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Englishes — Update from the workshop in Helsinki

16 September 2011

At the beginning of September I travelled to Helsinki to present a paper titled “Translating English into English: An Exploration into Academic Publishing and English Standards” (The reader-inviting version of this can be found in the blogpost “Englishes – An Open Discussion”). My point was to shed light on the growing debates surrounding what is and is not “standard” English.

I began my talk with a short and humorously self-aggrandizing introduction about my privileged role as a native speaker. I am a sought-after expert, you know. I was born in America. I can charge you outrageous amounts to correct your English!

Present in the audience was Dr. Harish Trivedi, a professor at the department of English at the University of Delhi. He jokingly pointed to one of the sentences on my hand-out that did not make sense (as luck would have it) because I had mistakenly cut too much from a quote and rendered it unintelligible. Dr. Trivedi is a good-natured and spirited man and we shared a hearty laugh when he said, “Does it make me a native speaker when I can correct a native speaker’s English?”

“How are you not a native speaker of English?” I asked him.

He chuckled. “It’s true! I am not a native speaker.”

Says who?

Dr. Trivedi was born in India, a country which has two official languages: English and Hindi, both of which he learned as a child. He studied British literature at what he calls “a high-colonial university” in India and then received a scholarship to a university in the UK where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf.

What criteria was he not meeting for “native” speaker? Was it that his perfectly-schooled English had a slight but noticeable accent?

I wondered about my son who was two when we moved to Norway. Despite his brilliant array of NorEnglish phrases like “Can you screw on the lights?” and “We call him for Matt” and “It hears out like a radio is playing,” he, unlike Dr. Trivedi, will most likely not be challenged in his claim for wearing that “native speaker” badge of privilege.

Clearly this notion of the superiority of a native speaker’s English is longer tenable, and what does “native” even mean in a world of migrants? Everywhere English-speaking children are growing up in non-English-speaking nations, and children with non-English-speaking parents are growing up in the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia. Who out of this bunch will speak “standard” English?

Sensitive to the growing awareness of English-es, the annual conference for the TESOL Association (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) this year focused on “Examining the ‘E’ in TESOL”. Macmillian Publishers have also signalled a recognition that “English nowadays is just as often used for communication between non-native speakers as it is between native speakers.” Their new English course, called “Global,” uses recordings of non-native speakers to teach spoken English. (Take that, Received Pronunciation!)

But can we “native” speakers (whatever that may mean) let go of “our” language and allow it to be something other?

This question brings me to a quote I used on the handout for my presentation. It appears in the preface to the Companion to Neo-Latin Studies. The Dutch author, Jozef Ijsewijn, thanks the native-speaker who corrected his English and bemoans the loss of Latin as the international language amongst academics:

Latin put us all at the same level, since everybody learned it and, writing in Latin, one could never hurt the linguistic sensitivity of native speakers. Now, to be born in an English-speaking country is an immense privilege, and to compete with such privileged persons is impossible. (vii, italics mine)

I would argue that the “linguistic sensitivity of native speakers” rests at the very heart of all debates about standard English. The injuring of my poor eyes or ears by the rattlings of a clunky word, the wounding of my mind by vulgar syntax . . . maybe we should toughen up our skins a bit?

One Comment leave one →
  1. Teresa Owens permalink
    20 September 2011 17:01

    What a great post, Jena! I think of this often, while learning Norwegian before I embark, as well as having started to learn Polish, in the certain event that I will be spending much more time with my family there. My cousin, who emigrated from Poland to Norway 20 years ago, speaks Norwegian, Polish, English, Russian, and German, all fluently. And her son was 6 when she moved to Norway, So, he is muti-lingual as well. When she met her husband there, they could only communicate well in English, and some broken Norwegian. I asked her how she learned her English so well. Her response? “I watched ‘Bold and Beautiful’ everyday!” Hilarious. And she speaks well! Well enough to get very mad at her husband’s (now ex-husband’s) insistance on pronouncing “jumbo jet” in the Norwegian way, “yumbo yet”. “You can’t pronounce words that were invented in english in the Norwegian way!!!!!” This from a Pole! Kudos. Another point that your post reminded me of, was the issue we had here in the States, particularly in California, with Ebonics. Now, while I view this as simply a case of a different dialect, if you even want to call it that, (you can relate, with the multitude of Norwegian dialects), the school system was adamant on considering these children as speakers of a different language and therefore, their English classes should be considered a 2nd language AND they should be eligible for federal funding under the mandate for funding special ed. (they were consistently performing below average in all other discliplines due to their language “barrier”). Here is where my argument for native speaker being one that is immersed in that particular language 24-7 in the home breaks down. Also, I have known folks who speak 2 different languages at home. Even Piotr, my cousin’s son, was brought up, after 6, speaking Polish to his mother and Norwegian to his step-father. Well, suffice it to say, that your post has me very interested in studying linguistics…..and oh, maybe the language of which one is a native speaker is the one that comes out automatically when you accidentally hit your thumb, instead of the nail, with the hammer….

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