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English in the World Today: Status report and state of research

Examining the effects of globalisation on the English language, Dr Andy Mering presents his findings on what is known as Mid-Atlantic English.

A parochial dialect of a small island gains worldwide status

What happened to transform English from an insignificant dialect into the pre-eminent medium of international communication in our modern world?

In the beginning, there was an unnamed language on a small island. After having put up quite a fight, English ultimately became the language of the Commonwealth, with its myriad of cultures and histories, and where, in over 70 countries, it has official or semiofficial status. It is also taught in more than 100 countries as the first foreign language in schools. English now has a status unmatched by any other language on earth; it is a language ‘on which the sun does not set, whose users never sleep.’

English was originally an Anglo-Frisian dialect, first taken to Southern Britain by a small number of invading tribes from northern Europe in the fifth century. Its fascinating success story as a language with global stature today was aptly summarised by the former leader of the House of Commons Norman St John-Stevas (1929-2012): ‘How amazing that the language of a few thousand savages living on a fog-encrusted island in the North Sea should become the language of the world.’

Why did this particular language become the global language? It is only one among over 7000 languages spoken across the world today. A language reaches global scope for reasons other than the properties of the language itself. It is the power of the people who speak it; power in terms of politics, technology, economy and culture.

English is a language of wider communication; a lingua franca, like French, German, Spanish and Arabic. Yet global English is unique, spoken by almost two billion people in the world, whereby only approximately 400 million use it as their mother tongue. According to ‘Ethnologue’, English ranks first among the most-spoken languages in the world, including NSs and NNSs. As stated by the world’s foremost authority on the English language, David Crystal, NNSs of English are now outnumbering NSs in a ratio of around 4:1.

List of abbreviations

American English
British English
English as International Language
English as a Lingua Franca
International Dialects of English Archive
Lingua Franca Core
Mid-Atlantic English (Mixture of BrE and AmE)
Non-Native Speakers
Native Speakers
World Standard Spoken English

English for lingua franca purposes: language standards for ELT

What is a lingua franca? The term derives from Italian, meaning ‘language of the Franks.’ It was originally a term for the mixed language based on Italian and Occitan (southern French) used as a contact language for trading and military purposes in the Middle Ages. In our time, the use of ELF refers to the verbal exchanges between speakers with different first languages. Given the undisputed predominance of NNSs over NSs, interactions overwhelmingly occur among the former. In addition, its distinctly global profile encompasses the use of English that is culturally removed from traditional BrE.

Numerous researchers investigate the use of English in multicultural settings, amongst them:

  • Seidlhofer: Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English (VOICE), focussing on NNS pragmatics.
  • Jenkins: Lingua Franca Core (LFC), her selection of pronunciation features relevant to communicating intelligibility with other NNSs.
  • Crystal: World Standard Spoken English, WSSE, common-core English with a focus on the issue of identity.
  • Modiano: English as an International English (EIL) Mid-Atlantic English (MAE), Euro- English, with an emphasis on situational adaptation and intercultural competence.

The use of English in cross-cultural situations is characterised by a constant effort to accommodate the interlocutor. Culture-specific features are being avoided. English is viewed as a common denominator; the gateway to international business, technology, science, travel, and so on. It fosters greater cooperation and understanding between peoples from diverse multicultural backgrounds. As such, English can be seen as a key element in the process we term globalisation.

My research into the linguistic mixing of British and American English

Regarding the lingua franca paradigm alongside the issue of multiculturality, it is important to recall that the development of an internationally spoken variety of English is considerably influenced by the exponential increase in linguistic Americanisation. According to Crystal, ‘the 19th century British political imperialism had sent English around the globe and in the 20th century, the English world presence was maintained and promoted, almost single-handedly, through the economic supremacy of the New American superpower.’

Owing to the international prominence of AmE, which is used by 70% of all NSs of English, EFL speakers’ sociolinguistic profile seems to be shifting. Up until the 1980s, EFL teaching had a BrE base, which underwent processes of linguistic Americanisation in the 1990s. As a result, EFL students have tended to speak a mix of BrE and AmE, labelled as MAE. This is my research area.

My research has shown that a demand for consistency can no longer be promoted as sound pedagogical practice; my informants clearly speak MAE, a mix of BrE and AmE. Within the framework of a quantitative research design, I analyse language use in the lexical, phonological, grammatical and orthographic areas of a total of 306 survey participants. I chose four informant groups: school pupils at upper secondary level, students of English studies at university, nonnative English teachers and BrE NSs (UK residents and expats). In addition, I examined my informants’ attitudes towards different varieties of English.

I also played an audio text taken from the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA) to find out school and university students’ attitudes to six different native and non-native varieties of English. Furthermore, their accent recognition ability was researched with regard to these six varieties of English.

Additionally, the pronunciation of the school pupils and university students was tested by having them read out aloud a short selfpenned text. It contained various individual sounds and stress patterns of English. The aim was to establish whether or not these two groups speak a mix of BrE and AmE.

Overall, my research demonstrated that all the surveyed groups tended strongly towards mixed forms in all language areas. However, there were sometimes considerable differences between the individual groups with regard to the frequency of the use of Americanisms in the four language areas, notably the lexical one.

Charles Carson from ‘Downton Abbey’ so fittingly said that ‘the nature of life is not permanence but flux.’ This also holds true of language, notably English. English has become public domain, and those who adopt, it adapt it.

Image courtesy of Library
Andy Mering
Andy Mering
Andy Mering is an experienced English teacher. He recently completed his PhD after numerous years of extremely rewarding research. Andy wrote his doctoral thesis at the University of Education, in Freiburg, Germany. The title of his thesis was “Mid-Atlantic English - An Emerging Variety in the EFL Context? A Sociolinguistic Study of the Role of British English and American English in EFL Teaching.” Email: andy.mering@bluewin.ch
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