Wednesday 27 April 2011

The natives and the speakers

Let me start with the good news. We are, all of us without exception, native speakers. This may come as a surprise to those of us who have had close encounters with the second/foreign language world, but is nonetheless true. It means that we are all competent users of language – more or less competent, of course, depending on all sorts of individual and social factors that make us clumsy or proficient in whatever we do.

Now the bad news. We are, all of us who use second/foreign languages, failed native speakers of them, which is the meaning of the more politically correct label “non-native speakers”. This is because non-native productions are routinely compared to native models, for purposes of quality control, and native speakers of someone else’s non-native language are never more or less competent users of this language. They are competent, period: they have no accent, which means they have a good accent, and they probably have no grammar and no vocabulary either, because their grammar and their vocabulary are quite good too.

Now the obvious news. None of us second/foreign language users can ever become native speakers of those languages, for two reasons: because the word native in “native speaker” means ‘born into’; and because our mothers might balk at the prospect of giving birth to us all over again in a language that they don’t speak. Second/foreign language theory and practice nonetheless appear to entertain the hope that we somehow can. Using native models and assessment methods draws on the assumption that learning a language means learning to impersonate someone, instead of learning to use their language.

Now the funny news. The term “native speaker” means ‘monolingual’: all the native speakers to whom second/foreign language learners have been compared since it became standard practice to do so are monolinguals. Given that language learners are becoming multilingual – those who already aren’t, that is – such comparisons reflect the belief that ideal users of language are monolingual (rings a bell?). Indeed, multilinguals who become multilinguals from birth are not native speakers of their languages, because multilinguals across the board are also routinely compared to native speakers, and you can’t compare a thing to itself. Even funnier, multilinguals are not non-native speakers either, because they are also compared to non-natives. Makes one wonder what multilinguals are.

And now, the extremely funny news. Even those of us who do become indistinguishable from native speakers, including where native speakers themselves can’t tell the difference, fail to reach native proficiency: we have near-native-like proficiency instead (I’m not joking, seriously!). This is because we human beings, for all our native competence, are apparently fallible in our judgements about our languages. We don’t notice what we don’t care about, whereas the machines that we build to make our judgements for us do: the proof is in reported examples of millisecond differences in, for example, the amount of puffed air that emanates from native and non-native vocal tracts pronouncing the sounds at the beginning of English words like pan, tan and can (this is the “aspiration of voiceless plosives”, in the insider lingo).

Near-native-like users of languages could well make ideal candidates to international espionage agencies – barring suspicion that the enemy might also have access to millisecond-detectors, of course. As it is, they and other non-natives already have enough trouble at the job market: for language teaching posts, for example, it has been debated whether native speakers with no teacher training whatsoever shouldn’t be preferred to non-natives with full teaching credentials. I’m not joking here either.

The bottom line is that if you’re looking for differences, you’ll find them: milliseconds are popular in other research comparing multilinguals to monolinguals, but the relevance of such findings to everyday communication, to language teaching methodologies, or to clinical diagnoses is by no means clear. To me, inventing the word-play of expressions akin to “near-native-like” on the strength of such features simply self-fulfils the belief that native speakers have exclusive rights to competence in their languages, and the related curse of the Big Bad Funny-lingual.

Setting up goals, and educational goals to boot, that forever elude common mortals brings to mind the “___ jokes”, those jokes that are largely the same in different parts of the world, but are only funny when the blank fills with nationality words that the jokers think it’s funny to joke about – telling a Finn, say, how many Portuguese it takes to screw in a light bulb is not very funny. One of these jokes suggested the following parallel to me: an outsider (= the aspiring language user) asks a local (= the native language user) for directions to a place (= native proficiency). The local thinks a while and replies: “If I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” It is the same no-can-do mindset that, faced with can-dos, changes gear to call them “gifted learners”. This is yet another ill-defined player in second/foreign language scenarios, to which I will return some other day.

Thomas Paul Bonfiglio’s book, Mother tongues and nations. The invention of the native speaker, explains that native speaker originated as a time-and-space-bound construct. The unquestioned relevance that it came to gain in second/foreign language settings across the board may well need some re-thinking, not least in view of the confusing meanings that associate with it, as noted above. The presumed, assumed, implicit and implied “definitions”, if any, of other terms that we find in similar settings, such as mother tongue, or first language, might also benefit from a thorough spring cleaning.

I believe that all this vagueness stems from the artificiality of attempting to classify users of language not by their uses of their languages, which naturally form a cline, but by their all-or-none birth rights to (one of) them. Next time, I’ll talk some more about natives, and about non-natives too. Specifically, about why wishing someone a Happy Birfday, for example, which we hear from native and non-native speakers alike, may somehow sound less damnable coming from the former than from the latter.

© MCF 2011

Next post: (Non-)native common ground. Wednesday 4th May 2011.

Saturday 16 April 2011

You speak with an accent. I don’t.

Accents are things that only other people have. They are, by extension, things that you don’t want to have. Accents are, in short, shortcomings.

This is why, if someone tells you that “you speak with no accent”, you can be sure of two things: that you have received words of praise indeed; and that you speak with the same accent as that person. So the person is actually not only praising her own accent, she is also giving evidence that she has no idea she’s got one.

We seldom hear people say “We speak with an accent” or “I speak with an accent” – unless we’re talking about our uses of foreign languages. I will come back to this in my next post. We also routinely attribute to other people other features of language: they use funny words, she mangles her grammar, he doesn’t know how to talk politely. This must mean we don’t, don’t, and do, respectively. Writing in a book edited by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill, titled Language myths, John H. Esling deals precisely with the myth that “Everyone has an accent except me”.

So let’s check out your accent.
This is (choose the nearest answer – I was going to say “the best answer”, but I suddenly remembered that “best” has prescriptive connotations):

Photo: David Besa (Wikimedia Commons)

  1.  a tomahto
  2.  a potahto
  3.  a tomayto
  4.  a potayto

I could tweak this test a little, like this:

     1.1   a tomahto
     1.2   ay tomahto
     1.3   ay toemahto
     1.4   a tomahtoe

and so on, and I’ve barely started on the vowels. How do you say the two “t” letters, for example? Do you aspirate the sounds that they represent, which means that you release a little puff of air straight after them? (You can also look up “aspiration” here.) Both times?

And so on. Accents are made up of many, many interrelated features that we’ve got used to hearing or seeing, and saying or signing, as we grew up, and that, like everything else that becomes routine around us, we fail to notice. This is why we may say that we have a “neutral accent”: it blends in with the rest of our identity. In contrast, we instantly react to any mismatch to this “standard” that we learned to make ours, and often treat it as a deviation.

There have been fascinating studies on attitudes that people have towards (other people’s) accents, showing that our opinions about accents have nothing to do with the accents themselves and all to do with our opinions about those people. One sure way to make our (fellow-accented) friends laugh is to do impressions of accents that we, and they, learned to rate as funny. People from neighbouring countries love to do this – and not just for accents either. Malaysians poke fun at Singaporean Malay, Spaniards double up in stitches about Portuguese, and Swedes, Danes and Norwegians can’t decide among themselves which of their languages sounds more like a throat disease, a silly singsong, or just a ridiculous way of pronouncing the other two.

For accent ratings from native and non-native speakers of a language, other fascinating things happen. Take the British RP accent, one of many spoken on tape by trained actors for purposes of the experiments carried out in these studies. RP stands for Received Pronunciation, by the way, sometimes also called BBC English, although the BBC nowadays sports other accents too, or Queen’s English, although the Queen’s accent has evolved since it got named after her. British users of other accents found the RP speaker pompous and off-putting, whereas non-native users of English found him intelligent and genial. On tape, mind you. Without even meeting the man face to face. Small wonder some people can and do lose job opportunities as soon as they open their mouths, because their prospective employers dislike the way they got used to using their languages.

What goes on about different native accents of the same language goes on about foreign accents too. We all have accents, of course, in all of our languages, spoken or signed, and we all talk funny, in someone’s eyes or ears. Except native speakers of the languages we are learning, or have learned, in school. We find out about this next.

© MCF 2011

Next post: The natives and the speakers. Wednesday 27th April 2011.

Saturday 9 April 2011

The globalization of English: implications for the language classroom
=Guest post=

by Robin Walker

The globalization of English is now an undisputed fact. One of the major effects of this is that English has taken on the role of lingua franca in many contexts. The Toyota-Peugeot factory in the Czech Republic, for example, uses English as a lingua franca among the staff who work there, as do the Nokia factories in Finland. English is also the working language for major international trade associations such as the G7, BRIC or ASEAN. That is to say, the globalization of English has added a new role to the existing ones, namely the role of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). This new role requires us to rethink our goals for the language classroom. It is no longer appropriate to assume that what native speakers (NS) do when they use English amongst themselves is automatically relevant to communication between non-native (NNS) interlocutors.

A critical outcome of English becoming a lingua franca is that it will be modified through use. One of the principal mechanisms in language change anywhere is contact with the speakers’ first language(s). This mechanism has already given rise to Indian or Nigerian Englishes, for example, and Henry Widdowson argued some time ago that with English the non-native speakers have the right to make changes, since ownership of the language belongs as much to them as to its native speakers. His article, The ownership of English, was published in TESOL Quarterly (28/2, pages 377-389).

Of course, it is possible that language contact might drive the emerging Englishes in different directions depending on the L1s at play. This could lead to the development of mutually unintelligible variations. However, David Graddol contests this outcome in English next, and even suggests that it is frequently the absence of native speakers in ELF interactions that results in communication being successful.

Research has been going on for some time as to the nature of English as a Lingua Franca. In terms of grammar, certain features of ELF, such as the “s” of the 3rd-person singular of the verb, are regularly seen to differ from standard NS English norms without impacting negatively on communication. ELF is also characterized by lexical variation. In some cases, such variation is the result of poor English or of performance mistakes, and is not effective. Thus, May I forguest Please reftain no check good. (seen on the door of a public toilet) is neither good ELF nor good EFL (English as a Foreign Language). The English used completely fails to convey any intended message.

In contrast, Please do not plug out!, which I found by a telephone jack-point in a Prague hotel, is entirely effective. Even though plug out does not conform to the NS norm, which only permits plug in, the ELF coinage not only displays a full understanding of the meanings of plug and out, but also reveals competence in the functioning of English phrasal verbs. The NNS author of the sign has merely “played” with the potential for meaning of the language. Legitimate, effective creativity of this sort characterizes ELF vocabulary, and learners need training in such creativity if they are to make the most of their own language resources.

The area of ELF most people are familiar with is pronunciation. Analysis of empirical data from NNS-NNS spoken interactions gave rise to the Lingua Franca Core (LFC) (Jenkins 2000). In her seminal work, Jennifer Jenkins suggested that mutual intelligibility would be retained when speakers are competent in the main areas of the LFC, namely:
  • the consonants of English (except voiced and voiceless “th”);
  • the correct treatment of word-initial consonant clusters;
  • variation in vowel length (as opposed to vowel quality);
  • tonic stress placement.

Apart from facilitating intelligibility between NNSs, an ELF approach to pronunciation offers teachers and learners significant benefits. Overall, it offers them a lighter workload, and it is broadly achievable through classroom teaching, unlike certain significant aspects of most NS accents. In addition, an ELF approach allows speakers to retain their identities through their accents, a linguistic right that very few would dare to deny to native speakers, but which non-native speakers are continually denied. Until now, L2 “accent” has been judged in terms of distance from a standard NS phonological norm, generally RP (Received Pronunciation) or GA (General American), with “foreign” accents almost automatically being equated to poor intelligibility and poor learning. With an ELF approach to pronunciation this need no longer happen.

Robin Walker is a freelance teacher, trainer and ELT author. He has been in ELT for 30 years, and is the current editor of Speak Out!, the newsletter of the IATEFL Pronunciation Special Interest Group. He is the author of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, a title in the Oxford Handbooks for Teachers series.

© Robin Walker 2011

Next post: You speak with an accent. I don’t. Saturday 16th April 2011.

Saturday 2 April 2011

Going global, full monolingualism ahead?

I cannot predict the future, but I suppose I can safely guess that global monolingualism is not in the stars. I have two reasons for saying this. One is that, historically, monolingualism has hardly been a global trend; the other is that monolingualism can hardly become a global trend.

Many of us are monolingual, but I also suppose I can safely argue that most of us have nevertheless experienced non-locality in some way or other. I say that I speak Portuguese, for example, but I don’t, really. What I speak is the variety of it that was used where I happened to spend my first Portuguese-learning years. But, like most of us, I can both understand different varieties of my language(s), and make myself understood to users of different varieties than mine. 

What happens within (what we may choose to call) a single language happens across languages too: we can all adopt bits and pieces of other localities, and shed bits and pieces of ours, respectively, in order to engage in business that matters to us. Going global involves awareness that there are other landscapes out there, besides our own navel. It means realising that our locality is just that, our locality: one qualified locality among many others – all of them qualified as “ours” by those of us who share them.

I mean the word business, above, quite literally. Let’s face it: excepting those of us who collect languages like others collect cats or bumper stickers, the reason why people want to go global, language-wise, is money. Or economic power, or employment opportunities, or head start in life, or other paraphrases of this word. In more than one way, we’re all selling something. Helmut Schmidt, the former German chancellor, once expressed the linguistic connection to this by saying that if you want to sell to someone, then you must speak their language. (I think it was Helmut Schmidt who said this, by the way, and I also think he was quoting Gabriel García Márquez, but I may have got all my sources wrong.)

Human beings have had global business and related global languages for a long, long time. The charm of the current global language, English, dates only from after World War II which, globally speaking, is a tiny time frame. Human beings have also had several global languages to choose from, not just successively, but also simultaneously, because not all of us need to go global in the same way. If Koreans, say, become interested in doing business in, say, Brazil, they will learn Portuguese, not English: as we were taught in geometry classes in school, the most cost-effective route to a goal is a straight line.

Globalising means linguistic diversification in another, related, sense: the languages that go global bear the marks of this process, because their users are linguistically diverse (or they wouldn’t need one common language), and because they necessarily adapt their common language to their diverse purposes (or they wouldn’t have any use for that common language). This is how local words, for example, become global words, and this is how global languages become usable across the board, including for new local purposes that are different from the original local purposes to which globalised languages were put, and continue to be put.

Putting different languages to different uses is what being multilingual is all about, as I’ve noted before. Most of us who currently use (or want to use) English as a global language learn(ed) it in school, which means that most users of global English are (becoming) multilingual. But many users of English are not. So how can one teach, and learn, a language where so much monolingual and multilingual variety is the rule, in ways that make global sense? The next post, a guest post, gives a number of answers to this question.

© MCF 2011

Next post: =Guest post= The globalization of English: implications for the language classroom, by Robin Walker. Saturday 9th April 2011.


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