E is for English

21 05 2017


Salvador Sobral

Salvador Sobral and his sister Luisa, who wrote the winning song (AFP)

The fact that the winner of this year’s Eurovision contest sang his sister’s song in his native Portuguese, and not – like the majority of contestants – solely or partly in English, has attracted comment in the European press. In fact (according to a Guardian article that appeared in advance of the final) only four of the total 42 songs in the Eurovision final were sung entirely in a language other than English: as well as the Portuguese entry, these were the Belarusian, Hungarian and Italian entries. Of the rest, 35 were sung entirely in English. ‘That’s over 83%, and the highest-ever proportion in the history of the competition,’ notes The Guardian. The fact that the contest’s slogan was ‘Celebrate Diversity’ seems not to have impacted on the choice of language.

Eurovision stats

The rise and rise of Euro-English – as sung in the Eurovision Song Contest (from The Guardian)


That the successful Portuguese song bucked this trend has given grim satisfaction to those who (like me) suspect that the dominance of English may be experiencing the first signs of a reversal, especially in Europe. Only a week or so before Eurovision, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commision, is reported to have opted to make a speech in French rather than in English, on the grounds that, in his words, “slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe.” As The Guardian noted, his snub was received with applause.

Of course, the negative perception of English has been fuelled by Brexit, but also, I would guess, by the election of Trump in the US. As I commented a few months ago, on the TEFL Equity blog, in response to a post that argued that these events will hasten the demise of ‘native speakerism’:

The ideology that underpins the Brexit and Trump ‘debacles’ threatens – not the hegemony of native-speaker teachers or native speaker models of English – but the very survival of English as a global language itself. When two of the countries that are (still) most closely identified with English succumb to antiglobalizing, protectionist and xenophobic political discourses, the ‘symbolic capital’ of the language is devalued. With fewer students studying in the US or UK, and fewer companies trading there – even with fewer tourists – the incentive to learn English will weaken. Maybe not by much, but maybe by enough for another global language – e.g. Spanish or Russian (don’t laugh!) – to edge it off first base – or maybe the increasing sophistication of translation software will render the notion of a lingua franca redundant in any case. Either way, we can’t simply shrug off the effect that Brexit/Trump will have on global perceptions of English. Maybe we should rebrand it ‘Canadian’, and teach that!

As we know, even lingua francas (linguae francae?) are not immune to language change and even language death. Latin, after all, was kept alive (in ‘a state of suspended animation’, as one writer puts it [Coleman 1990, p. 181]) mainly because of its liturgical function, long after it had ceased to be the lingua franca of what had once been the Roman Empire.

english-next.jpgMore than decade ago, David Graddoll (2006, p. 62) made the point that ‘English is no longer the “only show in town”. Other languages now challenge the dominance of English in some regions. Mandarin and Spanish, especially, have become sufficiently important to be influencing national policy priorities in some countries.’

More recently, writing about language and globalization, Ammon (2013, p. 120) notes that ‘it appears likely that other languages besides English will gain, or maintain, international or global function. The gist of their use will probably be bilateral, but the possibility of multilateral usage, including as a lingua franca in special situations, remains, irrespective of the role of English as the predominant world lingua franca.’

And even within the English-speaking world, English is subject to hybridizing influences that threaten its uniformity and which suggest it could go the way of Latin, metamorphosing into a proliferation of mutually unintelligble varieties. Romaine (2009, p. 604) writes of demographic shifts ‘within the US and Europe which may have a dramatic effect on the future position of English. Immigration and migration have brought about increasing linguistic and cultural diversity in both these regions.’ And she adds, ‘unprecedented mobility the world over is creating new hybridised identities. This is no less evident in the English language itself, with its multiple varieties’ (p. 605).

Meanwhile, back in the UK, The Independent reports that a video has been released that ‘shows a British man hitting 27-year-old Tomás Gil, from Valencia, in the face with a wooden plank after shouting at him to “speak English”’.

Great language. Great future.English only t-shirt



Ammon, U. (2013) ‘World languages: trends and futures,’ In Coupland, N. (ed.) The Handbook Of Language and Globalisation, London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Coleman, R.G.G. (1990) ‘Latin and the Italic languages’ in Comrie, B. (ed.) The World’s Major Languages, Oxford University Press.

Graddol, D. (2006) English Next: Why global English may mean the end of ‘English as a foreign language’. British Council.

Romaine, S. (2009) ‘Global English: from island tongue to world language’. In van Kemenade A. & Los, B. (eds) The Handbook of the History of English. London: Wiley-Blackwell.


L is for Language

31 03 2013

fayruzAt Easter it’s our custom (more out of nostalgia than out of any sense of religiosity, it has to be said) to listen to the Lebanese singer Fayrouz singing traditional Easter songs from that region.

Here’s a taster:


What language is she singing in, though?

Reading the comments thread on the YouTube site is revealing:

Fayrouz comments 01Fayrouz comment 02Fayrouz comment 03Fayrouz comment 04

In a new book, Suresh Canagarajah (2013) reminds us that this blending, mixing and meshing of languages, rather than being the exception, is the norm. Quoting Pattanayak (1984), he cites the example of south Asia, to the effect that, ‘if one draws a straight line between Kashmir and Kanyakumari and marks, say, every five or ten miles, then one will find that there is no break in communication between any two consecutive points.’ That is to say, a message passed down the line would reach its destination, irrespective of all the languages it traverses.

Nor is this linguistic intermingling and hybridization a purely Asian or Middle Eastern phenomenon. ‘All spaces are contact zones’ says Canagarajah (2013: 26), a view echoed in a recent article by Sewell (2013: 6):

It is important to appreciate that all language use – among whatever combination or grouping of native and non-native speakers – is situated, variable, and subject to hybridizing influences.

This has never been more true than now, where immigration, tourism, and globalization, among other influences, coerce communication between speakers of different languages, with all the blendings, fusions, pidgins and macaronics that result. However much the ‘language police’ struggle to enforce the integrity of languages like (to choose a local example) Catalan, their efforts are foredoomed.

It’s not just that languages vary from region to region; they vary from person to person – and even within one person. As Labov (1969, 2003: 234) long ago pointed out:  ‘One of the fundamental principles of sociolinguistic investigation might simply be stated as: There are no single-style speakers. By this we mean that every speaker will show some variation in phonological and syntactic rules according to the immediate context in which he is speaking.’

The fact of the matter is that none of us speaks the same language. Nor even a language. As Pennycook (2012: 98) argues,  ‘None of us speaks “a language” as if this were an undifferentiated whole. We do not learn languages as if these were discrete listings of syntax and lexicon (despite what years of schooling and tests may try to tell us). Rather, we learn how to do certain things with words, and with varying success.’

And, from a psycholinguistic view, too, as Block (2003: 39) argues, all is flux:

Linguistic competence is not stored in the mind in neat compartments with clear boundaries; rather, a more appropriate image is that of a mass with no clear divisions among parts.  Nor is linguistic competence in different languages stable over time as there is constant bleeding between and among languages as well as additions and losses in terms of repertoires.

Thus, the idea that we are primed to speak a preordained language from birth has given way to the ‘complex systems’ view that language acquisition is the ‘soft assembly’ of meaning-making resources, or what Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 17) call ‘a “statistical ensemble” of interacting elements… constantly changing’.  They add that ‘learning is not the taking in of linguistic forms by learners, but the constant adaptation of their linguistic resources in the service of meaning-making in response to the affordances that emerge in the communicative situation, which is, in turn, affected by the learners’ adaptability’ (2008: 135).

By these accounts, is it any longer valid to talk about ‘a language’ or ‘languages’ (countable) as opposed to simply ‘language’ (uncountable)? Canagarajah (2013: 6) thinks not:

“Languages” are always in contact with and mutually influence each other. From this perspective, the separation of languages with different labels needs to be problematized. Labelling is an ideological act of demarcating certain codes in relation to certain identities and interests.

So, to fence a language off and give it a name (Aramaic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Syrian, and so on) is less a linguistic decision than a political one, although, as Bourdieu (1992: 45) warns, linguists are often complicit:

To speak of the language, without further specification, as linguists do, is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a political unit. This language is the one which, within the territorial limits of that unit, imposes itself on the whole population as the only legitimate language.

And, in order to legitimate it, squadrons of lexicographers and grammarians are recruited, not only to describe and prescribe the language, but to circumscribe it. But where do you set the limits? Where does one language end and another begin?  In a recent review of a history of the Oxford English Dictionary (Hitchings, 2013: 7), the reviewer notes that

When [the dictionary’s editor, James Murray] asked members of the Philological Society, ‘At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?’, he drew criticism for his unwillingness to provide an exact answer. One reason for doing so was his awareness that the British Empire was expanding. Murray and his paymasters differed on the question of how this should be recognised.

The same question might well be asked of any so-called language. At which Spaniard’s speech does Spanish terminate? At which Croatian’s speech does Croatian terminate? And so on.

So, if there are no languages, only language, what is it that we teach? Or, as Pennycook (2010: 132) puts it, ‘The question to ask is what language education might look like if we no longer posited the existence of separate languages.’

The short answer, perhaps, is that we would facilitate a kind of creative DIY approach – semiotic bricolage, perhaps – by means of which learners would become resourceful language users, cutting and pasting from the heteroglossic landscape to meet both their short-term and their long-term goals. Maybe it also means that we can dispense with the need to ‘teach the grammar’ of the language: if the language does not have a fixed shape, neither does the grammar that infuses it.

Or, as Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008: 198-9) sum it up:

Language as a separate entity is a normative fiction…; it only exists in the fluxes of language use in a given speech community. For the language classroom this implies that what has previously been taken as the goal of learning, the “target language”, ceases to exist in any simple form…. Inside the language classroom, the dynamics of language-using by teachers and students leads to the emergence of individual learners’ growing language resources and of classroom dialects, and, beyond the classroom, to the emergence of lingua franca varieties.

No longer are we Teachers of English as a Foreign Language. Rather, Teachers of Language as a Semiotic Resource, perhaps.


Block, D. (2003) The Social Turn in Second Language Acquisition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Canagarajah, S. (2013) Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and cosmopolitan relations, London: Routledge.

Hitchings, H. (2013) ‘At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?’, a review of Ogilvie, S. (2012) Words of the World: A global history of the ‘Oxford English Dictionary,’ Cambridge, in London Review of Books, 7 March 2013.

Labov, W. 1969. ‘Some sociolinguistic principles’. Reprinted in Paulston, C.B., & Tucker, G.R. (eds.) (2003) Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings. Oxford: Blackwell.

Larsen-Freeman, D. & Cameron, L. (2008) Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pennycook,  A. (2010) Language as Local Practice, London: Routledge.

Pennycook, A. (2012) Language and Mobility: Unexpected Places, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Sewell, A (2013) ‘English as a lingua franca: ontology and ideology’, ELT Journal, 67/1.