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“Broken English” and the continued ‘othering’ of English speakers

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

It has been quite some time since I finished my doctoral thesis, closing in on a decade (Haswell, 2014). In this work, I highlighted the concerns university students in Asia have with “named English varieties”: these are the hyphenated and location-appended Englishes often found in WE and GE papers from the early 2000s: “Korean-English,” “Japanese English,” “Chinese English” were all being investigated from the perspective of the English learners experiencing these varieties in real-time on the campus of Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.

I was inspired to re-open this Pandora’s box of questions by my recent activities as both a researcher and an administrator. My current work investigating English as a lingua franca (ELF) has included interviewing academics in various related fields to help deepen my understanding of how the world’s most widely-spoken language is being utilized in various locations. I have also experienced what might best be called ‘linguicism’ when discussing coursework and on-campus communication. I was also struck by a colleague using the phrase “broken English” in a recent conversation as though the term was a settled matter that could be thrown into a discussion of what could or should be taught.

Two concurrent activities made me actively consider the current opinions of experts and how these had developed over the previous decade: my podcast series, including a large number of state-of-the-art interviews with leading academics in the fields of WE, GE, EIL, TEIL, and EMI; my administrative activities at my university brought me into continued contact with students, instructors, and administrators within whom the idea had fossilized that the aforementioned “named varieties” had fossilizing into lesser Englishes. The ‘native-speaker as model’ appears to remain everywhere but in the academic world.

Believing one’s own production of English, wherever you are on the globe, to be better and more correct than that produced elsewhere is not, in and of itself, an incorrect assessment. It is likely the way you speak and use the language is congruent with how it is performed in your local region and therefore unlikely to give you, or those with whom you interact, any problems. When you encounter different performance standards of English in your home region, either through differences in lexis, grammar, or pronunciation, there are likely to be geographical differences between you and your interlocutor: they are performing a less immediately intelligible version of your shared first language, but the differences are likely idiosyncratic rather than fatal to the interaction.

In a recent program produced by the BBC, lexicographer Susie Dent interviewed people in the field of WE, ELT, and English linguistics, including David Crystal, in a program called “The Battle for English” (2020). One might question why there is a need for such an argumentative title unless the conclusion was foregone: the English language as it was known by the English people is being fought over and potentially being lost. Then there is the work of Matsuda in 2018 addressing exactly the issue of ‘political correctness, which is often leveled at work in the fields of WE, GE, and EIL and has been a charge she has tirelessly pushed back against for two decades of groundbreaking work.

While it cannot be taken as a source, Wikipedia has its own page devoted to “Broken English”, which is defined on the site as “non-standard, non-traditionally spoken or alternatively-written version of the English language.” In its broadest possible application, this definition would cover most uses of the language even by people considered to be first-language users. In some contexts, language use that deviates from the imagined ‘standard’ English is labeled ‘pidgin’ or ‘creole’ in order to separate it from being considered a contextually-relevant form of language. Macmillan Dictionary defines “broken English” as “if someone speaks in broken English etc, they speak slowly and make a lot of mistakes because they do not know the language very well.” This is not Creole but a lack of knowledge of elements of the language rather than a legitimate variety. It is an interlanguage state experienced by all learners of a new language.

The term “broken English” began a thread on the site ResearchGate when a user failed to find an adequate ‘academic’ definition. The general consensus was it was the product of a lack of knowledge of the language, as in the Macmillan definition above, or usage which deviates from what is expected to be produced. This latter definition prompted one commentator to suggest the label is used by other learners or non-first language users of English to speak negatively about the performance of others.

The phenomenon of speaking ill of another’s performance of another language you are, yourself, a first language user is not confined only to English language learners and users. However, given a large number of English language learners relative to even the second-placed foreign or second language use groups, the opportunity for two people in this category to meet and speak using English is far higher. Perhaps herein lies the problem: the possibility of moving towards a more accepting approach to the use of English in a ‘non-standard’ manner rarely moves forward at any great rate because the number of language learners is always increasing, meaning the opportunities for negative impression or attitude about other language users to be confirmed and therefore maintained.

It is within the academic community that the greatest shifts in attitude have been observed, with the evolution from terms such as World English to Global Englishes, English as an International Language, English as a Lingua Franca, English as a Glocal Language, Translanguaging, Interlanguaging, and, more basically, the acceptance of non-inner circle varieties of English even within the stalwart high-stakes language tests such as those organized by The English Council (IELTS), The Educational Testing Service (TOEIC, TOEFL), and the European Union (BULATS). The move through the introduction and wider adoption of the Common European Frame of Reference (CEFR) to move away from norm-referenced tests, with a ‘standard’ English as the rater-goal and toward more skill-referenced, ‘Can do’ referenced test rating has meant performance elements such as remnants of first language accents and fossilized transfer errors in vocabulary and grammar use might not necessarily preclude a test-taker from receiving a very high grade. In reality, the spoken performance and accuracy of use of high-level English language users from non-first-language use contexts can often be far superior to the performance standards of users who have only ever spoken English since birth.

How to bring this discussion to an appropriate end (but allow for further discussion)? If there has been anything I have learned in 20 years of sociolinguistic research, it is everything is necessarily in flux. We don’t have a key yet on how to do two clearly necessary things at the same time: we have to maximize the utility value of the world’s only global language while simultaneously protecting local, primary languages that contain so much of their region’s history, culture, and knowledge.

It appears to me to be incredibly reductive to consider English not spoken as an English man “broken.” After all, English is viewed as the ‘native’ language of most Americans, but I sound very different from a person from Louisiana; our grammar, lexis, pronunciation, word and sentence stress, and even vocal flourishes differ.

Language, as is manifest through action, requires renewal and constant movement. Such a conclusion is supported by the repeated death of languages as users move, pass on, or decide which to use. If there is no development or continued interest, everything in this state will eventually die: language, technology, and customs are superseded by what has the most utility value, and that value changes over time.

I was once asked by a blog commenter: “Why not choose Esperanto?” The question was genuine, but the answer was equally clear: there is little to no utility value in Esperanto. As a linguistic exercise, it is very fun to investigate the roots of this invented language. However, could I go to a rural cafe in Croatia and order a coffee in Esperanto? How about English? The choice is clear.

Nevertheless, the answer to the question posed by Braj Kachru, “Which English and whose English,” must always remain “All of them and everyone's."

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