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Which English should we use?
From local Englishes to English as a Lingua Franca

September 2010

Euprera, as most international cultural and professional organizations,  has adopted English as its official and only language. Before the Milan Congress in 2008 and the Bucharest Congress in 2009, we asked ourselves whether English ought to be the only acceptable language or whether we should also accept presentations in the local language, with simultaneous translation.

The decision, taken almost unanimously, was English only, since English is de facto the only international language that allows cross cultural and professional exchange as well as cross fertilization. Personally, I was among those who supported this idea and this is why I insisted with the Rector of my university that he make his opening remarks to the Milan Euprera Congress in English.

Our decision of course did not come out of the blue. It is coherent with the extraordinary spread of English around the world as the language for international exchange: in other words, English as a Lingua Franca, that is, the international language for communication, much like Latin during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance throughout Europe.

Are there any possible consequences to this development? Could it be a threat to national languages and multilingualism? Could it lead to dominance of native English speakers in mixed environments? Instead of attempting to provide a single answer to all these questions, I believe we should start by thinking about a few tendencies that are already manifest. On this basis, I think it will be possible to make a more informed judgment concerning the decisions that everybody, native and non-native speakers alike, must make while using English in international contexts, such as Euprera.

Let’s first comment on two tendencies. On June 10, 2009 the Global Language Monitor announced that the English language had crossed the one million word threshold. The editors of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary estimate in their preface that about 2500 words are added to the English language each year. A number of factors explain this growth. The most important is the borrowing of words from other languages. In 1997, for example, the Science Citation Index reported that 95% of its articles were written in  English, even though only half of them came from authors in English-speaking countries.

As a matter of fact, the number of non-native speakers has grown enormously to the point that now only one out of four English speakers are native (380 million versus 1500 million). More than half of the world’s technical and scientific periodicals, as well as three quarters of the world’s mail, are in English. About 80% of the information stored in the world’s computers is also in English.

Given these two tendencies, it is interesting to ask whether international users ought to limit their use of English to a form that would be found perfectly appropriate by an English native speaker (A.Wood, 1977).

If it is true that English has become the new global Lingua Franca, then it follows that as a language it does not belong exclusively to its native speakers. It belongs instead to the whole community of its users (M. Berns, 1995; M. Modiano, 1999), all of whom contribute to making the language grow richer, as the tendencies I mentioned above demonstrate.

To increase and facilitate communication in international settings, in particular scientific and professional ones, it is important for both native and non-native English speakers to be aware of the fact they are using English as Lingua Franca.

On the one hand, this presupposes that non-native speakers have a communicatively adequate command of the English language; and also that they should constantly strive to improve this command, without being made to feel like learners in their interactions with native speakers and without losing the cultural background of their mother tongue.

On the other hand, however, it also presupposes that native speakers conform to internationally recognizable scientific and professional linguistic standards and also while remaining open to the contributions and innovations supplied by non-native speakers. Instead of being judgemental, their main goal should be to understand and value the new cultural and linguistic contributions they learn from non-natives.

In conclusion, therefore, the attitude of non-natives and natives should be precisely the same: everybody is speaking, and learning to some extent, another language: English as a Lingua Franca. It doesn’t matter if it is a brand new language, or only a different version of a local English: the learning process ought to be reciprocal.

Emanuele Invernizzi
President Euprera

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Comments

By Ralph Tench
Leeds Metropolitan University, UK

Trust me when I say I hesitate to be one of the first to respond – clearly as a native speaker.  However I would like to congratulate you on putting forward a thoughtful and informed paper on the topic of English as a Lingua Franca.  What I would support and like to add is that English is an evolving and emerging language as you explain and explore.

The English used by different generations as well as by business and commerce shows shifts and changes in the way language is used.  These are factors about the language that we must embrace and celebrate and possibly watch accelerate as media, technology and the speed and systems of our communication increase exponentially.

Thank you for raising and encouraging us to engage in an important debate.

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By Tom Watson
Bournemouth University, UK

What a thoughtful paper and one, which as a monoglot English-speaker, I respect greatly. English is like most modern languages. It is ever-changing and becoming highly regionalised. Recently the linguist Robert McCrum proposed that it be re-titled Globish as it was being interpreted and expressed in a multitude of forms that were changing very quickly. Those of us who have visited China have often been charmed and amused by "Chinglish" when students test their spoken English on us in seminars and on the street; Computers come with different options for English (UK, US, Australian, etc) but this usually relates to spelling and minor grammar change. And so on. As one who teaches students who come from a multitude of nations, I see the real problems that arise when we seek critical thought from them. This is an academic skills that calls for precision in the use of words. And it is this very careful use of English that I see as being threatened by Globish and all the more colloquial adaptations of the language. The wider the net for academic research, the greater the need for the creation of mutual understanding through the careful use of academic language. That's a real challenge.

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By Danny Löwensberg
University of Hull, UK

Dear Emanuele, many thanks for your interesting article and for opening this debate.

For one, I believe we are dealing here with a form of pidgin - a new quasi-language that develops among people who do not share a common one. It might be that English native speakers should regard this lingua franca/pidgin as a new language and not as their own version of English that is being modified. In this way it will be possible to accept differences and make contributions to the evolution of the lingua franca from a positive  and helpful perspective.

Interestingly, Nerriere, Dufresne and Bourgon (2005) call this lingua franca "Globish". They claim one can interact successfully in Globish with a vocabulary of only 1500 words. They have written a course on Globish but, alas, it is in French!!!

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By Luigi Fracas
Former Managing Director US Companies,
Italy

Dear Emanuele,
you are pushing an open door: I have been a fan of your "Lingua Franca" since 1980, when dealing first with Middle East, then with Eastern Europe, there was no other way of having a message going through different native languages and nationalities, but using a common ground for communicating concepts and directives.

Between foreigners it is normal practice to use English and to understand each other much better than having the same conversation with British mother tongue speakers. Why that happens? Several different explanations depending on the personality of the individual in front of you: he/she can use idiomatic phrases or slang which are quite clear for a native of Canterbury or Chicago, but may be not that easy to grasp for a different culture or educational background. Which is the solution? I found it in Zurich (Switzerland) where during our meetings we ended up allowing everybody to use his/her own mother tongue (with a much larger active vocabulary) and since all of us had a reasonably good level of passive vocabulary of at least the three major languages (English, French and German – unfortunately Italian was used mostly when we were in restaurants) we could manage a reasonable way for ending our discussions on time for other important issues.

Attending our meetings was an experience for outside visitors and I am not sure all of them appreciated our approach, but there is a lesson here: in trying to send a message across we all need to be flexible, to give something and to take something, and to expect other people to come across and speak our language and to see things from our point of view, may be it is not the best way to reach a win-win situation.

This concept is becoming even more important today since English is important, but Chinese (Mandarin, not Cantonese) is seriously threatening its n. 1 position in the middle term as spoken language.

You recall how just a few years ago French was the communication language of diplomats and where is it now?

So let’s try to come closer to our counterparts not only from the language approach, but also trying to understand their point of view, their culture, their educational environment and it will be easier to gain friends.

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By Franca Poppi
University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy

I feel that nowadays the success of international interactions should not be measured on the basis of  linguistic accuracy or compliance with the so-called 'native-speakers' standard norms'. On occasion of cross-cultural encounters, non-native speakers have repeatedly proved their worth. In fact, even in the presence of 'linguistic peculiarities' or deviant forms, they are nonetheless able to promote successful communication and to negotiate meaning, employing a series of pragmatic devices which contribute to making the interactions smooth and co-operative.

This, on the whole, seems to confirm that insistence on native-speaker norms may be a powerful gate-keeping device which has little to do with intelligibility, but a great deal with other factors of a different nature, like, for instance, political and economic issues. Non-native speakers of English should therefore be recognized as users, in their own right, of a variety of English which is used as an instrument for making oneself understood in international encounters, namely a lingua franca.
Obviously, the need to use English to communicate with international subjects in international environments is fundamentally different from the need to use English to interact with speakers of English as a mother tongue in native speaker contexts. In fact, it is mainly in international settings, where the primary preoccupation is mutual intelligibility, that the limitations of the native speakers' role as the only custodians over what is acceptable usage, have been exposed.

Nowadays, in cross-cultural encounters, English as a lingua franca is taking on a life of its own, independent of the norms established by native speakers, and the non-native community of practice is gradually becoming aware of its weight. Moreover, it is beginning to claim ownership of the language on the basis of the argument that a language is the property of all individuals who use it, both natives and non-natives.

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By Toni Muzi Falconi
Methodos

Emanuele,
I join my praise to that of the others above for having raised this issue in an informed and moderate tone.

Yet, I have seen very few, if any, critical comments on the sometim harsh language oriented criticisms which accompanied the intense discussion (in many digital spaces but mostly on the world public relations forum.. www.wprf2010.se)  dealing with the Stockholm Accords process.

Of course I am biased, but only in the sense that I was responsible for having put together different versions of the same concept coming from New Zealand, the Unites States, the UK, Australia and South Africa (all who claim English language as their mother tongue..).

Of course many contributions also came from other non English language colleagues around the world.

Mind you, I had asked three different individuals (an American, a British and a New Zealand colleague) to rewrite the text the working groups had agreed upon.

If interested, without releasing the names, I am ready to share these texts and their many, many differences that I was forced to reconcile in the final text (you can find it here www.stockholmaccords.org) before its final approval in Stockholm (reviewed a few hours before its publication by an American, a Swede and an Italian).

Again, as a biased observer of this incident, I am inclined to think that the quality of the English language of the accords was an inevitably weak point which allowed sceptics to slash at the form, when instead they would have rather preferred to slash at the content, but (maybe) thought this might have been seen as politically incorrect (???).

So it sometimes happen that the English Lingua Franca issue be raised as an alibi, to cover the more typical and certainly globally diffused hypocrisy of political correctness which dwells in so many scholars and professionals alike.

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By Tim Parks
Author, Translator, Essayist

The article is interesting and the reflection on the need for English speakers to learn how to deal with an international space is timely. There's a complication. Although many learn the language as a work instrument, they are also drawn to Anglo-saxon culture which tends to be equated, rightly or wrongly, with modernity. So they don't want to limit their English to 'international English'. This means they are often eager to hear English spoken in its native form rather than its lingua-franca form. Those who have learned English well tend to despise those who haven't (more than the English themselves despise them). So, psychologically, this will always be a complicated space. Which is not a bad thing. The more complicated the more fun.

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Comments

Look at the comments on the bottom of the page and send your contribution!

R. Tench: Trust me when I say I hesitate to be one of the first to respond – clearly... Read all

T. Watson: What a thoughtful paper and one, which as a monoglot English-speaker, I... Read all

D. Löwensberg: Dear Emanuele, many thanks for your interesting article and for opening... Read all

L. Fracas: Dear Emanuele, you are pushing an open door: I have been a fan of... Read all

F. Poppi: I feel that nowadays the success of international interactions should not...Read all

T. Muzi Falconi: Emanuele, I join my praise to that of the others above for having... Read all

T. Parks: The article is interesting and the reflection on the need for English speakers to... Read all





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