15 February 2009

Norms for English

A highly contentious issue nowadays concerns the norms that should be adopted for English in places such as Brunei. Traditionally, norms have been taken from Britain or America, but increasingly when English is used so widely in so many different countries throughout the world, many people argue that it is no longer appropriate to follow external norms, and each place should have the right to develop its own style of English. For example, in his recent book (see right), Andy Kirkpatrick argues that it makes no sense for deference always to be shown to teachers who happen to be "native speakers" when there are plenty of local people in each country who have excellent English, a thorough grasp of the structure of English, lots of experience teaching it, and a good understanding of the problems involved in learning the language.

In Singapore, it is now usually accepted that it is OK to sound Singaporean so long as one uses standard grammar and also so long as one's speech is easily intelligible to people from abroad. Maybe Brunei has not yet moved in this direction to the same extent; but it is likely that Bruneians with good English will feel increasingly confident in sounding distinctly Bruneian.

One problem is that there is a lack of materials for these newly emerging varieties of English, and furthermore, teachers like to have fixed norms to refer to. For example, where are the dictionaries for Singapore English pronunciation that teachers can consult?

Maybe, in the absence of local reference and teaching materials, we can think of standard British English (RP) pronunciation as something to refer to without expecting students to mimic it too closely. Let me illustrate this with my own speech: my pronunciation is fairly standard RP, but I deviate from it in a few ways, and I am quite happy to acknowledge that these features are non-standard. For example, in words like calculate, aglorithm and balcony, I have [ʌ] (the vowel in cut) in the first syllable while all dictionaries tell me that the standard is [æ] (the vowel in cat). And I have absolutely no intention of changing my speech, even if it is a bit non-standard.

Maybe Bruneians with good English can similarly feel confident in maintaining some of their own patterns of speech: it's OK to sound Bruneian as long as you speak well.