Standard International English? Part 3 - Towards a New Standard International English
Standard International English? Part 3 - Towards a New Standard International English
by Charles Lowe
In Parts 1 and 2 of this article, I first replaced Kachru’s concentric-circles model with one that was more appropriate to the teaching of English as a language. I then considered the cons and pros of ELF, and concluded that it was an essential component of a wider picture, but not a basis for syllabuses. In Part 3, the final part, I examine the issue of standardisation, I posit a model of Standard International English, and I discuss the issue of how to arrive at an acceptable finished product.
Why a Standard? And why not a Standard?
The variation, diversification, and adaptation of English in its organic, pragmatic, and functional-use contexts, whether in basilects, non-native-to-non-native business transactions, or local dialectal intercourse, is undeniable.
There is however a question of whether there can be and should be a core standard, a prescription based on a description, a prescription which has change built into it through the normal processes of organic language change, and it is that question that I seek to answer in this article.
Interestingly, Crystal (1997) does put forward the idea of a WSSE, a World Standard Spoken English, where International English is a convergent form (based on US English), in contrast to local Englishes which are naturally divergent.
The term ‘standardisation’ can have two connotations. Firstly it can mean the organic development of the linguistic features of a language towards similarity and conformity through various pressures within a language-using community, as detailed by Widdowson (1993, more detail below). Secondly, it can refer to the descriptive-prescriptive process by which a language is artificially codified by linguistic professionals working with that language (such as academic linguists, teachers, textbook writers, and testers), who use use-data (e.g. corpora) in the language as a basis for making official generalisations about it.
Referring in particular to ELF, the general tenor of commentary is that it should be allowed, just like all language, to grow. It should be allowed to remain organic. Widdowson’s 1993 defence of this position is salutary (ibid). So, where he speaks about standards he is tending to refer to emergent standards not fabricated ones. Indeed, ELF is essentially pragmatic language use, and so it can never be standardised. It is pragmatic international English (PIE - not to be confused with PIE in etymological contexts, where the acronym refers to Proto-Indo-European). It will always remain without a standard, without a central stabilising influence, without a benchmark against which all global language use can be compared.
The criticisms of standardisation by proponents of ELF concern mainly the second of the two connotations mentioned above, because the first one is deemed to be organic and emergent. Indeed, it seems to be Widdowson’s hope that this natural emergence of a standard IE, out of NNS-NNS language use, will find its own level of describable systematicity among the speakers of the language users it serves. Widdowson (1993, quoted extensively in Jenkins 2003) firmly value-judges the first, natural, process as ‘good’, and the second, power-oriented, approach as ‘bad’. Widdowson (ibid) suggests that the language-using communities of International English, such as the business community, the scientific community, the medical community, and the media community, are finding their own level of commonality sufficient for their communicative needs. He then suggests that ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’ (my quotation marks), who writes about the misplaced apostrophes and the degradation of the language by British speakers of Estuary English, is a false custodian of a non-existent standard, a standard that is both pernicious and imaginary.
Most of the criticisms of current practice focus on the second connotation. Firstly, the general ELF paradigm comes from a rejection of the ‘top-downism’ inherent in standardising English from an academic linguistic perspective, basing rules on ‘idealised native-speaker norms’ taken from the educated middle classes. Issues such as linguistic imperialism, latent colonialism, native-speaker arrogance, falsely-claimed ownership of the language by native speakers, power relationships, technological hegemony, gate-keeping anomalies in world professions like science and law and medicine and academia and even pedagogy, keep rearing their heads. Secondly, the ‘language varieties issue’ seems to be prominent, in that, with English varieties proliferating throughout the world, whether as local and regional variants or as class-based variants, it would seem literally impossible for a standard to be arrived at that would satisfy all the variations in some way. Jenkins (2003), using data from Seidlhofer (2001), has come up with some useful features of an international English that would ‘iron out’ some of these variations and enable more effective NNS-NNS communication among people with diverging variant backgrounds. But there is so little detail that not much could be achieved at this stage. The third criticism aims at the implied notion that any native-speaker-derived grammar or lexical store represents the topmost ideal of native-speaker competence, a level which is both beyond the reach of most students, and is irrelevant to them.
To summarise then, the main reasons against a standard are:
- in a world where ‘non-native’ users of English have as much status as ‘native’ users, a standard (devised by native speakers) would impose a hidden hierarchy in which they (the native users) would continue to dominate.
- it would constantly remind users that when they speak English, they are making ‘mistakes’ by using non-standard forms.
- pragmatic communication is the norm, and it seems to work in every context.
However, notwithstanding all the criticisms outlined above, the main reasons for a standard are:
- there is a need for a socio-culturally neutral English from CEFR A1 to CEFR B2+.
- there is a need for an English, not based on idealised native speaker language, which offers a first-phase norm (or target) for international speakers of English, and covers all aspects of language. Currently, the only norm is Standard Native Speaker English (usually British or American), which is over-sophisticated, because it is based on idealised native-speaker language. This (SNSE) would become the second-phase norm (Target 2, as described below) in the new system, with SIE being the first-phase norm (Target 1) creating a stabilising central benchmark against which all language use, from A1 to B2+, can be related.
- international speakers of English need a fully-functional language with which they can communicate everything they need to – i.e. they need to maximise their communicative capacity. As a ‘standard’, such a fully-functional SIE would provide intermediate learners with a yardstick against which to measure not only their communicative range, but also their own accuracy.
- it should not be devised only by native users of English, but also by non-native users, and therefore hierarchy can be avoided.
- it can be examined, and graded, and so it can generate objective measures for gatekeepers (e.g.universities) to base assessments on.
- currently, PIE (i.e. ELF) is only seen as one of many World Englishes. But as it is not standardised, its characteristics are not stable and therefore cannot logically be described, and so a standard would allow it to be described.
a standard can be taught – non-standard forms cannot be taught.
A new paradigm? – Standard International English
I would like to propose a different way of seeing standardisation. I would argue, for the reasons stated above, that it is entirely justified to have a standard which is artificially codified, fabricated, but which has a number of characteristics which make it both attractive and usable, and that would forestall some of the criticisms.
The key difference between what I propose and what has hitherto been criticised whenever standard forms of the language are set up to be shot down, is the level of idealisation. I am proposing, at least for Target 1 (see below for a more detailed explanation of this term), not an impossibly out-of-reach idealised version of the language, but a slimmed-down, and very accessible, ‘mid-spectrum native-speaker’ version of the language (see below for an explanation of the term ‘mid-spectrum’).
My standardised model:
- is based on actual use (descriptive), but also on extrapolated generalisations (prescriptive).
- is intuition-based, and experience-based, as well as corpus-based.
- takes into account the pragmatic interactions of non-native speakers with each other, but is not based on these interactions.
- is designed to lead to a standard international English (SIE).
- is described at only one level, out of a possible two levels: target level 1 (approximately B2 First, IELTS 6, CEFR B2+, TOEFL IBT 88). NB The second level, target level 2, (see below) represents the language of internationally aware native speakers, and is of course not international English but ‘wide-spectrum’ NS English.
- is slimmed-down but not dumbed-down.
- has built-in plasticity (i.e. it is not closed to change).
- has open-’contributability’ from non-native speakers.
- is enabling and empowering for all speakers of international English, including native speakers.
- uses common sense and intuition about English as its main processes of analysis.
- is based on an idealised ‘notional’ English, and does not distinguish between ‘spoken’ and ‘written’ grammars of native speakers.
The data from Jenkins (2003, 2007), Seidlhofer (2001), and others, is fascinating, insightful, and valuable. But in my view, this data does not have the theoretical weight to confer on itself the rationale for a ‘Syllabus of International English’. Its claim is the same as that made by Carter (1999), Willis (2003), and others, that corpus data is the only valid data on which to base syllabuses. The second claim, made by Jenkins and Seidlhofer and others, is that corpora are objective, and therefore are in a sense more non-native-speaker-teacher friendly than grammatical materials handed to the teaching profession by native-speaker writers of coursebooks and textbooks. There are, it is true, corpus-based coursebooks, for instance ‘Innovations’ (Dellar, 2006), and ‘Outcomes’ (Dellar and Walkley, 2018). And there are corpus-based lexical exercise books, such as ‘Advanced Vocabulary in Use’ (McCarthy and O’Dell, 2017). But these are few and far between, which suggests that publishers are generally still not convinced.
There are fundamental problems with basing syllabuses on corpora.
Firstly, generalisations about language cannot, by definition, be derived from instances of real language use, because each instance is context-specific and generalisations are not. If however, as seems ironically clear, there is a process of extrapolation going on, whereby the analyst, or extrapolator, derives a generalisation from the corpus data by using their insight, then they are doing nothing different from a normal grammar ‘analyser’ who is using their ‘practised and experienced intuition’ to arrive at a generalisation, a rule, from an internal mental corpus which has the great advantage of being mediated by that ‘analyser’s’ pedagogic experience.
Secondly, the data is data on pragmatic language use, the language used, in Widdowson’s words, to ‘make meanings’. This pragmatic meaning has been variously referred to as ‘use’ (as opposed to ‘usage’ ), ‘value’ (as opposed to ‘signification’), ‘fluency’ (as opposed to ‘accuracy’), ‘communicative meaning’ (as opposed to ‘linguistic meaning’), and even, bizarrely, ‘meaning’ (as opposed to ‘form’), and so on. Interlocutors are described as ‘negotiating meaning’, of using ‘communication strategies’ to achieve goals, and of having ‘communicative competence’ (as opposed to ‘linguistic competence’). Pragmatic language use is the term used to denote language used as communication.
But I am proposing the teaching of language for communication. Widdowson implies (1993, quoted in Jenkins 2003) that the needs of a language community are best served when ‘a common standard’ is preserved ‘in order to keep up standards of communicative effectiveness’. I differ from Widdowson, in that he suggests that the standard will ‘naturally stabilise into a standard form to the extent required to meet the needs of the communities concerned’ (in this case the international business and scientific communities, etc), and I would argue that that process can be, and clearly is being, helped along by the intervention of practised and experienced teachers. Where Widdowson argues for the natural emergence of a standard, I would argue that this is highly unlikely, and I offer a fabricated standard which is (i) borne of practical teaching realities, (ii) shorn of the prejudice and custodial arrogance so evident in the post-colonial paradigm of ‘disgusted of Tunbridge Wells,’ and (iii) drawn up by experienced English teachers, both native and non-native.
It is generally accepted now that English for international communication no longer belongs to any nation, and it has no cultural base such as the UK or the USA. And above all it is owned by the people who speak it: a German buyer with a Chinese supplier; an Iranian oilman with a Venezuelan technical advisor; a Korean Managing Director with his international management team; a Japanese nutrition consultant with his Indian clients; a French doctor with her Chinese medical students. Among these people are our language students.
Nevertheless, in any discussion of the international use of English, I think that the key principle should be to provide a standard which facilitates NNS-NNS communication in a less haphazard way than pragmatic International English currently does. It would give students a sense of stability, reassurance, and self-confidence. So it becomes apparent that we have to accept the possibility, even the desirability, of two separate versions of International English - one pragmatic and one standardised.
The new model
The first, and underlying, version of International English is called English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). As indicated above, this is the pragmatic, or communicative, form, spoken in real situations between non-native speakers, as in the contexts cited above, which may be full of ‘non-standard forms’, but which is communicative, context-specific, and negotiated. In this form of the language, all meaning is negotiated through the necessities of the situation, and, for example, lexis like ‘actually’ (here meaning ‘currently’ as opposed to ‘in contradiction of a prior statement’) becomes acceptable because it is understandable to both parties. This is the international English which is the focus of almost all the discussion in the academic literature. It is ELF. But I prefer to call it PIE – Pragmatic International English.
I am suggesting a second version of International English which is a standardised form, based on slimmed-down (but not dumbed-down) standardised English: syntax, grammar, pronunciation, lexis, and punctuation, partly derived from native speaker norms, but not dominated by them. This form of the language will be explored fully below, but suffice to say for now that, as has been argued earlier in this three-part article, it is based on the ‘practised intuition’ of experienced teachers. The rationale is simply that there is a need for a standard which facilitates NNS-NNS interaction in a less hit-and-miss way than pragmatic international English (PIE) currently does.
What I am suggesting is that there would be two discrete targets for students.
Target 1: Standard International English (SIE) – approximately the current B2 First, or CEFR B2+, but not currently existing explicitly, until it has been properly formulated.
Target 2: Standard Native Speaker English (SNSE) – Based on idealised native speaker norms in UK, US, Australia, India, etc. – existing as the current CEFR C2, C2 Proficiency, TOEFL IBT 115, IELTS 8.5, etc.
The first target, Target 1, which I will gloss as the ‘mid-spectrum native-speaker’ version, would represent a fully functional, culturally international language, capable of subtlety of expression, formed out of native-speaker norms – but with extensive input from non-native users. A true Standard International English. At this lower level (approximately B2+), speakers would use a simpler, more culturally neutral form of the language, yet they would still be enabled to express, using accurate language, the full range of meanings that they intend. It could therefore act as an end-point for those learners who only want to be confidently functional in the international context. Indeed, first of all, I am proposing that the ‘SIE’ becomes known as a reputable, and final, target in its own right. Currently, B2 First and IELTS 6 do not actually do this, because they are based on the notion that candidates have only reached Stage 1 on the long road to the Native Speaker top-flight. Hence, our second notion is that, like B2 First or IELTS 6, the SIE Target 1 could equally act as a staging post for those who wanted to go on to Target 2.
The second target, Target 2, which I will gloss as the ‘wide-spectrum native-speaker’ version, would be fully native-like communicative fluency and accuracy, whether UK, US, or whatever, and this second target is what we have now. At this higher level, equated with educated native-speaker norms, we would observe the most colloquial, sophisticated, and culturally-rich use of the language. It is this almost mythical and barely attainable level of language proficiency, this ‘idealised native-speaker norm’, that has so exercised the critics of current forms of Standard English. They justifiably argue that it is both unrealistic and irrelevant for many learners to even aim at this target, a level which at present is at about Cambridge C2 Proficiency, IELTS 8, TOEFL IBT 115, or even beyond.
So my model seeks to render null and void the argument about whether a pragmatic form of IE (PIE, aka ELF) or a standard form of IE (SIE) should predominate. This is because, though I recognise that PIE/ELF will dominate the real-world contexts of business, science, academia, travel, medicine and media, everybody will need a benchmark, a centre-line, from which they know they can diverge, but which provides a set of reliable commonalities which are known to be universal. My Target 1, my form of (still) standard English, is both well within the grasp of most learners, and of high surrender value to them, as, though in some ways it derives from native-speaker norms, it is entirely focussed on the functionality required for international communication, and not, as is currently the case with most of the world’s English language teaching and testing services, on the idealised, false, and over-sophisticated functionality allegedly required for interaction with educated but naïve native speakers – people who do not represent the majority of interactions in English.
In other words, as the proponents of ELF always tell us is wrong, SIE is not based on idealised native speaker norms.
To summarise: in my scheme, the first grand target for language students would be SIE – Standard International English. The second grand target is SNSE – Standard Native-Speaker English (of the US, the UK, etc), for those who want to take their learning further than SIE. There will of course be no discernable seam between one and the next, and many SIE speakers may already have learnt a great deal which will prepare them for SNSE.
A tabular representation of the model follows:
|Type of language||Scope for standardisation||Data||Functionality|
|Pragmatic International English (PIE/ELF): not a teaching target, but a reality in IE contexts.||Possible emergence of norms, but these will be accidental and slow||Corpora of pragmatic use (e.g. VOICE data)||Probably wide, but not known except within the confines of any (limited) data collected|
|Standard International English: Target 1 (SIE) (approx. CEFR B2+, not based on native speaker norms)||Norms predetermined||Combination of (i) grammars and lexicons derived from the practised intuition of experienced NS/NNS professionals, and (ii) corpora, where relevant||Mid-spectrum|
|Standard Native Speaker English: Target 2 (SNSE) (approx. CEFR C2+, based on native speaker norms)||Norms predetermined||Combination of practised intuition, descriptive grammars, and corpus||Wide-spectrum|
|Off-the-radar: native-like fluency, not a pedagogic objective (theoretically C3, though C3 does not actually exist)||Native-speaker norms and native-like fluency, not codified||All native-speaker text and interaction||Full-spectrum (across all genres and variants)|
In terms of principles, SIE:
- will be an artificial and fabricated construct developed for pedagogic purposes and designed by NSs and NNSs working together specifically to provide a language standard to optimise NNS-NNS communication around the world.
- will have the status of a standard language.
- will not be developed, in the first instance, with reference to English grammar from academically-researched linguistic descriptions of native English such as Leech and Svartvik (1975), or the Cobuild System (1987), but it will be based on the practised and experienced intuition of English language teachers, both native and non-native speakers.
- will focus on grammar and lexis selected for usefulness rather than frequency, and is not based on the native-speaker corpus.
- is socio-culturally neutral, but incorporates certain universal socio-cultural norms (such as: respect for the other, welcoming body-language, proximity, politeness, friendliness, care over directness, etc) NB It is my observation that these norms are emerging almost as an International Culture, and are especially noticeable in the cultures of young people and of businesspeople.
- is slimmed-down but not dumbed-down, simplified not simplistic, and fully functional.
- contains the most important grammatical meanings, but in slimmed-down form
- is communicatively generative, but clearly more restricted than Standard Native-Speaker English (SNSE)
- contains lexical expressions selected from the native-speaker lexicon, but edited for usefulness, not chosen from among over-complex and rarified native-speaker norms
- welcomes useful phrases entering from the NNS lexicon and from NNS-NNS language interactions
- is syntactically (as well as grammatically) as functional as SNSE.
- has a range of phonological and punctuational features (e.g. interestingly there is a clear case for doing away with contractions for productive spoken use(!), as these are very often a hindrance rather than a help to learning).
- is limited in genre-range compared to SNSE (e.g. it is not likely, except in specific-purpose learning contexts, to focus on the language of scientific reports, legal documents, colloquial London English, or Rap slang)
- has no glass ceiling (i.e. it blends seamlessly into SNSE)
In terms of features, it will look like the following:
- written texts are laid out clearly and transparently
- spoken language is spoken with slow, clear pronunciation with noticeable pauses and communicative chunking (Lowe 2003b), and little native-speaker collocation or idiomaticity
- the meaning of each language item is transparent, not oblique or subtle
- the content is informational before it is interactional
- the syntax is standard English, and reasonably simple
- the grammar is standard English, and is reasonably simple
- the lexis constitutes the most useful words and expressions
- the context is culturally familiar and culturally neutral
- social aspects of the interaction tend to be international universals
- idioms and colloquialisms are minimised, and selected for usefulness
- puns, metaphors, and idioms are mostly avoided, and where used, selected for usefulness
The difference between this standardised form, and the pragmatic form, will be: that one is what non-native speakers will say to each other in real situations, and the other will be the form that we teach – a set of reference points for learners to take on board, which will enable them to create their own meanings within an international language community with confidence that they will be understood by other members of that community.
In terms of language, SIE will be:
- communicatively useful (i.e. is clearly applicable in a range of useful situations).
- socioculturally neutral (i.e. doesn’t need a lot of culture-specific background knowledge).
- conceptually transparent (i.e. easy to understand).
- connotationally narrow (i.e. doesn’t have subtle meanings depending on context).
- familiar (i.e. doesn’t need a lot of previous language knowledge).
- structurally simple (i.e. formed in an easy way).
- lexically simple (i.e. non-idiomatic and short).
- phonetically simple (i.e. aurally intelligible in a range of international contexts).
And my suggested contents for high-surrender (i.e.communicatively useful) grammar would be:
- to be (all forms – positive statement, negative statement, wh-q, yes-no q)
- auxiliary verbs: be, do, have (ditto)
- event, process, and stative meaning
- present simple (all forms, both meanings)
- past simple (all forms, one meaning when applied to past time)
- present perfect (simple and continuous, all forms, one basic meaning)
- countable and uncountable nouns
- a/the/zero - article usage
- word formation principles (word-families, prefixes, suffixes, compound adjectives and nouns)
- ways of talking about the future (be going to + infin, will + infin, present continuous as future, be about to + infin, etc)
- used to + VERB
- past perfect
- passive voice
- adverbs (all 5 types)
- prepositions (all types)
- some (but not all!) modal verbs (e.g. can) and modal expressions (e.g. is not supposed to)
- ‘real’ conditional (i.e. ‘first’ conditional), using ‘will’ or ‘be going to’ in theconsequence clause
- imaginary conditional (i.e. ‘second’ conditional)
The process by which we might arrive at an acceptable Standard International English has three dimensions: content, organisation, and contribution. Content is a relatively uncontentious area. Organisation is likely to be problematic. But most problematic will be the area of contribution, because it will be fraught with the constraints of emotion and tradition.
At least we can all agree on the content. A Standard English has to reflect the standards in five aspects of language: syntax, grammar, lexis, pronunciation, and punctuation.
In the area of syntax and grammar (both of which I suspect may be slightly contentious areas), the issues will always be: what to include, what not to include, how to characterise each item, and on what to base decisions (corpus, or practised intuition, or academic tradition).
In the area of lexis, I suspect there would be less disagreement. The issue would be what counts as lexis. Most lexis is clearly lexis, i.e. vocabulary, such as the vocabulary of morning routines. But I would also argue that some functional exponents (e.g. Is it OK if . . . ? Sorry, I didn’t catch your name . . . ), or some collocations (e.g. heavy traffic, to have a shower), or some idioms (e.g. not my cup of tea, good job!, hit the ground running), all operate in the language as lexical units. And the crucial issue of typical communicative contexts (i.e. typical situations) might create considerable argument.
In the area of pronunciation, we probably have to finally dispense with Daniel Jones’ 1959 rendition of Received Pronunciation. But we also have to have a central benchmark from which a small amount of deviation is tolerable. This central benchmark may well be similar to RP, but not dependent on it.
As for punctuation, there are several ‘rules’ (e.g. all sentences begin with a capital letter and end with a terminal mark; no comma before ‘and’; etc), and the BBC Style Guide is one example of a compendium of those rules. There is a need to revisit the rules, and the ensuing document will need to have flexibility built into it.
Indeed, the whole system will have to have flexibility built into it, both from the point of view of its creation, and in terms of its day-to-day use and tolerance of deviation from the central spine. Above all, it will need to have what I call ‘non-native contributability’. In other words, non-native speakers will have to have the opportunity to make contributions to this central benchmark, and it should never become the exclusive preserve of native-speakers.
This brings us to my other issue: who will set it up?
The basic answer is: combined teams of consensus-oriented native and non-native speakers. Over a period of five years, teams consisting of people from appropriate academic and pedagogic communities, particularly those with practical experience of teaching English as a communicative spoken and written language at all ages and in all contexts, would consider options and come up with recommendations. The project would be managed by a single individual acceptable to all parties. And the final result would have to be susceptible to revision and modification. Pearson’s Global Scale of English (c2014) is a good model from which to start, though it does not fit the criterion of having been drawn up by combined teams of native and non-native speaker ELT pedagogues.
Summary and conclusion
The concrete outcomes of what I am proposing may not be extremely different from what is available now. However, the mindset has to be very different. The model is predicated on what both native and non-native speakers bring to the table. It is true that a large proportion of these concrete outcomes will, at least at first, come out of current norms, and those are most definitely native-speaker biassed. However, in time, because of the inbuilt openness to modification inherent in the system, the influence of non-native speakers will become more apparent than in the current situation, where idealised native speaker norms form the basis of decisions about what to include in a syllabus.
More detail is required. More research is required. The grammar core that I have suggested may need to be recast, lexical lists have to be drawn up, containing both words and expressions, and selected for usefulness rather than frequency. Internationally-intelligible phonemics have to be drawn up, especially in the area of continuous speech, where individual sounds can change dramatically. Rules of punctuation need to be revisited and made acceptable to all. Other issues, like receptive vs productive competence, and linguistic simplicity/complexity, need to be factored-in. And naïve native speakers have to be trained in International English, so that they no longer confound their international audiences. Or they have to be excluded from international contexts.
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Charles Tim Lowe has been involved in ELT since 1975. He has taught and trained in several countries, written extensively on ELT, and, after completing his MA, lectured at the Institute of Education London University. He established the original Distance DTEFLA, and managed two flagship language schools. Now, having taught EAP and CLIL for 6 years at Sophia University Tokyo, he has returned to teach English at IH London, where he once again teaches both General and Business English.