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Why universities shouldn’t mark down international students for using non-standard English

The English language left its borders of origin in Britain long ago. It has been exported throughout the world through colonisation, travel and media.

This process has created not one English, spoken around the globe, but many Englishes. There are native speaker varieties, such as British, American or Australian English, but also multiple versions spoken by non-native speakers, such as Indian, Ghanaian and Singaporean English. In fact, the majority of people who speak English are non-native speakers.

In India, English is spoken by around 125 million people, according to the last available data from the 2011 census. Indian English has its own grammatical constructions, such as “I am having a house”, and its own words, such as “prepone”, meaning to bring a meeting forward.

We can’t expect any language to remain the same in terms of grammar and vocabulary across a single country, let alone when it spreads internationally. And we can’t declare international varieties “wrong” on the mere basis that they differ from native speaker English, the standard variety in particular.

This has implications for universities that teach in English, and may have many non-native English speakers as students. Our view is that an increased sensitivity to linguistic difference and awareness of the patterns of world Englishes will help to dissolve the notion that non-standard usage is of necessity mistaken. Universities and lecturers should consider what their approach should be to marking work written in non-native or non-standard varieties of English.

Hierarchies of English

Standard native speaker Englishes, whether British, American or other native speaker varieties, tend to receive the most support and respect. They have associations with government, education and other official contexts.

For some, native speaker English is still seen as the “correct” variety, with native speakers seen as holding sole authority on how the language should be spoken. Even within England, regional dialects may be seen as inferior to “standard” English.

This does not, of course, mean that a student cannot demonstrate understanding and engagement with a topic if they use a non-standard or non-native variety of English.

Two female students working together on assignment
International students may use a World English in their written work. fizkes/Shutterstock

In our current research, we focus on a specific world English – China English. We’re trying to find out whether what might seem like errors in student work are actually the use of this world English.

While based on standard English, China English has its own specific and identifiable use of grammar and vocabulary, which is predictable and systematic. One example is the tendency to omit pronouns: “miss you a lot” rather than “I miss you a lot”. China English has its own expressions, such as “paper tiger”, meaning something that appears powerful but is in fact weak.

This predictability distinguishes China English from “Chinglish”, which refers to translation errors from a Chinese language (usually Mandarin) into English. The errors can reflect ungrammatical constructions such as “please do not climbing”, or they can be grammatical but semantically unclear, such as “slip carefully”. These errors can be random and unpredictable, unlike the systematic nature of China English.

We’ve found that grammatical forms such as “researches” appear with great frequency in students’ writing: in China English, you can have one piece of research and two researches, unlike standard English in which research is a non-count word. Our students use China English expressions such as “mute English”, referring to the phenomenon of students whose study of English has focused on grammar and written elements, to the detriment of their ability to speak and hold conversations comfortably in the language.

Often, international students take courses in English at their universities in the UK. Lecturers may well teach them some aspects of the dialect local to the university’s region. It would be valuable to also recognise that the students may already have learnt an English which varies from what is perceived as standard.

The assessment practices of universities tend to be underpinned by this standardised notion of language. But ignoring the global reality – and plurality – of the English language is impractical, when thousands of overseas students will bring their Englishes with them to university.

One way forward here is through thinking about how patterns of language are perceived, encouraged, and assessed. Lecturers can focus on the content of students’ writing, not the expression, so that if the expression is understood, this is the bottom line. This is not about standards slipping, but accepting the reality of what might be a perfectly grammatical sentence in another variety of English.

We don’t suggest allowing for a linguistic free for all, or that educators need to become familiar with all varieties of English. But we do argue that it’s high time we addressed linguistic equality and diversity when using a language that has many “correct” forms.

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