chapter  36
17 Pages

When does an unconventional form become an innovation?

ByDavid C.S. Li

A lingua franca is needed to facilitate ever-expanding cross-border communication on a global scale. For historical reasons, that role has been and is increasingly assigned to English (McArthur 1998; Crystal 2003; Kirkpatrick 2007), including ‘postcolonial English’ (Schneider 2007). This has direct implications for language education in countries big and small, rich or poor. For the vast majority of ESL/EFL (hereafter: English-L2) learners who have no choice but to study English, typically as a school subject, the coming of age is hardly complete without developing an acute awareness of how important, and yet how difficult, it is to speak and write ‘good English’. English is not at all learner-friendly, especially to learners whose L1 is linguistically unrelated to English (e.g. Altaic languages Korean and Japanese; Sino-Tibetan languages Chinese and Thai). In the learning process, various kinds of cross-linguistic influence from features in the learners’ first language(s) have been shown to be major acquisitional problems. Less well-known is the fact that Standard Englishes – the varieties of English being targeted for teaching and learning through education – are fraught with untidiness at different linguistic levels. This is not surprising, given that English, like all natural unplanned languages, evolved over time, rather than being consciously designed for meaning-making purposes – unlike artificial, planned languages such as Esperanto (cf. Li 2003). The untidiness is of two main kinds: (a) inconsistencies in various linguistic subsystems; and (b) considerable variation within each of the standard varieties of English (McArthur 1998; Trudgill and Hannah 2002; Kirkpatrick 2007). These two types of untidiness account for a large number of learner-unfriendly features rooted in standard varieties of English, in particular British English (BrE) and American English (AmE). For practical reasons, we will use ‘Standard English’ to refer to features which are true of one or more standard varieties of English. In this chapter, I will first illustrate various kinds of learner-unfriendliness by exam-

ining some examples of untidiness in Standard English. Non-standard features will be exemplified using data collected from Hong Kong Chinese English-L2 learners and users. The important distinction between errors and innovations will be discussed.