There is a remarkable passage in Anthony Burgess’ brilliant novel Earthly Powers in which the protagonist, a successful English author named Kenneth Toomey, is discussing matters religious with a local person of seemingly great import called Mahaligham, who’s a Tamil speaker (the interaction takes place in what is now Malaysia though, at the time this conversation takes place, it was a British colony known as The Federation of Malaya, and Toomey is there to do research for his work). It goes as follows:
“You may say my religion is personal and electric”
“Surely you mean eclectic?”
“I mean what I mean”, he said loudly. “Because you are an Englishman does not mean you have a monopoly of the language” (1)
What is remarkable is how (the insane – you’ll see if you read the book) Mahaligham reacts to being corrected. It turns out that he did mean “eclectic” as the conversation develops (or so it seems to me) and he keeps mentioning it, but he clearly did not like being corrected. Not only that, he links this correction to a greater question of who ‘owns’ English, which in the late 1940s or early 1950s (when this was), was very probably considered by most people to be ‘the British” (whoever they are), or the English (from England, which is simply a “conspiracy of cartographers” anyway).
Now, as proponents of ELF (English as Lingua Franca) or EIL (English as an International Language), amongst others, will tell you, nobody ‘owns’ English, particularly the British (as might have been traditionally assumed: RP as prestige form and all that – perhaps my own interpretation there). Indeed, nowadays, most English interaction will take place between people for whom English is a learned language of communication, not a first language. However, even so, there is still a tendency for many learners of English to regard native speakers (don’t think too hard about that term) as somehow in command of it, experts, consultants on acceptable use, etc. As Barbara Seidlhofer describes this “paradox”:
“…on the one hand, for the majority of its users, English is a foreign language, and the vast majority of verbal exchanges in English do not involve any native speakers of the language at all. On the other hand, there is still a tendency for native speakers to be regarded as custodians over what is acceptable usage” (2)
As usual in one of my posts, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with, well, anything. So I’ll tell you. All this reminds me of a strange correction situation I was
recently in in Oman. My girlfriend (a celebrated ELFer no less, and Jane to my Dave Willis) and I were in a bar in Muscat, where we met one of a number of very friendly Omanis. He was particularly talkative and took a shine to Katy, so we ended up talking for about 12 minutes and 26 seconds (roughly). Our new friend, who was maybe called Khalid (well, he is now), was very well-travelled and knew the UK well (the very definition of well-travelled..), including Edinburgh (near where I’m from), as well as Katy’s neck of the woods. I’d say his English was about B1+, though my memory is fading slightly on that point. He was also speaking to two native-speaker English teachers, something he was effusively happy about, and Katy and I were doing that accommodation thing I’ve written about before (a talk here and post here). So there’s the background.
At one point in the conversation, the following dialogue took place:
Chris: “did you go to the festival [in Edinburgh]?”
Khalid: “did I went to the festival?”
Chris: “Yeah, did you go and see it?”
Khalid: “did I went? Yes, I went to it. August.” [Katy and I share a look]
What you want to read into reformulation as a correction technique is up to you, but notice who corrected who: he corrected me. I wasn’t correcting him in this interaction – I was just speaking the English I know, use and, well, speak in bars (and elsewhere, I should add) – but he was definitely correcting me. This was the first time I think I’ve ever had my English grammar ‘corrected’ by pretty much anyone, but I’ve definitely never been corrected by someone of level B1+ in a bar!
So, what does this tell us? Probably very little in the grand scheme of things (has anyone ever seen this putative ‘grand scheme’ anywhere?), but it does highlight some interesting points that the gregarious Khalid probably didn’t know he was making. For instance, Khalid would surely be in disagreement with Tricia Hedge’s approach, were they to meet in a bar (one day it will be me..), which Li summarises as “only ‘global’ errors (those which cause communication problems) [should] be addressed, but not ‘local’ errors (those which do not)” (3). Khalid seems to be from a more Behaviourist school of error-avoidance and explicit recasts.
Coming back to the original thread of this piece (for one should), for Khalid, native speakers clearly do not own English, as Mahaligham most forcefully points out to Toomey in the quotation at the start of this post. Nor are they experts or consultants, but are simply interlocutors of equal weight (not in the BMI sense) in a conversation – after all, in the above conversation, he was telling me he was right. It seems Khalid would agree with Widdowson when he says:
“How English develops in the world is no business whatsoever of native speakers in England [surely the UK, Henry?], the United States, or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant… [English] is not a possession which they lease out to others, while retaining the freehold. Other people actually own it” (4)
Moreover, for Khalid, so what if I’m an English teacher and teacher trainer. So what?? He had no fear in correcting me, regardless of the different ‘status’ we might be seen to have as regards whose English is ‘correct’. Because what does that even mean any more?
So, what should I have done? If we believe that successful communication is the ultimate end, then possibly I should have done what I did: nothing. However, is Khalid going to continue in his English-speaking ways to make that error, one which is clearly not a slip or mistake, but an error based on a lack of linguistic knowledge (another consideration for the Hedge)? If he does that, does it even matter? After all, he communicated fine and most of his interaction in Muscat will be with other non-native English speakers, which will make Seidlhofer happy at least. But then, does this (Khalid’s error, not Seidlhofer’s happiness) diminish ELF as a concept, ‘reducing’ it to a simplified ‘English’, a a pidgin contact language? Why would that even be a problem? Or is it potential evidence, if it were to be repeated in many different bars across the globe, of an ELF grammar developing its own internal logic? And then what?!
Or, y’know what, maybe Khalid had just had one too many bottles of Peroni and I should get out more. Or stay in. I stand to be corrected.
(1) Burgess, A. Earthly Powers. Vintage Digital; Kindle Edition. 18 Oct 2012.
(2) Seidlhofer, B. (2005). English as a Lingua Franca. ELT Journal, 59/4. October 2005.
(3) Li, S. (2013). Oral Corrective Feedback ELT Journal, 67/4. First published online 13/12/13.
(4) Widdowson, H. (1994). The Ownership of English, in Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: OUP.