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Teaching English as an International Language

Sandra Lee McKay
Oxford University Press, 2002
pp. viii +150


Reviewed by :

Robert J. Dickey
Kyongju University, Korea

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An international world of English(es)
Global English, World English(es), International English, these concepts have been floating around the world of English language teaching for several decades. In Teaching English as an International Language: Rethinking Goals and Approaches, Sandra McKay provides a broad overview of the issues and presents a strong argument for adoption of English as an International Language (EIL), particularly in the EFL context.

EIL is used to communicate across linguistic and cultural boundaries, which may not coincide with national boundaries

Whose English is it?
McKay presents the well-used claim that English has gone beyond the control of native-speakers from Kachru's "inner-circle" lands, and that it is a user-owned language. There are numerous definitions of EIL, and several are offered within the book, but McKay's basic theme is that EIL is used to communicate across linguistic and cultural boundaries. Unlike some other authors, however, she also incorporates the "intranational" use of English, that is, between two non-native speakers of English who share another language, within the concept of "International English."

Many of us are aware of the furor caused by Prince Charles' comments, which amounted to "these localized variants confuse things, they'd better learn proper (i.e., British Standard) English," which is essentially the argument for a standard "Global English." Supporters for localized standards often utilize the term "world Englishes." Mutual intelligibility is a critical issue, one not addressed until somewhat late in the book.

The EIL Manifesto
Rather than a balanced, impartial account of issues from various forms of English trotting the globe, this book is a rather unashamed statement of what EIL could and should be. Her arguments are, for the most part, well-reasoned and hard to dispute. She challenges the native-speaker models of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, and argues that since English has become denationalized, so too language should be freed of the shackles of native speaker culture.

In this argument, localized or indigenized language varieties can and should incorporate local cultural concepts. However, for the most part she limits these "localized" discussions to lands such as Kenya, Nigeria, S. Africa, India, and Singapore, where it is not unusual for a variety of English to be spoken between fellow citizens.

Issues Unresolved
McKay is a skillful writer, which made two gaps in the book all the more glaring. As a final statement in the introduction, repeated later in the book, she claims that an international language cannot be linked to any one country or culture, it must belong to all users. This is conceivably true, yet is not supported anywhere in the book beyond a single reference (to Smith, 1976). Smith claims, and McKay endorses, that learners do not need to incorporate cultural norms of native speakers. This is weakly supported in the chapter on culture.

With over 8 years of teaching English in Asia, I am well aware of the challenges for language learners who try to communicate in English with others of differing backgrounds without resort to a common cultural orientation. The inference appears to be that those using English for intranational communication will utilize the shared cultural source, and that since most international communication is for specific purposes, learners will need to use only the necessary pieces of culture (much as ESP teaches only the particular language).

This is part of the problem of over-generalizing the topic of English as an International Language ­ too many issues are confused as already gray lines are blurred. What are the cultural signposts when a Saudi manager is conferring with a Japanese engineer? Interculturalism is rather vague in this context.

Directions in Internationalizing
There is no doubt, particularly in our own EFL contexts, that language is evolving. McKay observes that the "expanding circle" lands still must be norm-dependent, but states that outer-circle lands may now be norm-providing, as are the inner-circle. This indicates that teachers from lands like India and the Philippines are no less qualified than teachers from Britain or Canada, and indeed, literature from these lands as well.

And of course, local teachers are superbly qualified to teach the various types of English in use within the locality. While the first MacQuarie Dictionary was shocking to many, it is now generally accepted just as Australian English has become a standard for S.E. Asia. McKay finds Hong Kong English no less valid. Yet it seems "Janglish" would not be.

Final Notes
The issue of pragmatic (speech) and rhetoric (written) language models is probably the most academically solid discussion in this text. The book is a great desktop reference, with suggested readings under subtopics at the end of each chapter, and a very extensive bibliography at the end. There are also a short glossary and an index. It's a great read for a critical thinker with an open mind, and particularly apt for discussions among colleagues. Perhaps everyone will find something to object to, which makes the book all the more valuable.



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