[Note from the editor: this article was submitted as a response to Wiktor Kostrzewski’s post also published on this blog and which you can read here].
The Brexit debacle and Trump’s victory have no bearing on whether British or American English are optimal models of English language use. It’s a mistake to confuse the politics of the situations with the linguistic aspects. A politician espousing a nationalist ideology is one thing, the language they use is quite another.
If we establish the rule that using a language for distasteful political discourse precludes it from being the optimal model of that language we can rule out: Castellano Spanish, Italian and French. These are examples I found after only ten minutes googling for recent events. If we were to continue and to extend our search period even further back, we could probably rule out most languages.
If we are to continue with this hypothetical rule, what do we do when we encounter the language being used for political discourse that we consider “good”? How do we apply the rule when we encounter exceptions such as Mary Fisher’s speech on AIDS to the Republican National Convention?” How about Tony Benn’s speech against war in Iraq? Do the good ideas conveyed in a language balance out the bad? Or do we only react when language is used in a way we don’t like?
The point was raised that after 2016 80% of all native speakers of English will be citizens of countries where their language was used – on a long-term, wide-ranging, nationwide, sometimes global level – to disastrous ends. I fail to see the bearing this point has on this discussion. After 2016 100% of all native speakers of English will also be citizens of countries where their language was used as a means of communicating love, beauty, information, and a myriad of other concepts. Language is used. That’s the sole reason for the existence of languages, to convey ideas. Sometimes those ideas will be ideas we like, sometimes they won’t. Language doesn’t mould the idea; the idea moulds the way the language is used. If we dislike what people are saying it isn’t sufficient to simply challenge the language they use; we must challenge the idea behind that language as well.
It was also claimed in the original article that native speakers of English do not consciously learn or study their language and neither do they grow up having to experiment or question the message. With regards to the first point, English Language is part of the curriculum and a subject option throughout higher education in the UK and I’d imagine the situation is the same throughout the countries where native speakers reside. To say that no native speaker studies their own language is a gross assumption. As for the second point; where do I begin? There’s such a breadth of evidence against the idea. I’ll start with some of my personal favourites: Hemingway and his unadorned style, Chandler and his elevation of pulp literature to an art form, Kerouac and his “spontaneous prose or Plath and her confessional poetry? All of them are good examples of writers experimenting with their language. I find it ironic that the author of the original article claims that native speakers do not experiment with their own language then later quotes William Burroughs, one of the finest Beat poets. As for questioning the message, what am I doing right now? What do billions of people do every day? If people didn’t question the message we wouldn’t have had revolutions or shifts in what is accepted as the social norm, changes that came about through questioning the idea behind the language.
The original article really was one of two halves and it falls to me to challenge some of the ideas in the second half. In point five of the article the author claims that “everyday English” or “English as it’s spoken” is no longer the best option as throughout the recent American presidential elections and the Brexit campaign native speakers failed to fact check the claims, see through the rhetoric or demand evidence. Apparently, the only ones capable of this are multi-lingual speakers. I’m taken aback that this is put forward as a serious argument. It falls at every step. By inference the author is claiming that native speakers are mono-lingual. I’ll have to bear that in mind next time I speak with my girlfriend in Spanish. Apparently only multi-lingual speakers, which we can assume here means none-native speakers, can fact check rhetoric of challenge false claims. I guess that’s right, I mean I never once saw during the Brexit campaign people fact checking the numbers or ridiculing the rhetoric. As for the author’s claim that “English as it’s spoken” is no longer the best option I feel that yet again he is confusing politics and linguistics. As I have stated earlier, we need to challenge the idea behind the language, not the entire language itself. Again, if we were to demonise languages and native speakers for political outcomes then soon we would be left with very few languages that we consider “the optimal model”.
With regards to point six of the original argument I feel that the author has confused the notions of tasteful and distasteful, and correct and incorrect language. “None-native speakers make poor English teachers” is correct as a sentence but the idea is distasteful and false. “None-natives is well better teaching” is incorrect as a sentence but the idea is tasteful and true. To say that native speakers can no longer identify the correct use of English language due to a political result is a rather ridiculous argument. If I was to respond in kind then I would say the author cannot claim native prerogative to tell me that “pies spacerować szybki” is an incorrect sentence in Polish as he, as a Polish person, regardless of his political beliefs, elected a right wing, nationalist government. It’s a preposterous absolutism.
In point eight of the argument I feel the author has truly missed the mark. The number of languages you know doesn’t determine your political beliefs. It’s base vanity to assume that just because you speak more than one language you are a better person than someone who only speaks one. To say that Brexit and Trump being elected happened only because the people of the US and UK speak one language is naivety. What about voter backlash against the establishment? What people voting due to their economic situation? I’m from an area of England that has lost most its jobs due to globalisation and a lack of intervention by the government. I’m sure that affected the way people voted rather than knowledge or lack of HTML and Morse code.
The author also fails to account for the differences within English within native speakers. I use English differently when I’m speaking with my friends in a pub in Middlesbrough to the way I use it when I’m speaking to my students. I used English differently when I was speaking to my colleagues in the Navy then when I spoke to civilian friends. I use English differently when I am speaking to people about gaming then when I am speaking during a job interview. Each of these different social groups, social situations have rules and norms of language use and often their own jargon. The English I used whilst in the Navy even has its own dictionary. For all the variations on English I have someone from Australia or Ireland or Scotland will have a dozen more. Which bring me to point number nine. British and American English are just variations of the same language. There is no fundamental difference in the grammar or the building blocks of the language, there’s just a difference in the vocabulary. I don’t understand what the author dislikes about these variations. Is it the vocabulary? If so, what about Australian or South African English, are they acceptable? Is it the grammar structure? If so, does the author want us to completely rewrite the rules of English grammar? Or is it just the fact that these languages can be used for an end that the author (nor I for that matter) agree with? If so, what’s the solution? Should we create linguistic rules that prevent doublespeak and in doing so impose a form of censorship?
In the author’s tenth point we finally see something we can agree on. I agree that English teachers should be hired for their ability. Native speaker or none-native speaker shouldn’t come into it. If you have a passion for teaching the English language, if you appreciate its quirks and its oddities and if you can impart this passion and knowledge to the students you’re hired. What’s incendiary however is to imply that native speakers can’t do this if they are mono-lingual. To say that native speakers cannot be treated seriously due to political events in their home country is as ludicrous as saying none-native speakers make poorer teachers.
Luke Gaffney – 28 year old English teacher living and working in Spain. A fan of cooking, photography, The Boro, travelling, gaming, rugby and comics.