Bad English?

Whose English is right?

It’s rather more than just you say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to…

Who decides? The native speakers? Native of where (not just the US or UK, what about Canada, or Kerala?) What happens when the native speakers go native? (Language attrition is real.) Just as everyone is a foreigner almost everywhere, if everyone is a native speaker of something, somewhere, perhaps native speaker is not the most useful classification?

Elizabeth Peterson prefers to talk about mother-tongue speakers (which she defines very carefully) and multilinguals. In her new book, Making Sense of “Bad English” she does a fantastic job of unpicking the assumptions and power dynamics behind the decisions to call someone’s English good or bad. This is a matter of gender, class, and race, of course, as well as geography. To put it another way:

Since a language is a dialect with an army, if you say my English is bad, that’s you and whose army?

In separate chapters, Peterson looks at the grammar and structures of African American English, Singlish and Delhi English, giving them context and dignity, not least by comparing them to more “established” languages such as Swedish and Welsh. She launches her argument from Braj Kachru’s model of three concentric circles of English speakers: an inner core of about 380 million people in English-speaking countries, like New Zealand; an outer ring of up to 300 million people in countries where English has official status, like Nigeria; and an expanding circle of up to 1 billion people in countries where people speak English as a “foreign” language (EFL), like Norway. As Peterson makes clear, these circles and groups obviously overlap; on one street in a big city, you might find all three. But it’s a useful way of thinking about who English belongs to.

Twenty years of teaching and researching the social aspects of linguistics, or the science of language, as she calls it, fuel Peterson’s case. Her book is based on her course for undergraduate English students and each chapter ends with discussion questions. These are a useful way of digesting the new information and, if you have not formally studied linguistics, establishing some big concepts.

My favourite of these, and most relevant to my editing and translation work, is not EFL, but ELF: English as a Lingua Franca. This means English used to communicate between people with different mother tongues. The University of Helsinki, where Peterson teaches, is a centre for this growing field. Researchers such as Jennifer Jenkins have been arguing for a while that often-monolingual mother-tongue speakers of English have to adapt to the ELF reality. This does not just mean accepting pronunciation and expressions you would not view as standard. It also means learning more about the grammar and structure of some of those other Englishes out there.

Making sense of the “bad” English means realising that maybe your particular English isn’t as “good” as you thought it was. Or at least, how very particular it is. And that is a very good thing.

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