Wednesday 10 November 2010

Outsourcing language products

The question of why we should wish to adopt standards of linguistic behaviour becomes doubly interesting in the context of imported standards of language. This refers to situations where a language is used in countries other than its country of birth, so to speak. Through continued use, the language naturally acquires new features, and so a new descriptive standard. This is what happened to English in America and Singapore, among other places, whereby we now talk about Singapore English, Australian English, Indian English and so on.

All of these are geographical varieties, duly identified by labels that refer to locations. But there is a difference, in that some of these varieties seem to be more standard than others, in the Instructions Manual sense of the word standard that I mentioned in my previous post. Japanese or Portuguese school learners of English, say, will seldom be presented with Nigerian English, say, as a possible linguistic role model. That some language standards indeed appear as more desirable than others is probably why we qualify the word standard when we talk about Kenyan or Malaysian English standards: we call them “local standards”, whereas we do not call “local” other local standards like British or American English. (In case you’re wondering why I’ve been talking so much about English, the reason is that this is the language that you and I have in common for purposes of this blog. I also use it as a handy source of examples of what goes on in other languages.)

Singapore and its English are quite familiar to me. By Singapore English I mean the Singaporean equivalent of Nigerian English and Indian English, in their respective locations. I do not mean Singlish, the other English used in the country, of whose vocabulary and other richness you can get a glimpse in the Coxford Singlish Dictionary. Singapore is an officially multilingual country in four languages, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English, where individual multilingualism is also the norm. 

This is a sign commonly found around building sites in Singapore.
It is not an injunction against multilingualism.
Photo: MCF

Multilingual Singapore is well known for exporting academic standards in maths and science, among other things. Singaporean standards of these and other kinds must obviously be expressed by Singaporeans but, as obviously, they must be expressed in English, in order to become exportable. So, given the excellence of local academic standards expressed in English, I’ve often wondered why local Singapore English is not the preferential standard of English in Singapore.

I think I may have found a reason. Users of “non-local” standards of language are often represented, in the specialised literature and in the popular imaginary, as belonging to a special category which has acquired a prestigious status of its own, “native speakers”. I will have quite a lot to say about natives some other day, but what I want to say here is that native speakers are implicitly, but consistently, portrayed as monolinguals. Native speakers are those of us who don’t use local languages used by other natives, whereas speakers of “local” standards do. This may well be what makes these local standards both less desirable and un-exportable: their users are multilinguals. Makes one also wonder whether striving to achieve “native” standards, a goal shared by many foreign language learners and teachers, doesn’t in fact mean striving to achieve monolingual standards. Just a thought.

Contrary to my habits, I won’t tell you this time what I will talk about next time. Perhaps I don’t need to, either.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Little Perfect-lingual and the Big Bad Funny-lingual. Saturday 13th November 2010.


  1. Other than being perceived as monolinguals, "native" speakers of English, by the common Singaporean definition, also refers to those who LOOK "native". So you could very well have an Asian who is monolingual in English, but will not be, by our definition, considered a "native" speaker. This is especially true in the educational system!

  2. ms_bobdog: What you say about how we judge people’s uses of language has been found in matched guises experiments, where information about the users is deliberately manipulated. Informants’ opinions about users vary, depending on what kind of information they are fed. The same thing is found in Rosenthal Effect experiments like the one I report in The fight for a fair deal
    As you say, real-life effects such as these are very common in language teaching settings, for both learners and teachers!


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