Pin Me

Speaking English as a Second Language

written by: Jessica Ocheltree • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 8/2/2012

If two people with different native languages communicate with each other, chances are they will be speaking in English. As a second language, English has been steadily gaining in prevalence. But with so many non-native speakers out there, who is to say what "correct" English is anymore?

  • slide 1 of 5

    The Three Circles of English

    In 2001, linguist Braj Kachru came up with the idea of representing the speakers of English by three concentric circles.

    At the center are the native speakers, such as Americans, Canadians, and the English. English is their mother tongue and the language used in daily communication and interaction with others. The number of people in this circle is estimated to be between 320 million and 380 million.

    The next largest circle, called the outer circle, is for people for whom English is not their first language, but a language taught and used in their culture for historical or political reasons. Examples include countries like India, the Philippines, and Nigeria. There are estimated to be about 150 to 300 million speakers in this group.

    The largest circle by far, the "expanding circle," includes all other English speakers. These speakers learn English as a foreign language and means of international communication. Estimates for this population go as high as 1 billion people.

  • slide 2 of 5

    International Communication

    An international symposium
  • slide 3 of 5

    Who Makes English?

    Traditionally speaking, it was the members of the center circle who determined what English was and how it worked. Kachru called them the "norm providers." Members of the outer circle built upon that foundation and developed their own dialects, making them "norm developers." Expanding circle members could only learn the grammar and vocabulary of the center circle and adapt to outer circle dialects as necessary.

    However, as English has emerged as a lingua franca, an interesting phenomenon has also cropped up. When large numbers of English speakers of diverse backgrounds gather, such as at educational conferences, it is often the expanding and outer circle speakers who can most effectively communicate with one another, while the native speakers are left scratching their heads. Other non-native speakers can see past errors of grammar and syntax to the meaning the speaker wants to convey.

    The English of the outer and expanding circles may be imperfect, but if it has the advantages of larger numbers of speakers and increased communicativeness, some have begun to ask whether the influence of the inner circle is on the wane.

  • slide 4 of 5

    Culture Wars

    Languages are living, breathing things. They are developing and changing all the time. Words fall in and out of use. Even grammar is not immune. In Old English, nouns had five different case declensions, which we thankfully no longer use.

    Like viruses,language spreads and mutates through contact. The more speakers use something, the more widely it becomes recognized. This goes for definitions (think of how "cool" has acquired new meanings) and what "correct" grammar is (many feel that using "who" in place of "whom" is becoming grammatically acceptable).

    So in the question of who determines the standard version of English, the answer will probably come down to influence. On the one hand, a country like America, which produces the majority of pop culture consumed by the world, has enormous influence. On the other hand, as access to digital communication becomes more common in the expanding circle, their vastly superior numbers may begin to exert their influence on how the rest of us speak.

  • slide 5 of 5

    Communicative English

    With apologies to fifth grade English teachers everywhere, the most likely outcome of the burgeoning number of non-native English speakers is an increased emphasis on communicative ability rather than technical correctness. If the majority of English speakers see it as a tool for communication, an incorrect sentence, which nevertheless communicates its intended message, is a functional tool. And as much as I am a grammar nerd, I really cannot say that the increased ability of diverse and distant people to communicate with one another could be a bad thing, even if their participles dangle and their antecedents are vague.


shame