Notes on the use of English as a foreign language
speech to the conference Bi- and multilingual universities: Challenges
and future prospects, University of Helsinki 1-3 September 2005
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Universitetet i Oslo/Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
do you call a person who can speak three languages? Trilingual
What do you call a person who can speak two languages? Bilingual
What do you call a person who can speak one language? American
Aphorism from the Internet
The disappearance of languages, described in rather normative terms as
language death by some linguists (e.g. Crystal 2000), has often been associated
with the spread of English. Now it must be said that languages other than
English, such as Bahasa Indonesia, must take their share of the responsibility,
in the same way as it must be said that all that is not well in the world
cannot be blamed on the Americans.
While unsentimental attitudes to language death do exist among linguists
(e.g. Keats 2003) who see a promising creative potential in hybrid languages
like Spanglish, such views are debated and controversial. This lecture
is not taking on that topic, although what I have to say will be tangential
to the question of language death. Rather than looking at the disappearance
of languages, I shall take this opportunity to reflect on the implications
of the ever-growing preponderance of English as the second (or, in many
cases, third) language of the world the single most important,
increasingly unchallenged language of international communication.
The global dominance of English is reflected in many ways, not least through
the linguistic insularity, indeed parochialism, of the English-speaking
parts of the world. On a wonderful website called Index Translationum
the UNESCO has collected a variety of statistical material on translations
between 1979 and 2002. It reveals that 834,856 books were translated from
English in the period the figures for French, the runner-up language,
are 141,801, and for Finnish 5,888.
Regarding target languages, the German-speaking world is the keenest on
being enriched by impulses from abroad. 243,144 books were translated
into German (only 141,129 books were translated from German), while 164,794
books were translated into English. The impressive number of 36,898 books
were translated into Finnish.
In other words, while the Finns translated more than six times as many
books as the number of Finnish books published abroad, and the Germans
translated nearly twice as much into German as that which went in the
opposite direction, more than five times as many books were translated
from English as into English. While just 5.4 per cent of the books translated
from German in 2002 had English as their destination language, more than
two-thirds of the books translated into German were from English.
It is almost impossible to believe it, but if the UNESCO statistics are
correct, more books were translated in Denmark (5 million inhabitants)
than in the United States (300 million inhabitants); and more books were
translated in poor Bulgaria than in the rich United Kingdom.
According to statistics on Internet use, 51.3% of communication on the
Internet is in English (while a mere 5% of the world's population speaks
it as their first language). Regarding academic publishing, I have been
unable to find reliable figures, but everyone seems to agree that the
proportion of English has increased steadily since the Second World War.
In some fields, more than 90% of publications are in English. According
to the British Council, about 25 per cent of the worlds population
speak English to some level of competence; and they add, in
a perhaps not overly disinterested vein, that demand from the other
three-quarters is increasing. Everybody wants to speak it.
. However, due to the uneven population growth in the world, the proportion
of native speakers of English has gone down from 9 to 5 per cent in the
last fifty years.
Our preliminary conclusion must nevertheless be that while James Joyce
learned a dozen European languages in order to be able to communicate
with the world, today it seems as if one would do just fine.
The topic of this lecture is not the situation of English in the world
as such, but slightly more modestly, the hegemony of English in academic
discourse. We are not talking about language death. On an Interrail trip
to the shores of the Mediterranean more than twenty years ago, I met a
young American who was convinced that Greek was dying out rapidly. He
had discovered that everyone he met (presumably young, urban Greeks) was
learning English. As if bilingualism were impossible. As any linguist
(and a few anthropologists) could have told him, bi-, tri- or even multilingualism
is the norm in human societies; monolinguism is the exception. So the
spread of English as a foreign language (EFL) does not mean that vernaculars
are dying out. But it has other consequences.
A term often used in the research bureucracies of small countries is internationalisation.
An instance of new public management newspeak, it means teach your
courses in English!. In the same discursive framework, international
publications are also favoured, and this tends to mean publish
wherever you like, as long as you do it in an English-language journal
published abroad. (It could be The Botswana journal of postmodern
studies for that matter, as long as it is foreign and Anglophone.)
As a result, academic work in nondominant languages is becoming marginalised
and difficult to sustain, at least in smallish countries. With German,
French, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese it is different, but even there
the tendency is marked. Yet it is well known that certain things can and
should only be said in certain languages. It may in fact be true that
some ideas can only be expressed properly in German, and that certain
ideas, say, about German society, should be expressed in German for the
benefit of the German public sphere. I shall have more to say about this
aspect of academic monolingualism later.
English as a shared language of communication has certain obvious advantages.
Its functioning can be compared to that of Microsoft Word. Nobody likes
Microsoft and few like its unlovely word processor (at least that goes
for those of us who are familiar with superior alternatives...), but its
great virtue lies in making communication possible and frictionless worldwide.
In the old days, that is to say the 1980s, each major computer manufacturer
had its own operating system and its own software. As a result, the electronic
transmission of texts became cumbersome and often impossible. It was the
era of the Tower of Babel of word processing.
With the total dominance of Microsoft Word, the result is comparable to
that of the total dominance of English (or, for most of us, EFL). Everything
is compatible with everything else; yet, many of us feel, even if we cannot
prove, that it shapes our thoughts in insidious ways.
Let us, therefore, try to identify some of the characteristics of EFL,
and to reflect on the ways in which our writing (and talking) is influenced
by the fact that a large proportion of us that is, academics
regularly use a language other than our vernacular, that is to say a language
different from the one we lead our everyday life in. (A comparison with
medieval Latin is inevitable, but it will have to wait for now.) In a
certain, obvious sense, the universal usage of English places everybody
except the native speakers at a disadvantage. Just as women and blacks
have always been forced to perform twice as well as the universal
human, that is the middle-aged white man from a metropolitan country,
non-native speakers in reality have to accomplish more than native speakers
to be considered equal achievers. So there is a dimension of symbolic
power here, which was recognized at a meeting in the European Association
of Social Anthropologists (EASA) in the early 1990s. A Danish colleague
ingeniously suggested that everybody had to speak a language other than
their own at the conference. (In practice, this would force the Britons
to speak French.) Naturally, the suggestion was not taken on, but the
point, which was about a discrepancy in symbolic power, was well taken.
In order to come closer to an understanding of the characteristics of
EFL, it may be instructive to look at the ways it is taught. There are
courses available for translating between plain English and
EFL. One such online course, or really a teaser for a course (http://www.webpagecontent.com/arc_archive/139/5/),
offers a great deal of advice not, this time, for the foreigner
wanting to express himself better in a foreign language, but for natives
wanting to be understood by foreigners. As everybody knows, English as
a foreign language is not the same language as English spoken by natives.
More than one first-time foreign visitor to London, with top marks in
English from his or her school, has been shocked and outraged upon discovering
that it is plainly impossible to understand what the cockney cabman is
The examples discussed in the online course are instructive in suggesting
some changes to be expected when an increasing amount of communication
takes place between people who are not using their first language.
One is advised to use short sentences.
One is advised to avoid false subjects such as It in
sentences like It is extraordinary how warm the weather is.
It is better to say The weather is extraordinarily warm.
Miniwords, or fillers, such as get, go. lot, by, for, it, he. the,
a, of, are discouraged as they can lead to confusion.
Complex questions are discouraged, such as You don't have
the courage to acknowledge that your allegations have no factual basis
whatsoever, do you? Rather say, Do you admit that you have
made false allegations? (I like this example. It prepares the native
speaker for encounters he may expect with foreigners.)
Similarly, double negatives are discouraged: The results
were not displeasing should be avoided. Instead say, The results
One is moreover advised not to use idioms such as the tip
of the iceberg, just around the corner and so on.
Plainly, all kinds of ambiguity are discouraged to avoid misunderstandings.
Negative words are also discouraged, as in The shipment will not
arrive until late January it is better to say The shipment
will arrive in late January.
In other words, authors of courses like this one want native speakers
to avoid colloquialisms and idioms, understatement and metaphor. In the
hard sciences, I suspect the challenge of avoiding figures of speech,
the flavour of colloqualism and idiomatic expressions is modest. In humanities
and some social sciences, it is much more serious, since the main aim
of writing in such disciplines may not be parsimony and clarity, but richness
Let us return to academic English and conference English. Although there
is a considerable, and growing, literature on English as an international
language and, notably, some of the local varieties developing in places
like Hong Kong (Joseph 2005) and the Caribbean (Wells 1982), sociolinguistic
or sociological studies of academic and conference English still seem
to be thin on the ground. What follows is therefore tentative please
excuse my ignorance if necessary.
First, there appear to be few discernable regional variants in academic
English. Unlike the varieties of literary English or spoken English in
ex-colonies such as India or Nigeria or even Australia or South Africa,
nearly always seen as enriching, variations in academic English are never
seen as virtuous.
The differences between foreigners and native speakers is often commented
upon, here as in other kinds of context. American English appears easier
to understand than British English, probably for historical reasons. The
USA historically needed a cheap cultural entrance ticket in order to be
able to assimilate immigrants quickly. But this difference is not, I would
argue, the most marked one.
First, there is an interesting relationship between the oral and the written
here. English as an academic and conference language is largely a written
version even if it is often spoken. Lots of people at conferences speak
more or less like books. One may even sometimes think: She cannot be a
native speaker, her grammar is too correct. This is quite different from
the kind of English one hears among immigrants who have learnt it as a
kind of speech.
Second, a useful distinction may be the one, introduced decades ago by
the anthropologist Edward Hall (1966), between high and low context. His
debatable, but very intriguing view was that certain spoken languages
depended on a great deal of nonverbal communication, while others contained
and needed little nonverbal content. High context languages in Halls
account were Arabic and Italian; low context languages were German and
Swedish. Be this as it may, it may shed light on academic EFL to describe
it as a low-context language. It is ideally stripped of the quotidian,
the subtle and the understatement. Or one could, following Geertz (1982),
call it an extremely experience-distant language.
I teach quite a lot in English, usually to non-native speakers. Like many
of you. I notice that bcause of the lack of a shared cultural environment,
I tell fewer jokes about local politicians and avoid word-play than I
do at home. Come to think of it, I often tend to avoid jokes altogether
when I teach in English to students who may struggle with the language,
and who cannot reasonably be expected to understand my bad jokes. As a
compensation, the students probably learn more.
Thirdly, the difference between English as spoken by natives and academic
EFL is much more marked than it is in writing. After all, academics are
reading, writing people. This phenomenon is, incidentally, far from unknown
in other contexts. It is said about Joseph Conrad that he spoke so bad
English that only his close friends could understand him. And Vladimir
Nabokov famously said: I think like a genius, I write like a great
writer, and I speak like a child. This difference may lead us to
expect that native speakers get the upper hand in discussion sessions
at conferences, if not at formal presentations. In my experience, they
The problem is not just a technical one of vocabulary and pronunciation.
In fact, it may be the case that certain things can only be said in ones
vernacular. Walter Benjamin recommended that in translations, the flavour
of the originating language should be audible in other words, that
an English translation of Goethe should resound with a German accent and
cumbersome sentence construction.
The other side of the coin is nevertheless that for non-native speakers,
certain things are more easily said in English, since by using English,
one avoids the clutter and disruptions of personal experience. This corresponds
to the low-context language of Hall or, perhaps, the so-called elaborated
code of Basil Bernstein, which that linguist associated with educated,
middle-class people. But in some ways, the elaborated code is really in
some ways more restricted than Bernsteins restricted code (which
he associated with the working class), since it erases the implicit, the
metaphorical and the idiomatic. One may write a perfectly sound scholarly
article and not know a broom from a brush, or a balcony from a verandah;
and one may be a world intellectual writing ones main work in English
without being able to use puns and metaphors from cricket.
The final point, alluded to earlier, is that academic EFL is and remains
an expression of standardisation and homogenisation. The flattening work
of English as a foreign language is a continuation of the work of nation-building,
the search for linguistic common denominators. Since it is being compartmentalised
to a few, limited contexts, this unbeautiful language of pragmatic intercultural
communication does not lead to the disappearance of vernaculars. What
it does, though, is to shift the intellectual scene in many countries
where English is not the vernacular. Since academics increasingly relate
to an English-speaking public sphere, the domestic intellectual discourse
suffers. At the University of Oslo, there are scholars who have devoted
their lives to the dissemination of Foucaults ideas in Scandinavia,
or to criticising the welfare state for its unintentional side-effects.
Under the present academic regime, publishing in English has an immeasurably
higher value than writing essentially the same texts in Norwegian. However,
lots of people introduce Foucault in English and besides, a Norwegian-language
public sphere should be capable of having its own debates going, tailored
to a Norwegian world of experience and able to influence public opinion
and policymakers in the country. Similarly, writers who specialise in
the Scandinavian welfare state cannot say the same things to foreign readers
as they do to the domestic ones. They have to contribute to the
international debate (another newspeak expression), meaning that
local context must be explained step by step since prior knowledge cannot
be taken for granted.
The domestic public spheres in many countries risk losing their cutting-edge
contributors to the Anglophone world. Being a middle-sized fish in a large
pond can be more satisfying than being a large fish in a small pond, and
yet certain important things can only and should only be said in vernacular
languages. Only a couple of weeks ago, the economic historian Einar Lie
published the last volume of a collaborative history of Hydro, Norways
most important industrial enterprise. That book, impressively researched
and convincingly argued, is going to make a difference in the self-understanding
of the country, and will doubtless have subtle effects on politics. Had
he written it in English, the impact would have been minimal (but he would
then have a major international publication to his name).
Academic EFL, necessary as it is for mutual intelligibility, is threatening
to replace vernaculars in intellectual discourse, and the result is that
domestic or national issues are marginalised.
The world is becoming a poorer place in this way. However, notwithstanding
the impoverishment of the domestic public spheres, which is a serious
issue these days, especially in the smaller countries, I am convinced
that we could do better than merely imitate the metropoles, even if the
aim is to communicate with the world. We could in fact, rather than imitating
a sexless, vaguely transatlantic norm, infuse international English with
local colour. In medieval times, there was no norm of pronunciation for
Latin. Swedes and Frenchmen pronounced the same words very differently.
(Whether they were able to understand each other is another issue. Maybe
it didnt matter so much.) Local expressions, jokes, saws, even strange
forms of syntax should find their place in the local versions of the emerging
world Englishes (Melchers and Shaw 2005), all within the bounds
of intelligibility of course. And if a sufficient number of us did this,
the hegemonic status of English as spoken by natives might eventually
disappear. There would be Greek, German and Italian variants of English,
discernably local and experience-near, all of them distinctive. This might
enrich both English and vernaculars.
So as you can see, Im not, at the end of the day, a worried puritan.
In my world, Spanglish is a perfectly reasonable response to a difficult
linguistic situation, and one cannot rule out that something exciting
might even come out of it. Looking at the history of English, continuously
adding vocabulary while simultaneously shedding dead structural wood,
such a diversification would confirm the greatness, the generosity and
the pragmatic liberalism of the English language. The alternative is the
McDonaldisation of English: the universalism of standardisation and simplification.
Rather than settling for a common denominator short sentences,
no ambiguities, and so on, we might encourage pluralism. Future editors
of the OED may curse us for making their job more difficult, but
future James Joyces will rejoice.
Bernstein, Basil (1964) Social class, speech-systems and psychotherapy.
British Journal of Sociology, 15: 5464.
Crystal, David (1997) English as a Global Language. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
-- (2000) Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Edwards, John (1985) Language, Society and Identity. Oxford: Blackwell.
Geertz, Clifford (1982) Local Knowledge. Chicago: University of
Hall, Edward T. (1966) The Hidden Dimension. New York: Doubleday.
Joseph, John E. (2005) Language and Identity. London: Palgrave.
Keats, Jonathon (2003) Touching tongues. Prospect, 91.
Melchers, Gunnel and Philip Shaw (2003) World Englishes. London:
Wells, J. C. (1982) Accents of English, vols. I-III. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
British council. http://www.britishcouncil.org/english/
From plain English to global English. http://www.webpagecontent.com/arc_archive/139/5/
Index Translationum. http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=7810&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html