Tag Archives: language engineering
Local Englishes – A sort of local linguistic inbreeding?
Are we sleepwalking into a world of incomprehensibility? Are current trends in language development a retrograde evolutionary step? Will “local language needs” develop into some 200 different Local Englishes and replace Standard English? It seems that “local needs” have already done so in as many countries as there are official languages as any objective analysis would reveal.
Why should the English Language, in its course of evolution or perhaps devolution, also need “to take account of local language needs” in all countries all over the world, leaving us with some 200 varieties of Local Englishes? Is Standard English not good enough?
Dorothy L. Sayers, the famous crime-story authoress wrote in 1936 the following about the advantages of the English language: “The birthright of the English is the richest, noblest, most flexible and sensitive language ever written or spoken since the age of Pericles. […]. The English language has a deceptive air of simplicity: so have some little frocks; but they are not the kind that any fool can run up in half an hour with a machine.
Compared with such highly inflected languages as Greek, Latin, Russian and German, English appears to present no grammatical difficulties at all; but it would be truer to say that nothing in English is easy but the accidence. It is rich, noble, flexible and sensitive because it combines an enormous vocabulary of mixed origin with a superlatively civilised and almost wholly analytical syntax. This means that we have not merely to learn a great number of words with their subtle distinctions of meaning and association, but put them together in an order determined only by a logical process of thought.”
With regard to more complex language, it is my experience that seemingly convoluted, circumlocutory, or verbose language – although it does occur – is very often a compact chain of thoughts with logically ordered ideas. Conciseness requires a different functional vocabulary and different grammatical structures and intelligible language cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator. This would be tantamount to using ambiguous catch-alls devoid of their established dictionary meaning when precision and accuracy are called for.
A short introduction to the concept of “Local Englishes”
On the website of one of the most distinguished publishers of academic books and dictionaries, Oxford University Press, there used to be an interesting section on the development of the Englishes with an interesting prediction. It purported that the number of non-native speakers of English would soon outnumber native speakers of English with significant consequences. In the course of being assimilated by other nations and societies, “[…] English develops to take account of local language needs, giving rise not just to new vocabulary but also to new forms of grammar and pronunciation”. To compound matters, it was predicted that “At the same time, however, standardized ‘global’ English is spread by the media and the Internet.”
Unfortunately, the author or authors of this text do not specify what the elusive “local needs” may be and what their justification might be, thus leaving ample room for speculation. Besides, this poses the legitimate question if there is an essential need at all for the about 180 to 200 potential local variants or “Local Englishes”, ranging from Amhavic and Balochi English and Kyrgyz to Zulu English. And one is left to wonder if Standard English is not good enough and needs to be improved by non-native speakers.
They all look like English, they sound like English, but they are not Standard English. Being the outlandish varieties of Standard English, they are often ambiguous and frequently tend to resemble verbal puzzles. In many instances, not even native speakers understand these sorts of English. They are often unnatural, substandard, incomprehensible and so deficient that no responsible parents would ever expose their offspring to it if it were their native tongue. They are marked by artificial non-native constructs (grammar and collocations), fancy new words no one can understand, and a novel approach to pronunciation. Thus, they become an obstacle to communicating effectively in both written and spoken English. Guessing the meaning of what is being said becomes the main skill needed to communicate after a fashion.
The process of generously taking account of “local language needs” has been going on for decades. In 1982, a harsh letter to the editor by a conference interpreter was published in the International Herald Tribune. In his letter, the writer states that in his daily work he sees close-up the English language disintegrating into unintelligibility at an alarming pace. He also says that he is often asked to render an interpretation of the “English” spoken by delegates who thought that a few years` secondary school qualified them to cope with the most disarmingly subtle language in Europe. He bemoans the absence of any protest by native speakers at the gibberish he is often subjected to. The French, on the other hand, hold the exact opposite view in this respect, maintaining that language is difficult, verges constantly on treacherous ambiguity and, for that reason, requires study. Whereas the English have always given the world the impression that any fool can speak English – and any fool now does. Please note that these are conference interpreter’s words, not mine.
Is there a need “to take account of local needs” ?
Over-simplified Local Englishes with mutilated grammar, weird new words which no speaker of Standard English can understand, and a novel approach to pronunciation, are developing fast. They are confusing to even speakers of Standard English. Not only are they an obstacle to communicating effectively in written English but also in speech.
Often, one is forced to ask the speaker what he actually means if one is interested in what is being said. However, this kills a conversation and in many cases, some people just nod their approval or say “yes” in the right places while trying to guess what is being said. In doing so, one reduces a meaningful conversation to a social function where the gap between intended and interpreted meaning becomes unimportant. More often than not, this sort of English is too broad and ambiguous, leaves too much room for guessing, and asks for a high degree of patience and goodwill. In the same manner, it may put a high strain on the listener, is marked by frequent backtracking and asking for additional information in many cases. I dare say that the faster the new variants of English develop, the more acute this problem will become.
My dictionary of “Local English, German Version”, although being partly written with tongue in cheek, is the first attempt at documenting the nascent state of the hitherto hard to define and hard to pin down “Local English, German version” or “German English”. Examples used to be confined to teachers` lounges, faculty rooms and “high-security” translators` offices but thanks to the internet, the fun can now be shared uninhibitedly across the globe.
School English, Denglish, Basic Global English and Globish – all deviants of Standard English – are likely to continue to merge into one unified system of organised balderdash, with large parts of the English language as you know it, changed beyond recognition. Dominant contributing factors are unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity -, which are passed off as Standard English but in fact they are written by non-native speakers of English often in substandard, mutilated, and therefore difficult English. I have often wondered if translation source texts written by non-native speakers of English may not be an insult to any court if these documents would have to be submitted in the course of any legal proceedings.
Non-native-speaker-teachers — among the blind, the one-eyeds are kings?
A Local English version or the German sort of English has been around for quite some time. It is considered “incorrect” English at school and becomes perfectly acceptable once formal schooling ends. There is ample proof of this to be found in all media and on the internet and can be documented, that is, downloaded, screen-shot, video-stream-taped and printed from many sources. New coinages, bastardized and corrupted words or phrases and other hard-to-understand snippets of Local English – all due to incompetence – are often used with child-like innocence and frequently give rise to great hilarity. Preliminary findings seem to suggest that the causes for “a local need” for substandard English can be traced to too low standards and the German speakers` unwillingness to learn English up to the level that can actually be achieved. Apart from that, willing learners are discouraged to learn or train English to the level that is actually achievable because there is no real incentive to become fully professional at it since the poor status quo is considered to be the benchmark and no pecuniary rewards are offered to those striving for more.
The noddie syndrome in foreign language education
Benign and permissive teaching methods are often aimed at over-simplifying Standard English and concern themselves rather with the social function of a language than with the precise and effective conveyance of information. Previous standards of competence which used to be required of those teaching have given way to a social-worker-style pedagogy which relies on nodding vigorously in agreement to all gibberish-like verbal outpourings and studiously glossing over all kinds of substandard written material. Implicit or open acceptance of inadequate language and varnishing low standards in all areas where English is used prevail. And generally, there is a conspicuous absence of any encouragement and incentive to do work or study on one’s own. Error-swapping in any kind of group work and even a refined sort of condescending encouragement of verbal balderdash on the part of those imparting English is a major contributing factor, too.
Perhaps learners are the victims of a society pandering to those unwilling or too lazy to learn Standard English, or society has, for various reasons, tacitly consented to succumbing to widespread incompetence. One could, however, call this neglect to take corrective action aiding and abetting this unrelenting language engineering process. Many people working in education and the language business and native speaker friends as well tell me that what I am doing here in my web log must be done. However, they cannot afford to argue against this process openly because they are dependent on the status quo situation. In the meantime, they continue to suffer in silence.
Could anyone take an active part in the devolution of Standard English, and in the evolution of his or her Local English version? Would it, for instance, be possible for anyone to decide that he or she has changed Standard English Grammar as it was done a few years ago in the song lyrics during a European Song Contest. The song writer could invoke the proclamation published on askoxford.com as an authority and lay claims to inventing new forms of grammar necessitated by local, or even, when asserting oneself boldly, individual “needs”, because it would be too troublesome to apply the established Standard English code of communication? Millions of spectators were silently singing along the lines:
“…just can’t wait until tonight baby for being with you”. This is only one example out of thousands.
Millions of new forms of grammatical structures and words could thus be created, but I think that these approximately 200 local deviations intercrossing with one another may turn the English language into an indefinable, unnatural, substandard, and incomprehensible mass. Alternatively, would the local variants be implemented worldwide by the mere stroke of a pen on a set day – hokum spokum nonsensicum? Probably not. They are allowed unchallenged to creep in through the backdoor. They are developing right now under our very eyes and people working in the language sector are taking the brunt, yet they are obliged to turn a blind eye.
Does Denglish represent a linguistic evolutionary step or is it just a passing folly; a pseudo-proficiency in English or just a means of showing off one’s language incompetence? Denglish is a strange mixture of English and German words or phrases. This sort of Continental neo-pidgin English is ubiquitous and most striking when put bravely into print. English words are adapted in keeping with the rules of German grammar and mixed freely and haphazardly with German, often lending a hilarious touch to the resulting muddle. However, it is when new English words coined by Germans or misapplications of otherwise correct English are thrown in that the effect becomes utterly uproarious. And to top it all, when Germans start to invent new applications for English words or even entirely new English-sounding words which no native speaker would understand, native speaker of English are in dire need of guidance through the Continental version of their mother tongue.
Not surprisingly, many of the Denglish coinages have made it into my dictionary “Local Englishes, German version” or “German English”.
Basic Global English – The lowest common denominator?
Basic Global English or BGE is a method to facilitate learning some sort of Neo-Pidgin English. It borrows from Standard English a basic vocabulary of some 750 words to which an individual bespoke vocabulary of 250 words is added to cover a learner’s interests and hobbies he or she can use to explain their world with. A maimed and mutilated grammatical system consisting of 20 rules replaces those structures of Standard English considered unmanageable by foreign minds. It also encourages the use of a sort of sign language and is not recommended for usage with native speakers of English. The most prominent propounders and popularizers of this deviant of Standard English are non-native speakers of English. With missionary zeal and great conviction, they are keen to create an artificial sort of minimalist official global language – a kind of Simplified-Simple-Speak even simpler than Globish. And it is considered suitable to serve as a lingua franca at the highest level among politicians, business persons and other decision makers since Basic Global English also caters for the business and banker market. A business Basic Global English version is also available. However, the one advantage of BGE is that even children and adults with special needs should be able to learn this runty form of pseudo-English.
Translators suffer in silence
As mentioned briefly before, unedited documents and other kinds of publications and websites, frequently of international validity, are written by non-native speakers of English and passed off as Standard English. Translators translating from non-native speaker English texts suffer in silence since the subject of mutilated, difficult, or hard to follow English is still a taboo subject. Having been made to believe that their English is better than it is, non-native- speaker-writers of such inadequate texts have no idea what problems they are causing.
I know from a reliable source that more than 50% of source documents to be translated into German have been written by non-native speakers of English. These unnatural local varieties of English look and sound like English, but they are not Standard English. They are often ambiguous and frequently resemble verbal puzzles and are extremely time-consuming. In many cases, they are undecodable with the author being the only person to know what his “innovations” or “coinages” or conundrums are supposed to mean.
Another striking feature is the fact that specialised languages seem to be on the retreat. I have seen too many source texts in non-technical fields, also by native speakers of English, when the authors tried to “use their own words” to describe complex processes for the lack of what used to be considered indispensable knowledge and I still remember the mental pain when trying to make sense of those mostly inept and cumbersome descriptions.
I have also seen translations by non-professional “Local English speaker” when literal, word by word translations were used. Or, when writing in a foreign language, the writers thought that the mere juxtaposition of words renders comprehensible bits of texts while no native speaker would ever use such artificial and “difficult” constructions.
Machine translations creeping in on the sly?
Apart from using hard to follow, difficult, substandard and mutilated English which is in most cases devoid of accuracy and subtleties, most non-native speakers lack the language competence to distinguish between Standard English and hard-to-understand and ludicrous machine-generated “novel” English. I have seen bits of machine translated text used in academic papers which did not make any sense at all. In other papers written by members pertaining to the same linguistic “Local English” group, I came across the sweeping statement that machine translation services will reduce translation costs for governments, a service that would be used by the “young and dynamic”. I feel inclined to add: and by the incompetent and gullible.
Machine-translated websites will continue to be a contributing factor to the often grossly negligent, sometimes deliberately ignored, or even calculated corruption of the English language. These translations are sometimes not even declared as such, and more often than not, one has no option but to read them if they are, for instance, support sites. Not only are they an imposition on the reader, but also a danger to all those non-native speakers of English whose knowledge of the English language is limited. They may take these excrescences for Standard English and pick up, wittingly or unwittingly, vocabulary, grammatical constructions and “stylistic refinements” they think worthy of emulating. Responsible parents may even consider blocking machine–translated websites on child protection software programs to shield their offspring from the adverse influence of bad language just as they may do with websites showing adult content.
Besides, the uncritical belief in the authority of blinkered specialists and blind faith in the new authority of the computer may be another crucial factor contributing to the unsuspecting acceptance of substandard English one comes up against on websites. Incidentally, Google itself seems to be aware of the problems involved in machine translation software. For instance, it asks users in their translation section, “Also, in order to improve quality, we need large amounts of bilingual text. If you have large amounts of bilingual or multilingual texts you’d like to contribute, please let us know”. Google’s approach to machine translations is likely to pay off in the long run, since trying to emulate the human brain is likely to render better-quality machine translations.
Would a test seal for texts edited by native speakers be helpful?
For about two years, I maintained a blog at Yahoo’s 360 site before Yahoo gave it up. True to fashion, I posted a kind of warning with the caption “This blog is not written in native-speaker English but in Local English, German Version (or German English). Picking up of any errors is entirely at your own risk”. Soon I gathered from feed-back that this message was in fact counterproductive in that non-native speakers of English thought I was promoting Global English or the German sort of “Local Englishes”. Nothing could have been further from the truth and I realised that I must have failed wretchedly to express the mild sarcasm intended.
So I reckon it would not be a good idea to repeat this mistake but I have been wondering ever since whether some kind of test seal should be used to mark non-native speaker texts when they have been edited by native speakers of English. During the past 6 months, I have seen only two documents out of several hundreds that were actually marked: “Edited by + native speaker name”.
Languages have always been subject to change and have evolved naturally over time, the emphasis being on “naturally”. However, never before has this process been artificially accelerated and manipulated by a number of factors which have largely been ignored so far.
It is surprising that such an important development in the English language leading to a uniform system of organised balderdash goes largely unnoticed and undisputed. For the absence of a suitable term, I have taken the liberty of dubbing this process “neo-pidginicity”. Native speakers of English are probably unaware that a kind of linguistic genetic engineering is going on right now, especially on the web. If they are aware of this they may underestimate the impact this may have on Standard English, while others may even aid and abet this engineering process or condone it with their silence.
Raising awareness – among native as well as non-native speakers of English, of how language is helped to develop by tacit acceptance of present poor standards, poor non-native speaker translations of websites and documents of international validity, and inadequate translation software, may help contain the advance of incomprehensible and ambiguous non-native speaker English. However, this may be wishful thinking. It can be assumed that the development of “local Englishes”, with its likely 180 or so local deviations and indiscriminate acceptance as separate variants in non-native English-speaking countries is allowed to persist unchallenged.
What are the alternatives then to introducing local global English variants? Although the notion of being truly competent in English is an agreeable one, there are a number of reasons why it is not possible to impose higher standards, particularly not globally; the major obstacle being the absence of any incentive to become more proficient in English since the poor status quo is considered to be the yardstick. Furthermore, this would require study – a word which seems to be, together with others like “grammar”, “study”, and “homework”, out of bounds. Taking the other stance, that is, deliberately encouraging and perpetuating the status quo and thus, premeditatedly influencing the future development of the English language in an adverse manner by using deliberately sloppy language is not a solution either and smacks too much of cynicism.
Stigmatizing substandard language seems futile, yet I have chosen to do so in the hope of raising awareness among native speakers of English, most of whom have no idea that their tongue is being tampered with by non-native speakers. Perhaps I should emphasize that this is my objective, not my “mission”.
In the meantime, a rigorous analysis of what is going on at the receiving end in the teaching process at all levels, for instance, recording and analysing classroom activities, may assist in reassessing the status quo. Less reliance on the spoken word in unnatural settings, when people learn English, may help too. It follows that it is best that we continue to abide by the role model standards set by native speakers of English.
I wonder why people always want the best software for their computers while they upload, more often than not, substandard learning techniques into their brains
Never before has it been easier to learn a language up to a “true” near-native level. One is left to wonder why, in the age of multi-media, easy access to reasonably-priced self-teaching textbooks and English courses, an array of online dictionaries and hardcopy or CD versions, and a few tried and tested comprehensive grammar books with many exercises, the “Local Englishes” in general, and German English in particular, are as outlandish as they are. What follows now may seem like oversimplified and often heard pieces of advice of yesteryear. Nevertheless, the fact that the principles underlying them have been known for hundreds of years speaks for itself.
Online-hardcover dictionaries and grammar exercise books
One of the most expert and prolific text book authors for Spanish text books, Wolfgang Halm, said in one of his books that for those wanting to acquire a comprehensive knowledge [of any given foreign language], there cannot be enough exercises. This statement coincides with my experience. The kind of mental gymnastics difficult exercises provide is essential to improving one’s language capabilities in all aspects. Contextual vocabulary work is crucial to acquiring a large functional vocabulary. Use as many dictionaries as possible. All too often, entries differ widely. There are more than fifteen monolingual and bilingual online dictionaries available that are based in the UK. Some people prefer hard-cover dictionaries including monolingual dictionaries apart from online versions. One-click translations are a poor substitute and work only with very easy texts. Those interested may want to go treasure hunting for 50 year old grammar bestsellers that offer many more exercises than those currently used in Germany. Interestingly, they were all published about 1960 — 20 years before the communicative teaching method came into full swing with its devastating impact on standards. Surprisingly, they are still available and if your local bookstore does not store them, try amazon.co.uk or amazon.de.
Using internet search engines for homework, essay-writing and more
Research with internet search engines has a great, hitherto untapped potential. You can edit any kind of text, check collocations, do contextual vocabulary work, get rid of pet peeves by copying and pasting into a word processing document as many examples as you need. Even grammatical constructions can be checked, exercises can be compiled. There is nothing better to get a good grasp of the language – much better than swapping errors in group discussions with your fellow students. You can do as many revisions as you like, adding ever more examples and word definitions you come across. Dictionary entries can be copied and pasted as well, even from those dictionaries installed on your computer.
And for good measure, you can fine-tune your techniques by preparing (again by copying and pasting) those fragments you want a voice reading software to read to you, even on your mp3 player. The free-ware software Balabolka is a good start to check out this kind of software. A better-quality software “Voice Reader Home” is available at
and costs € 50.00.
You will, however, need to get used to working with “meaningful” fragments. This depends on your general knowledge and language ability. Bear in mind that the quality of sources is, initially at least, important. The URLs shown in the list of search results usually give you some idea.
Use the advanced search function because you would ideally need the domain box when you want results only from native speaker domains, the major domains being uk, ie, nz, au, ca, us. Yahoo offers you the option to search for more than one domain at a time. Using domains will save you a lot of work going through documents written by non-native speakers whose documents are published on native-speaker- domains. If you prefer documents that are at least edited by native speakers of English, you need to open search results, especially on edu and uni domains, where foreign students publish their documents. As to the search technique, always use the box “the exact phrase” (yahoo) or “the exact wording or phrase”.
Shifting or switching round words, omitting or adding words, using the wild card may help you find what you are looking for. If this does not help, try changing the domains or search the entire internet by leaving the domain box blank. Then you will get domains like net, com etc which do, however, not show you whether they are from a native speaker domain. In this case, you would need to open the search results you find interesting to find out, if the document is on a native speaker domain. Should the need arise that you have to defend yourself against the accusation that you are biased against non-native speaker English (Local Englishes), you may wish to use my stock reply: “Without best input, poor output”.
Reading is not the fashionable thing to do but without reading texts that are not “easy” there will be no mastery of any foreign language. Avoid easy readers or magazines written in simplified or Germanised English.
Do not be afraid of specialist vocabulary. After systematically going through the first 100 pages of any given specialist book, you will have covered a lot of ground and then work will progress much faster.
About this posting
This posting is the last of a series dedicated to topics dealing with various aspects of the English language which usually get short shrift on the internet and in other publications. It is, in a wider sense, concerned with the English language crumbling into incomprehensibility at alarming speed and how society is influenced by it. How do schools and universities react and in what way is literature affected by all this? Furthermore, how do people working in education and linguistics cope with this avalanche of “Local English neologisms”?
What often sounds like modern Pidgin English can generally be put down to neo-pidginicity. It is an artificially accelerated and manipulated process – or rather linguistic genetic engineering – of attempting to oversimplify Standard English, the result of which is in all cases some sort of Neo Pidgin English or Simplified-Simple-Speak. Four major fields of contact contribute to the gradual encroachment on Standard English: Basic Global English, as advocated by Dr. Joachim Grzega, machine translations of any kind, unedited documents and publications – frequently of international validity – being passed off as standard English but in fact written by non-native speakers of English, the acceptance of “Local English” and non-native speakers of English teaching their version of “Local English”. The result of the English “produced” in all these areas of contact is often, at best, a barely elevated Pidgin English.
And to compound matters, Globish appears to become a composite haphazard mixture of all about 180 Local Englishes and may for that very reason not be as easy as some people think once it has evolved into a sub-language of Standard English.
A Dictionary of GERMAN ENGLISH or LOCAL ENGLISHES, German version
Why native speakers of English are in dire need of guidance through the Local English (German Version) of their mother tongue