From Moscow to MES

Sorry about yesterday’s evasion of duties. It’s raining now, however, so let’s get down to business by first fleshing out the incidents and practices yesterday’s post dangled cryptically in front of you.

First the flight to Moscow, where I’d got into a long conversation with a businessman who’d been born in East Germany, was bilingual in German and Russian, spoke very good Swedish, and was highly fluent in English. He worked in the food industry and shuttled backwards and forwards between Russia, Central Europe, Sweden and England as part of his job. English was a basic tool of communication and seldom a source of problems except … (he paused here as if to gauge if it was appropriate to say what he was thinking) … except when he was working with English-L1 colleagues in Leicester. It was as if … (another thoughtful pause) … they were deliberately using their English so as not to be understood. Some of their idioms, he suggested, and their pronunciation …

My experiences with my Spanish next. It’s my L2, and after almost 40 years here, the fact that I taught myself Spanish has not had any significant effect on the level I’ve reached. Four years after arriving I published in Spanish for the first time, and have gone on from there – reports, articles, a book, and even a prize! You get the idea – my Spanish is OK. But, as I said yesterday, some Spanish NSs express amazement at how good I’ve become, and others at the fact that I still can’t speak ‘properly’. (By ‘properly’ they are almost certainly referring to my pronunciation.)

Last from yesterday, dive buddies. As I said, in some countries when two divers enter the water together, by law the stronger diver is responsible for the weaker diver. This could be a problem, but almost everywhere I’ve dived, the stronger buddy adjusts their behaviour to the competence level of the weaker member of the pair. And if we’re in a group, the dive master leads the group so as to stay within the comfort zone of the weaker members.

Do you see where I’m going? No? Well, sorry because I need to add one more incident – the critical incident that prompted this post.

A couple of days ago a colleague from my home town of Newcastle posted something on LinkedIn that made me stop and think. She was explaining her work in her company English Unlocked. Basically, she is helping native speakers to see the need and gain the skills that will allow them to be easier to understand when they are speaking to NNSs of English.

When working with her clients, she classifies the long-suffering NNSs as Limited English Proficiency.

Replying to the post, I suggested that this label wasn’t, perhaps, all that helpful, and that even something as anodyne as English as an Additional Language would be better. Her reply was almost immediate, and for me, really encouraging. “Limited English proficiency is starting to jarr already. Another one I use is non-Anglophones. Is that just as bad?”

I forgot to answer her (sorry, Shelley, but the sun came out this weekend), so I’ll do so now. Not a lot better, to tell you the truth, because we’re continuing to focus on ‘weaknesses’ as opposed to strengths.

Q. Are you beginning to see where I’m going with this post? A. Clear as mud. Qs. Can you see what brings this all together? Can you see the nexus? A. The fact that it’s all a mess?

English with an Accent. Get this book!

OK. Let me try to explain, which means I need to tell you about (or remind you of) Rosani Lippi-Green, and her excellent, though unsettling English with an Accent, an account of language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. In her book, Lippi-Green explains the concept of communicative burden, which is the responsibility both/all interlocutors have to ensure that the communication they are attempting proceeds successfully. This is the nexus. This is what, for me, brings all my indicents and practices together.

Not looking to take prisoners, Lippi-Green tells us that:

When speakers are confronted with an accent which is foreign to them, the first decision they make is whether or not they are going to accept their responsibility in the act of communication. What we will see, again and again … is that members of the dominant language group feel perfectly empowered to reject their role, and to demand that a person with an accent carry the majority of the responsibility in the communicative act. Conversely, when such a speaker comes into contact with another mainstream speaker who is nonetheless incoherent or unclear, the first response is usually not to reject a fair share of the communicative burden, but to take other factors into consideration.

(Lippi-Green, 1997, p. 70)

Lippi-Green limits her fierce criticism of US language discrimination to accent, the focus of her book. But it could (and should) be extended to all aspects of spoken interaction, including idomaticity and general speech habits such as rate of speech, pausing and silence. She’s also going beyond NS–NNS interactions and covering the attitude of NSs from one part of the US to the accents of NSs from other, less powerful parts. But the concept of communicative burden is too valuable, for me, to be left to such narrow circumstances.

Let’s go back to my East-German businessman, for example. From what he described that day, his colleagues in Leicester were deliberately denying their share of the communicative burden, even to the point of using their NS English to actually make themselves hard to understand. Why? Well, to weaken the East-German businessman’s bargaining power during the negotiation. Certainly that’s how he saw it to be playing out.

And the buddy system in diving? Yes, now you’re begining to get it. It’s an example of how people work together in order to keep everyone on board in some form of joint/pair/group action. It’s an example of how the more competent participants in an undertaking accommodate their behaviour to that of the weaker members so as to ensure things go smoothly. Not to do so in diving, in fact, can easily lead to a major incident for the weaker diver(s), and major incidents in diving have a very high price.

This brings us to Shelley’s NS clients and their interactions with the ESOL students or UK immigrants that they come into contact with. I doubt very much that her NSs are being unhelpful deliberately, as was the case with the Leicester food industry executives. People are really friendly in Newcastle (objective opinion – honestly). But perhaps they’re simply not aware of the need for them, the NSs, and hence the more competent users of English, to take a greater share of the communicative burden by modifying their English, both language-wise and in their general speech habits, so as to keep their NNS buddies ‘afloat’, so to speak. (Enter Shelley and English Unlocked.)

Now we’re getting somewhere, but we’re still not quite there. We need to look at the sort of conscious or subconscious power play that is going on to generate this unhelpfully uneven sharing-out of the communicative burden. Being a native speaker has, all too often up to now, been used as a get-out clause when it comes to sharing the burden. That’s got to stop. Native speakers have got to understand, or be helped to understand, that they are far more responsible for success in an interaction than the non-native speakers involved. The trouble is that the term NS allows them to slip into bad habits, and to put the ‘blame’ on the weaker, NNS. Or as Lippi-Green put it:

members of the dominant language group feel perfectly empowered to reject their role, and to demand that a person with an accent carry the majority of the responsibility in the communicative act.

(Lippi-Green, 1997, p. 70)

The terms native speaker (NS) and nonnative speaker (NNS) are starting to look like the fly in the outment, don’t you think? Certainly Jennifer Jenkins saw it this way over twenty years ago when she suggested the need to avoid using ‘native speaker’ and ‘non-native speaker’ because of their potential impact on the sharing of the communicative burden, among other issues. In their place, especially where English is concerned, she proposed MES, BES and NBES – Monolingual English Speaker, Bilingual English Speaker and Non-Bilingual English Speaker (jenkins, 2000: 6–11).

Many of Shelley’s clients are monolingual speakers of English. Call them NSs and they are given a position of power. But call them MESs and put them side-by-side with BESs such as my East-German businessman, and suddenly who has the better profile? Who’s looking more linguistically competent? And even when we look at ESOL students, perhaps with only B1 English, they are going to be seen in a better light if we call them NBESs, because they ‘may be bilingual, but not in English’ (Jenkins, 2000: 10). The thing about a term like NBES is that it ‘bears none of the negative implications of ‘non-native’ but instead provides a neutral, factual description’ (ibid.). Hopefully, then referring to NBESs rather than non-native speakers (or non-Anglophones) will help MESs to raise their awareness as to their interlocutors’ strengths, and, at the same time, remind them of the need to be good dive buddies, and take the greater share of the burden in their English language communications.

Which brings me (Phew! Exhausted? I am) to the ad-hoc assessments of my Spanish. Those that are amazed at my progress all speak, or are learning, other languages, usually English. They know how hard this is and have empathy towards my plight and appreciate my progress. In contrast, those who regularly comment on my imperfect pronunciation are monolingual speakers of Spanish, with little or no experience of second language learning. The key word here is monolingual.

M is for monolingual. M for MES. And both monolingual and MES can be problematic. No wonder that the long-term goal of the Council of Europe is that we should become a continent of plurilingual language users. So let’s drink to that! And, as ELT professionals, let’s play our part by beginning to be selective about the words we use. It’s not easy. But it is necessary!


Jenkins, J. (2000). The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with an Accent. Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. London and New York: Routledge.


3 thoughts on “From Moscow to MES

  1. Robin, I’ve learnt even more from this post than previous ones – many thanks. Really powerful quote, that, from Lippi-Green. I’m interested in Jenkins’ suggested alternatives to NS and NNS. I think the distinction between monolingual and bilingual English speaker is a valid one, much more so than native and non-native. I’m going to start using these terms. But a couple of questions. First, what or who exactly is a ‘Non-Bilingual English Speaker’? That isn’t clear to me. And also, does Jenkins – do you –


  2. …sorry! Do you use ever those terms MES, BES NBES? If so, under what circumstances have you employed them and why? I ask because I know others fighting the good fight against native speakerism still refer to NSs and NNSs, albeit reluctantly.


  3. Hi Daniel
    I’m really glad you’re getting stuff from this blog. I definitely am. As to your Qs, the second one first. No, is the short answer. You can float an idea but it can fall on stony ground. And ELT in the late 1990s when Jenkins loosed MES. BES and NBES on the world was very stony ground. Perhaps it’s time to bring these terms up again, and to at least deal with this issue of labelling and it’s discriminatory power.

    As to NBES, I can’t do any more than quote Jenkins from 2000: p10.

    “… it is crucial for the third term, ‘non–bilingual English speaker’ (NBES), to allow for the fact that a speaker may be bilingual, but not in English.”

    “This categorization is not without its problems. In particular, where should the line be drawn between BES and NBES and, more importantly, who should draw it?”

    Does this help? If not, let me know and I’ll scan p10 so that you can read it all for yourself. For me, however, the sort of students I’ve had in class are definitely NBES, whilst people operating in English at what is formaly C2 (a level that is not really defined in the CEFR, including in the update, and which is beyond the competence of many NSs of any language), are BESs and don’t usually come to language classes even though they may have occasional doubts about usage.


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