When Bad English is Better
Richard Watson Todd, Thailand
Richard Watson Todd has been working at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok, Thailand for 25 years. He is the author of ‘Classroom Teaching Strategies’ (1997, Prentice Hall), ‘Much Ado about English’ (2006, Nicholas Brealey Publishing), and ‘Discourse Topics’ (2016, John Benjamins). Most recently, he has been working on online games to influence educational policy (http://meg.ibankstory.com/). E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The informant and the context
Language on the trek
Rote’s explanation for his language use
Rote’s grammatical competence
Rote’s strategic competence
Implications for teaching
Relationships, image, and ‘bad’ English
There is an implicit assumption in ELT that the goal is to increase proficiency. This paper challenges that assumption by looking at the language use of a forest trekking guide in Southern Thailand in an English as a Lingua Franca context. Using field notes and a follow-up interview from a one-day trekking trip, the paper shows that the guide purposefully performs below his level of competence, for example, by using literal translations from Thai even when he knows the standard forms. Even from his own perspective, he is using ‘bad’ English. Relying on strategic competence, the guide sees the “struggle to understand each other” as more beneficial than following the models of English provided by teachers and materials, even though he runs the risk of presenting himself as a cultural stereotype. The case has implications for teaching and for using language to present a personal image, and raises challenging questions.
There is an implicit, rarely stated assumption in English language teaching that the goal of the enterprise is to increase proficiency. What exactly increased proficiency means has become an area of intense discussion in recent years with some arguing for the traditional ultimate goal of “attaining near-native proficiency” (Leaver, Ehrman and Shekhtman 2005: 234) and others, particularly from a World Englishes or English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) perspective, arguing in favour of other models, such as successful bilinguals (Alptekin 2002). Whatever the ultimate model, Canale and Swain’s (1980) concept of communicative competence, divided into grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, and strategic competence, still provides the dominant framework for conceptualizing proficiency, even if there are arguments about the nature and relative importance of the various competences. With proficiency as the goal, there needs to be a means to attain it. In ELT, then, there is also a second implicit assumption that teaching helps people to achieve the goal of increased proficiency.
But what if someone does not want to increase their proficiency (at least in the traditional sense of grammatical competence)? Indeed, what if this person believes that increased proficiency leads to worse communicative outcomes? And what if this person also believes that language teaching promotes ineffective language practices?
This article looks at one such language user focusing on how he uses English in an ELF context and why he believes that ‘bad’ English is better for him.
The data examined in this article is a small part of a large data set collected for an ethnographic investigation of language use in a rural community in southern Thailand (Buddharat 2017). In the second half of the twentieth century, this community was devastated three times by terrible floods. Learning from this, the village has become a model of ecological sustainability and, because of this, a minor tourist attraction. Consent for using the data has been obtained from all parties.
The informant is a 37-year-old lifelong member of the community called Rote. He is involved in all three of the main activities of the village, having a small orchard, making handicrafts from forest products, and leading forest treks. In this paper I will focus on the last of these roles. Rote is largely self-taught. His original motivation for learning English was “because I wanted to talk to young ladies; I wanted to know their lifestyles and ideas” (interview data), although he has outgrown this interest. One approach he took when younger was joining trekking groups with foreigners without pay to gain exposure to English. His good relationships with foreign visitors meant that he could ask them for help, as shown by his learning how to use computers and e-mail from foreign visitors. Rote also stayed in Dubai for two months selling handicrafts, where he needed to use English for communication. Apart from minimal English teaching at school and occasional courses provided by a local university for the community, Rote’s learning of English has been informal.
In this paper, I will use field notes and a follow-up interview with Rote from a one-day trekking trip he led for a Czech family (parents and daughter). The family had been staying in the village for a few days but this was their first trek with Rote as the leader.
The Czech family and Rote meet up in the centre of the village and head off on the trek. As they walk, Rote is speaking fluently, if not accurately, in English about the local style of houses and the impact of floods on the community.
The fruit stall
At several points on the road, orchard owners have set up small stalls to sell their produce. Rote and the family stop at one of the stalls to look at the durians on sale. There are two types on sale, which Rote explains are “durian monthong” and “durian ban”, using the Thai words for the varieties. He also explains how to open the fruit.
A local house
As they continue up the road, they pass a house which Rote calls “Batman house”. When asked why he calls it by this name, he explains that the owner’s nickname is Kang kao (meaning ‘bat’). Here, then, Rote is using a literal translation to make a play on words. In doing this, he shows an awareness of differences in word order between Thai and English (a word-by-word translation would be ‘house bat’). The Czech father and Rote briefly discuss how the owner is using water in a creek to generate electricity.
Further along, they come to a mixed-fruit orchard owned by relatives of Rote who are picking mangosteens. They go into the orchard, and Rote says that he wants to collect some “chicken eye seeds” from a tree in the orchard for his handicraft work. This is a literal translation from the local dialect with a change in word order. The seeds are red with a black spot on one side, and so the local name describes their appearance. The scientific name is Abrus Precatorius, with a variety of English names used for the seed including precatory bean and Crab’s eye vine. Rote, however, has decided to use a direct translation, and the Czech family agree that the seeds look like chicken eyes.
Walking into the forest, Rote and the family come to a creek where villagers have set up scarecrows in the water near a rock formation. The father asks Rote about this. Rote explains that the villagers want to show that they have rights to the “nature fish” at this point in the creek, and that they want to stop the “nature birds” from eating the fish, so they put up “robot man chase birds”. The Czech family laugh and smile at his explanation.
Again, Rote is relying on direct translation for the birds and the fish correcting for word order (although he does occasionally use “birds nature”). For his translation of ‘scarecrow’, Rote is more liberal since the Thai literally would be ‘puppet chase birds’, but the Thai for ‘puppet’ is also the root of the Thai phrase for ‘robot’. Rote’s choice of phrasing here is used for effect.
Further along on the trek, Rote collects two further forest products for his handicrafts. First, he collects some dark brown rocks which he intends to make into pendants. He is choosing some rocks when the Czech family asks him what he is doing. He replies that he is collecting “buffalo liver rock”. Their interest piqued, the family comes over to look at the rocks, smiling and chatting about how the name reflects the appearance. Again Rote uses a direct translation (with adaptation for word order) of the local dialect.
Finally, coming to a large tree, Rote searches for its seeds which he calls “five god seeds” (another word order-adapted direct translation). The seeds are oval with five sides, each of which has rough shapes on it, and come from the Dracontomelon Dao or New Guinea walnut tree. Asked why he calls them ‘five god seeds’, Rote say, “Why don’t you look at the pattern of the seeds? Can you see that each part of the seed look like old human face?” The family squint at the seeds and then smile and nod in realisation as they interpret the pattern on the side of the seed. Rote tells them to each keep one seed for luck.
We have seen that Rote is very fluent and can talk with foreign visitors on a wide range of topics. Asked in an interview, Rote explained,
“I talk whatever I can think of at the real time of the conversation. I use whatever I can think of. As you see, I use hands, draw pictures, write down words, I use maps, I use everything. I don’t mind what is right or wrong. If they don’t understand, I re-try. I don’t care about grammar. I explain in my English, the English I sometime create for my survival. I have a lot of words that I don’t know whether there are in English dictionary. As far as the visitors understand me, fine. I speak.”
Rote is clearly prioritizing communicative ability over accuracy. His success as a trekking guide suggests that he is a model ELF user able to communicate fairly clearly and fluently on a wide range of topics. Assessing his own English use, he says,
“I think foreigners like me. They like the way I talk. They laugh, smile and seem happy.”
So far, there is nothing very surprising. Rote appears to be an exemplary trekking guide who is very effective at using his somewhat limited English resources to the fullest. However, Rote is actually purposefully performing below his level of proficiency because “they like the way I talk”.
For example, Rote actually knows the word ‘scarecrow’, but does not want to use it. In the past, when taking visitors on a trek, he used ‘scarecrow’ and the visitors just nodded their heads and paid little attention. But,
“it was different from when I told the visitors ‘Look at that, a robot man chase birds in the water’. Many visitors laugh, while some visitors say ‘smart boy’ with thumbs up.”
As mentioned before, Rote is largely self-taught and he has used books and CDs to help his learning of English. He also attended some of the courses the local university provided. However, these have proved somewhat less useful than might be expected.
“When I talk like the ajarn [teacher] taught me or from books or from the CDs, they just nod their heads. I think they are happier when we have to struggle to understand each other.”
Rote, then, is capable of speaking in ways close to the models provided by the textbooks and the teachers. However, he finds that communication is far more enjoyable and, on some criteria at least, more successful when he speaks in a kind of broken English which, as we have seen from the examples, often involves literal translations of concepts from Thai or the local dialect.
Comparing Rote’s language use with Canale and Swain’s (1980) model of communicative competence, the trek with the Czech family highlights his prioritisation of strategic competence over grammatical competence (the data sheds little light on sociolinguistic competence). Regarding grammatical competence, Rote is purposefully performing below his level of competence. This is most noticeable for vocabulary where he chooses to use non-standard lexis based on translation even when he knows the standard forms. Grammatically, his language exhibits several of the features identified in early ELF research, such as frequent omission of articles (Dewey 2007). One salient point is that Rote is clearly aware of differences between Thai and English in the sequencing of words in noun phrases and, somewhat inconsistently, applies this to his translations.
It is these aspects of grammatical competence that are behind my decision to include the phrase ‘bad English’ in the title of this article. This phrase implies a deficit perspective on language use, and, from the perspective of a native speaker model, Rote’s English is deficient. However, more importantly, Rote’s use of English is also deficient when compared to his grammatical competence, since he is purposefully not performing as well as he can. Rote finds it expedient to pretend that his English is worse than it really is, meaning that, even from his own perspective, he is using ‘bad English’.
Rote more than compensates for his ‘bad English’ through excellent strategic competence, as shown by his fluency. A key strategy that he uses frequently is translation, but the ways in which he uses this strategy are novel.
Looking at the lexical communication strategies used on the trek, the first examples, durian monthong and durian ban, involve code-switching into Thai since there are no English terms for varieties of durian. It is noticeable that he retains the Thai word order here. When he translates, he generally uses an English word order as in “Batman house” which is used for humour.
Three of the examples are literal translations which provide more information and create salient images which are largely missing in the English (compare “chicken eye seeds” and precatory beans, or “five god seeds” and Dracontomelon Dao). It is noticeable that Rote only uses literal translations for those phrases where the translation conjures up a meaningful image. In these cases, using the communication strategy opens new avenues for interaction not available if the standard English forms were used.
Some of Rote’s translations appear to reflect habitual language use (perhaps akin to fossilisation), such as “nature birds”. Finally, in using “robot man chase birds” for scarecrow, Rote is being purposefully picturesque in his choice of lexis.
Rote’s reasons for using communication strategies contrast with those in the literature. For example, Kasper and Kellerman (1997) give three reasons for using lexical communication strategies: when the lexical item is unavailable, when the lexical item is irretrievable, and when there are context constraints (such as talking to an interlocutor with limited comprehension). In some cases, such as the varieties of durian, the English lexical item is unavailable, but in others, such as his translation for scarecrow, this is not the case; lexical retrieval does not appear to be an issue; and, given that the Czech family are reasonably proficient at English, context constraints (at least as traditionally understood) are not a cause for concern. Instead, the main reasons for Rote’s strategy use are the benefits of the “struggle to understand each other” and the creation of salient images promoting further interaction.
As mentioned earlier, a local university has provided English courses for the village as part of its community outreach programmes, a highly commendable initiative. These courses were designed following traditional English for Specific Purposes approaches, starting with a needs analysis. Most of the teaching focused on useful (and grammatically accurate) phrases and vocabulary for the villagers to use in their interactions with foreign visitors. For villagers with very low levels of proficiency, these have proved beneficial allowing them to give limited explanations about the products they are selling to foreign visitors. However, many of the participants on the courses were forced to attend by senior figures in the community (so that the university would not lose face from having few participants on their courses - something the university was not aware of), and some stated that they preferred back-breaking labour in the orchards to studying English. The English courses, then, have had mixed results.
For Rote with his fairly high proficiency, the English courses were also a mixed blessing. While his grammatical competence improved so that he could speak like the teachers when he wanted, he found that this led to less successful interactions with foreign visitors and so, instead, he came to rely on his strategic competence, an aspect never considered on the language courses. But how has Rote come to be so strategically competent?
First, it is not clear whether highly effective strategic competence like Rote’s can be taught or whether it is an issue of personality. This lack of clarity is surprising given that communication strategies became a major focus in teaching and research in the heyday of Communicative Language Teaching in the 1990s. The only evidence I am aware of concerning the issue of personality is that ectenic learners (who consciously control their language) are more effective strategic communicators than synoptic learners (who rely on intuition) suggesting that personality does play a role in effectiveness of strategic competence (for example, Littlemore 2003). On the other hand, Maleki (2007) found that communication strategies can and should be taught. In both cases, however, strategic competence is seen as a band-aid to be applied when grammatical competence is lacking, rather than the foundation for communication, as in Rote’s case.
Recent work in ELF and the concept of languaging appear to be more relevant to Rote (a convenient fact since communication strategies appear to have gone out of fashion in the early 2000s). Rote’s reliance on strategic competence means that the process of how he communicates is more important than his grammatical competence which he does not exploit to the fullest. This emphasis on process is a recent focus of work on ELF. As Seidlhofer (2011: 202) puts it, ELF teaching needs to “focus attention not on the language as product, on how much English learners manage to accumulate, but on the process of ‘languaging’, on how learners make use of what they know of the language”. She then suggests that teaching ELF should include process objectives such as active listening and paraphrasing.
The English courses provided for the villagers did not cover these process objectives. Indeed, most commercial coursebooks also pay scant attention to them. In those rare cases where process objectives are a focus in materials, they are still treated as a band-aid to solve problems rather than the basis for communication as they are for Rote. With the growth in use of ELF and given Rote’s success as a strategic communicator, it appears that it would be beneficial for a substantial proportion of the objectives of many language courses to focus on strategic process issues. However, this implies that we are viewing Rote as a model for ELF communication, and, although he is very successful at his job (at least, in part, due to his use of English), there are other issues to consider, including potential downsides to strategically using ‘bad’ English.
In relying heavily on strategic competence, Rote is explicitly rejecting the models presented by textbooks and teachers. For him, ‘bad’ English leading to the “struggle to understand” builds better relationships. The trekkers are happier and, even though a price for the trek has already been set, happier trekkers are more likely to give tips. Performing below his capabilities leads to closer relationships and, for Rote, makes him more successful.
Even from an ELF or languaging perspective, Rote is not performing as expected. Seidlhofer (2011) talks about “how learners make use of what they know of the language”, but Rote is not making use of what he knows. Rather, he is dumbing down his English (and compensating with strategic competence) to present a certain image which enables him to build better relationships with visitors.
There are, potentially, other issues at play here. While English is the lingua franca between the community and foreign visitors, in the interview Rote points out that “nobody here speaks good English, even [foreign] tourists”. If Rote followed the models and performed to his fullest capabilities, with some visitors his more proficient English might lead to them losing face (a key issue in Thai culture). It is therefore safer for Rote to rely on his strategic competence, ensuring that there can be no loss of face.
In communicating as he does, however, Rote runs the risk of presenting a cultural stereotype of the quaint native with the odd English. While we may all occasionally speak in a kind of pidgin for effect, we almost never consciously underperform for whole discourses (if there are no context constraints). When this is done, it appears to be for purposes of creating a sense of otherness. Bruce Lee apparently emphasized his Chineseness by underperforming in English, and Hong Kong film subtitles often contain distorted meanings to create a sense of foreignness for Western audiences to laugh at (Bowman 2013).
Rote’s purposeful underperformance may reinforce superior and patronising attitudes towards the ‘natives’ as shown by the reaction of “smart boy” (he is 37 years old) when he used “robot man chase birds” instead of scarecrow. It is easy to imagine the tourists chatting together later about how quaint Rote is. Rote himself does not appear to be aware of this issue, viewing the possibly patronising “smart boy” as a positive indicator of a budding relationship rather than a marker of superiority. For him, presenting a picturesque personable image is the key issue, and speaking strategically with non-proficient grammatical competence aids this.
In an era where the growth in interest in World Englishes and ELF lead to claims that non-native speakers should take control of their use of English and where language use is seen as expressing and constructing identities (Benwell and Stokoe 2006), it seems likely that cases like Rote’s where speakers underperform for strategic purposes will become more common. Such cases raise challenging questions. Would a focus on strategic processes in teaching as advocated by ELF researchers make such cases even more common? Should teachers support strategic underperformance if that is what learners want? To what extent should teaching focus on promoting strategic competence and can such competence be taught? In what contexts is a “struggle to understand” more important than ensuring conveyance of information? Should speakers be encouraged to create an image which may be viewed as quaint and inferior by their interlocutors if this image serves their immediate purposes? If current trends continue, such questions are likely to grow in importance.
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