Dispatch: Learning ‘Globish’

Image of Matthew Engel

Stand on the promenade of any British seaside resort on a summer’s afternoon, and you will hear the full, remarkable range of accents of this small island pass by soon enough.

Stand on the seafront in Brighton, and the experience is rather different. The accents come from all over the planet. Most people seem to be speaking English, which is what they are meant to be doing. But it may not be English as we know it.

For if English is now the language of the planet, Brighton might be the new centre of the universe. There are about 40 language schools operating within the city. And at the height of the season – which is right now – about 10,000 students crowd into town, thronging the bars and cafés, practising their fragile English skills.

It’s great business for the locals. This trade seems to be recession-proof; it is certainly weather-proof – these visitors arrive in even the wettest south-coast summers; and the weak pound is a bonus. The students’ presence spreads cash round all corners of the area, since most of them stay with host families – and anyone with a decent spare room can earn some pocket money.

The students may stay a week or a year. They may be nouveau riche Chinese teenagers, with parents desperate for their adored only child to get on; they may be South American managers or army officers, knowing that, if they know no English, then, professionally, they will soon bash their heads on the ceiling.

But the language they take home may not be quite the one their teachers speak. One theory is that the world language is not actually English but “Globish”, a term credited to a former IBM executive and amateur linguist, Jean-Paul Nerrière, and lately popularised as the title of a book by Robert McCrum.

Globish is the patois in which a Chilean and a Chinese might converse if they meet at Dubai airport. According to Nerrière, they might have an English vocabulary of just 1,500 words, and not much that could be recognised as grammar. Dr L.L. Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto, was on the right track. But he had no need to devise a new language. English has mutated into quasi-English and done the job for him.

The other day I got one of those jokey e-mails which must have gone viral (or, if it has reached me, probably pandemic). It showed a picture of a demonstration, alleged to be in Syria, in which Arab protesters were carrying placards written in the basic English now considered essential to get noticed by the global TV audience. The protesters had asked a passing Brit to help with the translation. Unfortunately, he turned out to have a sense of humour. “WE ARE IDIOTS” went one slogan. “BOMB US NEXT”, “PLEASE KICK OUR ASSES” said others. It is irrelevant whether the picture is real or fake – and I was unconvinced by the assurance of authenticity. The point is the same: no Globish, no comment.

This is not what Brighton is aiming to achieve. “Fifteen hundred words?” said Deborah Rogerson, director of studies at Brighton Language College. “We’re trying to do better than that.” There are, however, two distinct strands of learning here. One is “English as a Foreign Language” (EFL), aimed at people who need a modicum of knowledge to skim specialist journals, trade successfully, chat up foreign women or run successful anti-western marches in Damascus. The other is the more ambitious “English as a Second Language” (ESL), aimed at migrants who need to adapt to a new host country. The difference, one specialist told me, is that if a student persistently kept making elementary errors like “He think this” or “He say that”, an ESL teacher would be alarmed; an EFL teacher could afford to be more relaxed.

This is not something Rogerson and her colleagues wish to accept: after all, they strive for perfection. However, modern thinking does tend towards the relaxed. The college is affiliated to Berlitz International, named after Maximilian Berlitz, a German emigrant to the US who, in 1878, found himself running a school teaching European languages to young gentlemen in Rhode Island.

Falling ill, so the story goes, he hired a Frenchman, Nicholas Joly, to help out with the French, only to discover Joly spoke no English. With no alternative, Berlitz let Joly get on with it – and the results were remarkable. Forced to learn in French, his pupils progressed far better than ever before. What became known as “the direct method” and Berlitz International (now under Japanese ownership) became worldwide successes, and the standard way of teaching English to foreigners as well.

However, the traditional Berlitz Method and its cousin, the Callan Method (“rigorously structured ... repetition engages the memory”) are now seen as old-fashioned themselves, and inappropriate except for the highest flyers. And the Brighton college does not over-emphasise the connection: rigour is out of style, and the watchword is “communication”.

“Fluency is what’s important – having the confidence to communicate,” says Gary Farmer, the college director. “Students shouldn’t be worried about present, perfect, pluperfect. Ask a 14-year-old English kid the past participle of something, and a lot of them would struggle.”

It is blindingly clear that children of migrants, speaking one language at home and another at school, quickly become bilingual by instinct – whereas British kids, taught foreign languages via English, grow up going to Spain with just about enough Spanish to order a beer and a hamburger.

The approach here is pleasingly informal in style (as it has to be, since students come and go) and subject matter. The elementary class was down to two the morning I visited: Katherine from Brighton was talking to Gladys from France and Kaori from Japan about “Jenny the travel rep” and her clients. Kaori was having the traditional Japanese difficulty: “Cree-ents,” she said. “Cl, cl,” said Katherine. “Clee-ents.” “Cly-ents,” corrected Katherine. “Cly-ents,” repeated Kaori, triumphantly. “Are you clients?” “No.” “Yes you are. Students but clients.”

The intermediate class was much bigger, a dozen strong and very eclectic – from Dubai, Spain, Germany, Turkey, China, Japan and Belarus. They were on to more important matters. “Do men like to talk about relationships?” “No.” “Do women?” “Women are ob-sursive,” said one male. The female teacher corrected “obsessive”, but not the observation. “Do you know the expression ‘to two-time?’” she then asked. All this came from the textbook, which might have surprised Maximilian Berlitz.

The pre-advanced class, the top one operating that day, was on to film scripts. This class also had 12 students – Valentin, Florian, Tibor and the rest were discussing the plots and expressions that would stand them in good stead in Brighton café society: “Yeah, it’s nice.” “No way! It’s boring!” “Wow! This is fantastic!”

And it does all seem pretty fantastic. Gary Farmer’s main bugbear is the UK Border Agency, the Home Office body set up in 2008 under the then-government to persuade the tabloid press that Labour was not soft on immigration. “There is so much paperwork, so much red tape, so many regulations that change every week, it’s in danger of destroying the industry,” he complains. “Long-term student bookings have decreased because people say ‘Let’s go to Canada instead.’” One recent ruling, he said, peremptorily cut the permitted hours of work allowed on one visa category from 20 a week to 10, a useless amount for both students and potential employers.

But the UK has one big advantage. There is, he says, a pecking order of accents, with South African at the bottom and British at the top: “Parents overseas want their children to speak with a Home Counties accent, a BBC accent, a Jane Eyre accent. They want to hear that sound coming out of their sons’ and daughters’ lips.”

Seen from here, the concept of Globish can seem an over-simplification, because students arrive with very different ways of learning. The Japanese are increasingly familiar with the Roman alphabet – they use it to send texts in their own language. But, traditionally taught to shut up and listen, they lack the confidence to communicate easily. The Arabs, in contrast, find it easy to speak English but struggle to read and write. The Greeks, one teacher told me, are notably inflexible: “They have to learn everything parrot-fashion.”

This kind of conversation is fascinating, and does bolster one’s innate sense of Anglophone superiority, which may be very misleading. The researcher David Graddol said in 1997 that the dominance of English could turn into a disadvantage for its native speakers. Since they feel no need to learn another language, it can turn into a serious drawback. We have already seen the disastrous effects on foreign policy of having so few Farsi, Pushtu and Arabic speakers.

Graddol predicted the effects would spread to business: “The likelihood is that English may be so prevalent in the world that Britain obtains no special benefit in having so many native speakers: the advantage may shift more clearly towards bilingualism.” Jean-Paul Nerrière reached the same conclusion: “Globish,” he told McCrum, “will limit the influence of the English dramatically.”

Graddol, who is currently working in Hong Kong, says now that his prediction is coming true. British and American managers in multinationals find themselves outpaced by their more linguistically flexible colleagues. “Here in Hong Kong the British Council is specifically recruiting local English teachers. Increasingly, the attitude is ‘We don’t care about accuracy. Are they intelligible?’”

“We don’t talk about English. We talk about ‘Englishes,’” says Jan Smith, a Sydney-based educational consultant. “Indian English, Chinglish and Singlish [Singapore English] are all legitimate forms of the language. Most exchanges in English now take place between people for whom English is not their first language.” She adds: “The third-person singular is disappearing between non-native speakers.” That’s what she think. And that’s what she say.

Versions of this phenomenon are even noticeable within Britain itself. In 2008, Dispatch reported from Cornwall how children being taught the once-moribund Cornish language relished the sense of secret code that it gave them. And students who cross the border to study at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, can get distinctly cross when the bilingual locals lapse into Welsh, usually to be insulting.

This is always a risky strategy. Given the numbers involved, there seems to be remarkably little disharmony between students and residents in Brighton. But Anna Orme, the college welfare officer, did tell me a story about a student from France who made a rude remark in a bar about an English girl, who turned round and whacked him. That is terribly bad luck. Given the state of British language teaching, the chances of finding a non-French French-speaker in a bar, even in Brighton, must be close to zero.

Whatever the long-term implications, Brighton is revelling in the situation. The teachers speak highly of the students, and their commitment. “Regardless of their age,” said Amani Alqadi, Jordanian-born herself, “they want to do it because they know they need it.” And the students seem to be enjoying the experience, too.

They complained about only one subject, the usual British one. “It’s windy,” groaned Sally from Iran. “It’s usually cloudy,” moaned another Iranian, Farhad. We were in the midst of Brighton’s warmest and driest spell of weather in four years.

matthew.engel@ft.com

Matthew Engel’s Dispatch appears fortnightly

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