Wednesday 16th May 2012 saw the official launch of Southampton's Centre for Global Englishes, directed by Professor Jennifer Jenkins. I attended the event and it was truly superb.
Jenny also appeared in the Times Higher Education on Thursday talking about the Centre and about issues around the English of international students studying in the US and UK. Apologies for the quote within a quote but: '"If you talk about internationalisation," the professor of global Englishes told Times Higher Education, "you have to extend that to the language people are using"' (see article).
Jenny is no stranger to controversy. When the Lingua Franca Core (LFC*) came to attention in the late 90s and in Jenny's subsequent 2000 book, it shocked many in the English pronunciation teaching community and provoked a bit of a backlash (/understatement). The first time I gave an overview of it at UCL's Summer Course in English Phonetics during my Teaching Pronunciation lecture, I could feel the disapproval rising from some members of the audience like steam rising from a simmering pot.
(In another episode, when asked to give a keynote talk on advancements in pronunciation teaching at a conference somewhere in Central Europe, I presented the LFC framework and how one might use it pedagogically. At the end of the conference the organisers asked me - without warning - if I'd like to give the closing speech; when I asked what they'd like me to say, the response was: "It doesn't matter. We just want to listen to your beautiful RP accent." Well, I suppose there's room for both ... but I don't actually have RP.)
Anyway, back to the issue in hand: the English people are using - or, more specifically, the English overseas students whose L1 is not English are using - in academic contexts in e.g. the UK. Are students marked down for writing or speaking if they make words like "information" plural or miss off third person singular present tense final -s? Should they be if this does not impede intelligibility?
Having spent a term discussing issues such as this, I did actually question my own practice in the module English in the World when it came to marking assignments this year produced by L2 English speakers (this was before I attended the opening of the Centre) - but the thing is, would they thank me for not correcting their English? And anyway, we're not supposed to know which student is which because all the marking has to take place using anonymised scripts (like that works in a small group when you've discussed assignment outlines with each of them); if I've got a group of international and home students, how do I know which ones to apply ELF-influenced marking-criteria to? Do I just apply them to everyone? And how will the home students feel if I don't pick them up on very obvious mistakes?
... although of course if they've made the obvious mistake in the first place they might not realise I'd intentionally not commented on it.
ELF (that's English as a Lingua Franca - sorry for not glossing it sooner) and the LFC do not seek to prohibit students learning Standard English of any kind if that is their wish. In my experience - at least up to now - it very often IS their wish. They've come to the UK and they want to know what it is they are doing which is not "correct". I have no problem with this, but I will be discussing it with the MA and Erasmus groups in my English in the World class next year to see how they would like me to mark them when it comes to nearness to Standard English norms vs non-problematic ELF usage. Expect a report on that.
The fact that L2 students can and do get marked down for "poor English" can also lead to another issue: that of proof reading.
We do actually recommend some students get their draft work proof read, particularly if previous examples of their work have been very difficult to follow and our efforts at academic writing support are not proving heavy-duty enough. However, in more than one case over the years, the proof-reading has been so extreme that we are left questioning the provenance of the work. Could this student, of whose writing we have other samples, possibly have produced this piece of work? How much of it is the student's work in terms of ideas and how much of it comes from the proof-reader? What do we do in these cases? I won't go into detail here; you can see the sort of road an insistence on adherence to Standard English can sometimes take us down.
Well, as usual, I've raised lots of issues and have no immediate answers. Over to you.
*For a light-touch summary of the LFC's contents, see this page provided by the British Council.