Who ‘owns’ the English Language?

I watched a video by Marek Kiczkowiac recently. In it, he asked a question that rather got me thinking.

‘What is correct English and who gets to decide?’

On the face of it, that’s an easy answer, it’s us native speakers, surely. 

But is it really?

There are some 2 billion people in the world who use English, only 360 million of them are actually native speakers. So non-native speakers of English outnumber the natives by 6:1 (ish – I teach English not maths). So why should the native speakers have the overriding say-so?

A few years ago I was (rather unceremoniously) ejected from a Facebook group for English language teachers. My offence? To enter into an animated ‘discussion’ with the admin/owner on the native/non-native debate. In the admin’s defence (this is me being unduly generous…), this was a while ago, however, a recent crossing of paths suggests that this person is still an arse.

The basic tenet of the discussion was as follows:

It was suggested that it was only right that native speaker teachers should earn more than non-native speakers even if they are less well qualified (if at all). I disagreed. After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing the admin came up with a line that will remain with me for a very long time.

‘Why would you have a Tesco bag when you can have a Gucci?’

This person was calling qualified and experienced non-native speaker teachers plastic carrier bags, and native speakers, regardless of experience or qualifications, designer handbags. The  suggestion being that a Gucci bag was infinitely better and more desirable than a Tesco bag. For anyone lacking the cultural context, Tesco is a supermarket – and not a particularly upmarket one at that. It was my rather incredulous and none-too-polite response that had me ejected.

Thinking back on the whole debacle, maybe his analogy, while misplaced and intended as an insult, is actually not that far off the mark.

There are many many situations when a Tesco carrier bag is exactly what is called for. It is practical, everyone is able to have one, it serves a really useful purpose, keeps stuff dry, holds shopping, can be used to store goods, can be kept in your handbag for unexpected emergencies, fits in your pocket to be whipped out at a moment’s notice etc.

In my 40 something years of life I have never needed a Gucci handbag. What would I do with it? I’d worry about keeping it clean or losing it, I’d never be able to fit all of the unmitigated crap that I tend to carry around in it. It wouldn’t match any of my scruffy clothes and I’d feel ridiculous and somewhat pretentious using it. 

To be honest, when I need a bag I tend to whip out my sewing machine and make my own; that way I know it will do exactly what I need it to do. I recently made one with three zip pockets, loads of compartments and a padded bit for my laptop – it was what I needed at the time.

The same goes for English. David Crystal used the term ‘Englishes’ to talk about all of the different types of English in the world. Our learners need the English that best suits their needs. IT types need the English of software and programming. Restaurateurs need the English of sauces, market gardens and cooking techniques (or even just pizza toppings). HR workers need the English of hiring and firing and dealing with stupidity. I have one student  who needs the English of making small cardboard boxes with huge complicated machines (I kid you not). They need the teachers best able to guide them in their learning; this suitability comes from the teacher’s ability, experience, qualifications, style and personality. Not the language of their first words. The English that each learner needs has to fit their context. If they aren’t going to be living in Yorkshire do they really need to know what ‘mardy’ and ‘claggy’ and ‘reet’ mean? If they are never going to visit the US, why do they need to have all of the cultural contexts of life in downtown Milwaukee?

We, native speakers, do not own the language; I don’t even believe that we are custodians of it. Those that use it own the language. 

In the US it is common to say ‘on Christmas’, whereas in the UK ‘at Christmas’ is correct. It is not a question of right or wrong, it is all about context; who needs it, what they need it for, who they are speaking to etc. There are more Indian English speakers (as L1, L2 or L3) than UK, South African, Australian and New Zealand English speakers combined. Indian English does not follow all of the same rules as British English, there are differences in pronunciation, some use of grammar and the use of vocabulary that would be considered archaic in the UK/US etc. These differences do not make Indian English ‘wrong’; Indian English serves its own purpose, to enable some 250 million people to communicate both with each other and with the rest of the world.

As both a teacher and a language learner, I really don’t care where you come from (in the nicest possible way). I don’t expect my learners to come out of a course of lessons with me with a home counties RP accent, neither do I expect to sound exactly like my French teacher – a native accent is often an unrealistic and, frankly, unattainable goal for 95% (I made that up, but there are probably figures somewhere) of learners.

If, like my cardboard box manufacturing student, you live and work in France, but need English to communicate with German and Italian engineers, there must be an argument that an Italian or German (L1) English teacher might be better. They would be able to teach the accents that my student is likely to come across, they would be better able to teach the cultural translations of the other NNESs that the student is likely to encounter. As I live and work in France, a French native teacher would be really great, but perhaps an English (L1) French teacher might be better placed to help me with my pronunciation and common cultural pitfalls and miscommunications. 

The point is, a bag is a bag. I want the bag that is best suited to my needs. If you, as a teacher, can teach me what I need to know, then you’re hired. 

To me, all qualified and experienced teachers are pure Gucci. Perhaps it is high time we started to make this clearer to our students (and their parents).

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