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Friday, January 27, 2023

Giving a name to English language

This essay is based on an article entitled ‘English as a Southern language’ published in the journal Language in Society.

The communicative intent of the title of this essay may appear strange. The weirdness may attract such reactions as: Does the English language really need a name? Doesn’t the language already have many? What can be gained by naming/renaming English in Bangladesh?

Yes, English has many names — of many kinds. This is usually the case when a language goes global. The diffusion of English worldwide also means that it has faced some sort of an identity crisis. Giving names may be a way of fixing the identity, but ironically it only adds to the identity problem.

The many names of English

WHAT are some common English names of English? As a global language, it has embraced a variation of names such as a world language, the global lingua franca, or the common language of the world. Paradoxically, English is also called a local language. If the global and the local labels sound two extremes, there is also a name for the middle ground — a glocal language.

If you have assumed from the above that geography plays a role in name-giving to English, you would be right. However, geography is utilised more concretely in some other names such as English as an Asian language, European language, or African language. Geography is probably expressed more strongly as national geography, at least in the naming of English. Therefore, among the most prominent names of English are British English, American English, Australian English, and Canadian English. This geographic convention has been followed in naming English as a non-native language as for English as a native tongue (two other names of English). There are many examples such as Singapore English, Malaysian English, Bangladeshi English, or Nigerian English.

Of course, the names of English are rarely one-dimensional. Geography can be linked to geo-politics and socio-cultural desire. For example, the national varieties of native and non-native Englishes are an expression of nationalism and a desire for national identity and unity. This should not be a surprise because languages as we know them have been largely shaped by nationalist ideologies as part of the nation-state project.

Race is also an important variable in the naming of languages. English as a native or non-native language essentially refers to race. As race is another marker of national identity, terming a language foreign can be motivated by both national and racial dispositions. Like a foreigner, a foreign language is a language of the other, and not of the self. These ideas of self and other have been used frequently for English and English language education. For example, some scholars argue that the field of ‘Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages’ or TESOL reflects this othering process. English as a foreign language may also be motivated by geography. When a language is called foreign in a particular place, it is implied that it is not meant for practical use locally. However, the foreign language can be studied to know the culture, the literature and the people that are associated with the language.

It can be argued that English is no longer a foreign language, as it is available for practical purposes in all sorts of places and communities. If it is not needed for face-to-face verbal communication, people may still use it to access various kinds of technology and all resources that are made available in the physical and the virtual world.

English as a second language is another name for English which also refers to geography in a way. The assumption here is that the language is available for practical purposes beyond the four walls of the classroom. For example, English works as a second language for outsiders in traditional English-speaking countries such as the UK and Australia. The second language label is also used to describe English in countries that went through British or American colonial rule—countries such as Malaysia, Nigeria, India, and the Philippines.

There are many other names of English based on specific functions, purposes, or the context of use. But without further indulging in its names, I would move on to the question of why give a name to English in Bangladesh. I can give many reasons for the name-giving, but I will restrict myself to six. 

Why name English?

First, by rebranding English we can claim better access to many of the resources and opportunities that are associated with it locally and globally. English is generally viewed as a common good, a resource belonging to the world. It is also a public good in that no matter how many people are using the language, many other people can also use it for their own purposes at the same time. I would argue that we can claim a share in this global linguistic wealth by naming it our own way. This may sound paradoxical because common sense tells us that when a language is localised, it may lose its potential for global communication. While this may be the case, if we look around the world, we will see that almost all nations are claiming their share of English by reinventing it. This is true for traditional as well as emerging English-speaking nations. I am not suggesting that we should stick to local features of English even when we are communicating in another part of the world. However, my point is that local English will give us the foundation for communication locally and trans-locally. An Indian who is good at speaking English locally with Indian accent and whatever, can also communicate with a Kenyan at Dubai Airport. If you have a foundation in local English, you can negotiate with others wherever you may be. And communication is essentially negotiating meaning; we can’t predict everything in an act of communication. We need to bring an open mind and share the burden of meaning making as an interpersonal act. If our aim is to manipulate people or harass them using language, that is a different story.

Second, the naming of English is needed for owning it which I believe will contribute to learning. Here I am referring to educational and pedagogical questions. There is no doubt that our national achievement in English learning is unremarkable. We belong to the category of low-proficiency English as per the ranking produced by the organisation called English First. Bangladesh is ranked 65th, ahead of Vietnam (66th) and behind Nepal (62nd) and Ethiopia (63rd). This is the case despite the heavy investment in the English curriculum. We teach English from first grade to Secondary and Higher Secondary Certificate examinations. Students continue learning and improving their English in tertiary education as well. Nevertheless, we don’t have proficient users of English in many sectors. Stories of job-seeking graduates not being able to speak or write English well are common.

In my view and experience, one reason for our limited achievement in English learning is its foreignness. While learning English, we don’t assume that it is our language. The foreignness of English is dominant in schools in rural communities where teachers and students struggle with the foreign tongue. They are scared to call it their language, a language which can be considered part of society and its communicative resources. Our teacherly attitudes may have helped to maintain its foreignness. Instead of encouraging students to speak, some of us may have pushed them to silence. The dogged pursuit of correctness at the expense of communication and fluency has destroyed the morale and aptitude of many students who may have their tongue tied even beyond graduation. I remember when I was in class IX, our English teacher (May Allah have mercy on him) once rebuked me because I said ‘look downed’ instead of ‘looked down’. Yes, I was wrong, but now looking back as a language academic, I understand that I was trying to apply rules in learning. My urge for speaking became frozen and it remained in that state for a long time.

My conviction is if we can make the language our own, we will get better at learning and using it. Instead of talking about good English, bad English, let’s open our mouths and use our pen or the keyboard. Yes, teachers need to assess and judge. But let’s do that at the right time and place. In other places, let’s try to say what we want to say without the fear of the corrective gaze or the English police.

Third, the naming of English is needed for epistemic reasons. We use language to talk about our everyday life and world, share our experiences, and represent us and others. In other words, we need to use language and other resources for constructing knowledge through speaking, writing and other modes of expression. This knowledge-construction can be informal happening at the individual and interpersonal level. It can also be more formal happening at the institutional level. The linguistic tool for this knowledge construction must be at our service so we feel at ease and efficient in using it. For many reasons, we can’t give up English in a world that will probably be dominated by English for many years to come. So, we will have to rely on it for knowledge-making at various levels of our life. However, if English remains our master and we remain its slaves, we can claim neither freedom nor ease in creating knowledge. If we let English remain foreign or a foreigner in our life, how can we live with it and deploy it for essential epistemic work? English has to be part of our repertoire of knowledge-making tools and resources which will also include Bangla, other languages and dialects.

Fourth, the naming of English is needed for our freedom from linguistic, epistemic, and symbolic bondage. Some scholars have claimed that colonisation worked at geographical, material, spiritual, linguistic, and socio-cultural levels. English is a reminder of not only our colonial bondage of the past but also of the present and the future as it works through our mind, thinking and being. That is why decolonisation has remained an unfinished agenda in the Global South. The decolonisation movement has gained new impetus in recent years with an increased awareness of theory and knowledge-making in the Southern part of the world. It calls for critiquing the knowledge that has been constructed about the South using Eurocentric views, theories, and tools. English and other colonial languages have provided the key linguistic infrastructures for seeing the world through Northern lenses. Decolonisation of knowledge, curriculum and pedagogy demands that we indigenise English, so we can view the world through our eyes and not through the eyes of others. We may not achieve decolonisation in a true sense if the English language carries its European baggage in our deployment of it for self and other representation.

Fifth, we need to give a name to English to tell the world who we are when we use the language for whatever purposes. If a language remains a stranger in our life, it may not shape our sense of self. However, as previously argued, we can’t afford to allow English to live as an outsider; we need it as part of our life and being. We should shape the language in a way so it can be a marker of our identity. How can we allow the language to carry a fake identity? We have seen many Indians telling the world that they were Indians when they use English; we have seen many Singaporeans showing their Singaporean identity through English. These people may not have any sense of shame in being who they are and who they would like to be. A key advantage for them is they feel confident in learning, using, and making meaning through English. As we hear them speak, we may appreciate that it is they who are controlling the language and communication; it’s not the language colonising them. I am not saying that we should imitate Indians or Singaporeans, but we need to think of who we are and who we would like to be in relation to English. The question of identity cannot be left aside in learning and using English or any other language.

Finally, I like to imagine English with a name that will address the question of inequality and divide in learning and using English. We know that the English language is a global industry worth billions of dollars. A few traditional English-speaking countries are at the forefront of shaping and managing this industry for their own interest in many ways. There are many kinds of politics about English, English language teaching and assessment out there. Perpetuating the native and non-native English divide is part of the politics which has contributed to the economy of these nations. And the hegemony continues even when non-native speakers of English including English teachers have far outnumbered their native counterparts. Ironically, it is mainly non-native speakers of English who have sustained the politics that works in favour of so-called native speakers. As a non-native speaker of English, I have been working in an Australian university speaking and writing English with a Bangladeshi flavour. However, I have my doubts about being offered an academic job in a Japanese or Korean university.

The naming and claiming of English are needed to break the monopoly of English by a linguistic minority that continues to disadvantage the majority in many ways. How can we reverse that? Not by saying no to British or American or Australian English, but by saying yes to those Englishes as well as to the Englishes associated with Bangladesh, China, India, etc.

The inequality question also has a more local expression. There are linguistic elites who claim to be custodians of ‘standard’ and ‘native’ Englishes in Bangladesh and other countries. They assume that they have the best English while the rest have the worst of it. Their level of achievement deserves to be appreciated but not their attitudes shaped by a sense of linguistic elitism. They are welcome to pursue their standards and ideals, but they can’t judge others on an imported basis.

What name for English?

I can be more prolific and think of many more reasons for naming English. But you may be wondering: So, what is the name that we can have for English? Well, I am reluctant to prescribe one. I also believe that it may be possible to name English without naming it. But there are some suggestions. Bangladeshi English is an obvious candidate, and this follows the naming practice in many other countries. However, there are criticisms of such nationalist names.

Personally, I am biased towards one name. This is calling English a Southern language. This means the language belongs to the Global South as it does to the North. I consider Southern English a linguistic tool for Southern Theory which is a theory for the South reflecting Southern views and perspectives. My arguments in this essay are mainly about this Southern English.

As we commemorate national victory day in Bangladesh, it may be an auspicious moment to think about decolonising, de-hegemonising and de-eliticising English by calling it a Southern language.

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Dr. Obaidul Hamid is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland in Australia. He researches language, education, and society in the developing world.

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