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Revisiting globalization of English

  • Wawan Gunawan

Amherst, Massachusetts | Sat, September 26 2009 | 12:06 pm

When Indonesians start to learn English they will face two canonical forms of English: American English or British English. Although Australian English exists, the trend is more influenced by English on television or other media dominantly of American or British language and culture.

English courses with the platform of American and British English in Indonesia once mushroomed and became a commodity for foreign language education business. Until recently, many English learners have been obsessed with a model of American or British English.

Almost certainly, learners will fail to speak English like British or American English speakers reflecting on how hard it is to speak like other people and due to a hazy definition of what British or American English is today.

Indonesians reportedly have different length of tongue and other organs in oral cavities from other people in the UK or the US who speak English. This might be true, as well as hilarious, but the fact is that people coming to the US, for example, can communicate well without having to pronounce English like Sam in the Transformers movie or Mr. and Mrs. Smith. English is so unlimited that the definition of American English is becoming more ambivalent, but English remains English.

Recently, the meaning of the English language has been disrupted by migration and globalization. Easier access for people to move from one place to another has raised more difficulties in defining what American or British English is like.

The rapid change in information and technology has made print literacy culture more accessible. The age of Facebook-ing, emailing, texting, and other social networking brings us toward a print literacy culture that leaves us an indefinite standard of English, with the communicators having an ambivalent, virtual identity.

When you are making a call to a corporation in the United States, let's say, a bank, you may encounter an English language speaker as if you were in India or China. Forms of African, Chinese, Korean, Hispanic, and Asian Indian English are now shaping what American English is like. And some speakers of English cannot be identified in terms of their geographical status. People's English is getting more liquid, dynamic, mixed, and indefinable to a certain standard.

The way in which English has been spoken is mostly influenced by contemporary working life and changing public life, which constitutes people's everyday life.

First, our working life has changed from a face-to-face and individual direct command and control to more communal relationships like monitoring, training, and collaboration. Therefore, memos, texting, letters of commands tend to establish relationships among colleagues or between employees and employers to achieve effective and efficient communication. Spoken language is not premium in our working life.

Second, public life has been changing due to local diversity and global connectedness. Diversity of English not only reflects that there is no standard but also means that speakers of English always need to negotiate their meaning in conversations with regard to regional, ethnic, or class-based discourses. Such variations are manifested in the choices of registers - lexical, grammatical, stylistic, and dialectic choices. Often, code-switching is found within a communicative event with different languages, dialects, or registers.

How should we learn English now?

The enforcement of American and British English standardization for communication no longer applies to the contemporary global context where migration and globalization have been part of our public life. Learning English that emphasizes British or American English has been recently obsolete and out of context. What seems to be best conducted as a strategy to teach English is providing students with a variety of contexts from which they can recognize different audiences and purposes of communication.

For example, when audiences are Indonesian, why are learners so bothered to speak like American or British people? Even those who are able to speak English do not always have a chance to meet an American or British person. Just let American or British people who visits Indonesia understand our typically good English. Through language, other people will recognize that we exist.

We cannot deny that we are both the inheritors of patterns and conventions from other cultures and at the same time designers of meanings. With the available resources on-and off-line, learning of English from samples of texts in oral and written communication is easier to manage to understand how people make meanings with English. Especially, if English is a second and foreign language, samples of conversations of any kinds of texts are real scaffolding.

However, they are not "God's" models. Our surroundings such as workplace, public places, community, schools, local culture conventions, economic status, personal experience shape our ways of working with English, while being contextual is what language use is all about.

The writer is a Fulbright fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a lecturer at the Indonesia University of Education Bandung (UPI).

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