World Englishes and standards

Image by lumaxart

The idea of world Englishes, or even Globish, seems to be everywhere I look this past month. Not only was there an article by David Crystal on the Braz-TESOL magazine about world Englishes and the importance of learning a bit more about the variety of English of the country you’re going to visit – vocabulary and other features. In addition to that, the cover of the Newsweek magazine has on its cover a picture of the world saying, “Speak Globish?” what does this mean to our learners?

A couple of things that spring to mind are some conversations and articles I read a while ago when people said that nowadays people shouldn’t be so concerned about achieving native-like proficiency as there are many different varieties of the language. Non-native speakers of the language outnumber native speakers by far. Some years ago, Newsweek published an article talking about the rise of English as a lingua france where they said that there are 3 non-native speakers of the language for every native speaker. I guess there might be 4 or 5 nowadays. The trend, then, is to understand and acknowledge the differences. But this has always been something that kept me wondering: if I’m learning a language in order to be able to communicate with people from other cultures, and if this is the so-called lingua franca of the world, should teachers let their students get away with something that’s really distant from native-like pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar usage?

The first time I thought about it was probably about ten years ago. One of my students was in the Brazilian navy and he told me that anytime they met and had to talk to people from other ships, they spoke English. Now, he could easily communicate with Italians, Chileans, Spanish, French, and people from other nationalities using English. However, every time they had to talk to Americans, British, or Canadians, for instance, they couldn’t understand what they were saying and vice-versa. I’m sorry if this goes against what some people might believe in, but I truly believe there’s something wrong with this.

We learn to speak a foreign language to communicate. We study a foreign language because we want to be able to function in a foreign country using that language we’ve spent so long studying. When I think of native-like English, I’m not saying people should work exhaustively to reduce their accent, by no means! However, There are certain standards I feel that should be taken into account. Learners from languages whose rhythm is syllable-timed should learn that English is a stress-timed language. They should be taught some of the individual sounds which do not exist in their L1. And teachers ought to expect nothing but the best these students can produce.

I’ve always thought that language teachers are the worst listeners out there. Language teachers want to (and have to try as hard as they can) understand what their students are saying. We’ve got to do this if we want to recast, repeat, provide correct form, or do anything else that teachers have to do to get learners to learn the language. Things are not like that in the real world, though. One of the problems I can see there is that teachers might end up limiting their learners. By not showing learners that they do need to improve their pronunciation, to learn new words, and to change their speech to make it sound more natural, teachers are telling learners that they may be able to do whatever it is that they might want to in the foreign language. Well, sometimes simply being able to communicate and say, “me wants water” or “have a possibility is true” may be way less than what our students will need.

What if your learners end up having the chance to work for a multinational company and are chosen to become spokespeople? I’m pretty sure their chances will be way slimmer if they can’t speak English with native-like pronunciation and correct usage of vocabulary and grammar. There’s a huge gulf between being chosen by a non-profitable organisation to speak in public mainly due to your contributions to a cause and being hired by a company. It would be naive of us to say that people don’t judge you by the way you talk. This doesn’t mean using obscure words and complicated structures will get people to hold you in high regards – but being able to use the language properly and naturally certainly will.

What should be done about world Englishes and all of the varieties of English one might encounter in the world? Well, I think teachers should look at things from two different perspectives: productive and receptive skills. When it comes to productive skills (speaking and writing), learners should be taught according to high standards and, in my view, respecting the rules of the two mainstream varieties of the language – British and American English. When it comes to receptive skills (reading and listening) the more varieties we can expose our learners to, the better. If teachers can show students examples of both natives and non-natives using the language, the better we will be preparing them for the world of ‘Globish’. If you ask me, the question is not really “Speak Globish?”, but it should be “Understand Globish?”

Over to you…

26 thoughts on “World Englishes and standards

  1. Globish reminds me of another failed project called “Basic English” which failed, because native English speakers could not remember which words not to use 🙂

    So it’s time to move forward and adopt a neutral non-national language, taught universally in schools worldwide,in all nations. As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto

    Your readers may be interested in the following video at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

    1. Brian Barker is right. If you are really looking for a useful practical method of international communication, you should take a look at Esperanto, a language specifically devised for that purpose.

      I’ve just spent a week in Cuba talking Esperanto with Brazilians and people of other nationalities. Esperanto works and deserves even wider support.

    2. @ Brian and @ Bill: Despite my initial positive impressions regarding Esperanto as a world language, I can’t see a future for it after all these years. As a matter of fact, I’m even going to give it a second thought as two people out of five who commented here mentioned Esperanto, but I feel the fact that it’s a language owned by no one makes it difficult for people to be interested in learning it. I liked the idea, but after all these years it’s been around, I don’t see it becoming a lingua franca. I myself have never met anyone (or at least I think so) who spoke Esperanto… Esperanto might work, but don’t you think English, as the current lingua franca in the world, would work as well? Isn’t it the case we simply decide on certain standards so that it doesn’t turn into different dialects? I mean, if the whole world is already trying to learn English, how hard would it be to shift this to another language?

  2. Nice post, I do agree with this in part but how does one determine what the high standards are?

    It’s not just the problem our students face once they’re employed but also from peers who may have been educated abroad.

    I also think one of the biggest problems we face though lies in determining what is “okay” but well wrong yet we understand and what is simply a mistake to allow through: the thing that determines this I think, is meaning, so if we allow “everything, no matter where from as long as it’s understandable” then we bring up the question of “to whom?” and then pretty much, we might end up in a new state of Babel.

    Honestly, also, sometimes I have a hard time understanding certain British people… so where do you draw the line?

    1. Hi Karenne,

      Hmm… tough question you ask, lass! 😉

      How do we agree on the standards… I guess what springs to mind right now is a kind of language with moderate degrees of simplification, pronunciation closer to the dictionary, and observance of suprasegmental features such as elision, assimilation and liaisons and intrusive sounds to a moderate degree also. Perhaps we could speak of BBC / CNN English for speaking, and then we can aim to develop listening and reading skills using as many different varieties as possible.

      You mentioned exactly what had been nagging me for a while, “what if we all go back to a new state of Babel?” One of the triggers for this post was a very quick talk I had the chance to have with David Crystal during the Braz-TESOL convention. Drawing the line is not that difficult if we think of a kind of language that will allow you to function in a myriad of social contexts. Learning cockney will not be very useful in many different places you may want to go. However, if your English is closer to RP, it might be easier for more people to understand you in different settings.

      As you mentioned the difficulty understanding British people, I can probably try to exemplify it with Brazilian Portuguese. If you told me you were willing to learn Brazilian Portuguese, the most sensible thing would be to teach you the kind of language that’s spoken by the national newsreaders as this would allow you to function more effectively in many different situations. On the other hand, if I taught you how to pronounce and use words from the North of Brazil, you might have problems being understood in the South.

      All in all, I guess we could try to draw the line based on the kind of language that’s spoken by national newsreaders. What do you think? After all, even when native speakers with an accent are trying to get a job to become newsreaders, they work on accent reduction so that they can reach a wider audience.

  3. I like your idea of thinking about productive and receptive skills in different ways, although I am not so sure about the focus on American and British varieties for the productive skills. The problem for me is things like idioms and the cultural baggage which comes with such varieties. Perhaps we need to think about some sort of slimmed down versions?

    Here’s an article by Ferit Kilickaya which summarizes quite a lot of the “world Englishes” debate – might be of interest to some .

    1. Hi Evan,

      Thanks for the article. I’ll have a closer look at it asap.

      Hmm.. what exactly would we be doing if we thought of simplified versions of BrE or AmE? Wouldn’t it be similar to what is called Globish? I mean, in Newsweek they got examples of sentences spoken by native Americans and also showed a Globish-ed version of the same sentence. I agree with you when you say that it’s hard for students and even teachers to show students all sorts of idioms and all the culture that a language carries with it. However, it’s getting easier and easier for that to happen outside the class when students watch sitcoms, movies, go online, etc, i.e. are exposed to authentic language. More often than not my students ask me questions about vocabulary or pronunciation of words and expressions that they heard outside the class. How helpful is this in regard to the learning of idioms, for example?

      However, I cannot forget to mention that my answer reflect my current learners. If I were teaching learners with no access to the Internet and cable TV, for instance, the burden on the teacher would be much higher.


  4. I think the answer to a lot of the questions and issues you raise in your excellent post, Henrick, can be addressed by a re-exploration of the Lexical approach with respect to Globish.

    I am pretty sure that the reason your Brazilian Navy student found it easier to communicate in English with other seamen from around the world except native English speakers from Australia, UK, USA, etc boils down to a much higher usage of idioms and slang by native speakers of English compared with non-native speakers (there is clearly also issues of speed and accent, which can be addressed separately via working on Listening skills associated with these challenges).

    Clearly, unless we familiarize learners with the idioms, catch-phrases, slang, and commonly used cultural references (Whassuuuuup!!!) which can easily constitute up to 50% of informal language usage in a typical American-to-American brief, casual conversation, we will not really be preparing learners to cope in this type of environment. I fear that some teachers of English tend to look down at these types of lexical items and usages, and thus don’t cover them in class, but learners do need to be exposed to them and be able to recognize them, even if they don’t use them for their own active communication.

    1. Hi Paul,

      I do agree with you when you say that many of the problems have problem arisen from non-native speakers lack of knowledge of idioms, slang, and lexis. However, I also believe the main problem comes from pronunciation. What I constantly hear is that learners complain about native speakers speaking too fast for them to follow – this seems to be the number 1 complaint. Nevertheless, once learners are aware of the fact that English, just like any other language, has got degrees of simplification when spoken by native speakers, they tend to be a bit more careful when listening to native speakers. I’m a big fan of noticing and consciousness raising, and so far it’s been helping my learners.

      I also agree with you that there are many teachers who do not familiarise their learners with idioms, catch-phrases and commonly cultural references of a foreign language. One of the reasons for this, I suppose, is the fact that many teachers haven’t been exposed to that (non-NESTs) and feel insecure when talking about it. Fortunately, the Internet along with cable TV and sitcoms seem to be bridging this gap. Just now as I’m writing this reply I’m watching to “The Big Bang Theory” and wondering about how many lexical chunks and expressions English learners could actually learn from that. Learning should continue outside the classroom, right?

      Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  5. Good post, as always. Generally, if a learner produces something that I wouldn’t have understood when I first showed up in the country, I won’t let it fly. This goes for pronunciation as much as grammar and lexis.

    What I think should be let slide, is when students produce very understandable sentences that wouldn’t be considered standard English simply for collocation reasons or something. Even in that situation though, I’ll still highlight it and indicate that, while it’s intelligible, a native speaker would say ‘x’.

    I have always argued that one reason learners have so much trouble understanding natives is simply a lack of input. This is why those that get into English movies and music have such better English. Basically, 90% of listening practice in class comes from student output in my classes. This means that if students talk without using contractions, weak forms, stress-timing, or more native speaker like pronunciation, they won’t develop an ear for it. I always push students to not only notice these features of the language, but to use them in classroom speech constantly. Same goes for teachers. Speech in class should be at full speed at all times.

    On the Esperanto thing, I think it’s just not practical. We have a language the huge numbers of people speak. Why switch over? I don’t think Esperanto is any easier to learn than English and it’s certainly not as motivating as it lacks the volume of movies, literature, and music present in English.

    1. Hi Nick,

      I agree with you entirely when you mention lack of input. Most of my students who listen to songs or watch movies actively trying to understand what is being said and thinking about the language tend to perform much better than those who don’t do that. When it comes to pronunciation, for example, it’s important for learners to genuinely know whether what they’re saying is understandable or not – just like teachers usually do in terms of vocabulary and grammar.

      I’m a strong advocate for noticing and consciousness raising, so I’m with you all the way when you say we should highlight certain features for our learners. Most of them, so far, seem to benefit from such noticing.

      As for Esperanto, that’s pretty much what I think of it. Even though I like the idea of a universal language, it’s counterproductive to actually go against the flow in this situation and push Esperanto down people’s throats. And also for practical reasons. For instance, if someone from Russia were coming to Brazil and decided to learn Esperanto instead of English, chances are he wouldn’t be able to talk to many people on the streets.

  6. Hello, Rick and others

    I can’t let you get away with the phrase “push Esperanto down people’s throats”. No one is trying to do that.Esperanto has a voluntary speech community, and people opt to learn and use it because it brings so many benefits. Then you write, “For instance, if someone from Russia were coming to Brazil and decided to learn Esperanto instead of English, chances are he wouldn’t be able to talk to many people on the streets.” Would this mythical Russian be better off with English? Or with Frnch? Or with Chinese? Is (s)he going to learn a particuIar form of Portuguese just for two weeks of tourism? I would argue that (s)he would be equally lost with all of them. Esperanto provides a well-developed network of Esperanto-speaking Brazilians willing to help the traveller. It was a Russian who argued the case for Esperanto on the BBC World Service on 26 July 2010.

    1. Hello Hilary,

      Thank you very much for calling my attention to my words. Now that I’ve read them again, I believe that was uncalled for – there are many different ways for me to put forth my opinion without saying it like that and coming across as rude. That was never my intention. 🙂

      However, I do believe it’s far more effective for people to learn English in today’s world than to learn Esperanto. One of the things that struck me the most in the replies to this post was seeing two people writing about Esperanto. In my mind, Esperanto was a very nice idea that didn’t work for many different reasons, and the rise of English is a lingua franca is one of such reasons. Among my friends, for instance, I see their needs for studying a foreign language based on their interests (we may as well say this is the reason for anything we want to learn, I suppose). When they decide to study German, English, French, Spanish, or Russian, it is because they either want to integrate with the culture of speakers of that language (integrative orientation) or because they need to learn such a language for academic or professional reasons (instrumental orientation).

      Personally, I don’t know anyone who speaks Esperanto. Hence, learning Esperanto would be something useless for me. In terms of language learning and teaching, I am of the opinion that we learn a language because we want to take part in conversations with people who also speak that language. If, on the other hand, I knew some people who spoke it, then I would judge whether I’d like to go through the effort and learn the language. Maybe it’s because of that that I’d rather learn how to speak German, Spanish, or French instead of Esperanto.

      When I had my unfortunate moment and said “push it down people’s throats”, what I was trying to say was that I don’t think it would be valid for schools to start teaching students Esperanto given the limited amount of time destined to foreign language instruction. In today’s world, I guess English has taken up the role Esperanto was created to play in the world as it’s clearly become a language used by the majority of the world’s population. The question I have is whether or not it is valid to invest time and effort to learn Esperanto instead of English? Or for that matter, if someone is going to start studying a second language and hasn’t got a clear goal in mind such as living in a specific country or anything like that, isn’t it better to learn a language that’s spoken by more people than learning a language that’s spoken only by a restricted group of people?

      Finally, I even believe that people who speak Esperanto are willing to help one another. The same thing happens, for example, in Twitter. People are willing to share, help, and contribute. The key point is whether or not such people are going to be part of such a community or not.

      I hope this was slightly clear and definitely not as unfortunate as the previous comment.

      Cheers! 🙂

  7. Have you heard of the term ‘Neutral Accent’? This is not learning to speak with a British, Australian, or American accent, but with an accent that is easily understood by all. If people have trouble understanding you when you speak English, you might want to try some accent reduction training.

    Take a look at the following site:

    They also have a great links page for further practice/information:

    1. Dear Sasi,

      Thanks for your contribution. However, I don’t really think it’s a problem with the accent per se. Everyone, or almost everyone, who speaks a foreign language, speaks it with an accent – the accent of his or her own L1. Accent reduction training is something that might even help you reduce your accent, but that doesn’t mean people will easily be able to drop their accent and speak with a neutral accent. Besides, there’s got to be a model, in my view. If people are exposed to American English all the time, that’ll be the model. If, on the other hand, British English is the most common accent the person is exposed to, that’s the model.

      I do acknowledge there are certain features of English which are common to many different varieties, but I truly don’t think there’s a neutral accent that will be easily understood by all.

      I’ll have a close look at the site you mentioned, though. It’s always nice to read what others have got to say about matters! 😉


  8. Good topic Henrick. I agree with you that there is certainly a heavy influence of L1 on the type of accent you will have when you learn English, but there seems to be something more at play having to do with the brain’s built-in “empathy engine” which subconsciously prods you to mimic the accents of those around you, which is why, say, Americans who live in the UK for many years gradually pick up certain aspects of a British accent. An interesting article on this subject is here:

    1. Hi Paul,

      Interesting link, thanks! We can also see that happening within the boundaries of your very country. For instance, when people in Brazil travel to a different region where people speak differently, they seem to pick up the accent fairly fast unless there something of a block regarding the culture of the place. The empathy engine is certainly something to be taken into account. For instance, if I move to Bahia and if I really love the place, the people, and everything that goes with it, I’m sure my way of speaking will certainly change at least a little to incorporate the way my peers talk.

      I’ve also noticed that happening when native speakers spend along time living abroad. For instance, if you listen to an American who’s lived in Spain for 20 years or so and has really integrated with the target language and culture, their English is likely to spoken with at least a pinch of Spanish sounds – at least I’ve seen it happening to more than one person already. 🙂


  9. Hi Rick,
    I have just found your blog in the EFl/ ESL Carnival and I’ve found your post very interesting. It reminded me that some years ago, I’ve written a post in my blog and I have posed very similar questions to the ones you have here: . I have attempted to answer them in a new post and this was the result:
    I’d love to know your opinion. Thanks for sharing your reflections.

    1. Hi Sabrina,

      I’m glad you’ve clicked on my blog from the EFL/ESL Carnival. It’s a wonderful ‘place’ to get to know new blogs. 🙂

      I’ve already visited your posts, and I’ll comment on them as soon as possible.

      Thanks for your comment! It was the 500th comment on my blog! 🙂



    1. Hi Suneeta,

      The image is not mine, but was added from Flickr using CC. That’s why there’s the attribution. Funny… when I created the post, the link went straight to the page where it was, now it goes to a static page on Flickr and I can’t seem to find the stream…. I really don’t know what may have happened… but, as long as you attribute it to luxamart, I don’t see a problem with that. I do send everyone a message on Flickr informing I’m using their pictures on a blog post.

      Cheers! 🙂

  10. Hi Rick
    Tonight’s #eltchat will be on the topic of Globish, Englishes and Standard English – thought you might want to join it. May 9th BST 2100 – which is probably still afternoon for you 🙂
    P.S. That’s a great tip – always sending an email to Flickr users when you’ve used their photo. I should adopt it too.

    1. Hi Leo! Many thanks for the heads-up! I’ve been up to my neck with Braz-TESOL stuff, but I’ll try my best to join. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s