there were absolutely no standards for passing/grading/evaluating participants. If there were any, they were most certainly not enforced.

    What's more, the instructor, an Australian, claimed that the best-selling, most popular ESL grammar text in the entire world, Murphy/Smalzer's Grammar in Use Intermediate, was actually incorrect on points of verb tense usage. He said that The ways in which UK and US standards differed (as shown in one appendix of the book) were some ignorant North American's attempt to justify a fictional concept known as American Standard English. I beg to differ.

    North American English is spoken, albeit poorly in many cases, by 330+ million people. There is an accepted, standardized form of ASE to which we do indeed adhere.

    I cringe every time someone doesn't use the past perfect when it is called for (instead employing the simple past), every time a person uses a genitive form when they desire to make a word plural, and each time a "there's" is used in place of the expression "there are". I agree with Dr. Hall's comment, "I predict that some niceties of the language will be irretrievably lost." However I would add that the most critical difficulty with which we must all deal is something else entirely. That problem is a deteriorating overall ability of the general populous to communicate in a standard form of English. International English it may be, but this does not mean that the native English speakers of the world do not bear the burden of responsibility for maintaining some level of linguistic integrity for the sake of our language.

    The world will always be brimming with ignorance and those who do not even have decent command of their own native language, but let us, the proud, the few, the ESL educators be ambassadors of our language. Let us go forth and help the world to understand that yes, there is a right and a wrong to English grammar, and no, it is not always subject to interpretation and/or the feelings of the moment; for it is only through better, more fluid communication with one another that we will find a way to solve the world's problems, and not as Jon Campbell suggests, "the widening of understanding and communication between different peoples" which will lead to international friendship and understanding. He even mentions that "if we can understand each other", we may deter conflict amongst peoples, but how can this be accomplished if the widening is so great that communication ceases to occur efficiently or, worse yet, at all? Does this not lead to misunderstanding?

    I sincerely hope that ESL teachers, instructors, professors and the like can take a less interpretive and more structured/standardized approach in the future lest we lose all hope of the continued existence of English in the 22nd century.

    Whatever form of native English-speaker you are: British, North American, Australian, South African or another native speaker, accept other standardized forms of English throughout the world, and recognize their integrity. Moreover, work hard to maintain you own high standards of language teaching so that we may all reap the rewards of better international communication throughout the world in our planet's future.

  1. ms kaye Says:

    First off, I AM NOT a academic, certified teacher, and second, YES, I AM a certified TESOL instructor with a BA in Humanities.

    Quoting the last sentences from Bob T. : "the problem is to get the non-professional teachers out of the teaching business, and make it mandatory that only professionally trained teachers teach in classrooms.

    It is not the learners fault that bad teachers did not teach them correctly."

    All I have to say is "Get off your high horse and stop being a blasted snob!" My mother who is a retired teacher of 30yrs will also disagree with your statement and she has Masters Degree PLUS was a highly respected academic teacher.

    However, her methods of teaching is not just from books but from a person who believes of being firm NOT strict in aiding students to learn. I've been teaching since February 2009 but I have also experiences many international travels and cultures which I implement within my ESL lessons.

    I do not require a PhD in giving lessons in learning how to speak English, but the patience and understanding with most of all COMMON SENSE! My ESL lessons involve that speaking English is the art of LISTENING to tone inflection, HOW the phrasal verb is used, ACTUALITY or FIGURATIVELY, use of PANTOMIMING (do not just simply give up because student still doesn't understand), most importantly BODY LANGUAGE (useful in the Business World). Put all that together with life lessons and my students now have a better understanding WHAT, HOW and WHEN to say those overly use of American Idioms both socially and occupation.

    I am not a born US native, but from a former British colony in which my parents immigrated to America. So my first language was Queen's English, and I faced the horrors of HOW American teachers always thought their way of teaching toward any subject, including speaking English as GOD-GIVEN TRUTH and CORRECT, given me much reason NOT to speak.

    My ESL lessons involve PASSION, and I truly understand how these students feel when learning from AN ACADEMIC, PROFESSIONAL teacher who only learned from a book how to present lessons but never performed in actual practice, and demands that he/she is always right for the book claims so... any student would feel quite inferior.

  1. jon g Says:

    Let's all please consider (as i'm a teacher with over 10 yrs experience, a TESOL, BA (Joint Hons no less!)in Politics/English Lit., NVQ Teachers Cert, Dip. Humanities, plus MEd TESOL - so do i qualify as a "professional"?)that whatever we may regard as correct as individuals we are only that. What may be English and acceptable grammar, diction, pronunciation to you in your (part of the) world may unavoidably seem rather anomolous to someone else in their world. I too have my preferences, tend to reject "Americanisms" in favour of the good old British way, but am not so ignorant as to ignore the fact that languages evolve, have evolved and will continue to do so, as will dialects and their peoples. There are different "Englishes" out there, so as long as we focus on finding ways to teach students how to interpret and reproduce meanings as competently as is necessary for the purpose of developing their own communicative ability in EFL, what is all the fuss about?

  1. Eunice Says:

    Jo, your comments are the best! I say Amen! you rock!!! all you guys listen :-)

  1. Richard Says:

    It has been interesting reading the comments on this page starting with the self serving opinions by the lady who opened up the comments. The over complex terminologies flowed freely from many that sought or hoped that readers would gasp in wonder at their skills for making something simple in English, " sound complicated".
    English is evolving as a language and is shaping itself to the needs of the global community. All ESL teachers that I have met tend to work very hard at teaching and enabling students to produce meaningful English which can be understood by all.
    Much of what I read here =
    (Including the insults aimed by some at TEFL teachers) seems to come from individuals that seek to hang on to the old ways and are unable to see that as a global language English is evolving. English language teachers all work hard and yes they have a variety of different teaching styles, I suggest that it would be nice to show some respect. When the USA took English as a first language for use by its multi-ethnic inbound migrating citizens, the language went through pronunciation and spelling changes and even changes in the meanings of some words. The USA model can be compared to the global picture and yes English will continue to evolve. I have no doubt that in the times of people like Shakespeare there were critics that wrung their hands in despair as they watched the English language evolving. I teach English, I enable learners to produce meaningful language through which they can be clearly understood. The aims for a global language tool are obvious regardless of the usage, be it academic, business etc. Make the language meaningful and understandable for all those that use the tool. I hope my article has been simple and meaningful.

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