Semi-speakers of English as a Lingua Franca

The English language is taking over the world, with more and more people learning to speak it as a second or foreign language. There is an alarmist argument that the spread of English is killing small languages, while at the same time there are concerns that the English people acquire isn’t up to standard (literally). The descriptions of the effects of language loss on small languages, and of imperfect acquisition on English are very similar, and maybe we should consider the idea that they are the same thing. 

In the last teaching block, I taught a course on English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). We looked at the functions that English has taken up in non-native English speaking countries, at how those non-native speakers have changed what English can be like, and at how you can teach English if you let go of the (mostly unattainable) goal of native speaker-like competence and performance. The last topic we discussed was whether the global rise of English posed a threat to the survival of even relatively large languages like Dutch. In preparation for this class I went back to the literature on language shift and language death that I read for my PhD, and found parallels that I never expected to find.

Rewind to the late 1960s and 1970s. The American linguist Nancy C. Dorian is researching the gradual disappearance of Scottish Gaelic from three fishing communities, Embo, Brora and Golspie in East Sutherland, on the east coast of the northern tip of the Scottish mainland. Scottish Gaelic speakers were a minority here, and moreover, already at the time of Dorian’s research they were mostly very old. Dorian divided the speakers into four categories, as follows:

  • older fluent speakers, who learned the language from their parents;
  • younger fluent speakers, by which she meant 65-year-olds, who may not have learned the language from their parents exactly, but who were able to pick up enough from the community around them to still speak fluent Gaelic;
  • semi-speakers, who were able to pick up some Gaelic from the community, but not enough to become fully fluent;
  • rememberers, who only picked up some phrases and fixed expressions, but who did not have any real competence in the language.

It’s the semi-speakers that I find really interesting here. The term itself is pretty negative; it suggests that they’re not worth as much ‘real’ speakers of the language. But Dorian’s discussion of semi-speakers elsewhere is remarkably more positive. Here’s her definition, from Dorian (1982: 32):

I call these last, imperfect speakers of a dying language semispeakers. They represent the youngest age group in the community to make use of the dying language. […] They can be distinguished at the lower levels of skill from people who know only words and a few fixed phrases by their ability to manipulate words and form sentences. They can be distinguished at the upper levels of skill from the youngest of the fully fluent speakers by the presence of deviations in their dialect which are generally recognized by the rest of the community as “mistakes”. (The younger fluent speakers also deviate fairly sharply from conservative norms, but in more subtle ways and/or to a lesser degree; almost none of their deviations are noticed by the community at large.)

This is where we move back to the present, to where English is spoken as a lingua franca by more non-native speakers than native speakers. The highlighted phrases are very reminiscent of the discourse in the ELF literature, where ELF speakers are cast as speakers of English who may not necessarily adhere entirely to native-speaker norms, but who are nonetheless proficient users of the language because they can maximally exploit the (sometimes limited) linguistic resources at hand. In other words, if we go with Dorian’s definition, ELF speakers are semi-speakers of English.

Intuitively, of course, the two concepts are different. The semi-speakers of Gaelic operate in a situation of language loss from the community, whereas ELF speakers are dealing with a language that is being introduced (forcefully, some would say) into their community. But does this not inappropriately invoke a historical perspective that is not there? I think so.

Canadians in England

To illustrate this point, I want to briefly look at Jack Chambers’s (1992) study of dialect change in six Canadian children after they moved to Southern England. The pronunciation of Canadian English is different from that of Southern England English, and as the children started to fit into their new environment, their accent changed in the direction of SEE. Chambers formulated eight principles of second-dialect acquisition on the basis of their data, one of which is:

  • Eliminating old rules occurs more rapidly than acquiring new ones.

To some extent, Chambers’s data shows this: the Canadians were much better at omitting the t-flapping rule from Canadian English than they were at applying the non-rhoticity rule of SEE. But in some of his other examples, Chambers — I think — inappropriately takes a historical perspective: the Canadians were better at eliminating the ‘Low Vowel Merger’ rule than they were at applying the ‘Vowel Backing’ rule.

The ‘Low Vowel Merger’ rule refers to the cot-caught (LOT-THOUGHT) merger: the two sets of words are pronounced with the same vowel in Canadian English, but with different vowels in SEE. The ‘Vowel Backing’ rule is BATH broadening, or the TRAP-BATH split: the pronunciation of words like bath, class, grass and dance with a long /ɑː/  rather than with the /æ/ from TRAP (cat, slab, ham).

Chambers (1992: 696) explicitly refers to the historical perspective when he says that “Polylectally, the CE merger is innovative.” And sure, when it comes to the LOT-THOUGHT merger the Canadian learners of SEE will have to undo something that happened to earlier generations of Canadian English speakers. And for BATH broadening, the Canadian learners of SEE will have to belatedly undergo a language change that happened in England in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But Canadian teenagers, and speakers of any language anywhere any time, are necessarily unaware of their position in the grand sweep of historical language change. And when we look at the two processes synchronically, they are essentially the same: there is a set of words that all have the same vowel in Canadian English, but in SSE some of these words have one vowel, and other words have another vowel — and there’s no real way of knowing which goes where. So if the Canadians do (marginally) better at eliminating the ‘Low Vowel Merger’ rule then they do at applying the ‘Vowel Backing’ rule, then this can’t be due to something that happened 200 years ago, and we have to come up with another explanation. (For example, some of their British English input might also contain more Northern English speakers, who do not do BATH broadening. That would mean the input contains less unambiguous information on how to use this particular accent feature, and the Canadians would be less successful at acquiring it.)

Yes, that was a pet peeve.

Back to semi-speakers of ELF

So obviously, I want to see what happens if we let go of the historical context of Scottish Gaelic in East Sutherland and English in continental Europe: if the descriptions of Gaelic semi-speakers and empowered non-native speakers of English are so similar, might they actually be the same thing?

I’m no expert on (first or second) language acquisition, but I think there are some very clear parallels. That does require us to leave behind the point of view that Scottish Gaelic was the community language in the East Sutherland fishing villages when these semi-speakers acquired language — the community language was English. English was what these semi-speakers of Gaelic were taught as a first language; maybe their parents even consciously avoided teaching them Gaelic. What Gaelic these speakers did pick up was probably quite restricted in terms of domains (and therefore vocabulary and possibly structures), and highly variable (Dorian mentions that moribund Gaelic shows extensive inter- and intrapersonal variation) — not quite enough to acquire the language to native-speaker norms.

Continental European learners of English similarly do not get the right amount and type of input to acquire English in accordance with native-speaker norms. It is restricted in terms of domains, and highly variable. Of course there are differences with East Sutherland Gaelic: Gaelic was spoken by an integrated part of the community, in situ, and was possibly part of the East Sutherland local identity, whereas English in continental Europe is clearly an outsider thing. The similarity here is, admittedly, a bit charged. But the main point should be clear: both semi-speakers of East Sutherland Gaelic and continental European speakers of English (as a Lingua Franca) learn the language as a second language in a context that is not immediately conducive to complete acquisition to native-speaker standards.

Their solutions to the same problem are also pretty much identical: they make do with the linguistic resources that they have. Success in communication trumps adherence to whatever rules might exist in the community, and the mistakes of both semi-speakers and ELF speakers are seen as belonging to a different category from those made by other non-standard (fluent and/or native) speakers.

Language and the lack of history

The main difference between semi-speakers of Scottish Gaelic and speakers of ELF is that for Gaelic, the language has a history in he community, and for English, it does not. But the idea that language is something that has a history is, in a way, misguided. It comes directly from the idea that language is a living organism, that can live, thrive and die; or perhaps a parasitic or symbiotic life form that attaches to a human host, but at least as a species has a continuous history.

But even if such metaphors are common, language is not an organism. Language is a form of human behaviour, behaviour that isn’t transferred from one speaker to the next like you would imagine a parasite to be able to jump hosts. It is behaviour that with each generation is constructed anew based on existing blueprints that we may or may not get to have a thorough look at. And because it’s constructed again in each individual speaker, language as such does not have a history. (Of course when we look at language as social practice within a community, we can also look at the continuous history of that social practice, so that terms like ‘language shift’ and ‘language loss’ continue to make sense.) This is something to bear in mind when looking at the language of individuals: resist the temptation to place it in a historical context that hides the fact that semi-speakers and Lingua Franca speakers are doing the same thing for the same reasons.