Friday, 17 May 2019

Notes on English after the CSCUK 60th anniversary event

In my last blog post, I blasted the UK government for the ridiculous situation some of our overseas students are in thanks to its draconian, sweeping reaction to the English language testing scandal.

This post is about overseas students, the opportunities studying in the UK affords them, the role of English in that, and just how brilliant they are.

Last night, I attended an extremely uplifting event to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth Scholarships Commission in the UK (CSCUK).

The CSCUK provides a number of different types of funding for postdoctoral study at UK universities for applicants from countries in the UK Commonwealth, including Master's and PhD scholarships and post-doctoral fellowships. They are particularly interested in supporting applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds and to promote equality and inclusion.

If you are interested in what they offer, have a look at the CSCUK webpages.

I am currently an assessor in the area of linguistics and phonetics.

Applicants are likely to be bilingual in English and (at least) one other language.

One of the things I enjoyed most about attending the event was the opportunity to hear the award-winners talking about their research. At the exhibition, I learned about studies on topics ranging from intelligent prosthetic limbs and antenatal programmes for expectant mothers in rural locations to renewable energy and food security. I particularly enjoyed hearing about one project that looked at how encouraging schools to get children playing outside and doing sports - including 10000 steps a day - had reduced mental health difficulties experienced by those children. The researcher explained how, in her country (in Africa), playing outside was seen by children and parents as something "poor people" did, and therefore not desirable to be caught doing it; having access to computer games and social media was seen as more aspirational (i.e., "rich people" did it). There were, therefore, challenges on several levels ... but rising mental health issues were a major concern (as they are in the UK). She was using her research to help enact a change in educational policy.

Of course, another reason I enjoyed hearing the award-winners talk about their research was the range of post-colonial English accents. Music to my ears! And such eloquence, too. One current PhD student working on a complicated systems engineering problem explained her study so well in non-technical English that I congratulated her on her explanation. We have to write non-technical summaries in all research grant applications, and they can be a real pig to get right, no matter what English-speaking background you are from.

Something else which struck me as I circulated was the narrative around something called linguistic imperialism.  This is basically when a language is used as an imperialistic device - i.e., that language is imposed on indigenous people to assist the colonising country in extending its power. In Britain's colonial period, the use of English was often described in this way. The continued use of English by indigenous (often British- or American-educated) elites in post-colonial countries and territories is seen as a continuation of linguistic imperialism, where language is used to separate elites from other social groups in order to help them (elites) hold on to power.

I got into a conversation with one student looking at architecture in an African country. She explained how European ideals have been imposed in recent years which have resulted in buildings being built which are just not fit for purpose, and with materials that have to be imported which are difficult to source locally and sustain.  There was a need, therefore, for locally-suitable adaptations to fit the requirements of the environment. I told her that this had parallels with the spread of English, the language being imposed on people, but not necessarily able to express the cultural and physical needs of those people. This can result in misunderstandings which, in turn, result in their needs not being recognised or supported. Local adaptations can and should be made (often through code switching and mixing) to enable the language to better express the situation in which it is used.  Architecture and English are not so far apart, then.

In Hong Kong, English is seen as a "value-added language" - i.e., if you can use it well, it adds value to you as a prospective employee or from a social angle. While some have claimed that it continues as a tool of linguistic imperialism, the suggestion is that Hong Kong people simply don't see it that way. It's part of their identity.  In India, some see English as a neutral language which can be used as a lingua franca to level the playing field between people from diverse linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds.  While there is still the notion in both countries that being able to use English affords social prestige, the situation is very different from the days of the British Empire.

I'm proud to be part of a group which offers funding to people from Commonwealth countries, and also mindful of the fact that we are expecting award-winners to be able to operate at a high level in English.  To have the opportunity to study with us in the UK through one of these scholarships, an applicant's English must be outstanding. CSCUK's stated objective - to support those from disadvantaged backgrounds - gives me hope that these outstanding scholars have mainly risen up from less advantaged beginnings, and have come to use English as a resource to help them initiate positive change as a result of their studies. Being bilinguals, they should have the linguistic tools to help them do so in their own contexts and beyond.