The speed at which English has spread all over the world as a global language is simply breathtaking. With this phenomenon comes the fact that English no longer exclusively belongs to the native speakers of the language.
Even the term “native speaker” has been the subject of debate, making concrete identification of this group’s members problematic.
A number of linguists define native speakers as the people whose primary language is English and reside in or are from the “inner circle” of the US, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
While those from the primarily English-speaking countries may appear to be the owners of the language, the number of non-native speakers in “outer circles” such as countries like Malaysia, Kenya, Ghana and Singapore that employ English as a second language, and “expanding circles”, where English is learned as a foreign language such as in Indonesia, Japan, Korea and China, now outweigh the number of native speakers in the inner circle.
In her 2009 work, Jennifer Jenkins asserts that English has grown largely due to an immense migration from the UK to inner circle countries, colonization of the outer circle, and the language’s socio-economic power in expanding circles.
In this view, English acts as a form of linguistic imperialism. While English may be essential for countries to communicate to each other, it also raises a few unsolvable problems.
Mutual intelligibility may be one of the most problematic consequences of the global spread of English. Comprehensibility is the expected result of interactional and negotiated actions between a speaker and a listener.
I believe that this is logical, as English has developed as an intra-national communication tool. However, it is turning into a local and institutionalized form.
People in India and in some countries in Africa have adopted English as their native and first language. These people have creatively developed their own linguistic variations and characteristics, which may be viewed “deviant” from the egocentric approach of the inner circle.
Even though the differences may only take place at the lexical level, this change has yielded varieties of English such as Indian English, Malaysian English, Nigerian English, Kenyan English, Singaporean English, among others.
This type of English has been fully adopted and acculturated after many decades of use. With this fact, is it still fair to call these people “non-native” speakers of English?
We need to be open minded to the fact that old definitions of “native speaker” may not apply. In fact, they have the right to claim that they are also native speakers of their own English.
This brings us to another problem. While English may function as the lingua franca, speakers may not necessarily understand each other during conversation due to the number of unfamiliar terms. Singaporean English or “Singlish” is an interesting phenomenon.
On the one hand, it has been viewed as a low level of English by the Singapore government. On the other hand, it is claimed as an element of identity by its people.
While Singlish might identify itself as English, it is heavily influenced by local lexicons from Hokkien and Malay.
Suffice it to say that people from the inner circle might not understand it and may want to consult a dictionary to decode the messages being conveyed in Singlish.
It goes without saying that these regional and local varieties of English cannot avoid embedding the borrowings, code-mixing and code-switching from their native language into their English utterances.
One example was presented in 1976 by Matsumoto, who wrote a paragraph intentionally in English, but included a number of local Japanese words such as depaato, suupaa, pooku choppu, pan, bataa, jamu, sooseji, and byuuchii.
He argued that Japanese people who are both English and Japanese speakers cannot escape their hybrid nature. Western linguists might not recognize this as English, but it is dominantly expressed in English. The question lingers: Can we not claim this as English?
Additionally, another problem that intertwined with mutually intelligibility and local English is related to the use of idiomatic expressions by speakers in the outer and expanding circles.
Qiong (as cited in Jenkins, 2009) argues that some idiomatic expressions are closely associated with cultural values. While English might be used to express the idea, the content might be very localized. She provides a range of idiomatic expressions using the word “face”, such as give face, save face, no face, lose face.
Speakers who have a firm grasp of English but who don’t share the Chinese culture might have find it difficult to understand sentences utilizing these idiomatic expressions.
This phenomenon occurs partly due to the inability of English to convey a number of local values and ideas that might be best reflected in the local or first language.
This fact is also true for Muslims from Iran, Malaysia and Indonesia who wish to convey their thoughts in English, but find some terms and values related to religion best expressed through Arabic.
The experience they have been through with Islam always be in Arabic or their first language; therefore, they might insert some Arabic or Malay/Indonesian words in their English expressions when conveying their Islamic thoughts and experiences.
Another problem that has come to light is the phonological, or hearing, problem. Jenkins (2009) argues that pronunciation might be the biggest and most problematic aspect of world English varieties.
This problem may impede intelligibility and might be primarily caused by pronunciation patterns found in their first language. Jenkins illustrates this phenomenon with an example: A Japanese speaker and a Swiss-German speaker are in negotiations, yet communication breaks down as the Japanese speaker pronounces the “r” as “l”.
This phenomenon occurs due to the influence of his first language, as Japanese does not treat “r” and “l” as phonemically distinct. Jenkins refers to this situation as “inter-language talk” among “non-native” speakers of English.
Similarly, Cowie (2007) finds that most people (if not all) in India are unable to pronounce the distinction “b” and “w”.
This circumstance becomes very problematic, as both sounds are phonemics in English that can lead to misunderstandings.
This can be the most salient communication problem among English speakers from the inner, outer and expanding circles.
This occurs because English has been dominated by the traditional native speakers’ point-of-view, in which everything should be based on either British or American English with no room for other interpretations.
When native speakers make errors or mistakes, we may label them as variations, but when non-native speakers make such mistakes, we often (fairly or otherwise) refer them as deviations.
Many people worry that the rapid spread of English might threaten speakers in the inner circle, so it is highly recommended that they open themselves to new varieties.
As English is adopted and modified across the globe, everyone, be they native or non-native English speakers, needs to train her/his ears to new multifarious English varieties. Ready or not, we need to be competent of understanding and adapting to multiple dialects.
Thanks to its spread, English nowadays is no longer a singular, uniform language, but has been adapted into several “Englishes”.
A number of native Englishes have emerged, including Singlish, Indian English and Chinglish (Chinese English).
And if we include pidgin and creole Englishes, it will only enlarge and further complicate the picture as to what is legitimately claimed as the English language and its owners.
Is it still a matter of American or British English, or is the language moving in new directions?
The writer is a fulbright presidential scholar and a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US. The opinions expressed are her own.