ConceptYou own the English you construct from experience
In the previous unit, Using English, we noted that the association between language and nation is a logical outcome of the monolithic perspective, and that governments are keen to promote this view for the sake of national unity (and economic advantage). But we also pointed out that English is now ‘owned’ by millions of non-native speakers around the world, and we quoted the African writer Chinua Achebe and the British applied linguist Henry Widdowson to drive home the argument.
In his article on the ownership of English, Widdowson also made a link between ownership and proficiency, which connects the international spread of English to the issues of SLA we are dealing with in this unit. He wrote:
[y]ou are proficient in a language to the extent you possess it, make it your own, bend it to your will, assert yourself through it rather than simply submit to the dictates of its form. [...] So in a way, proficiency only comes with non-conformity [...]. (Widdowson, 2003, p. 42)
ActivityReflect on what Widdowson is saying.
● How do you think he is interpreting the idea of proficiency?
● How does what he say relate to the notion we have been exploring, that learners inevitably construct their own English?
● When Widdowson talks of users of English ‘submit[ting] to the dictates of its form’, how is ‘form’ being presented here?
● To what extent do you agree that ‘proficiency only comes with non-conformity’?
FeedbackWe think that by 'proficiency' Widdowson doesn't mean how closely a learner can imitate a native speaker (the kind of proficiency measured by most English tests), but rather how effectively and efficiently a learner can use the language for their own purposes, including to express their own identity (to 'assert yourself through it').
'Mak[ing] the language your own, bend[ing] it your will' is precisely what learners do when they construct their own rules on the basis of experience, although at an unconscious level. The idea of 'form' referred to here is presumably the form of the pedagogical target or model ('Standard English' rather than Belfast English, Nigerian English or any other 'non-standard' version which lies outside of the monolithic ideal).
Clearly learners can become proficient in conformist 'Standard English', and this is what most proficiency tests (like IELTS and TOEFL) measure. But for learners to be efficient and effective users of the language, rather than just successful test-takers, they will need more than what they get from textbooks, teachers and tests, and so will need to depart from the confines of 'Standard English' to a greater or lesser extent. We'll explore this idea in the closing part of this unit.