The Rise and Role of English as an International Language. Some educational Consequences


November 04

Arthur van Essen, University of Groningen, The Netherlands:

Many non-native speakers (NNSs) associate 'English' with native-speaker (NS) English and culture, as they were taught to do at school. But many more NNSs the world over use English to interact with other NNSs without giving a single thought to anything related to the language and cultures of English native-speaking nations. For such language users (and their numbers are growing by the day) English is not 'English' in the restricted sense of 'relating to England or its people or language' (New Oxford Dictionary of English, 1998), but just a useful tool for communication between people of varying linguistic and cultural backgrounds in a variety of communicative contexts.
The rise of English as an international language (EIL) and the resultant status of English as a medium for global communication (predicted by Sapir as long ago as 1931; Sapir 1931:66) poses new challenges to the ELT profession in the sense that we need to rethink some of our traditional aims and objectives (cf. McKay 2002). As an international language, English has become de-nationalised. It is no longer the property of the native English-speaking nations; it has got into the hands of foreigners. They own it now. What does that mean for us teachers and materials designers? It is my purpose in the following sections to outline some of these challenges in relation to the various roles of English in the European and global context and to suggest ways in which each of these challenges could be met.

English in Europe

Over the last thirty years or so it has become received opinion in Europe that foreign-language instruction should be aimed at (primarily) spoken interaction between NSs and NNSs across the frontiers of the nation states. Underlying this view is the ideal of European citizenship, which requires learners to familiarise themselves not just with the other language but also with the culture concerned (often involving extensive literary studies). The target language and culture are viewed as potential sources of enrichment which supposedly contribute to the formation of an 'open and multiple identity' (Sheils 2001:16). This ideal has a long tradition in Europe. Over the past decades it has received support from various quarters: linguistic, psycholinguistic, and anthropological alike. To give you one example, it has been assumed for years now that all languages have a universal base that is largely genetically determined, and a culture-specific superstructure (probably the bigger part), which is fully in tegrated with the base. So, much of what is transmitted through language, whether this has a referential or a social/expressive function is therefore not so much universal as culture-bound (cf. Lyons 1981). Some (e.g. Phillipson 2003:108) would even go so far as to say that language is not just a reflection of reality but a conceptual filter through which we constitute reality and see the world. This point of view, known as the 'Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis', would make translation, any translation, a precarious venture. Whatever we may think of this position, it is considerations like these which have legitimised the existence of a Landeskunde component in European foreign-language education, even if Landeskunde and the cultural referents of a language need not be co-extensive (witness the massive cultural differences between and within the US and the UK for example). Such culture teaching traditionally regarded the foreign culture as a monolithic whole, a view that is no longer tenable (if it ever was). It included Cultural (with a capital C) products such as literature, maybe some films and perhaps music, the way of life (in an anthropological sense) and institutions of a people, their history, and the interaction between the culture and the language they speak. No one would blame European language teachers for wanting to retain this cultural element in their teaching (after all to them English is just another national language of just another European state), had not the unprecendented growth of EIL upset the apple cart. This I shall take up in the following sections. But as we go along we shall have to keep in mind that our discussion is ineluctably bound up with European language policy as a whole.
Apart from paying lip service to linguistic equality, plurilingualism and pluriculturalism ("letting a thousand flowers bloom"), European (here in the more restricted sense of the 15 states making up the EU) language policy is still far from transparent. As some languages turn out to be more 'international' than others (a fact recognised by most EU citizens), the equality of the 11 official EU languages has largely remained a myth (Phillipson 2001:80). For a smooth functioning of the EU institutions, the use of EIL would therefore be infinitely better (House 2001:83), but politically unthinkable (see Phillipson 2003, especially Chapter 4]).

Since legislation on educational, linguistic, and cultural matters is in principle the prerogative of the individual member state, all attempts at European curriculum development and syllabus design (such as those put forward by the Council of Europe's Modern Languages Projects [CEMLP] group) cannot be other than 'recommendations'. Despite the various updates of such a well-known specification of English language teaching/learning objectives as the Threshold Level, the CEMLP does not, as yet, seem to have taken the idea of EIL on board.

To give an example of the intrinsic vagueness of supranational language policy, in 1995 the European Council of Ministers adopted a resolution suggesting that "pupils should, as a general rule, have the opportunity of learning two languages of the Union other than their mother tongue". But what are we to make of 'mother tongue' here? It could be any one of the hundreds of languages within the Union. At the moment the EU is home to over 200 indigenous languages, in addition to several hundred immigrant languages. In everyday educational practice the other two languages referred to above would probably be a national language in addition to English. And whether the politicians like it or not it is probable that English will always be included in the choice of languages. Again, official policy is loath to recognise this. This has led some scholars to accuse the EU of a hypocritical language policy (e.g. House [2001]). They argue that the role of EIL is irreversible and that a distinction is therefore to be made between languages that we use primarily for communication (such as EIL) and languages that we use for chiefly cultural purposes. The latter are traditionally objects of study in Europe, the former concern us here.

English, a world language

The rise of EIL cannot be viewed in isolation from its role in the world. Few people today will contest the fact that English is a world language.But what is a 'world language'? Numbers of NSs are not decisive here. When it comes to numbers English is outdone by Chinese and probably also Urdu (figures from the Internet). Saying that English is a world language does not mean that everybody on earth speaks English, or that everybody views it as such. That English has become a world language has nothing to do with the intrinsic qualities of the language either, even if it has a rich vocabulary, thanks to its contact with other European and non-Western languages. Some would view this richness as proof of its flexibility, others see in it a helpful bridgehead to learning other languages (and thus a considerable asset for a linguistic passkey). Still others would aver that English is businesslike and that it has a lucid syntax, exuding masculinity (Jespersen 1938:1-16).
Even so the global spread of English has been the result of totally different factors, both political, military, and economic (Crystal 1997:7-8; Kennedy 2002). Though it may require military power to establish a dominant language, it takes economic power to expand it and to keep it up. After the last war, during the decline of its Empire, Britain had to face up to the consequences of this reality, as it had to withdraw from its numerous overseas bases, unable to foot the bill for a continued military presence (cf. Neillands 1996). These days the US is virtually the only nation to have the economic resources to maintain and promote English around the globe. In the aftermath of the war on Iraq the dominant position of the US in the Anglo-American-Australian coalition is becoming a liability rather than an asset for American English, indeed for native-speaker English generally.

Other factors that have contributed to the worldwide spread of English over the past century are the development and explosive growth of the new communication technologies. They have enabled us to communicate (in English!) on a truly global scale. If we add to these the various international organisations using English as the dominant working language (such as the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, or the World Bank) and it will be obvious why English became a world language (Crystal 1997:8-10). The only real rival to English in international forums is French, which is, however, not seldom used as a means of resistance to the hegemony of English (Graddol 1997:9).

But this is not all. English has also become the language of science and technology. This is particularly true of the natural sciences. In Germany, for example, 98 p.c. of all physicists claim English as their working language, as against 8 p.c. of all students of law. It will be obvious that a person's lack of proficiency in English (or French for that matter) may result in inequality, in science just as in politics. Some of us, having submitted an article to an international journal and having found it rejected on the grounds of 'poor' English, and others, like our Europarliamentarians, having had to struggle in their debates in a non-native language (even though translation services are provided), have found this to their cost (cf. Van Essen 1989:113-26). This may not be fair, but it is a fact of life.

To summarize, for a language to become a truly world or global language it has to be recognized for its special communicative role in most countries around the world. This recognition is often reflected by the special status English enjoys in those countries, either by being an official language or by being the first foreign language in the language curriculum (Crystal 1997 and McKay 2002:5).

As we noted above it is not necessary for a world language to have a large number of NSs, even if a large number may facilitate a wider communicative range. It will be clear that a large body of NSs has the capacity to produce a greater variety of culture goods (e.g. literary works of art, motion pictures, (pop) music, news broadcasts, etc., as well as dictionaries, grammar books, educational materials, etc.) than a small number and that it will also create more opportunities for interactions with its NSs (Graddol 1997:12).

This may all be very well but today English increasingly acts as a lingua franca between NNSs (thanks to the fact that it has become a world language). Therefore if one wishes to understand fully the position of English in a world where the majority of its speakers are NNSs, one needs to consider the place English holds vis-à-vis the other languages that are used alongside it.

In Europe, where I live, the view is universally held that each language has its natural home ( e.g. German in Germany, French in France, Italian in Italy, English in England, etc.) and that a bilingual speaker is somebody who can converse and/or correspond with unilingual speakers from more than one country (i.e. from their own country and the other country). In other words, the ideal bilingual speaker is imagined to be someone who is unilingual in two languages at the same time (co-ordinate bilingualism). Elsewhere in the world, especially in the former British colonies, where a more a less independent variety of English has evolved, one may come across a situation where bilingual or multilingual speakers will communicate with other multilingual speakers in English, not because English is the only language they share (more often than not they share more than one language), but because in that particular (e.g. formal or official) communicative context English is regarded as the most appropriate language in the verbal repertoire available to that multilingual speaker. In such multilingual countries it is equally possible that a speaker will switch from one language to another during a conversation (code-switching), indeed even within a single sentence, in ways that are fully appreciated only by other members of the same speech community. In these societies English occupies a position of its own in the linguistic hierarchy, mostly at the apex. It is not inconceivable that within the EU a similar hierarchy will evolve. Recent surveys into the use of non-native languages within the EU already show English at the top, followed by German and French, which are in turn followed by national and regional languages. Along with Graddol (1997:12-3) on whose work I am basing myself here, one may conceptualize a linguistic world hierarchy with English and French at the top, but with the position of French on the decline and that of English becoming more clearly the world's lingua franca. All the more reaso to re-consider the position of English in the language curriculum.

English for specific purposes

A special case, indeed a major reason for the existence of English as an international language (EIL) is its use for specific purposes (ESP). Like other varieties of English as a lingua franca ESP is chiefly learnt not to indulge in social talk with NSs but to acquire a passkey to a global community of experts so as to become a member of that community and communicate with other members of that community (e.g. medical doctors, airline pilots, engineers, business people, lawyers, scientists, bankers, etc.), in the language (register) of that community, irrespective of their ethnic, geographical and cultural backgrounds, about topics of common interest and concern. In a word, ESP is a variety of English used not so much for interactional as for transactional purposes, learnt not so much as a means of cultural expression than as a language for communication.
Widdowson (1997:144) has argued that EIL is ESP: "otherwise it would not have spread, otherwise it would not regulate itself as an effective means of global communication. And otherwise there would, for most people, be little point in learning it at school or university". This would apply as much to places where English is said to be a foreign language (as in mainland Europe), as to where it is said to be a second language (as used in former British colonies or in English-speaking homelands by immigrants ). Though there is much to be said in favour of Widdowson's argument that EIL and ESP are co-terminous, I cannot (yet) go along with his identification of the two. For as far as I am able to make out some uses of EIL are not even remotely related to 'expert communities' in Widdowson's sense, for example, the EIL used by backpackers in a hostel in Nepal. On the contrary, a speaker's ability to use English for specific purposes does not rule out the possibility of him/her using it for wider purposes (cf. McKay 2002:84/5). But assuming for the moment that the primary purpose for learning English worldwide is not to prepare learners for interpersonal interaction across cultures with NSs from a neigbouring state (as is the case in Europe) but to procure them access to a global community (not so much of experts but of EIL speakers, as I would like to believe), this too would have to have drastic consequences for curricula and syllabuses across Europe, as we shall see below.

Culture. What culture?Which culture?

The majority of EIL interactions world-wide take place between speakers for none of whom English is the mother tongue and for none of whom English is a cultural symbol. On these grounds it may be questioned whether the teaching of culture is at all necessary to the teaching of EIL. For example, if a Dutch person conducts business in China, EIL is likely to be used. If the business is conducted in writing any reference to culture will be to the international conventions of doing business, or to local, regional, or national conditions. This is the kind of extra-lingual information that needs to be taught in ESP courses. If in face-to-face interactions any cultural elements enter the conversation (which is unlikely though; see House 1999:84) they are likely to be part of the socio-cultural make-up of the Dutch and the Chinese interactants. The kind of traditional cultural knowledge that we teach or used to teach our students at school (and which we touched on above) will not do here either. What will rat her be needed in such situations is an awareness of potential pitfalls resulting from cultural contrasts. We need to prepare our students for such situations. An effective way to do this is to raise their cross-cultural awareness by making them reflect on the differences between their own culture and the target culture, given a particular situation. This will sharpen their understanding of both cultures (McKay 2002: 94/5). A reflective learner is an effective learner.
Another extremely important element in any EIL course is the teaching of politeness strategies so as to prevent offending the other person. A first step would be to raise our students' awareness of 'dominance behaviour', for example by teaching them to be communicatively competent without being dominant in supervised role-plays. Dominance behaviour is often, though not always, a trait of NSs.

As Janssen (1999) rightly points out there is a great lack of concrete experience in resolving problems of this nature, simply because these developments in EIL are fairly recent ones. From the few examples given here it will be clear though that they necessitate a change in the English language curriculum. For example, if we decide to focus more on 'conversation management' in the sense just discussed, then we might have to cut down on traditional cultural and/or literary studies. Or the kind and amount of vocabulary taught. For if an international language is one that has become de-nationalised, detached from its original cultural soil, there is no reason why learners should have to acquire the localised lexical items of any country other than their own (McKay 2002:85). Though any such surgery is likely to cause a great hue and cry in professional circles, the ELT profession has to face up to these challenges.

Content-and-language-integrated learning (and teaching) for EIL.

As we have observed more than once, while traditional language-and-culture-integrated teaching may be acceptable for Europe, it is unlikely to be suitable for English in the global context. Here we need, first and foremost, the kind of English that is used by both NSs and NNSs in professional (and less professional!) circles around the world. And what we would like to do is to prepare our learners to become potential members of those communities (even the community of backpackers). A more appropriate approach to instruction here would be so-called content-and-language-integrated learning (CLIL), i.e. the teaching of subjects like geography, history, maths, etc. in English instead of in the learner's mother tongue. In CLIL English is no longer the 'object of study' but the means of instructing other subjects across the whole of the school curriculum. CLIL currently takes place in quite a few schools in Europe as well as in the Netherlands, and not just in English. Reports of how this approach is devel oping in schools across Europe (Grenfell 2002) as well as recent research show that the results are encouraging (Huibregtse 2001). If anything, CLIL marks a fresh approach to the teaching of EIL in Europe. In the upper forms of secondary schools it could be supplemented with more traditional assignments such as writing business letters, letters of application, reports, along with taking minutes, drafting memos, agendas, and calling and chairing meetings.
Evolving a global standard for EIL

With the development of so many varieties of native and non-native English, regional (e.g. Indian English) as well as functional (e.g. ESP), the question arises whether some sort of common standard can be established for EIL. For it will be obvious that for EIL to function properly mutual intellibility must be ensured. This question will be discussed in the next sub-sections.
Written English

Two major developments have contributed to the evolution of English as a standard language: the invention of the printing press and the rise of the nation state. The standard language solidarised the nation and gave an identity to its citizens. The standard language was thus linked with ideas about correctness, while the grammar book gradually evolved into a legal code. Printers' conventions and editorial policies put the finishing touches to it (Graddol 1997:56). As a result written English, apart from a few minor spelling variants, formed a fairly monolithic whole across the English-speaking world. Language watchers (cf. Graddol 1997:56) and computer analysts of English say that this situation has now come to an end. Rather than fixing the language, as printing did, Information Technology has come to act as a de-stabilising force, which will subject English to various new influences which are likely to alter and extend it. E-mail and 'texting' (i.e. sending text messages) are creating their own voca bulary and semantics. Another factor in establishing and maintaining a global standard (of speech), broadcasting, is also falling away. So de-standardisation has become rife. The trend towards 'informalisation' (meaning that the one-time gap between formal and conversational styles is closing) is further eating away what remains of the standard language. (Notice that ESP comprises, for the most part, written varieties). These trends, collectively, suggest a weakening of the practices and institutions which once mainatined the standard language (Graddol 1997:56). It will be obvious that the ensuing uncertainty will aggravate the position of the teacher, who is supposed to provide guidance to the learner. But the teacher can take some comfort from the fact that help is bound to come from the ELT industry in the various native-speaking countries. This industry is likely to follow markets (as it has always done) and to provide materials in several standards. But at the end of the day it will be up to the NNS teachers to decide whether a British model, an American model, or one based on an EIL variety, will be taught, learnt, and used. They can take comfort from the fact that the grammar of English is taught virtually without variation throughout the world (Graddol 1997:56) and that grammatical change appears to be very slow (Clear 1999).
Though the choice of the British model for European countries, obvious enough in the past, may not be so obvious now, we would do well to consider the possible consequences of dismissing British English too readily. For much of the negative reaction to English around the world is currently directed against the American variety. This was the case before 11 September 2001 and even more so now. The development of a separate (not: autonomous) EIL standard may obviate the need for a choice here. At the same time it would remove EIL (and part of the ELT profession) from the domination of any one NS variety as EIL favours neither of the existing NS varieties.

Spoken English
The standards for spoken English that we used to have, have largely evaporated., due to a variety of causes (e.g. a lesser deference to authority, a greater tolerance of diversity and individual styles, etc.). Radio and television broadcasting, once powerful centralising forces, will probably no longer be able to serve this function, following the mushroom rise of regional stations.

What with the fragmentation and regionalisation of pronunciation models it is all the more remarkable that NSs of English are the least tolerant where phonological deviations from the norms are concerned, but that "they can live with semantic deviance" (James 1998:47). Naturally NNSs are less certain in passing judgements on cases involving pronunciation, as they lack the knowledge and experience of the NS. This often makes them the butt of derision by NSs. On the other hand NNSs may take heart from the fact that they are often better understood by one another than they understand NSs.

The most recent and convincing attempt so far to fill the need for an international pronunciation model is Jenkins's Lingua Franca Core (LFC). Its aim is international intelligibilty among NNSs, rather than the imitation of NSs (though learners wishing to sound as native-like as possible, e.g. prospective teachers, may pursue this 'higher' aim, provided that .they familiarise themselves with the LFC in order to equip themselves for international communication). The model is empirically based, focusing on genuine interactional speech data.. It is artificial in that it contains elements derived from Standard British, Standard American, and varieties of EFL/ESL. It is also a prescriptive programme, at least insofar as the core is concerned, while offering individual speakers the chance to express their own personal identity through the phonological features of their own language. The LFC, which tries to keep sounds as close as possible to spelling (this is one of the reasons why , both productively and receptively, American /r/ is preferred to Standard British /r/, and British intervocalic /t/ to American intervocalic /t/, which has a tendency to become /d/ intervocalically, thus endangering intelligibility), has a segmental and a suprasegmental part. The segmental part comprises all the consonants (some with the addition of phonetic features like aspiration, as in initial /p,t,k/, to prevent confusion with /b,d,g/ here). Worth noting for NNSs is the possibility to substitute /f/ and /v/ for voiceless and voiced /th/ respectively. The same is true of 'dark' /l/ and 'clear' /l/. Also for the sake of intelligibility consonant clusters are not to be simplified (an exception being made for medial and final clusters, but only in conformity with the phonological rules of English as a native language). In the vowels length is all-important. This also applies to 'free' and 'checked' vowels such as /bid/ vs /bit/ and /bi:d/ vs /bi:t/. Of the diphthongs only three remain (/au/, /ai/, and /oi/), due to the addition of American /r/ word-finally. In the suprasegmental part 'weak' forms are not recommended (unless one wants to sound native-like). Accentuation and especially contrastive stress are regarded as more important than intonation, which appears to have no clear-cut grammatical functions.

It will not be necessary to go into more detail here. It goes without saying though that anyone taking a serious interest in Jenkins's proposal should refer to the work itself (Jenkins 2000). But it will be obvious from the few examples given here that the LFC may drastically reduce the teacher's task by removing from the pronunciation syllabus many time-consuming items which are either unteachable or irrelevant for EIL, thus also relieving the learner of an unnecessary burden. It is equally obvious that CLIL needs to take the LFC on board as well. It is time teachers of English became more aware of the educational implications of English as an international language and of the benefits it may hold for them and their students.


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Arthur van Essen
Professor Emeritus of Applied Linguistics and Language Pedagogy at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands


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