Dr. Stefan Dollinger raises provocative questions about the “radically changing English-language ecosystem”

On Wednesday October 15, 2014, I was among the editors at our monthly EAC-BC meeting who had the privilege of listening to a fascinating presentation by Dr. Stefan Dollinger. His title, “Forks in the Road: Dictionaries and the Radically-Changing English-language Ecosystem” immediately grabbed our editorial attention.

Dr. Dollinger is Assistant Professor of English at UBC and the editor-in-chief of A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (now available online here). He has written over 40 scholarly papers on topics related to the evolving English language and how what he called the “English Language Complex”, or ELC (meaning all the varieties of English spoken worldwide) affects decisions about how to research and compile dictionaries.

Even though I’m an editor and consider myself highly competent in English, Dollinger made me stop and think about what “correct” English is and what it means to be an “expert” user of English.

Early in his presentation, Dollinger referred to the Circle Model of English (coined by Braj Kachru in 1985). In this model, the inner circle of English-language speakers consists of native speakers from Great Britain, Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. The inner circle has roughly 400 million members. The outer circle is made up of English speakers from countries that have historically been colonized by the English: India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Singapore. This circle has a billion members! But the biggest growth area of English by a long shot (Dollinger’s emphasis) comes from the expanding circle: English speakers from countries that have no historical experience of English use. China, of course, is the most significant country in this group because of its enormous population and its growing economic clout. The expanding circle includes another billion English speakers. Therefore, we are now at a point where the ratio of non-native English speakers to native speakers is 5:1!

English is unique: never, in the history of the world, has there been another language that has more non-native speakers than native speakers.

Dollinger used the term “English as a lingua franca” (ELF) to refer to English as spoken by non-native speakers. One provocative idea is that according to numbers, we have to consider ELF the most “real” English. What are some of the implications of this?

Can we still assume that “our” English (the English spoken by educated, articulate native speakers—and guarded passionately by editors!) is the English, the “best” English?

When it comes to teaching and learning English, would it not be more practical to use lingua franca English—a globally accepted English?

How could a globally accepted English be learned, when there is so much variation in English usage around the world?

This is where the creation of a lingua franca English dictionary could be critical. Dollinger admitted that this would be a huge task. He spent some time talking about the most highly-respected dictionary of English—the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and how it was created. Its editors relied heavily on excerption from literary sources. But Dollinger believes another method of research is required in order to create a global English dictionary. That is, empirical research: going out into the field and finding out how English is actually being used currently, depending on speakers’ geographical location, education, and social class.

How do we distinguish between “errors” in English and innovative evolution of English?

Dollinger gave several amusing examples of creative “new” English words that we, as Canadian “expert” English users, had not heard of before: two I remember are “peelhead” (meaning a bald person), and “batchmate” (meaning cohort). Logical, eh?

How do I feel about my “Canadian” being considered just one quaint dialect of English, rather than the English?

It’s strange to think that as a Canadian English native speaker, I might not be understood by the majority of  English speakers.worldwide

Optimistically, though, I believe I can hold on to my “mother” English tongue (Canadian English) and still be competent at ELF. This requires tools like dictionaries as well as an open mind and a willingness to learn.

I celebrate the enormous flexibility English offers, and I don’t think we should feel threatened by the evolution of English. We have to remember that the purpose of language is communication, and there are many types of communication. A global English can be better than “traditional” English by simplifying the parts of English grammar, spelling, and usage that are illogical or unnecessarily difficult. All global English communicators will need to become familiar with Plain English principles. People will learn standard English terms and expressions used in their area of research or business.

Those of us who love the most difficult English, in all its idiomatic, metaphoric, multi-clausal imaginative glory, will still be able to read the great works of English literature. I am also confident that new writers will display creative and technical mastery of English in new works of literature, whether they be novels, stories, poems, or other formats that take advantage of the interactive possibilities of today’s digital world.

You can help Dr. Dollinger in his research about global English usage by completing his survey at http://www.bit.do/engsurvey. It takes about 18 minutes. Do your bit!

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