Blame the idea, not the language by Luke Gaffney

[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.

lukeLuke Gaffney – 28 year old English teacher living and working in Spain. A fan of cooking, photography, The Boro, travelling, gaming, rugby and comics.



25 thoughts on “Blame the idea, not the language by Luke Gaffney

  1. Joss Frimond says:

    One of Wiktor’s mistakes was that he felt that as NNESTs had suffered discrimination, he was entitled to use discrimination to make a point. It actually echoes the politics Trump used to win the Presidential Election in the US, and why Marine le Pen is currently heading the polls in France. Sadly, discrimination works. Yes, you have to use language to be discriminate but that doesn’t mean a worthy movement like TEFL Equity Advocates has to discriminate too. No one owns English. It is a tool to communicate. And we should all use it in the best way we can, wherever we come from.

  2. linguaid says:

    One of Wiktor’s mistakes was that he felt that as NNESTs had suffered discrimination, he was entitled to use discrimination to make a point. It actually echoes the politics Trump used to win the Presidential Election in the US, and why Marine le Pen is currently heading the polls in France. Sadly, discrimination works. Yes, you have to use language to be discriminate but that doesn’t mean a worthy movement like TEFL Equity Advocates has to discriminate too. No one owns English. It is a tool to communicate. And we should all use it in the best way we can, wherever we come from.

  3. Scott Thornbury says:

    “The Brexit debacle and Trump’s victory have no bearing on whether British or American English are optimal models of English language use.” I think they do – but not for the reasons that Wiktor espouses. As I said, in a comment on his post (but which is buried in all the indignant chatter), the ideology that underpins the Brexit and Trump ‘debacles’ threatens – not the hegemony of native-speaker teachers or native speaker models of English – but the very survival of English as a global language itself. When two of the countries that are (still) most closely identified with English succumb to antiglobalizing, protectionist and xenophobic political discourses, the ‘symbolic capital’ of the language is devalued. With fewer students studying in the US or UK, and fewer companies trading there – even with fewer tourists – the incentive to learn English will weaken. Maybe not by much, but maybe by enough for another global language – e.g. Spanish or Russian (don’t laugh!) – to edge it off first base – or maybe the increasing sophistication of translation software will render the notion of a lingua franca redundant in any case. Either way, we can’t simply shrug off the effect that Brexit/Trump will have on global perceptions of English. Maybe we should rebrand it ‘Canadian’, and teach that!

    • Luke Gaffney says:

      Hi Scott,
      Thanks for the comment but I would have to disagree. For starters I don’t think Brexit or Trump’s election represent a genuine turn towards a xenophobic, isolationist national idrntity. I know a lot of genuine decent people who are confused on the whole matter and their vote to exit the EU wasn’t a vote against foreigners but rather a vote against what they percieved as the establishment. It’s too murky an area to put it down as clear cut as Brexit = xenophobia. We’re seeing the rise of a lot of nationalist parties at the moment through out Europe. I think if we are going to consider politics and it’s influence on lingusitics then it can’t solely be the politics of the UK and the US and it has to be from an impartial view point rather than a partisan one.
      Secondly I think there are other factors that contribute a lot more heavily to the prespodence of English as a global language than election results. The influence of popular culture and the internet cannot be ignored and I’d probably say they override any political situation. A lot of my young students now couldn’t decribe the politica of the United Kingdom to you but they can give you a damn good summary of Season 6 of Game of Thrones. For every xenophobe there’s a sixteen year old kid who’s in a WoW clan with someone from another country.

        • Luke Gaffney says:

          As an interesting aside English and Russian are the two working languages aboard the ISS. English is the agreed upon working language once aboard the station. However the Russians are the ones who carry out the majority of the tranfers to the station and they insist that all their passengers understand spoken and written Russian so that they can adhete to the launch and emergency procedures

      • Scott Thornbury says:

        Thanks for your comment, Luke. I hope (for our sakes!) you are right. But whatever motivated the way people voted, the fact of the matter is that Trump the isolationist and xenophobe will be the next POTUS and Brexit (in Theresa’s immortal formulation) means Brexit. Both events but a brake on global mobility. English will no longer be a majority language in the EU, for example, and may even lose its official status (if the French have their way). And, as Jan Blommaert points out, globalization IS mobility: ‘When we address globalisation… we address trans-local, mobile markets whose boundaries are flexible and changeable. … A sociolinguistics of globalisation is perforce a sociolinguistics of mobility.’ A global language has to be mobile, to be truly global. Once English becomes associated with IMmobility (walls, borders, visa restrictions, xenophobic attacks…), it may lose its global status. Arguably, this is what happened to classical Latin, which became an elitist and hieratic language and thereby lost its lingua franca status.

          • Luke Gaffney says:

            I appreciate your point but I think everyone’s placing too much emphasis on Brexit and Trump’s election. I don’t agree they put a brake on global mobility. Whilst restrictions may be placed on immigration I don’t think tourism will be affected in either direction. Let’s not forget that people learn English in many places to enable them to converse with tourists coming to their country rather than to enable them to go to an English speaking country. And again, I’d argue that traditional boundaries are falling by the wayside when it comes to languages due to the internet. Global society is more open now than it ever has been and I feel two political decisions aren’t likely to affect this.

    • James Scholl says:

      I would agree that the ‘US and UK varieties’ of English may have lost some currency as international standards this year. The question is, to whom and to what extent? I would argue that the worth of linguistic varieties, like money, can be valued differently between groups and over time. Perhaps then, UK/US Englishes are now devalued amongst politically-informed individuals who broadly oppose the values, beliefs and principles coveyed by the winning parties of the recent election and referendum? If so, might these linguistic currencies gain value (amongst those individuals affected) in future depending on the success/survival of a Britain-less (and maybe Austria- and France-less) EU and the outcomes of new Republican poilicies?

      • Luke Gaffney (@lukegaffney88) says:

        Hi James,
        First off, apologies for the late reply. I understand your argument but personally I don’t agree with it. I feel that US/UK English are just dialects. I don’t think that politics will hugely impact on people’s opinions of them or determine whether ESL students call fried potatoes chips or fries. How many students actively seek to specifically learn US or UK English?

        As for opposition from politically-informed individuals, I feel that anybody who is opposed to Trump or Brexit isn’t likely to be the type of person that reacts by closing themselves off to a variety of a language.

  4. geoffjordan says:

    Scott Thornbury says

    “As I said, in a comment on his post (but which is buried in all the indignant chatter), the ideology that underpins the Brexit and Trump ‘debacles’ threatens – not the hegemony of native-speaker teachers or native speaker models of English – but the very survival of English as a global language itself.”

    Two things. First, he bemoans the “indignant chatter” that “buried” his own comment with the kind of indignant aloofness we expect of ELT stars, Second, he takes advantage of your post to repeat his absurd warning of the imminent disappearance of the English language. To lump everybody who voted to leave the EU together in one “antiglobalizing, protectionist and xenophobic” heap is bad enough, but to then argue that a vote for “no” and a vote for Trump heralds the end of the English language is staggeringly, hysterically stupid.

    • TEFL Equity Advocates says:

      Hello Geoff,
      Thanks for stopping by.
      I don’t think Scott was aloof in his comment. It didn’t struck me as such, but of course you’re entitled to your opinion. Unlike you, I don’t expect ELT stars to be aloof, and it seems to me that none of the ones I’ve met so far (Scott included) are in any way aloof. In fact, they’re very approachable and humble. At least in my personal experience.
      Second, I don’t think Scott ‘heralds the end of the English language’. He reflects whether it MIGHT be the beginning. You may choose to disagree with this, but I would appreciate if you refrained from calling others or their comments stupid. There is absolutely no need to use this sort of language.

      • Scott Thornbury says:

        Thanks you, Marek, for your well-meant defence of my position in the face of Geoff’s incontinent diatribe. As you correctly point out, I was not arguing that English as a language is going to disappear (I may be stupid but not that stupid), only that its status (based on its symbolic capital) as a global lingua franca might (note: might) be threatened. Irrespective of whoever voted for or against Brexit or Trump, these tectonic political changes are now faites accomplits, and the fact that the Guardian today reports that the UK is considering halving its intake of overseas students would seem to lend ammunition to my case. As for Geoff calling me ‘stupid’ fear not: for Geoff, it is a term of endearment, and he has called me stupid many times before without it ever damaging our extraordinarily close relationship. 😉

  5. geoffjordan says:

    Dear Marek,

    You’re some kind of editor and gate-keeper for this blog, right? So surely you should make the effort to distinguish between calling somebody stupid and calling what they say stupid. I’ve never called anybody stupid on a blog, but I’ve often called what people write stupid. First you tug your forelock towards the stars, and then you admonish me for daring to say that Scott, not for the first, and probably not for the last time in his life, said something stupid. Do try to keep up, Marek.

    And now, with your permission of course, I’ll address a few words to my chum Scott.

    Scott dear boy,

    I’m pleased to see you in your usual good humour. So all you actually said was that the status of English “might, just might” be threatened. Since absolutely anything “just might” happen, no harm done, then.

    • TEFL Equity Advocates says:

      Dear Geoff,
      I was quite tempted to be more sarcastic in my comment, but knowing how you disliked that last time on the previous post, I’ll stay serious.
      Thank you for encouraging me to make the effort to distinguish between calling someone and what they stupid. I am quite capable of that, I think.
      Having said that, I simply don’t think it’s necessary to call others’ comments, arguments or ideas stupid (or nonsense, crap or drivel – see your comments on the previous post). We can disagree as much as we like, be as critical of our ideas, posts, comments, as we like, but no need to call those ideas “staggeringly, hysterically stupid”.

  6. geoffjordan says:

    Dear Marek,

    Whether or not you’re capable of making the distinction between personal criticism and literary criticism doesn’t alter the fact that you failed to do so in your comment.

    You say that you “simply don’t think it’s necessary” to use the words I do. Well of course it’s not necessary; what you mean is, you think it’s wrong, While you’re entitled to be so easily shocked and to wish to live in a world where nobody ever says anything that might offend anybody, you have no right to expect or demand it. You talk as if you’re “simply” drawing a reasonable line in the sand between civilisation and barbarism, whereas what you’re actually doing is sounding censorial and priggish.

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