|Teaching and Learning Forum 2010 [ Refereed papers ]|
The University of Western Australia
This paper concerns the place of speakers of nonstandard Englishes in the Australian higher education context, with the question motivating the inquiry being: 'Is it possible for Australian universities to successfully balance their commitment to cultural diversity with their status as Standard Australian English (SAE) institutions?' Studies regarding cultural diversity in Australian education have often merely reproduced governmental discourse in which the primary factor determining one's social status or level of opportunity is seen to be competence in the English language. It is precisely this perspective which informs the oft-made bureaucratic distinction between people of English-speaking backgrounds (ESB) and Non-English-speaking backgrounds (NESB), with the latter category serving as a catch-all, heuristic device for the targetting of measures aimed at generating greater social inclusivity. Without wishing to deny the very real disadvantages that NESB students do face, nor question those programmes catering to them, I argue in this paper that an over-emphasis on linguistic competence only serves to obscure a number of other equally-important factors pertinent to one's relative level of dis/advantage in Australian higher education. Is it the case that ESB students are uniformly privileged (as many scholars are wont to suggest), considering the sheer diversity of students hailing from English-speaking backgrounds? What if we took into account other factors within the ESB category, such as those of dialect and race? Would we find discrepancies between the experiences of SAE-speakers and speakers of nonstandard dialects of English? Would we encounter any asymmetries between native English-speaking students from settler societies and those from postcolonial societies? These are some of the key issues with which this paper will attempt to grapple.
This investigation takes into consideration the factors of race and dialect in particular. Discrimination based on race is now no longer considered socially acceptable, but hierarchical social relations based on accent or dialect continue largely unchallenged. In fact, in certain cases, the latter may well constitute a form of proxy racism. As Rosina Lippi-Green (1997, pp. 63-64) persuasively argues:
We do not, cannot under our laws, ask people to change the color of their skin, their religion, their gender, but we regularly demand of people that they suppress or deny the most effective way they have of situating themselves socially in the world [namely, their language or dialect]... Accent serves as the first point of gatekeeping because we are forbidden... from using race, ethnicity, homeland or economics more directly.It is with such issues in mind that I set about designing a research project through which I could gauge the experiences of speakers of nonstandard Englishes within Australian universities.
The questionnaires were distributed electronically to eight respondents whom I recruited for the study through the snowball technique; that is, through the mobilisation of personal networks. Hence, each of the respondents was either a personal acquaintance or an associate of an acquaintance. For each respondent to be eligible for the study, they had to have fulfilled three basic criteria; namely, they must a) have been 18 years of age or older; b) have been a student at any Australian university within the past twenty years; and c) have grown up speaking a variety of English other than SAE. The completed questionnaires were returned to me as e-mail attachments, after which time I undertook a comparative discourse analysis of the results. The written nature of the responses allowed for quick and easy comparisons to be made.
One of my main interests in embarking upon this study was to compare the experiences of native English-speakers from settler societies with those hailing from postcolonial countries. Hence, three of the eight respondents recruited for the study were from settler societies (two from Canada and one from the United States), while the remaining five were from postcolonial societies (two from Singapore and one each from India, Malaysia and the Philippines). Gender balance was also ensured, with a balanced distribution of female and male participants (See Appendix II for a breakdown of survey respondents).
Admittedly, a sample size of just eight is a far from adequate basis from which to draw any meaningful conclusions. There are two things that must be said about this. Firstly, this investigation has only been intended as a preliminary pilot study; a limited research undertaking aimed at generating some tentative, necessarily qualitative, insights into some of the complexities surrounding the place of speakers of nonstandard Englishes in the Australian higher education system. These insights can subsequently serve as a basis for more rigorous investigations in the future. Secondly, the project was never designed with positivist criteria in mind in the first place. I therefore make no pretensions to establishing any kind of universally valid law-like generalisations from the empirical data. Instead, my principal interest has been in the stories that have emerged out of the surveys, not in mere facts and figures. Furthermore, this paper is not only intended as an empirically-driven report-back of results, but also as a philosophical intervention into the status quo; an attempt to shake up conventional ways of thinking and raise new (many hitherto unasked) questions in the interests of a more socially-just society.
The respondents from the postcolonial world revealed their experiences to be markedly different from those of their North American counterparts. This is likely to be attributable, at least partly, to the fact that they are marked not only by their accents but also by their race. They are rendered visibly different in the Australian context and are often assumed to not speak English very well - certainly not to be native English-speakers. Julianne, an alumnus of UWA who migrated from India to Australia with her family ten years ago, commented on her feelings of frustration when confronted with such assumptions:
I find that people are often surprised that I am articulate and eloquent in my English... [They] seem ignorant that English is considered a first language in most of India. A recurrent phrase I often hear is "you speak very good English for someone who grew up in India!" While I previously was rather offended by this comment, I now merely respond "well, I would hope so, I've been speaking it my entire life!"Sofia, a Singaporean undergraduate student at UWA, likewise remarked that many of her peers seem unaware of the fact that English is a native language in Singapore. 'Some are surprised that Singaporeans have quite a good command of English', she writes. 'I find their ignorance rather amusing'. Brendan, also from Singapore, adds that '[p]eople have assumed English is not my first language because I speak with an accent... their assumption is not true'. Such experiences are also all too familiar to Abel, a Filipino doctoral student at UWA who grew up speaking English as one of three first languages: 'Some fellow students did not expect a Filipino like me to speak good English'.
Assumptions of the sort outlined above could be seen to constitute a subtle form of racism. Of course, discrimination can often take on much more overt forms as well. Brendan, for example, writes: 'I have had people shout swear-words as well as "go home" to me a few times in the city'. While Brendan cites that his experiences of discrimination have mainly been based on his appearance, Julianne writes eloquently of her experiences of marginalisation on account of her accent in particular:
When I first moved to Australia, I was often mocked by my peers for my "funny accent" and the way I pronounced certain words. I was also often laughed at for using certain words in the wrong context (which would have been quite fitting in Indian English). My knee-jerk reaction as a young immigrant was to apologise and make a mental note of the correction. I also quickly adapted a "fake Australian accent" by imitating my peers. Ten years on, I find that, rather than apologise, I merely inform people that my "mispronunciation" is simply a "different pronunciation".It is inconceivable that English speakers from settler societies would feel they had to fake an Australian accent just to fit in, unlike Julianne did when she was younger. An attempt to assimilate linguistically was her initial response to the discrimination she faced. In effect, she internalised the racism of wider society and directed it against herself, feeling she had to forgo who she was and her own way of speaking just to appease her taunters and be treated equally. These kinds of pressures are largely alien to migrants from countries like the US and Canada. As Mick states, 'I personally have never experienced any kind of insensitivity'. While Mick's Canadian accent has allowed him, in his own words, to 'feel cooler than I really am', Julianne's Indian accent has been the subject of mockery. While Julianne has had to face her own use of English being corrected, Mick's use of English is generally perceived, not as incorrect, but simply different.
Allan attributes the general acceptance of his Anglo-Canadian accent to 'the predominance of American entertainment media, which tend to use dialects and accents quite similar to mine'. Certainly, North American Englishes seem to enjoy an equivalence with SAE that postcolonial Englishes do not, and the American television and film industries undoubtedly have a lot to do with this. I contend, however, that this is only part of the story and that race, too, plays a role. Since language is spoken through racialised bodies, one's manner of speaking often becomes just as racialised as one's phenotype. It is through this process that some dialects specific to certain ethnic groups (usually those in a position of dominance) are seen as more 'correct' or acceptable, while other dialects (usually those of subordinated groups) are stigmatised as 'inferior'. Thus, an informal hierarchy of Englishes might be said to exist, whereby those dialects of English spoken in settler societies are positioned towards the top, while postcolonial dialects spoken in the Global South are ranked somewhere towards the bottom, largely reflective of current geopolitical power dynamics in the global system.
Fortunately, the respondents from postcolonial countries reported experiencing much less discrimination in the university context than in wider Australian society. This should not, however, be seen to absolve universities of their responsibilities in creating more inclusive learning environments. Amongst the issues of concern that emerged in the questionnaires was the fact that Sofia often felt excluded by her Anglo-Australian peers. 'The people that willingly interact with me are seldom Australians', she states. Apart from international students like Sofia feeling marginalised by their fellow students, does the actual institution of the university also contribute to such feelings? Allan, although not having experienced discrimination himself, feels this to be the case: 'I'm sure many overseas students feel excluded by the dominant culture of the university, and may feel like they are treated as an economic resource rather than part of the supposedly core educating mission of the university'.
While nominally SAE institutions, how much is Standard English actually enforced at Australian universities and how much does its enforcement pose a problem to speakers of other Englishes? Claire from the United States commented in her survey that there have indeed been occasions where she has had her written work corrected. 'It is just another hassle to revise my work to meet SAE', she writes. Interestingly, not one of the postcolonial respondents reported having to correct their written work to meet Australian English standards. This could certainly be accounted for by the differences that exist between the spoken and written registers of language. While postcolonial Englishes may be very different to SAE in spoken form, they often resemble it on paper. As Sofia remarks in regards to Singaporean English: 'The written form is almost identical since we use the British spelling'.
While the respondents from postcolonial backgrounds did not encounter any difficulties related to their written English, they did face challenges regarding their spoken English. Sofia, for example, reported instances in which her accent was not understood in class. 'I feel insulted during such times actually. I would think, "Is my accent really that hard to understand?" I would usually repeat what I had said but in a more "Australian" accent as much as I can imitate'. Julianne remarked upon similar experiences: 'There have been a few instances where people have not understood a certain pronunciation/accented word... I usually correct myself and re-pronounce it for their benefit, and explain that Indian English is somewhat different'. To mitigate against the problem of not being understood, Brendan attests to consciously modifying his accent: 'When speaking to Australians or any Caucasians I use proper English and put on a westernised accent'. What is evident once again in each of these cases is that postcolonial students face pressures to linguistically assimilate to the dominant culture which students from settler societies do not.
Given what we have learnt through the survey results elaborated upon above, what are some possible steps that might be taken to create more inclusive learning environments at Australian universities; in particular, for speakers of other Englishes? Before addressing this question, it will firstly be necessary to touch upon what Lippi-Green (1997, pp. 64, 66) calls the 'standard language ideology'.
How was it that SAE came to be considered the standard in the first place? To answer this question, it is imperative to consider the history of European colonialism. Prior to colonisation, Australia was home to over 250 Aboriginal languages (Moore, 2001a, p. 45). Most of these languages have now sadly been lost. A distinct Australian Aboriginal English has emerged, but, as Bruce Moore (2001b, p. vi) laments, this is often denigrated as an inferior, 'sub-standard' variant of the colonial original. It is dismissed as 'broken' English, rather than being seen as a valid dialect of English in its own right. SAE, then, became the standard for the simple reason that it was the medium of expression of the colonisers; the dialect of power. It does not derive its high status from superior linguistic features but, rather, from the fact that it is 'the dialect of English which is spoken by the more powerful, dominant group of society' (Eades qtd. in Cahill, 1999, p. 77). Just as masculinity and whiteness (at least in the context of settler societies) operate as hidden norms within the law, so too is this the case with the dialect of power.
To give an example of current language policy in Australian universities, consider this excerpt from the University of Western Australia's Guidelines on Literacy (2001, p. 3):
Academic staff in all disciplines should apply standards of literacy uniformly to all students. However, in applying literacy requirements in the assessment of students' work, staff should be sensitive to the existence of varieties of English other than standard English, including Aboriginal English, and apply increasing standards of satisfactory communication in English progressively during the course.The recognition of nonstandard Englishes here is definitely a very encouraging sign. However, couched within this passage is a subtle assimilationist logic that demands critical attention. There is an articulation of the need to be sensitive to varieties of English other than SAE, yet, at the same time, an exhortation on educators to gradually, progressively assimilate their nonstandard English-speaking students to SAE. Nonstandard dialects of English are seen only as 'interlanguages' (Malcolm et al., 1999, p. 116); that is, as epiphenomenal way-stations on the road to assimilation.
Perhaps one crucial first step that is needed is that, rather than fault students from diverse English-speaking backgrounds for speaking 'unsatisfactorily', the onus should instead be placed on educators to equip themselves with a greater awareness and appreciation of cultural and linguistic diversity, of the kind necessary for working competently within diverse university environments. Indeed, speakers of standard English would themselves benefit from a greater awareness and appreciation of nonstandard Englishes. Greater language skills are of paramount importance in today's globalised world, and by this I do not only mean the ability to speak other languages, but also the ability to work across multiple dialects within English. In a recent study, Carmela Briguglio (2005) explored the global role of English by way of an analysis of language practices within two multinational companies. One of the skills she found to be vitally important was 'a greater tolerance for and accommodation of the different accents and varieties of English'(Briguglio, 2005, p. ii). Surely, this must be seen to be of considerable import not only in the business world, but also in day-to-day life.
In addition, instead of mainstream Australian English being taught as a standard, perhaps it should be taught as just another dialect amongst others. Certainly, speakers of other Englishes would benefit from learning SAE, but it should not be learnt at the expense of their own dialects. In the context of assessment, faculty can inform students of the rules of SAE without necessarily having to imply that it is more 'correct' than any other variety of English, in the same way that we would teach a Spanish-speaking student that 'pollo' in English is 'chicken' but would not tell them that to say 'pollo' is wrong. If Australian English is learnt as a dialect in addition to students' own native dialects of English, students can then learn to code-switch between different Englishes, depending on the context or circumstances they find themselves in.
The broader challenge is that of internationalising the curriculum; to open education up 'to the challenge of the student voice' and include 'student culture in the classroom' (Pennycook, 2007, p. 15). There is, in fact, a growing call amongst educators for a paradigm-shift in approaches to diversity; one in which teaching methods would 'conform to the truth of our many selves' (Jordan qtd. in Hooks, 1994, p. 173) and genuinely reflect the cultural, linguistic and dialectal diversity of the classroom. Bell Hooks (1994, p. 172) is a good example of an innovative educator experimenting with such approaches:
In the classroom setting, I encourage students to use their first language and translate it so they do not feel that seeking higher education will necessarily estrange them from that language and culture they know most intimately.Hooks herself grew up speaking a nonstandard dialect of English; namely, the black vernacular speech of the southern United States. Here, she comments on her experiences of reclaiming her own vernacular as a means of empowerment:
I have realised that I was in danger of losing my relationship to black vernacular speech because I too rarely use it in the predominantly white settings that I am most often in... And so I have begun to work at integrating into a variety of settings the particular Southern black vernacular speech I grew up hearing and speaking. It has been hardest to integrate black vernacular in writing, particularly for academic journals. When I first began to incorporate black vernacular in critical essays, editors would send the work back to me in standard English (Hooks, 1994, p. 172).Also of interest in this passage is the fact that Hooks' vernacular was most heavily policed when put into writing. This is certainly because written language is a much more codified domain than speech is, even being taken, in fact, as the very model upon which the standard is based. This means that, more often than not, 'the pressures in favour of Standard English will be greater when the language is written' (Fairclough qtd. in Lippi-Green, 1997, p. 108). What then of the fact that much of linguistic variation is oral in nature, and not codified into written language? In the university setting, the over-reliance and over-emphasis on the written may well load 'the dice against the appreciation of nonstandard domains' as well as limit 'our ability to perceive linguistic reality' (Crystal, 2002, pp. 236-237).
David Crystal (2002) sees hope, however, in the ever-proliferating multimedia resources being made available to students. 'The availability of recorded sound', for instance, 'means that the dependence on written material, with all its disadvantages, can in future be avoided' (Crystal, 2002, p. 241). Of course, aural media are able to capture and convey variations in dialect to a much higher degree than written media. A greater appreciation of linguistic diversity, therefore, may well be fostered if students are able to acquire knowledge through, say, podcasts, and not just books. Furthermore, instead of students only being able to submit assessments in written form (as essays, reports, and so on), perhaps it is time educators begin experimenting with methods which allow for students to express themselves orally as well; for example, through the production of web videos. This would also help to legitimate linguistic diversity and to valorise those spoken vernaculars of English which do not always have written equivalents. It would furthermore equip students with important skills in the use of new media technologies which are arguably playing a significant role in the democratisation of knowledge.
|Pseudonym||Date survey received||Gender||Country|
|Claire||20 Aug 09||Female||United States||American English, Spanish||2005||University of Western Australia|
|Brendan||20 Aug 09||Male||Singapore||Singaporean English, Mandarin, Hokkien||2007||University of Western Australia|
|Allan||20 Aug 09||Male||Canada||Canadian English, Bahasa Indonesia||1995||University of Western Australia|
|Sofia||21 Aug 09||Female||Singapore||Singaporean English, Mandarin, Cantonese||2007||University of Western Australia|
|Julianne||27 Aug 09||Female||India||Indian English, Hindi||1998||University of Western Australia|
|Abel||27 Aug 09||Gender-queer||Philippines||Philippine English, Filipino, Ilocano||2009||University of Western Australia|
|Mick||28 Aug 09||Male||Canada||Canadian English, French||2005||University of Western Australia|
|Gillian||02 Sep 09||Female||Malaysia||Malaysian English, Bahasa Malaysia, Malayalam||1990||Avondale College, Macquarie University|
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|Author: Marco Cuevas-Hewitt, The University of Western Australia. Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Cuevas-Hewitt, M. (2010). Varieties of English in Australian higher education. In Educating for sustainability. Proceedings of the 19th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 28-29 January 2010. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2010/refereed/cuevas-hewitt.html
Copyright 2010 Marco Cuevas-Hewitt. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format, provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.