Vol. 3. No. 1 A-2 November 1997
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english or English? Attitudes, Local Varieties and English Language Teaching

John Norrish
Languages in Education Institute of Education,
University of London


This article discusses the issues surrounding the phenomenon of Local (or "Nativised") Varieties of English, those developments which take place characteristically in ex-colonial territories where forms of the ex-colonial language have evolved and developed in their own right independently of their metropolitan sources. As they evolve, the issue of their acceptability often arises, and their use in classrooms will frequently cause misgivings. Add to this the relatively common occurrence of "code- switching" and the teacher who works in such an evolving linguistic scene is faced with decisions not only as to which language, but also which version or variety to use. Examples of local varieties are examined and their pervasiveness and usefulness is discussed. Finally a call for policy to support teachers' practices in classrooms, complex both linguistically and socio-politically, is made.

1. Aims

English Language teachers are frequently prey to doubts arising from changes in the language itself, its effects on those languages with which it frequently comes into contact and the classroom implications of these linguistic phenomena. They are also, possibly unwittingly (Ricento and Hornberger 1996), involved in issues of Language Planning and Policy, hence the importance of the issues raised in this paper.

First, this paper tries to show some of the changes to the language itself in what have come to be called (Kachru 1992, Platt Weber and Ho 1984) Local (or Nativised) Varieties of English or New Englishes. These evolved forms of English do not necessarily conform to the norms of the metropolitan varieties (those generally accepted as standard in, say, Great Britain, the USA, Australia, etc.). Kuo and Jernudd (1993, p. 8) comment on the development in Singapore of "a vernacular norm (which) may be in the process of being formed, although it is as yet vague and highly variable".

Second, the paper examines the fact that English commonly co-occurs with indigenous languages in a wide range of situations. "Code- switching" (e.g., Myers-Scotton, 1992) and "-mixing" (Bokamba, 1989) [-1-] is frequently viewed as "sub-standard" language behaviour and teachers seldom feel at ease with this phenomenon in their classrooms.

Third, after these points have been discussed, the need is indicated for guidelines on classroom language use to enable English Language teachers to form consistent perspectives on the issues surrounding the medium of instruction for English and, where appropriate, for other curriculum subjects when taught in English (c.f. Canagarajah, 1995).

The remainder of this paper will focus on how different varieties develop and the vital issues that concern English Language Teachers which surround that development.

2. Sociology of World Englishes

2.1 Local Varieties

It is now a commonplace to say that languages change over time and space (e.g., Aitchison, 1981) and that this change is, indeed, an essential characteristic of human language. The view that language should be fixed and unchanging for all time is now thoroughly discredited, at least among applied linguists and language teachers. How entirely natural, therefore, that English used in environments different from those in which it grew up, so to speak, should mutate to suit its new environments. Thirty-plus years ago, Halliday, MacIntosh and Strevens (1964) and Greenberg (1964) remarked that it was a natural development that the residents of English speaking countries could no longer claim ownership of the language and that local varieties of the language were developing and would continue to do so. As long ago as 1892, Edward Morris in Australia was noting the need for a specifically Australian dictionary (Ramson, 1989). H.L. Mencken refused to refer to the language of his country as English, preferring to call his work The American Language. The idea of divergent kinds of English, then, is hardly a new one.

There is, however, a difference between acknowledging language development and change in a developing society in which the main force for change comes from first language speakers and accepting the same kind of changes and developments occurring in an environment where English is seldom used in the home and where another language or languages may directly or indirectly influence those processes.

The situation I am describing is common in many former British colonial territories, among them, for example, Anglophone Africa, the Indian Sub-Continent, Malta and Singapore. In these environments, English may be used for any or all of a variety of official purposes, such as policing, military activities, the Civil Service, etc. English may also be the medium of education for any or all levels of state and/or private education. (Indeed, this situation is also found in some countries where Britain had no colonial interests; for example, Ethiopia.) [-2-]

A fairly typical example is seen in Ghana, where roughly 9 million inhabitants share some fifty-plus languages (Sey, 1973). English is officially the medium of secondary and tertiary education and virtually all the public services. Major newspapers are published in English and there is considerable exposure to English on the public broadcasting service. This exposure has been in place since well before World War II; it is therefore the case that, particularly in ethnically mixed urban environments, many Ghanaians have grown up in situations encouraging the acquisition both outside and inside the classroom (though not necessarily in the home) of a local variety of English. It is not theoretically adequate to explain, therefore, the development of these Local Varieties (LV's) in individual speakers solely by reference to "interference" or "transfer" from the various other languages spoken in the environment; the evolved forms of English in common currency must also be taken into account here (See, for example, Norrish, 1983).

This is not to say that there is now no influence at all from these other languages (see, e.g. Lehiste, 1988). Rather, the acquisition processes relating to LV's of English are qualitatively different from those experienced by a German or a Japanese learner of English, since the opportunities to acquire the language outside the classroom in Germany or Japan are fewer. There is, however, often a greater availability of the native speaker model (on language learning tapes, etc.). The influence of the L1 is that much more direct given the more restricted access to any forms of the target language; the target variety is almost certainly a metropolitan version. Kachru (1992) calls the latter "Performance Varieties" (where the learners' output is influenced hardly at all by English in use locally), as opposed to "Institutionalised Varieties" (where locally used English has a profound effect) in Second Language environments.[1] The four criteria he advances for the existence of Institutionalised Varieties are:

A further point is that noted by Ure as long ago as 1974. She indicat ed that the localised forms of English, together with the local language(s), form a 'register range' for bi-lingual speakers such that certain contexts call forth different languages and different varieties of each. This register range will include mixing both the two codes (code switching) and/or, for effect, two or more varieties.[3] [-3-]

2.2 Attitudes to LV's

Kachru (1992) notes that LV's are often barely accepted in their own environment, where it seems that the interaction between language and that environment is not seen as an adequate reason for deviation from the metropolitan norm, the so-called Prestige Variety. Sey points out, not surprisingly, that one way to discourage Ghanaians from using "Ghanaian English" is to tell them they are doing just that. Recognition of Local Varieties comes mainly from local scholars in linguistic and literary fields, with public opinion lagging well behind. The metropolitan "norm" is taken as a reference point by most of the non-linguistically involved . This issue of localised forms surfaced in Singapore (and was reported in an edition of Asiaweek about that time) in the mid 1980's with a high profile dispute between the applied linguists in the University and establishment figures who saw the tendency to accept localised forms as the first step on the way to linguistic anarchy, an English that was in some way "second best".

Data from other areas of the world tend to support this suspicion of local forms; for example, Dabo (1993) indicates that parents of school children in Sierra Leone are deeply concerned about the pronunciation and forms of English spoken by teachers. Sey (1973) in Ghana indicates how public speakers are judged at least as much by the grammatical correctness of their speeches and that a politician who seemingly errs in using English will forfeit much of the impression that s/he may have made, whatever the correctness of the political content. Sato (1991) recalls a language survey conducted in Hawaii: attitudes to Hawaiian Creole, a form of English widely used there, were surveyed in a wide-ranging piece of research. Almost universally correspondents felt Hawaiian Creole to be "bad" when used for local radio weather forecasting. A very fine line must be trodden by public figures using English in such environments between sounding too local on the one hand and too ex-patriate on the other. An illustrative case is that of a Ghana Broadcasting Service continuity announcer, educated in the UK, who proved unpopular with listeners, not for producing sounds that were too localised, but rather for sounding too "English", this leading to his R.P. induced redundancy.

The devaluation of home-grown language forms is strengthened by the effects of both local and international examining boards (c.f. Lowenberg, 1992). These set up models of English phonology and syntax that not many teachers who use the language as a medium to teach curriculum subjects, or even local teachers of English would adhere to, except in very careful speech. Assiduous teachers will vainly attempt to teach out locally recurring forms (for a classic example of a text designed expressly for this purpose, see Crewe, 1979) thus using time that could appropriately be devoted to more productive activities, exposing learners to more of the target language, and developing their communicative ability (c.f. George, 1972). [-4-] The issue of "localisms" is a salient issue with teachers in many countries. It is not uncommon for teachers to feel that the worst errors are those which either infringe a rule taught early in the learner's career (the classic example being the third person present indicative -s) or which show interference from the pupil's main language.

2.3 Code Switching

A further feature of multilingual societies is code-switching: the relatively rapid switching from one language (code) to another. Switching may occur in a number of guises, from the occasional lexical item inserted into largely monolingual text (where the matrix text can be either L1 or L2) to alternating clauses (Huang and Milroy, 1993). The attested incidence of switching is wide (e.g., McArthur, 1993) but it is frequently derided by both speakers and listeners (when made aware of it) as indicative of "semilingualism". The claim that speakers who use switching or mixing speak neither language well is palpably untrue. Both Cook (1991) and Bokamba (1989) claim that switching indicates not only proficiency in both languages, but often to a high level. Bokamba makes the useful distinction between code-switching (at the intersentential level) and code-mixing (at the intra-sentential level), and points out that to successfully code mix shows an even higher level of linguistic sophistication since it necessitates simultaneous processing of the rules of both languages and relating them to each other.

2.4 Attitudes to Code Switching

Both code-switching and -mixing take place between speakers at many levels, frequently among those perfectly capable of making themselves understood in either code. It has been observed that at a level of near equilingualism, switching may be interpreted by some listeners as carrying a social message. When questioned about the use of English in Malta, a class of 16 and 17 year old students reported that it was not the use of English (the official medium of instruction in Maltese Secondary Schools) itself that was felt to indicate snobbery, but rather the constant mixing of it with Maltese, giving rise to the so-called "Sliema English." They perceived this as a desire to demonstrate social superiority. [4]

McArthur (1993) catalogues many examples of this linguistic phenomenon, pointing out that speakers who comfortably use two languages in their daily lives have a choice of four systems rather than two:

1. A 3. AB (where A is the matrix)
2. B4. BA (where B is the matrix)

As he points out, these bi-linguals will be uncertain in which language the desired expression will emerge when talking to other bi-linguals. As Ure indicates above, their register range is extended [-5-] to incorporate both codes. However, when talking to speakers whom they do not perceive as also bi-lingual, they will normally stay within the bounds of the interlocutor's chosen code. It is not hard to imagine that to a less skilled speaker, this kind of linguistic behaviour, especially when overheard in a public place, could appear as exclusive and unnatural, and thus performed for some special effect.

However, it is clear that history shows us that mixing and switching are not unusual; the major East African language, Swahili, arose through just such a process of merging Arabic and the local coastal languages. Histories of Modern English invariably recount the same process: a series of changes occurred to the language both before and after the Conquest of 1066 and the admixture of Norman French (e.g., Baugh, 1978). In Medieval Europe, the Maccaronic verse form mixed Latin with vernacular languages. There is an interesting contrast here between popular attitudes towards speakers who can efficiently move from one language to another and those who can do so between styles of what is recognised as "one language", with the latter being highly valued. It would seem that, linguistically at least, there is little difference between these two phenomena. Why, one wonders, should the ability to switch between languages not be equally highly valued?

Henry Widdowson, in a plenary address to IATEFL in 1993 on the topic of The Ownership of English, partly answers this last question, suggesting that the issue that appears to exercise the linguistic purists is not one of communication but rather community. "Language is naturally used to define social identity; and conformity to the norms of a particular language variety is an expression of group membership" (1993, p. 7). Among other issues (for a detailed exposition of these, see Schiffman 1996) it is surely the notion of membership that spurred French authorities into their recent and somewhat quixotic attempt to legislate against the use of certain English loan words. Membership is also what explains the generally negative attitudes toward code-switching around the world; the status of the community itself may appear to be threatened when the layman's "pure language" becomes diluted, though there appear to be areas of experience where quite the reverse seems true; the world of fashion and design is an obvious example, with English terms strongly in evidence[5]. Indeed, it is precisely this invasion which appears threatening to some as cultural values and economic power may come as part of the package (Phillipson, 1992).

3. Implications and Pedagogic Issues

3.1 Socio-Political Issues

It would be naive to claim that the role of English both in and outside the classroom in situations where it is exoglossic is not tied to socio-political issues . There has been much written on these issues over the past few years, although it must also be said that not [-6-] every writer is in agreement with the views expressed in Phillipson (1992). A case against the view that English necessarily carries with it a tide of cultural imperialism is well put by Bisong (1995), who regards the view as patronising to users of English in the Third World; cf. also Schiffman (1996, p. 277) who states, "it is possible for some analysts to label the English Language 'imperialistic' because some behaviours exhibited somewhere by some English speakers appear to result in the subjugation of other languages (or their speakers)". A clear distinction needs to be made between the users of the language and the code tout court. Pennycook (1996, p. 58) sums the issue up neatly by pointing out that the Third World needs to take English and construct new discourses--"for English to become english'. In Kachru's terminology, 'nativised' varieties would seem to move towards this end, where English loses much of the metropolitan cultural load and takes on local attributes.

3.2 Implications for English Language Teaching

We have described some aspects of language use in areas where English and other languages find themselves cheek by jowl in a community. What of teaching English to speakers from or in these communities?

3.2.1 Teacher Education and Development

The first essential is surely that teachers themselves need to be linguistically aware of these aspects of language use. Elements of Knowledge About Language (KAL) need to be built in to any teacher education course in situations where these linguistic phenomena are likely to occur. A judgmental approach to what is surely an inevitable linguistic phenomenon, the main purpose of which is to ease communication between speakers familiar with more than one code, would not be constructive. Developing a more tolerant approach may seem rather a long-term aim, but encouraging evidence of this has emerged recently. This happened in an exam paper seen by the writer in a major teacher training institution in Kuala Lumpur, where a question for a first year Initial Teacher Training (TESOL) programme dealt with the issue of Malaysian English in a purely descriptive manner. A teaching approach involving the study of language forms and their development in Malaysia from the perspective of appropriateness to context and user had been used and students' answers reflected a good and balanced understanding of the issues involved. Further evidence of this approach is to be found in a recent article published in Kuala Lumpur in The Star (1996), in which "Batu Api" made it clear that (s)he was in support of local forms; the title reflected the speech forms of the local variety itself: "OK to speak like that one-lah!"

In the light of the above, teachers will need to rethink the notion of "error" since issues of this nature will no longer be clear cut (if, indeed, they ever were). Just as "different to" or "different than" are now clearly parts of many varieties of English so the memo [-7-] from the Vice Chancellor of an Anglophone African University to a visiting academic telling him that the car would pick him at the arrivals gate of the international airport would hardly be considered "incorrect," since it reflects institutionalised educated usage in that country.

3.2.2 Language Teaching Policy

Local language teaching policy would (quite apart from political issues) ideally take into account both teachers' and learners' abilities when determining the medium of instruction. Code switching is, as we have seen, commonplace outside classrooms; it also takes place in classrooms, particularly where teachers find it difficult to adjust their output to the learners' level or where they are unclear as to which language to use as a medium of instruction. Teachers may doubt the learners' ability to learn in English but are nevertheless constrained to use textbooks in that language. This results (for example, in Malta) in an often unsystematic mix of the two languages, leaving both teachers and learners uneasy, with teachers feeling the necessity to translate much of the lesson into Maltese. Decisions need to be made on the status of English and its use in classrooms, or teachers will continue to feel they are failing both linguistically and as far as the curriculum subjects are concerned. There is little research into unsystematic bilingualism in classrooms; both approaches (monolingual, using only the target language as medium and a bilingual approach, using both the L1 and the target language) have been used at different times and both have their devotees. Adherence to one or the other is more a matter of faith than hard evidence. [6] A distinct policy here would at least assist teachers in their own decision-making. A further distinction must be made here between accepting that code-switching and mixing will take place and inadvertently teaching such language use. The fact that schools in many countries perforce use English language textbooks, since local versions do not exist, can lead to use of a level of English beyond the learner's stage of development. This invites translation and conscious code switching as a teaching approach, as in the case of Malta above. It would be hard to see how this approach would ultimately benefit the learner in clarifying the concepts of any discipline. Yet, this will remain a problem as official translation of texts into an endogenous language is expensive, time consuming and frequently not a practical alternative. The other problem here is the need not to devalue the local language by implication as additive biligualism (c.f. Phillipson and Skuttnab-Kangas, 1996), where both the learners' mother tongue(s) and the target language are assigned equal 'value', has been generally shown to be a better setting for language development.

3.2.3 Language Levels

A point relating to language levels was made by Adebisi Afolayan (1984) it can certainly be generalised beyond Nigerian higher [-8-] education to which it originally referred. He stresses the importance of the appropriateness of the level of language use:

This appropriateness can be demonstrated with reference to the three entities involved in the higher educational process. These are the student, the teacher and the instructional material" (p. 45).

He goes on to make the point that the student's level of understanding and the teacher's level of output need to coincide. The former would need some careful study and the latter some kind of INSET (In-Service Education for Teachers) to sensitise the teacher to the problem and to ways of overcoming it. Finally he remarks that "the instructional materials and textbooks need to be written in language that the students can easily follow". In countries where English is a medium of education it is clear that thought needs to be given to levels and learners' real abilities in the language, especially where students with a wide range of academic abilities and backgrounds study in English.

4. Conclusions and Recommendations

It is time that language teaching policy, tests and exams should all take due account of the ways in which English forms a part of the local language ecology. Teachers, testers and administrators should not seek to penalise for reasons of a chimerical "linguistic purity" what are inevitable linguistic developments in the wider interests of communication. We would therefore recomend that:

  1. Channels of communication need to open in both directions between the examining boards in the metropolitan variety countries and those institutions that use the exams.

  2. Learners, teachers (both in training and in service) and examiners need to be be made familiar with the relative regularity with which languages evolve and are mixed and shifted in multilingual environments; educational establishments can then begin to relax about these phenomena.

  3. Teachers will need to ask questions about who needs English (or english) for international purposes and when and to whom this variety (much closer to a metropolitan norm) needs to be taught. They can then concentrate on ensuring that learners can (a) develop the complex skills of language use in multilingual settings without the guilt which frequently seems to accompany this and (b) master the concepts needed for academic success in whatever language or variety of language may suit their purposes best. [-9-]


[1] The distinction being made here suggests impermeability in Institutionalised Varieties. This can never, of course, be absolute as:

a) when children are learning/acquiring language, whatever it may be, the forms are essentially permeable (and may thus be close to Performance Varieties), and b) when, for example, students travel from a second language environment to a first language one, it is not uncommon for them to change their linguistic output when the need arises.

The term Institutionalisedrefers rather to the fact that certain forms and registers are hallowed by custom and are thus more available for acquisition than others not so hallowed.

[2] Here, as an example, is a passage from Tutuola's (1954) The Palm Wine Drinkard.

Now we started our journey from the Deads' Town directly to my home town which I had left for many years. As we were going on this road, we met over a thousand deads who were just going to the Deads' Town and if they saw us coming towards them on that road, they would branch into the bush and come back to the road at our back. Whenever they saw us, they would be making bad noise which showed us that they hated us and also were very annoyed to see alives. These deads were not talking to one another at all, even they were not talking plain words except murmuring.

[3] Two passages from Achebe's (1987) Anthills of the Savannah , will serve to illustrate the writer's use of register variation here. In the first passage, one of the protagonists, Beatrice, is asking another, Ikem, some questions about a man she is interested in; the first pair of utterances are in a standard variety, but in the second, both speakers drop into a more local variety showing a bantering solidarity on a rather delicate subject.

The second passage shows exactly the reverse, where Ikem, who is being victimised by the police department, refuses to join in the discussion with the officer in the same variety, and thus maintains an aloofness using his original standard variety.

i. All I asked you was where your friend parks his wife.

   There is no wife, my dear, so you can rest easy.

   Me wetin concern me there?

   Plenty, plenty.  I  been see am long time my dear. [-10-]

ii. Na you get this car?

    Yes, anything the matter?

    Why you no put parking light?

    Well, I didn't see any need with all this light around.

    So when you see electric for somebody's wall, it follow
    say you no go put your  parking light?  What section of
    traffic law be that one?

    Well, it's a matter of common sense, I should say.
[4] Sliema is the area on the coast of Malta developed by the expatriate British and a Maltese middle class.

The following examples of code-switching were overheard in a staff common room of a Maltese secondary school among trainee teachers on a teaching practice discussing their recent lessons. While the matrix language was in every case Maltese, there were numerous examples of phrases both long and short and more complete utterances in English:

  1. Take out the lesson plan and take it out of the file.
  2. You ask for help and you don't get it - here's a good book.
  3. I had to arrange mine as well.
  4. Marushka's sweet, she's quiet.

While number 1 is almost certainly a quotation from the tutor (English is the official medium of instruction in the University of Malta where the students were following their courses), 2 to 4 appear to be comments on the teaching practice itself.

[5] Helmut Seitz (1993) draws attention amusingly to the importance of English fashion terms in marketing German outdoor leisure wear, quoting such phrases as Outdoor Fun, Windbreaker, Outdoor Thermo-Parka, Streetball Pant Sweat Hose mit Streetball Patch and many more. For those, he concludes who wish to stay indoors in the cooler weather, a furniture company is recommending its Indoor Design.

Here are some examples collected in Austria: (1) in a newspaper supplement advertising shoes ( ... mit trendiger Profilsohle, Abendpumps, Business Look), (2) Shop names (e.g., Fashion Touch) and (3) advertisements for cigarettes (e.g,. Think Big Maverick). [-11-]

[6] Auerbach (1993) situates 'English Only' in ESL classrooms in the USA. In that environment, she relates it to issues of power in light of the English Only movement in that country. However, in contexts where English is not the dominant language (for example, Sri Lanka or Malaysia) the issue is still far from clear. Both of these governments have indicated that a drop in the standard of English resulted from a move to a different medium of instruction, the former by approving a move back to English medium and the latter by encouraging teachers to use English in their English language classrooms.


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About the Author

John Norrish taught overseas in African and Asia for 14 years before taking up his present post at the Institute of Education University of London. He still travels frequently on consultancies and teacher education courses around the world.

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