quarta-feira, 27 de maio de 2009

Teaching and learning Global English

There can be little doubt about the fact that in the last decades English has become a global language. In science or entertainment, on the internet or in conferences, in former colonies or in countries where it had never been historically present – such as Brazil -, English is now used to overcome national limits and provide communication among people from different nationalities that do not necessarily have the native speaker of English as a role model or a certain national variety as a target or measuring reference to one’s fluency in the language.

In this context where native speakers have become a minority, there is a necessity to question many traditional concepts that have been considered as proven facts and move to a new paradigm that may enable us to more accurately understand what English is today. From the popular assumption that English is likely to replace national languages to the questioning if the present “hegemony of English” is not going to be “replaced by an oligarchy of languages, including Spanish and Chinese” (GRADDOL, 1997, p.3), attempts to assess the issues related to global English vary widely, as well as the definition of global English itself.

As this debate shapes and generates many others in education, linguistic policies, culture and politics, one cannot expect it to be a neutral one. On the contrary, it is a discussion permeated by ideology and interest, as the predominance of English itself is in fact a result of complex economic and political contexts of the 20th century.

The language of British colonialism and American imperialism has become “independent of any form of social control” (CRYSTAL, 2002, p. x), escaping from the hands of the native speakers, so to speak, up to the point that it is appropriated by cultures at the periphery of the world as a tool to foster development and have admission in a globalized world. One could question, however, if this is actually a process of appropriation or just a new version of colonization that is welcomed by the people being colonized. Who benefits most from this global English?

In this paper, I try to address the following questions: what are the implications of this global English to language teaching? How does one deal with a global language living in a country where just a small minority speaks it? Is global English a natural outcome of learning English in a non-English speaking country? How are English teachers expected to deal with this new phenomenon?

What is global English? And what makes a language global?

As David Crystal states, “a language has traditionally become an international language for one chief reason: the power of its people – especially their political and military power”. (CRYSTAL, 2002, p. 9) The development of English as an international language is a direct outcome of British colonialism and, in more recent times, the position obtained by the United States after the Second World War. The status acquired and or attributed to English therefore is not apart from the entire historical context of the last 60 years:

Had Hitler won World War II and had the USA been reduced to a confederation of banana republics, we would probably today use German as a universal vehicular language, and Japanese electronics firms would advertise their products in Hong Kong airport duty-free shops (…) in German (ECO, 1995, p. 331 apud GRADDOL, 1997, p. 8)

The English language was then closely associated to the American culture and lifestyle. Students from a traditional language institution in Porto Alegre, for example, reported that in the 1980’s they were taught how to greet Americans and the appropriate distance to keep, etc. Text books and other didactic materials also reproduced the same ideas promoting English as an American language.
English became an international language as American influence became stronger around the globe. Americans (and in less degree in our hemisphere, British) were seem as the source and owners of the language. This perception may still exist among English teachers in Brazil, even though there is a tendency to develop a more critical thinking concerning our relation to the English language and culture.

The end of the Cold War and what was then understood as the hegemony of the American power also ratified the status of English as the most important international language. On the other hand, in the last decades it became more evident that English was not an American or British language anymore, and beyond all national Englishes there was now a global language used in many aspects as a lingua franca.

In recent years, I have listened many times to teenage students saying how they hate Americans. They would then portrait Americans in very stereotyped terms. As someone who was probably seen as a kind of representative of that foreign language and culture, I had to explain my views of English as a language that does not depend on a national culture, at the same time I questioned their biased perception of uniformity among Americans asking them how they though Americans would picture a Brazilian person.

These experiences in classroom helped me to understand this phenomenon as an overreaction to the world inequality and injustice that those students associated with the American institutions, a kind of perception that has become more and more common after the September 11 events and the Bush administration. Is it being now minimized with the election of Obama?

Governments and institutions have also responded to this new scenario. In Brazil, it was during the Bush administration that Itamaraty decided to attribute less importance to its English test in admissional exams for the future Brazilian diplomats, in a clear ideological refusal of a supposed acceptance of “imperialism”.[1] A few years ago, Mongolia made English its official second language in a controversial measure. [2] The British Council has sponsored research on the topic, including the book The future of English?, by linguist David Graddol (1997).

Scholarly research has attempted to assess the issues related to global English, in which the role of non-native speakers is of notice. Suresh Canagarajah (2007), for example, stresses the role of what he calls Lingua Franca English in multilingual contexts where speakers have native competence in this additional language (not “second” or “foreign”). However, it seems necessary that a more accurate and detailed research is carried out to assess global English in contexts where there is no widespread multilingualism and English is taught as a foreign language as we do in Brazil.

In terms of the language teaching market, so far, there has been a shy attempt to recognize the existence of global English, since it seems to avoid a shift from the American English versus British English dichotomy. Some books will just add “foreign accents” to audio materials to give a global “flavor”. Many schools advertise their connection to a national variety and in many countries there is a high demand for native teachers. In some cases, the criteria do not include any previous teaching experience or degree in language, being the condition of native speaker the only requirement. [3]

I believe that such a shift will never happen completely, given the marketing power that “American “English” has as a label or a symbolic product to be sold. However, we do need in fact a more realistic view of English and better approaches to its teaching that can consider it as a global language and effectively provide students with a tool for real communication.

Whether or not we train our Brazilian students to perfectly pronounce the th sound or teach them the native-speakers’ culture behind the language without a critical viewpoint, they will still be Brazilians learning English. This means that the outcome of their learning is not likely to be American or British English but global English.

English teachers should be more realistic about the use of English that happens so frequently in conversations with non-native speakers or through the internet. Much more needs to be pondered and discussed about what makes global English and all its implications in classroom as it is in fact a new concept that challenges our understanding of English learning and teaching.


[1] Articles from Brazilian newspapers about the Itamaraty’s decision

[2] Located between China and Russia, Mongolia is a former communist country where the study of Russian was widespread before the debacle of the Soviet Union.

[3] Some brief reflections on native and non-native teachers are available here

Um comentário: