2.4.2 Owning a language (Part 1)


                                                          Figure 2.6: The English language associated with UK and US national identity.

[Source: Frizabela]



People believe that native speakers own their language

A monolithic belief in English as ‘the’ ‘National Language’ of Inner Circle countries has as an automatic corollary in the belief that English is a foreign language everywhere else. Inner Circle ownership of English is assumed even if the language has a long history and ‘official status’ in many Outer Circle countries and may be used by many people on a daily basis in Expanding Circle countries.

activity   Activity

Watch the video of Gordon Brown (the UK’s prime minister between 2007 and 2010) in Fig. 2.7. In it he is announcing a series of British Council initiatives to help people learn English around the globe.

Figure 2.7: UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown announces ‘new resources to make English accessible across the globe’ You can find the video here (17 January 2008)

(You can find a transcript of the speech at the end of this interesting French response.)

How do you react to the way that Brown announces these initiatives? What does the announcement reveal about official views of Britain’s past and present relationship with English and ELT?


Figure 2.8: Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe

[Source: Stuart C. Shapiro]

A plurilithic perspective suggests that English as a whole cannot be ‘owned’ by any one country or group of countries (such as those in the ‘Inner Circle’). Henry Widdowson (2003, p. 42) quotes the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe:

    I feel that the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience … But it will have to be a new English, still in communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings (Achebe 1975, p. 62)

Widdowson comments (p. 62):

    The new English which Achebe refers to is locally developed, and although it must necessarily be related, and so in a sense in communion with, its ancestral origins in the past, it owes no allegiance to any descendants of this ancestry in the present. […]

Of native speakers he writes (p. 62):

    [English] is only international to the extent that it is not their language. It is not a property for them to lease out to others while retaining the freehold. Other people actually own it.


 Reflection 2.1

Reflect here on the extent to which other languages you know or know about are ‘international’ in this sense. Do you know or know about languages which are understood to be limited to ‘intra-national’ or ‘regional’ status? In your opinion, is it possible for these languages to be owned by others in the same way that Widdowson argues for English?

Belief in the foreign ‘leased’ status of English beyond the Inner Circle (a social phenomenon) aligns with a belief in the external nature of English as the monolithic native-speaker model or target for second language acquisition (a cognitive phenomenon). We will take this up in the next unit, Learning English. In the meantime, we end this unit on Using English with a closer look at what our fictional satellite revealed: the fact that most spoken interactions in English probably now occur between non-native speakers in lingua franca scenarios.