English, Speech and Society: A webinar on The English Language Day

The webinar ‘English, speech and society’ by Urszula Clark organized by the British Council last night on the occasion of the English Language Day reminded me of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel ‘English August: An Indian Story’. Upamanyu’s protagonist says that his English may sound funny, but it serves his purpose. As long as I can communicate successfully with my English, I’m ok, he says. The protagonist of the novel ‘English August: An Indian Story’ is neither a linguist nor a language teacher, but he has common sense which is rather a rare commodity in the world of ELT. While discussing the implications for English and social, regional and national identities, in relation to the teaching of English worldwide, Clark forcefully pointed out that ‘successful communication is more a question of understanding, and being able to engage successfully, in the context of use rather than whether one is a native or a non-native speaker.’ (emphasis added)
Listening to Clark at midnight, I recollected how difficult and frustrating it was for me to understand the native speakers of English in their natural non-academic environment. In the University campus, my Received Pronunciation was quite alright during my interactions with the teachers and the fellow students. But, going to a hairdresser, for example, was a night mare, the blondes won’t speak in any other language except their Midland dialect! Go to a supermarket or a pub and try to ‘engage successfully’ with the help of your so called RP, you are at a loss. My bookish English failed me miserably when the native speakers pronounced ‘cor’ for ‘can’t’ and ‘yow’ for ‘you’.
Different varieties of English perform different roles and functions and if you are to feel the pulse of the people speaking English in natural situations, you must be familiar with the varieties of English they use. Standard English is a myth, within the English speaking countries as well as the countries of the ‘outer circle’ or the ‘expanding circle.’ ( courtesy: Kachru’s three concentric circle).
In a global context, there is no point in claiming the superiority of one variety of English over the other. As Clark rightly observed, “ … we need to recognize the roles and functions that different varieties of English, including that of standard English, fulfil.”
Linguistic variation is a characteristic of all natural languages and English is one of the best examples of this wide variation across the globe. What’s the purpose of using a language if it does not help you to engage successfully with your interlocutor? It is, of course, equally important to ensure intelligibility, we should not sacrifice intelligibility in the name of ‘linguistic variation.’
The use of a particular variety of English is linked with a number of social factors… identity, age, gender, social class and ethnicity. The teaching of English as a global language, therefore, should take into account the socio-cultural contexts in which it is used.
Understanding the relationship between a variety of English and its social context of use is very crucial today. English with its innumerable dialects and accents, varying with geographical regions, social class and situation is a wonderful language to be explored for widening our linguistic and social perceptions. Thanks to the British Council for a lively webinar. Those who missed it may go to the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVZgC75xRJ4

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