English in the Global Context

Topic 1 Key sociolinguistic concepts

Native vs nativised vs lingua franca

Native speaker vs non-native speaker

The identity-communication continuum

Linguistic prejudice

 1.1  Native varieties vs nativised varieties vs lingua francas

The ‘traditional?varieties of British, American and Australian English are said to be native varieties and spoken by native speakers.

Nativised varieties are newer varieties that have developed in places where English was not originally spoken and which have been influenced by local languages and cultures.

The two criteria often used for classifying a variety of English as ‘native?rather than ‘nativised?are a) that the native variety has been around for a long time and b) that it has influenced younger varieties of English in some way.

British English has been around longer and has influenced the development of American English, does this mean that British English is native and that American is nativised?

Prejudice 1

By ‘native English?people usually mean a variety of English spoken by a native speaker of English and this speaker is usually thought of as being white.  It is quite obvious that many people who are not white speak British and American English.

Prejudice 2

A native variety of English is somehow superior to a nativised one. Some people feel that the older a variety is, the better it is. Native varieties are older and thought to be ‘purer?than nativised varieties. Traditional English is not pure ?but is a truly mongrel language being made up of a mixture of Latin, Greek, French, Germanic and Anglo-Saxon forms. 

A nativised variety of English is a variety that has been influenced by the local cultures and languages of the people who have developed the particular variety. Other terms for this included acculturation and indigenisation. By this definition all varieties of English that are spoken by an identifiable speech community are nativised. So varieties of British English are as nativised as varieties of Philippino English. 

In the context of English language teaching, some people may argue that British English provides a better model than, say, Malaysian English because it represents ‘proper?English. But it is important to remember that both these varieties are nativised in the sense they reflect their own cultures.

There is no need to worry if you feel that you speak a nativised variety and therefore the variety you speak is somehow worse and less pure than the ‘native?variety someone else speaks. It isn’t. All varieties are nativised. By the same token, there is no justification in assuming that the ‘native?variety you speak is somehow better and purer than the nativised variety that someone else speaks. It isn’t. By the definition adopted here, you also speak a nativised variety.

A lingua franca is the common language used by people of different language backgrounds to communicate with each other.

In Indonesia, the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, is used as a national lingua franca to allow the many different peoples of Indonesia a common language in which to communicate with each other.

In China, Mandarin or putonghua, the ‘common language? is used as a lingua franca to allow speakers of different Chinese dialects to communicate with each other.

In countries of East Africa, where many different languages are spoken, Ki-Swahili is used as the lingua franca or common language.

People who are not born as English speakers have learned English in order to be able to communicate with other people. In the ASEAN community, therefore, a Thai and Indonesian may choose to communicate with each other using English as their lingua franca or common language.

1.2 The native speaker vs. the non-native speaker

Many scholars have attempted to provide workable and rational distinctions between a native speaker and non-native speaker over many years and many others have argued that it is impossible to provide workable and rational distinctions between these two terms (Davies 2003).  Swales (1993) argues that it no longer makes any sense to differentiate between the native and non-native speaker. White and Genesee (1996) have provided evidence to show that the linguistic ability of the near-native speaker is indistinguishable from the linguistic ability of the native speaker.  Medgyes, on the other hand, insists that ‘the native English speaker teacher and the non-native English speaker are two different species?(1994:27).

The real problem is caused by many people believing that native speakers are necessarily better at speaking English than non-native speakers, and that native speakers are necessarily better at teaching English than non-native speakers.

Neither of these beliefs can be supported.

‘The first language a human being learns to speak is his native language; he is a native speaker of this language?(Bloomfield 1933:43). This definition equates a native speaker with a mother tongue speaker. Bloomfield’s definition also assumes that age is the critical factor in language learning and that native speakers provide the best models.

The assumptions behind all these terms are that a person will speak the language they learn first better than languages they learn later, and that a person who learns a language later cannot speak it as well as a person who has learned the language as their first language. But it is clearly not necessarily true that the language a person learns first is the one they will always be best at, as the examples below will show. The names given are pseudonyms.

Claire was born in Sicily and migrated to Australia when she was eight. As a child she learned Sicilian as her first language/mother tongue and standard Italian as a second language. When she arrived in Australia, she started to learn English. She is now 40 and has been in Australia for more than thirty years. The language that she learned third, from the age of 8, is the language that she is now best at. Her second best language is Standard Italian and her third is Sicilian. In other words, what was her first language and mother tongue is now a language that she does not speak as well as the other languages she speaks. She is a so-called native speaker of Sicilian but one who does not speak it well. She is a so-called non-native speaker of English, but speaks it fluently.  The language she speaks best is a language that she only started to learn once she was eight.  Claire is by no means an unusual example. There are many people who have what I shall call a ‘shifting L1? Indeed in immigrant communities it is common. It is also common in multilingual societies, as this example from Nigeria shows.

A Nigerian couple are both Yoruba speakers. They have two children, both of whom are first language or mother tongue speakers of Yoruba. The family then moves to Northern Nigeria where the dominant language is Hausa. Although the parents speak Yoruba at home, the children refuse to speak it, preferring to speak the Hausa that their school friends all speak. Like many children everywhere, they do not want to appear to be different, but want to fit in and identify with their peers at school. In addition, they learn to speak English at school, the language of education. The children then grow up speaking both Hausa and English better than they speak Yoruba. In describing their language level, does it make any sense to say that these children are native speakers of Yoruba? Does it make any sense to say they are non-native speakers of English?

Indonesia as an example of a multilingual nation that has adopted the use of Bahasa Indonesia as its national language and lingua franca. There are literally millions of people in Indonesia who have grown up with a particular mother tongue be it Bugis or Javanese or Balinese and then learned Bahasa Indonesia at school. They have then travelled from their home villages into towns in different parts of Indonesia ?for education, for marriage or, most commonly, in search of work ?and Bahasa Indonesia has become the language that they are best at. They represent common examples of people with shifting L1s.

A reason why all these terms now appear unsatisfactory may be that they were coined by linguists who grew up in monolingual societies where both parents and the community as a whole all spoke the same language.

But monolingual societies are less common than multilingual societies, where the concepts ‘native?speaker and ‘mother tongue?speaker make little sense as people find it very difficult to answer the apparently simple question, ‘What is your mother tongue? A good example of someone who found this question impossible to answer is Jane, who grew up in Brunei, the daughter of two Chinese migrants. As a child she learned two Chinese dialects (Hakka and Fuzhou, literally her mother tongue) from her parents, Mandarin from a special Chinese school and family friends, and English and Malay at school.  She is now in her thirties and says that English is her best language, with Malay and Mandarin vying for second place. She has forgotten most of her Fuzhou and Hakka.

Another problem with the term native speaker crops up with bilingual children. Can, for example, a bilingual child be a native speaker of two languages?

In the context of World Englishes, therefore, these terms should be avoided. Rampton (1990) has suggested the term ‘expert user? This is a useful term in that expertise can be assigned to distinct categories. A person might be an expert speaker but a poor writer, for example. In the context of language teaching, Cook (1999) has proposed that we should use successful L2 learners rather than native speakers as models for the L2 learner. I will argue that we need to use bilinguals as models for bilingual learners.

1.3 The functions of language and the ‘Identity-Communication Continuum?/span>

There are three major functions of language. The first is communication. People use language to communicate with one another. The second is identity. People use language to signal to other people who they are and what group(s) they belong to. The third, which is closely related to identity, is culture. People use language to express their culture.

Each of these functions may require a different variety or register and these functions may, at Arial, be at odds with each other. For example, the communicative function will often require the diminishing of the identity function. Conversely, when identity is the primary function of language use, the variety chosen by the speaker may not be intelligible to speakers outside that particular group. As Crystal has pointed out, ‘the two functions can be seen as complementary, responding to different needs?(2003:22).

Let us imagine that an Australian businessman travels to Hong Kong to talk to his counterparts there. It is likely that the major function that he will want his language to fulfil is the communicative function. He will then take care to edit out specific Australianisms from his speech and try to make his accent sound less ‘Australian? so that his Singaporean colleagues can understand what he says. Now let us imagine that the Australian’s mobile phone rings and it is his son calling from their home in Australia. It is very likely that the identity and cultural functions of language will become more important. This will mean that, when speaking to his son, the Australian will use far more Australian-specific vocabulary and cultural references and that his accent will immediately sound more Australian.

It is important to understand how these functions of language influence the type of language we use. People who complain, for example, that, when speaking Singlish, Singaporeans do not speak proper English, fail to understand that language serves these different functions and that the variety of language will differ depending on the function it is serving. When Singaporeans are together and talking about something local that is culturally important to them ?let’s say food, for example ?it is only natural that the variety of English that they choose will be a broad, informal variety as it is this variety that is best at signifying identity and culture. This does not mean that these Singaporeans can only speak in this way, any more than it means an Australian or an American can only speak in a highly localised variety of English. As soon as those Singaporeans travel overseas or meet with people from different cultures in Singapore or move into a more formal setting, they will need to use language for its communicative function. Thus the variety of Singapore English they speak will be of a more formal or educated variety.

Tommy Koh, a senior figure on the Singaporean government (and one time Ambassador to the UN) says ‘When I speak English I want the world to know that I am a Singaporean?(identity)

Gordon Wu, Chairman of Hopewell Holdings says ‘English is no longer some colonial language. It is the language we in Asia use to communicate with one another?(communication)

Figure 1: The Identity-Communication Continuum


Language Function






Language Variety


broad / basilectal varieties


educated / acrolectal     varieties/ registers


The fewer people involved in an act of communication and the closer the social distance between them, the greater the identity function of their speech will be. A good example of this is families, as they often speak a sort of special language that can only be understood by other family members.

On the other hand, the more people involved and the greater the social distance between them, the greater the intelligibility function of their speech will be in any act of communication. An example of this might be an international conference.

To be successful, a variety of English will need to be able to fulfil each of these three functions. This means that any variety of English itself comprises a number of varieties. This may seem confusing, but it is important to understand that language variation is both normal and natural. The idea that there is some form of fixed standard of a language that everyone who speaks the language always uses in exactly the same way leads people to misunderstand how language works in real life. 

The different varieties of a language have been classified in various ways. For example, Australian English has been classified on a continuum with a broad variety at one end of the continuum and an educated or cultivated variety at the other. 

Other languages ? Singapore English is a good example ?have been similarly classified, but using the terms ‘basilectal? ‘mesolectal?and ‘acrolectal?(Platt andWeber 1980), corresponding to broad, general and educated respectively.

1.4 Linguistic prejudice

However much we may protest, we are all linguistically prejudiced in some way.

Giles and Powesland (1975) reviewed research into linguistic prejudice

In the first study Giles investigated reactions of British school children to a variety of English accents. Children listened to a variety of accents and made judgments about the speakers. These accents included the educated accent known as Received Pronunciation or RP, and a number of rural and urban accents, including the accent of Birmingham, a city in the English Midlands. Giles discovered that people who spoke with a standard British educated English RP accent were considered to be the most intelligent or competent and that those who spoke with a Birmingham accent were considered to be the least intelligent.  On the other hand, he discovered that that people thought that those who had accents similar to their own, no matter whether these were rural or urban speakers, and sounded more like themselves were more honest and warmer.

A second piece of research studied people’s responses to arguments given in different varieties of English. Having ascertained the attitudes towards capital punishment of a selection of seventeen years olds, arguments against capital punishment were given to them. The arguments were given as a written transcript and in four different accents. These varieties were: RP, Welsh (the variety of English spoken in Wales); Somerset (a mainly rural county ?province, state or prefecture - in the South West of England); and the accent of Birmingham. As we saw above, earlier research had shown that RP was considered the most prestigious of these accents and Birmingham the least. In this study, the children considered that the arguments given in RP were more intelligent than the arguments given in the regional accents. However, they found the arguments given in regional accents were more persuasive, as only regional voices ‘were effective in producing a significant shift in subjects?attitudes; the typescript and the RP guise did not?(1975:94).

This is a fascinating result because it suggests that people can sound intelligent to other people but not necessarily be effective or persuasive in their arguments. At the same time, people who are not thought to be intelligent can be persuasive. Not even the most famous are spared. Before Bill Clinton became President of the United States and was Governor of the State of Arkansas a reported asker him:

‘Governor Clinton, you attended Oxford University in England and Yale Law School in the Ivy League, two of the finest institutions of learning in the world. So how come you still talk like a hillbilly??(Lippi-Green 1997:210-212).

If we think that some one accent somehow sounds more or less intelligent than others, it shows we are linguistically prejudiced. And, I'm afraid to say, we all are.

Twenty years ago, British English was considered the prestige accent in China and the model that most students wanted to imitate. Today, American English is the variety that the majority of students want to learn (Kirkpatrick and Xu 2002). Tomorrow it may be a Chinese variety of English.  

Discussion Questions

1 How are native and nativised varieties of English normally distinguished?

2 Do you think this distinction is valid?

3 Consider: Australian English    Singaporean English                  Indian English

4 Discuss these two statements and decide and say why you think they are true or not

“You really have to be white to be a native speaker of English?/font>

“British English is a pure language ?/span> much purer and better than new varieties of English?/font>

5 How would you define a native speaker of a language?

6 Do you think native speakers are, by definition, better language teachers than non-native speakers?

7 Who defines who is a NS and NNS and why?

8 List the three functions of language and give an example of each

9 Draw the Identity-Communication continuum

10 Summarise two pieces of research that show linguistic prejudice

11 List the following varieties of English in the order of their prestige in Hong Kong

Australian         Canadian       Scottish         Hong Kong      Indian

12 Which accent in Hong Kong do people think shows intelligence?

13 Are there some people who speak with accents that are associated with a lack of education or sophistication?

14 When you speak English do you want people to know that you are form Hong Kong?