Make English Truly a World Language

Venice Irving and Anna Hearrell explain how cultural awareness can bridge the English divide

The Caribbean Sea encompasses over 7,000 islands, including the famous tourist destinations of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Barbados. Taken all together, the Caribbean islands, sometimes referred to as the West Indies, are incredibly diverse, yet they share distinct historical traits, behaviors, and values which have created a Caribbean culture and identity. For countries like Jamaica and other islands, English is a shared language. Not only is it a shared language, but it is the mother tongue, making these groups of English-speaking Caribbean islanders indeed native English speakers.

Even in this age of heightened awareness of cultural, historical, and political ties to the English language, the English language teaching (ELT) industry struggles with the fact that not every native English speaker speaks the same way, has the same accent, or even shares the same background.

We step in to acknowledge and challenge this overwhelming misconception in the ELT industry: that English is a White-hegemonic language and therefore native speakerism is reserved for the individuals who fit that description.

So how do we move from misjudging an English speaker’s culture, skin color, or country of origin as a qualifier to be an English educator? Instead, how can we use life experiences, such as culture, to enhance English instruction? Is there space in the curriculum to leverage culture, identity, and history to confront systemic bias, even racism, when teaching English as a
world language?

The answer is yes. We can debunk the myth that the native English speaker is solely synonymous with Western culture when English is in fact the primary language of many populations in the Global South too.

In 2020, Happy Teachers and Bridge Education Group partnered to survey Caribbean English teachers to understand what’s been successful in class, which then helps to deconstruct falsities about who qualifies as a native speaker and
who doesn’t.

World English versus World Englishes
Native speakerism is a hot topic in the ELT arena and is discussed often. Yet discrimination toward nonnative English teachers is overtly practiced and documented. It’s all too common to view a job posting from a tutoring company and notice the glaring requirements for native speakers. Images of the U.S., Australian, Canadian, and UK flags allude to their preferences.

We understand every company reserves the right to set their hiring requirements, but it’s these kinds of practices that eliminate a huge chunk of nonnative speakers, people of color, and citizens of smaller English-speaking nations from the hiring pool.
How did we get to this point, exactly? It boils down to “othering,” or categorizing those who are part of the “English inner circle” apart from those who are not.

As discussed by Mary Romney in “All Englishes Matter,” the spread, acquisition, and use of English is commonly referred to as the lingua franca model.1 This model was theorized by linguist Braj Kachru, in which he identified the three distinct concentric circles of English: the inner circle, the outer circle, and the expanding circle.

The inner circle includes places whose inhabitants speak English as it originally took shape and was spread across the world in the first diaspora, largely through conquering and colonizing new geographic territories. Those same areas would then adopt English as the primary language or the mother tongue.

Take the Caribbean island of Jamaica as an example. English was brought to Jamaica and other parts of the Americas when British colonization was prevalent in the 16th century. Since gaining independence from Great Britain nearly 400 years later, Jamaica has retained English as its official language, despite the commonly spoken patois.

The second concentric tier of English, the outer circle, grew roots through imperial expansion of Great Britain in the continents of Asia and Africa. In countries like India, Nigeria, Malaysia, and the Philippines (via U.S. colonialism), English is not the native language, but it is the auxiliary language, or the lingua franca, between ethnic and language groups. This plays out in countries like India where there are over 20 official languages belonging to different ethnic groups, but English is the common denominator in institutions like higher academia, government, and national commerce.

Then there is the expanding circle. This third concentric circle branches out to countries where English has no ties to the country’s history, culture, or government. The main difference in the expanding circle (compared to the outer circle) is that English “has not become institutionalized with locally developed standards of use,”2 but, in an effort to compete globally, it is widely studied and used as a medium of international communication.

Kachru’s concentric English circle model shows us one thing for certain: if the mode of communication is English, then a native speaker from the expanding circle should efficiently understand and converse with a nonnative speaker from the inner circle, and vice versa.

What we need to steer away from is the preconceived notion that only Americans, Australians, and the British speak English the most naturally and “properly” when in fact those from South Africa, New Zealand, and parts of the Caribbean do too, along with nonprimary speakers who’ve mastered the language. If we are to label English a global language or lingua franca, we need to first understand that the language has evolved to occupy many different corners and pockets of the world, not just those of the Global North.

With this understanding, world Englishes can and should be used to communicate between circles, without discrimination or hierarchy between the native and nonnative speakers. Only then is it truly a world English.

World Englishes in the Interview Room
We understand that biased imagery of the English speaker plays a role in the unethical hiring practices for English teachers. The hypothesis is that lack of diversity and knowledge leads hiring managers to ignore qualified English teachers of color, regardless of their being native or nonnative speakers. The prototypical English speaker is a problematic image because it eliminates people of color who are indeed skilled and trained in the language.

When we surveyed a pool of 27 Caribbean teachers from the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, and the British Virgin Islands, they felt they were viewed respectfully in their trade, but there was a growing trend: some teachers felt employers didn’t view them as “good enough” or “as qualified” as their U.S. and UK counterparts.

For instance, both the UK and the U.S. are developed nations, whereas many of the Anglophone Caribbean nations are considered developing or underdeveloped. The teachers indicated that recruiters desired candidates from so-called reformed socio-economic cultures, adding another branch of hierarchy to questionable hiring practices.

There’s also the social construct of race and the implicit yet bigoted biases that determine a candidate’s fit for the job. It’s been argued that “neo-racism” is at the core of common recruiter behavior; neo-racism dismisses the ability to deliver adequate English instruction because of skin color, accent, ethnicity, or name.3

Therein lies the troublesome correlation: that native English is reserved for White, Western European-looking teachers, and therefore the English language is a proxy of Whiteness.

And the opinion is not without merit: 70% of teachers we surveyed felt their Caribbean heritage, nationality, and/or race affected their job prospects. One respondent went so far as to say that it is a desire on the part of students to have a White English-speaking teacher, which then influences companies’ decisions when recruiting ideal candidates.

But as more global citizens continue to spread the English language across borders, the model of associating native speakerism to so-called White-dominated countries continues to trend toward obsolescence. The silver lining to such an outdated practice lies in the resolutions where Anglophone Caribbean teachers, or any native English speaker of color really, can enrich the study of English with cultural exchange and awareness.

Cultural Influences in the English Classroom
From the same survey, Caribbean teachers revealed a surprising and refreshing general testimony: their students tended to be more trusting and less scrutinizing of their Caribbean backgrounds.

Still, the teachers faced peculiar questions about their backgrounds and appearances. In recorded responses, some teachers cited that learners were not aware that Black Caribbeans are not from Africa, although they are part of the African diaspora. Other testimony pointed to the fact that some students naively assigned a language to a race. Questions like “Do Jamaicans speak English?” or “What language do Jamaicans speak?” let us know that English is still linked to Anglo-dominated wealthy countries rather than developing nations with non-White dominating populations.

In addition, teachers relayed that students sometimes anticipated their Caribbean teachers would pronounce words and orate sentences like an American or a Brit, as if those types of English were the only acceptable ones.

Situations like these offer opportunities to include cultural and social understanding in education programs or culturally responsive teaching of the English language. Learning English is not only the process of mastering language forms but also includes recognizing the cultural thought patterns of English speakers around the world, which truly make it a world language rather than a language that is assigned a geographic place and race.

As a starting point, English learning through cultural immersion could include comparing and contrasting. Compare-and-contrast models aid learners who are not from the same culture in understanding the difference between cultural behaviors, which in turn increases cultural competence and understanding. Comparison and contrast can distinguish acceptable behavior and unacceptable behavior, allowing learners to accept the target culture, reinforcing English as a global language.

A further proposition for this learning model includes engaging in culture-based activities. In a traditional learning model, acquisition of knowledge of culture relies on written materials in which learners are enlightened about psychology, cultural characters, customs and habits, and social relations through text and not experience.

Communicative activities are those involving learners’ active participation in communication, such as role-play, information-gap activities, and problem-solving activities. For example, an English teacher may want to introduce learners to varieties of cultural dishes from around the world, which could include teaching learners to cook a traditional recipe, how to order at a Caribbean restaurant, or how to order food by phone.

Lastly, using authentic materials and sources from a variety of English-speaking sources helps to engage students via authentic cultural experiences and furthermore aids the destruction of implicit nativism biases when dissecting the qualifications of an English speaker.

Take the song “I Shot the Sheriff” by Bob Marley and the Wailers, as was recommended by one survey respondent. As controversial a message as it was when the song was composed in 1975, and even in current times, the song presents an opportunity for learners to practice the /ʃ/ (sh sound) as it is used in English. Other authentic sources can include films, news broadcasts, and television shows, along with plenty of printed and digital materials that can be adapted to suit the age and language proficiency level of students.

More importantly, when teachers draw on multicultural awareness and understanding, they open their students’ eyes to combat the misconceptions that English is a White, Western European-dominant language, therefore showing them it also belongs to people of color.

World English Teachers and World English Learners
English has evolved to become an international language with over half a billion people occupying the native speaker space, with another one and a half billion learning or using English as a secondary or foreign language. That is what makes English unique to the world—the total number of English speakers globally, not the number of native speakers.

Through teachers’ grassroots efforts to promote cultural awareness and reduce other biases (like those relating to accent and race) in the teaching of English as a global language, they are actively combating this systemic issue of native speakerism and racism in the industry.

Of course, new methods of English learning, particularly those paired with cultural exchange and enrichment, should always fit the needs of the student and their ability to grasp this new approach. One way to ensure this is to request and set realistic expectations for learning. Will world Englishes from the outer circle be accepted by the student? Teachers must always keep in mind whether world Englishes will be accepted in the student’s experience and if they will stunt or support the student’s growth. Finally, educators should reflect on how this immersive cultural learning models respect, exploration, and inclusivity for inner, outer, and expanding circle English speakers.

Notes

  1. Romney, M., “All Englishes Matter,” Language Magazine, March 2021, www.languagemagazine.com/2021/03/11/all-englishes-matter.
  2. www.thoughtco.com/expanding-circle-english-language-1690619
  3. https://bridge.edu/tefl/blog/native-speakerism-discriminatory-practice-or-response-to-market-demands

Venice Irving, an expert in the ELT field for more than 20 years, taught all levels in Asia before founding Happy Teachers in 2009. She is a sought-after speaker for global ELT events, particularly in Latin America and Europe. She also consults with local and international government agencies and NGOs on education development in the region. She currently leads an online group of over 3,000 teachers as CEO of Happy Teachers (https://happy-teachers.com).

Anna Hearrell is Bridge’s product manager (https://bridge.edu/tefl). She has developed innovative online programs designed to meet the needs of English language teachers around the world, including a micro-credential course dedicated to teaching English as a global language. As a teacher training provider, Bridge seeks to empower the global English language teaching community with accessible professional development options, teacher recognition, and advocacy.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Face facts we are all replaceable by the computer or will be. You think some areas are safe.
    Even medical doctors. They plug you into a computer and analyze you. we have all become too expensive. The march to cheaper marches on. Hell if humans are still around they give you an
    implant. Then you too will join the ranks of computer life. The times are certainly a-changing!

  2. Well, to answer the question I will say “Definitely no”
    Of course most of you would like to hear the reasons too, and I think I have the answer for that.
    1. First of all, the English language has the most inconsistent pronunciation. I wanted to say “pronunciation rules”, but in practice there is no rule for the pronunciation of English words.
    2. Native speakers in the United Kingdom and primarily in the United States constantly create acronyms and use them without hesitation with outmost inconsideration that others will understand them or not. The creators of these acronyms appear to be rushing everything and appear not to have the time to say or write the full word or expression used by others. Or they are simply lazy.
    3. The English speakers in general don’t take pride in their language.
    4. Most importantly: The most important vehicle of the dissemination of culture is the language. Let’s consider the English spoken in England to be the cradle of the English language. Second in the row in the modern world is the United States. Do you really want to disseminate the British or the American culture in your home country? Don’t you think that the culture of your country is superior to the English or American culture and if English is made into the universal world language of communication how much your culture would be influenced?
    5. It is true that the United States (and perhaps England too) is trying to spread its culture, but only the culture of consumerism and the American style public education which failed on many levels. While in science the US and UK achieved a lot, all attempts are made to distribute consumerism only.
    I have been a translator for 55 years, and this how I made my living. As a translation company manager we specialized in languages of limited diffusion, more closely the languages spoken by the people of the Pacific Area islands, and even if we got hundreds of orders into the languages of these islands, there was none that would have intended to distribute scientific or technical information that those islanders might have benefited from. All of these orders were for the translation of mass distributed items for sale and American style public education. Thus the goal was the distribution of the consumer and education culture of the United States. If the islanders would have wanted information about some technical or scientific subjects they could have it, but they would have to pay for it while all consumer information was sent to them in their native language at no cost to them.

    So, what would gain the world by using English as a world language?

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