Who Owns English and why is this important?

In September 2017 I was invited by the Polish Psychologists’ Association to facilitate a workshop for Polish migrants on Communication in English. I called this workshop “Expressing yourself and expressing Your Self in English” and I spoke about English as a Lingua Franca, links between language and identity, and why how we, Non-native English Speakers (NNESs), perceive ourselves as users of the language has an influence on our daily lives in migration contexts. The following is a loose translation from an article that I prepared for a Polish news website (and aimed at Poles) prior to the workshop (you can find the original article Here).


English as a Global Language


English has become a “global language” and has a status of an official, co-official, national or dominant language in more than a hundred countries. The estimated combined number of Native English Speakers (NESs), for whom English is their first language (L1), and Non-native English Speakers (NNESs), or those who have an L1, or L1s, other than English, is around two billion. The majority of users of English worldwide, however, are NNESs and the largest part of communication in English takes place between those for whom English is not their mother tongue. English is a dominant language in the world’s advertising, tourism, education, law, banking and scientific publications.


Native English Speaker Superiority


Notwithstanding the above facts that point to a rapidly changing “landscape” of English worldwide, the myth about “NES superiority” persists among many scholars, teachers and students, both native and non-native English speakers. People who come from a handful of countries where English has been “traditionally” spoken (e.g. the US and UK) are perceived as the “legitimate” users, or even “owners” of the language. They are treated as language experts and research suggests that even the linguistic errors they make are often mistaken for being sings of linguistic innovation or creativity. The majority of English learners prefer Native English (NE) accents and would like to sound “native”, even though this goal is both vague (“Native English Speakers” are not only American, British or Australian users of the language) virtually impossible to achieve.


NES Superiority and English language teaching

The traditional English instruction has been criticised for promoting an irrelevant and unrealistic goal of achieving ‘native-like’ English competence and reinforcing the promotion of “standard language ideology”, or the assumption that there exists one inherently ‘correct’ variety of English. In their arguments, scholars have pointed to the dominance of the NES model English language examinations and to teacher hiring practices that discriminate Non-native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs), and to policies that largely influence both of these issues by dictating the goals of learning English and the methods of teaching the language and assessing the learners’ competence. Native-like competence is still treated as the main benchmark of achievement, and English learners are seen as a kind of “imitations” of NESs. English learning does not reflect, or prepare for, the reality that the students face when they leave the classroom. The learners are not aware of the multitude of different English accents and varieties that they are likely to encounter if they go abroad. The dominance of NESs is also promoted in English language textbooks, where the members of this group are usually presented as being authoritative and “omniscient” figures who assist the lost and confused foreigners or students. I also observed that the assumption that speaking with a native-like accent equals being competent in English has been underlying many English learning resources online.

Why is all the above important?

A number of studies conducted in educational contexts suggest that such unrealistic and irrelevant goals in English learning may have negative effects on the learners’ self-perceptions. By continuously comparing their pronunciation with native models, NNESs are likely to perceive themselves as a kind of “imitations” of native English speakers, instead of thinking of themselves as successful, multilingual speakers. They choose to pursue the unattainable goal of achieving a ‘perfect’, ‘native-like’ accent, being unaware that their efforts are likely to result in failure. The feeling that they cannot achieve their goal of speaking with the “proper” accent may lead to self-perceptions of being less competent users of the language that belongs to the ‘superior’ NESs and may result in low “Second Language Confidence”, and this has, in turn, been linked to self-perceived and, ultimately, actual language competence.


These findings are also crucial for the contexts of migration. A number of studies have drawn strong links between language and the overall “sense of self”, including self-esteem, self-confidence, or even self-perception of one’s skills outside the language. My own study of “English Language Identity” of Polish migrants living in Scotland revealed that some of the participants’ low self-confidence and self-esteem indeed resulted from their overall beliefs about the language, as well as from their perceptions of themselves, and other speakers, as users of the language. The beliefs about NESs as experts in, as well as owners and the only legitimate speakers of, English, which often resulted from the English language instruction they had received back in Poland, in the long-run had a very negative influence on a number of aspects of the migrants’ experiences, including their socialisation practices, professional situation or, ultimately, the decision of whether to remain in Scotland or go back to Poland.

Of course, to counter this myth of native English speaker superiority would require a lot of time and effort at the level of national education systems (fortunately, such changes have in fact been gradually taking place in some countries). At the individual level, however, sometimes the mere awareness of some facts about the language may help (Please Share this post to help spread this awareness!). It is important to remember that language belongs to everyone who uses it and as I already noted – English is a global language spoken all over the world. So, next time you are anxious to speak to a Native English Speaker (if English is not your mother tongue), remember that regardless of your English competence, the fact that you can speak this language means that you (probably) already speak more languages than your interlocutor.


2 thoughts on “Who Owns English and why is this important?

  1. It was a very intresting information . I could see that Immigrant students also during their education always are assessing themselves that shows that studying with the new language makes them to think and to assess themselves and subsequently to construct their perception about themselves.


    • Good point, and I do think that, to a great extent, this is the result of How they are being taught. The English language classrooms often tend to convey this message that your goal in learning the language should be to imitate the native speakers, to try to sound like them. I knew of teachers who played recordings of Indian speakers of English to their students not to show them that there is a number of Legitimate English accents and varieties, but to make the students laugh.. Now, what message does this convey? That some accents may be, at best, funny but not “correct”? If other accents may be funny, then maybe my own accent also is? etc.There is so much wrong in the English teaching industry nowadays (this includes teacher hiring, examination systems, and many more). I recommend the following book as a comprehensive overview of the field of “Global Englishes” which the field that investigates the topics I discussed above:


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