Let’s be cool about English


With English serving as a global lingua franca, it’s easy to see the ill fit when a minority of English speakers (those who speak it by accident of birth) exercise disproportionate control over what should be regarded as acceptable English. In scientific publishing, for example, authors using English as a lingua franca (ELF) encounter linguistic gatekeepers who not infrequently insist on “native-like” English as a criteria for publishing. Yet, attitudes are changing just as quickly as anything else in our single-click world. Even native speakers of English can see that we need to be cool about English.

In an article this month in Slate, Boer Deng, herself a second-language user of English, has an interesting take on English as the scientific lingua franca. She argues that the English supremacy in academia is linked to American spending on and production of PhDs, which has exploded since the 1960s. She further points out the added challenges of representing one’s self as a professional without the advantage of using your first language. As a result, native speakers of English should show more understanding and consideration toward their peers – in short, we need to be cool.

But how to implement this linguistic coolness institutionally? Deng cites the example of an American journal, Molecular Biology of the Cell, which published an editorial in 2012 (read it here) that calls for flexibility by reviewers when evaluating scientific texts by authors using English as a second or foreign language. And what do they say that it takes to be cool in today’s scientific world?

  1. Nonnative speakers of English can write effective manuscripts, despite errors of grammar, syntax, and usage, if the manuscripts are clear, simple, logical, and concise. (We note that native speakers of English sometimes write manuscripts exhibiting good grammar, yet filled with muddled and confusing logic.)
  2. When possible, reviewers and editors of manuscripts should look beyond errors in grammar, syntax, and usage, and evaluate the science.
  3. It is inappropriate to reject or harshly criticize manuscripts from nonnative speakers of English based on errors of grammar, syntax, or usage alone.

(Drubin & Kellogg 2012)

This isn’t suggesting that grammars are rewritten or the Oxford English Dictionary should be burned in piles. It just acknowledges that in a world where the lingua franca is spoken by a minority of first-language users, people should be ready to accommodate English that might not always conform to a native speaker’s expectation (and which one’s?). It’s an attitude of pragmatism and consideration that extends to spoken as well as written English. And it’s also not the sole duty of English native speakers – you ELF speakers also need to be cool.

“Bad English shaming” in Europe

It’s one thing to use English as the scientific lingua franca in publications and presentations. It’s another thing to use English on live television. Today’s leaders of state are increasingly expected to speak English in interviews and press events, and the audience can be harsh. Some politicians are even mocked – but not by those unforgiving English native speakers. Viral videos of “Bad English shaming” come right from their own countries.

Last year I found an eye-opening article describing this phenomenon. In particular, it describes an unrehearsed speech in English by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi which gave rise to some unmerciful online parodies. But it’s really not fair to judge a person on one poor performance under less-than-optimal conditions. In fact, with a bit of preparation, Renzi’s English is good enough to be interviewed on CNN (see above). Is your Italian good enough for cable news?

Finnish politicians are also sometimes skewered for their public use of English (skewered and seared politician is a global delicacy, I suppose). And while they might mock their own politicians, I’ve only known Finns to be respectful of foreigners’ attempts to speak Finnish. If I were speaking Finnish here on national television (likely to comment on the concurrent news of hell freezing over), I’d expect that the good people of Finland would be cool about it. So why not do yourselves the same favor?

Let’s be a bunch of little Fonzies

The call to be cool is just showing others the same consideration you would hope for if your international public image or professional success was dependent on an additional language. Sometimes ELF research is criticised for being too ideologically oriented, and I tend to agree that some researchers put their agenda before their empirical data. Some might want to revolutionise English language teaching and testing, but I’m more of an investigator than an instigator. The closest I can come to an ideological platitude is this: be cool – it’s just English.


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