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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

November 04, 2013

International English norms and acceptability; What's the criteria?

Today I’d like to discuss about what’s normative and what isn't in the world of ELT. As we are going through the globalization perhaps we should alter our notions as to what is acceptable English. It will have much influence on how we teach.

Wait a sec. You got a problem with that paragraph above? “discuss about"? “going through the globalization" “what is acceptable English?” "much influence"?

Well, if you take issue with the above then I’m afraid you’ll have to step outside the classroom and go toe-to-toe with linguistic heavyweight Henry Widdowson, the pinnacle of pedagogical royalty, because he thinks they’re fine.

If a fellow Canuck had written that first paragraph, I would not consider that person to be very articulate, and possibly not too bright, period.

Ok. One has to admit that they do come off as particularly jarring when rendered as written text and perhaps doubly so when you realize that the writer is a native speaker. I admit that if a fellow Canuck had written that first paragraph, I would not consider that person to be very articulate, and possibly not too bright, period. So what’s Widdowson going on about?

At the recent AsiaTEFL conference in Manila, Widdowson argued that such utterances in speech are normative among non-native speakers of English, which as you probably know, actually make up the majority of English users worldwide.

This creates a dilemma for those who argue that descriptive grammar, and the resulting concern with what constitutes ‘normative’, trumps a more prescriptive view. Why? Because you would then have to allow constructions like ‘discuss about’ into the acceptable English canon. But why should we let this bedraggled foreign concoction through the clubhouse door?

Widdowson argues that such utterances are not wrong. This is not only because they hold ‘normative’ status in many ELF (English as a Lingua Franca- the English used by non-native speakers) corpora, but also because in no way do they impede the conveyance of meaning. Rather, he argues, these forms reflect a creative way of expanding the innate capacity of the English language.


This inevitably leads to a discussion about (see what I did there?) where lines are drawn, where acceptability reaches a limit. What criteria can be used to determine whether a non-native utterance is ‘utilizing a creative capacity’ as opposed to simply being a product of limited competence, first language interference, or out-and-out error?

An initial criterion might be, as Widdowson suggests, as to whether the utterance is an impediment to conveying meaning or not. But this alone is insufficient. The meaning of, “We go airport now. OK?” is very clear but I think very few people would fail to fix or address that in an English classroom. I don't think we'll be seeing 'Me love you long time' welcomed into the standard English lexicon anytime soon.

Let's look at some more subtle cases instead. A common construction used by Japanese English learners to check the nationality of foreigners is to ask, “Where did you come from?” (the past tense being a direct translation from the Japanese). Would you allow this? I wouldn’t. Why? Because the uptake is ambiguous.

Native speakers associate the past tense in this question as referring to recent past or “just now” (“Where did you come from? The parking lot!”) If referring to our home country, this construction violates the connotations inherent in the choice of verb tense. I can understand why many non-natives might say, “Where did you come from?” but it does lead to ambiguity and thus violates the meaning (or at least, uptake) criterion.

But how about, “I have much time next week so let’s meet then.” Widdowson is inclined to accept this. It certainly doesn’t violate grammatical rules regarding countables and uncountables, although it will definitely strike native speakers as odd. The question is, why?

Our instincts about what’s right and wrong tend to have two sources. One is our experiential awareness that they are not 'what we would say'. But this simply begs the bigger question as to why it isn’t normative. Is there any functional reason behind the habit or are we just slaves to meaningless form?

The other reason is that there may be some semantic property or pragmatic uptake associated with the item that is not being consummated.

So what about, “having much time”? I would argue that we associate ‘much’ with negatives (“don’t have much”) and comparatives (“much better than”), therefore using ‘much’ with (positive) time comes across to us as somewhat infelicitous. So, is it the NNS’ creative capacity that allows ‘much’ to be legitimately used in such cases (the meaning is certainly not compromised), or is it that the NNS is simply unaware of the word’s connotations and thus needs to be made aware?

Or what about that common NNS utterance: "I have to go back to home" (note, interestingly, that 'to my house' would be perfectly ok here) or "I have never been to abroad"? We know exactly what the speaker means, there is no ambiguity. But are there connotations inherent in using the locative 'to X' versus no 'to'?

This one is dicey. If most NSs can't identify the reason why we sense that 'to' is needed in some cases but not in others, it seems that "to home/to abroad" should be acceptable. But it is also arguable that the 'to' indicates a specific, objective location whereas 'home' and 'abroad' are general, even emotional, constructs. The connotations are distinct.

The notion of utilizing the language's creative capacity is of course common among native speakers too and is a key part of what has allowed our language to evolve. For example, no longer do users feel bound or burdened by old pronoun usage rules (I, me) that were based on Latin case grammar.

Or just look at the following:
"Two coffees here, please!"
"Wanna go out for a couple of beers tonight?"
Since coffee and beer are non-countables we occasionally teach students to make them countable by adding counter markers, such as 'cups' of coffee or 'bottles' of beer. But functionally, this seems to most NSs to be an unnecessary burden on the speaker, so in practice we usually ignore the rule because, even with the unloading of verbal baggage, the meaning has remained completely unchanged.

Likewise with the existential (and subject-verb agreement violating) usage of 'There is...': "There's about seven cars lined up in front of me". 'There is' has become accepted as an existential topic head, even with plural subjects, in naturally-occuring NS speech.

So, what is the upshot of all this for English teachers? I think we all want to be sensitive to the internationalization of English and most want to avoid using an imperialistic, prescriptivist mindset based upon Anglo-American codes as our sole determining template for international English acceptability. We also want to encourage a focus upon meaning among our learners and not hamper fluency by jamming in finger-pointing minutiae, particularly in real conversations or classroom fluency exercises. But at the same time, we should be wary of harming our learners by legitimizing utterances that ignore subtleties of uptake or other inherent connotations. The banner of 'creative capacity' must not be conflated with patronizing linguistic appeasement.

So, here's my criteria for acceptance:
1. It must be used across a number of different first-language zones (so we know that it simply isn't the product of L1 interference).
2. It must be used by fluent NNSs (or else it can simply be attributed to lack of competence).
3. It must not impede or alter meaning.
4. It must not compromise or ignore the connotations or uptake inherent in existing usage.
5. It should be a naturally-occuring speech form (as opposed to formal or written).

If you'd like to 'discuss about' this more, add your comment!

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