A common ‘megalanguage’?

In the programme for the ACEIA conference I was speaking at last Saturday (a great conference if you’re ever in Seville in November), Umberto Eco was quoted as saying “The great danger of globalization is that it pushes us to [using] a common megalanguage“.

Obviously Eco finds this unsettling, and if we see language as inextricably linked to culture then the threat of a common megalanguage is the threat of loss of identity, and the use of this common megalanguage means unavoidable conformity to a global norm.

Seen like this, it’s hardly surprising that Eco was concerned, but reality, at least the current reality of English as a Lingua Franca, is revealing that Eco’s anxieties are unfounded. What’s fascinating as you watch ELF at work is that it demonstrates on a daily basis that is perfectly possible to communicate internationally through a common (mega)language, yet at the same time retain your identity. In fact, every time I observe ELF in action, I’m struck by just how well people communicate their L1 identity through their L2 English.

The area where this is most immediately tangible is in their pronunciation. With very, very few exceptions, the nonnative speakers I’ve listened to or spoken to don’t sound English or American, or native speaker from anywhere, and their accent is the clearest statement of this. I don’t find this unsettling. Quite the opposite – I find it enrichening. And just as nobody ever told me to get rid of my Newcastle accent (admittedly not that strong when I’m away from the family), and to replace it with RP, why should I expect a NNS to sacrifice their ‘regional’ accent in order to conform to a NS norm. That is say, in order to conform to a ‘common megalanguge. Accents are fine. Accents are fun. And as long as your accent doesn’t interfer with your intelligibility, accents should be left alone, both inside and outside the ELT classroom.

What’s actually quite disconcerting, in fact, is the rare exception to the above, i.e. the person who has achieved full NS phonological competence in one or other standard NS accent. A person like this is disconcerting because at first you assume that they are British (or American, etc) and treat them as such, making all sorts of social and cultural assumptions about them that then turn out not to be true. In fact, when I discover that they are not British/American/etc. I’m inevitably left wondering why they want to appear so. Are they uncomfortable with their native culture and values? I assume not, but for the rest of the conversation, the hard-won NS accent unsettles me as a listener. It unsettles me, and many other NS colleagues have admitted to the same irrational feeling of having the sensation of the interlocutor spying on you, or something equally absurd.

No, Umberto, I don’t think we need worry. I don’t think there is any danger of globalization pushing us towards the blanket use of a common megalanguage. But I do think that (in theory at least) there is a danger of exactly that happening if we continue to insist on a vision of English language teaching that perceives native speaker-like performance as the goal, and the achievement of certain prestige accents as the only sign of successful pronunciation. That I do find unsettling.