Who decides what English-speaking culture is?

In my last post, I wrote that English no longer belongs to native speakers. I have no intention of cheapening, dismissing or denigrating our culture as native English speakers. I absolutely believe that English comes loaded with culture, and is really inseparable from that culture. I’d argue, however, that the culture of English speaking is no longer the exclusive domain of native speakers.

Braj Kachru refers to the Englishes of the world in terms of three circles: inner, outer, and expanding. The inner circle consists of around 380 million people, in countries where English is the predominant language, and most speakers are native. The outer circle includes 150 to 300 million people in countries like India, Nigeria, and Kenya, where English has an important role as a common tongue and language of business and government. The expanding circle includes as many as one billion people, in countries like Japan, China, and most of Europe, where English is spoken as a foreign language or lingua franca.

Kachru's Three Circles of World Englishes

Kachru’s Three Circles of World Englishes

Clearly, there are far more non-native than native speakers of English. This is unique and exciting! Save for perhaps Mandarin (debatable), no other language can boast the same. To me, this also means that the minority of English speakers who speak the language natively do not have the exclusive right to determine what English-speaking culture is. Indeed, we couldn’t retain that right even if we tried. English has become a language of international negotiation, the go-to choice when Park Geun-hye wants to talk to Vladimir Putin, or when the head of Daewoo wants to talk with a Bangladeshi entrepreneur.

Of course English has culture, and of course part of that is the culture of native speakers. But English-speaking culture is no longer our exclusive domain. We now live in a world where English is the preferred common tongue of a billion or so people, and they have as much a right as we do to determine where we go from here. This is not exclusive to English, either. As a non-native speaker of Japanese, I and other non-native speakers have an impact on Japanese culture and language. Our contributions to Japanese culture are no more or less legitimate than anyone else’s.

That said, the clarity with which students express their ideas is absolutely vital to their success in the English-speaking world, and a teacher’s job is to foster that. We can respect students’ English while still giving meaningful feedback and even corrections. However, we shouldn’t hold up native speakers as a model of success. Instead, we should show students successful L2 speakers, especially those who are linguistically and culturally similar to them. You don’t need to be a native speaker to speak eloquent English, and I want my Japanese students to know that they can achieve the sort of success that Haruki Murakami or Aiko Doden has achieved. This approach is much more motivating, and more realistic as well.

Here are some examples of high achieving L2 learners who also happen to be world leaders. You can disagree with their policies, but it’s hard to argue that they aren’t expressing themselves well.

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English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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