Is the Global Village Getting Bigger or Smaller?

I’d like to thank Patrick for his insights in particular; his post on You’s take on Cosmopolitan English brought to the forefront for me a challenge of our hyper-connected world: cosmopolitanism challenges individuals to learn from a variety of cultural and linguistic communities. While this is in and of itself a laudable goal, it drives many people to belong superficially to many groups, rather than deeply to one or two. 

Edward O. Wilson, the great biologist, lamented this phenomenon in his wonderful book Consilience. In that book, he argues that increasing specialization within the sciences not only emphasizes competition where collaboration would be preferable, but that this specialization drives scientists into ever shrinking cabals, making them less able to communicate with their peers.

This idea has always stuck with me; and yet, I don’t know how to combat it. It may be an inherent aspect of our world. And so, I wonder if English can be seen as something similar to how Wilson sees science: a splintering set of communities who may or may not be able to communicate with their linguistic peers. 

As we talk more and more about the problems of terms like ESL, NNS, and EFL, it occurs to me that it might be too easy to limit our thinking about an individual’s facility with the English language. So, for example; I work with a lot of professional writers. (The Internet has created a huge market for writers.) It might be easy to say that any college-educated, native English speaker would be able to fulfill a job requiring some basic writing capabilities. And yet, I can say from long experience, that a native speaker, even one who graduated from college, may still struggle to put together coherent sentences. And, presumably, some non-native English speaker may have a real facility for language. Even if this latter writer had the occasional grammatical or rhetorical slip, there could presumably be a level of nuance, depth, or energy of thought that the native speaker was missing. 

This comes back to a topic that we discussed earlier in the semester, dating back to the early adoption of remedial composition classes; is good writing the same as correct writing? After many years of reading and writing about grammar, linguistics, and etymology, I’ve come around to believe that communicative value is more important than orthographic precision. 

I cannot resist a fun illustration of this point: when George Bernard Shaw was a rising star in English letters, his publisher hired a young and eager copy editor. This young editor sent back a manuscript to the famed author with a note criticizing him for splitting infinitives. Shaw wrote a letter back to the senior editors, saying: 

I ask you, Sir, to put this man out. Give the porter orders to use such violence as may be necessary if he attempts to return, without, however, interfering with his perfect freedom of choice between “to suddenly go,” “to go suddenly”, and “suddenly to go”. See that he does not come back; that is the main thing.

(Source: “Bernard Shaw on the Split Infinitive“.)

And yet, behind all of this, I keep asking myself the same question: how would all of You’s complex argument have changed the minds of the students he quotes on page 1? As even the most cursory glance at the comments on any video on YouTube will show, comments and ratings that are open to the general populace tend to attract the most parochial, small-minded, and bigoted among the populace; it is important to ask whether that is a representative sample size. Does it sting to read those comments? Absolutely. I’ve been the subject of cruel comments online, and it definitely hurts. But it’s likely that those mean spirits have always existed, and (I’d imagine) always will. But are there enough of them to really worry about on a systematic scale? 

This leads to my second question: even if we wanted to do something at a systemic level, could we? The Dunning-Kruger effect would seem to indicate that we could not. These students are closed to the idea that they have anything to learn about how English ought to be spoken. There is a psychological bias, it seems, that convinces “people fail to adequately assess their level of competence — or specifically, their incompetence — at a task and thus consider themselves much more competent than everyone else.” (Source.)

If a Chinese-American professor of English speaks in accented English and teaches a class that is intended to acquaint students with the varieties of English spoken around the world, and some of those students interpret those varieties of English as less-than or faulty, those students are cutting themselves off from a rich linguistic mine, and (in this instance; I don’t mean to imply that xenophobia is never more malicious) are therefore hurting only themselves. 

Furthermore, how would we teach cosmopolitan English? Perhaps it is as simple as introducing texts written in a variety of Englishes in literature classes earlier on, any maybe taking some focus off of rigid understanding of grammar in, say, middle school. This could help students to appreciate that linguistic and rhetorical rules which benefit middle-class Anglo English-speakers in Oregon in a professional setting may not be needed in a domestic setting in a migrant family in El Paso, Texas. 

Perhaps I’ve spent too long working in the corporate world, but I find myself continually asking: what’s the point? What do I do with all of this information? And You’s purpose was, for me, difficult to discern. For example, he sometimes examines specific texts written in a variety of Englishes. You is at his best when discussing actual novels (pp. 91-97), but even then it’s done so quickly that it becomes superficial and almost glib. So I’m really struggling to understand if this is a book on linguistics, or pedagogy, or cultural studies. 

What Do You Think?